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Silicon Valley’s Russian women Meduza speaks to the tech entrepreneurs overlooked by Yury Dud’s latest YouTube sensation

Source: Meduza

On April 23, Russian journalist and YouTube star Yury Dud released his latest documentary film — “How the World’s I.T. Capital Works” — about a handful of Russian startups that have found success in Silicon Valley. The three-hour video, which currently has more than 15 million views on YouTube, focuses on eight entrepreneurs, not one of whom is a woman. The oversight angered many viewers and led to allegations of bias against the filmmaker. So far, there’s been no response to the backlash from Dud himself, who might be surprised to learn that Silicon Valley has several Russian businesswomen. Meduza asked some about their work and what they think of “How the World’s I.T. Capital Works.”

Albina Itskhoki

Netflix, senior researcher

I really love Dud, I watch all his shows, and the stars of his film about Silicon Valley are excellent examples for all of us. They motivate people to be successful. But it’s wrong to show only men. Maybe Dud himself doesn’t understand how important this is. That’s why I made my own video for young women.

For centuries, society was set up so women were assigned the role of mothers, wives, and homemakers. All other roles and careers were for men. The Valley and all leading companies are now trying to change this imbalance. They haven’t even gotten to 50-50 yet, but they’re working in that direction. For example, there are a lot of technical majors at Stanford where it’s always boys studying. And Stanford decided to invite women instructors for all the introductory courses here (where there’s at least 1,000 students). They did a study and it turns out that a lot more girls will sign up [for a major] if a woman is teaching.

Anastasia Sartan

Founder of “Stylehack.ai” and the “Grintern.ru” entry-level career portal

I watched Dud’s film on fast forward. I got the sense that he did a great job and that he’s got a very savvy grasp of his Russian mass audience. But it would be really interesting to know why he didn’t include women in the video. Could he not find any that fit his criteria? Did he even think about it or was the very idea of diversity the last thing on his mind? 

I moved to the Valley in 2015. I never thought I’d live in America. My husband got a job offer [here] and I decided to be supportive. Moving was a difficult decision. I’d studied in New York before and I didn’t like it there, and there was the fact that I also had my own startup: the online clothing store TrendsBrands. I had a one-year-old child and I was pregnant with my second. 

I had no idea what I wanted to do in Silicon Valley. I started thinking about my last startup and I launched the Telegram channel Epytom, where people could get daily style tips on their wardrobes. The recommendations were tailored to Moscow weather and readers started asking for recommendations for weather in other countries and regions. We designed a bot, moved it all into the messenger app, then to voice carriers, I finished my supplementary education in data science, then I led an artificial intelligence development team, which eventually led to our startup, StyleHacks. We’ve received investments from Google and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. 

We have a male audience, too, but the product is mostly for women. In America, when you come to pitch a woman’s product, investors will often say: “Cool. I’ll show this to my wife, to my daughter.” But if you come and pitch biotech, they’re more likely to show it to an expert. It’s not a fact that the wife or the daughter of this wealthy individual is the target audience of any particular fashion startup, and taking that approach can complicate efforts to attract investments.

But there are some benefits to women’s entrepreneurship. I’ve spoken at Vanity Fair’s annual conference where all the speakers were women, on panels for Google and F8 (Facebook’s annual developers’ conference), and I opened a conference in New York on artificial intelligence in retail. I’m certain that it’s far harder for men to get the chance to speak at such conferences. They face more competition than women speakers in the world of technology.

In Russia, there were several occasions when people refused to treat me [as a professional] because I was a young woman. We’d go from region to region and I always brought an investment adviser with me — a man over 40 who literally repeated what I said. That way, it was easier to get my ideas across.

Marina Mogilko

Co-creator of the projects “LinguaTrip” and “Fluent.Express”

I was 25 years old when I was doing fundraising. I looked like I was 19 and I was going to meetings with guys pushing 50 and 60. They treated me like a granddaughter who’d come to tell them something. But there are no problems here if the project is cool. There’s Susan Wojcicki with her four kids who heads YouTube. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s [former] CEO, took the job when she was pregnant. She said, “Don’t worry — I’ll give birth and I’ll get back to work.” Women get support here. Companies have rules, for example, you need an even 50-50 man-to-woman ratio for major decisions. And a woman founder might look at a fund’s portfolio and see that they’re not investing in young women and she can close down the fund. 

For things to work out, it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy — what you need is clear confidence that you’re doing what the market really needs. At any meeting with [potential] investors, they’ll specifically argue that your product is nothing. They want to hear what the product means and what problem it solves. The best time to come to the Valley is after you’ve got your first users and revenue because it’s expensive to be here. If things are only starting out, but you’ve got that itch to come, you’re better off packing meetings into two weeks (five to seven a day). If you want to raise a seed round, you need to have 170-200 meetings and you’ll hear rejections about 150 times. You’ve got to be mentally prepared for that. What saved me at this stage is that we already had our first customers writing to us, saying that we were doing something useful. 

In the Valley, when we came to investors and said that we have revenue, they were surprised. Most startups are unprofitable and focus more on growth than making money. At the beginning of our journey, we played this game, trying to network and ride the Valley’s wave of hype. And later we realized that we need to focus on revenue if we want to build a healthy business. There aren’t many people here who do this. After the first round [of funding], we refused to get “hooked” on investors, whereas a lot [of companies] go from funding round to funding round, which is why, during the pandemic, there will now be a lot of closures. We’re developing here contrary to the local culture.

Most meetings with investors are meetings with men. In general, it’s a man’s world. But nobody discriminates against women openly. At a conference, one Chinese investor said, “If I invest in you, then I’ll invite you to a Chinese restaurant in Shanghai. It’s got a great view.” I realized that this person was behaving inappropriately and I left. American investors don’t say anything openly.

I only skimmed [Yury Dud’s] film about Silicon Valley because I know everyone there personally and I get it. It’s well-made and it’s high-quality. Since it came out, subscribers on Instagram have been writing to me and asking why they didn’t show any of the young women [in Silicon Valley]. But Yury Dud is a blogger, not Wikipedia. He doesn’t have to film an objective view of the world. He makes films the way he sees things, in whatever way works for him. That’s his right as a blogger.

Katerina Lengold

Serial entrepreneur, investor, and writer

For most of my life, I’ve worked in the aerospace industry — an industry that’s traditionally considered “male.” At conferences, I’ve often been the only woman speaking on stage. Besides gender bias, ageism is something else I’ve had to face. I was three times younger than the other speakers. But I saw this as an opportunity to prove the stereotypes wrong. You walk out on stage and people think, “What could this girl possibly have to say?” And then you give a brilliant presentation, describing your accomplishments and your ideas that are changing the industry.

People are more and more skeptical about packaging. It’s important for them to see what’s inside. If you demonstrate some depth, it creates opportunities, regardless of whether you’re a boy or a girl, where you’re from, or how old you are. Additionally, it’s also important to be able to set boundaries. You need to learn this and practice it regularly. It’s often timidity and fear that lead young women not to assert their rights.

Companies in the United States can face serious legal consequences for discrimination. But the laws are just one side of the coin. The other side is the company’s internal policies. For example, when Sheryl Sandberg became Facebook’s chief operating officer, the number of women at the company started growing rapidly. Sheryl’s personal example, along with internal restructuring, attracted hundreds of young women to the company.

Two months ago, I spoke in San Francisco at an event dedicated to women entrepreneurs, addressing the fact that nine out of 10 partners at venture capital funds are men. This affects the amount of capital that’s invested in companies with women co-founders. But on the other hand, we can clearly see a trend that’s reversing the situation. Silicon Valley itself is driving this trend, in particular through initiatives like Allraise.org. 

The world will greatly benefit from the emergence of more role models among women. It’s important to see successful people who look like you, with whom you can relate. It instills confidence that you can achieve, too. I think Dud’s film loses out because of its lack of interviews with women from Silicon Valley. He could have inspired twice as many people if he’d featured more than just men.

Anastasia Vestfal

Product manager at Adobe

Anastasia Vestfal’s Facebook page

I’m from Kaliningrad. After a trip to America in 2010, I wanted to get my education there, and in 2012 I enrolled in a Master’s Degree program in San Francisco. It was hard to be a student, but I got a small stipend as a woman entrepreneur. After I finished at the university, I worked for a few startups at the initial stage and for the large corporations Western Union and Salesforce. I recently got a job at Adobe where I’m responsible for product development in the Russian-speaking market. There are a dozen people in our department, 10 of whom are women, and women make up the senior management. If I’m hiring someone for the team, I’ll probably also hire a woman, since there’s a big gender imbalance generally in I.T., where it’s about 75 percent men. On the other hand, if there’s a male specialist who’s objectively better, then he’d be preferable, of course, otherwise, it would be discrimination. 

When I worked in startups, I was the only girl. It was depressing. I didn’t have other women to talk to or get their views on business solutions. It’s easier to understand someone who’s the same gender as you. I faced expectations, just like the men, and sometimes it was uncomfortable and I wanted to say, “I’m a woman. I have a different approach.”

Then I returned to Russia for a while. My husband was offered a consulting job at a Voronezh startup and we moved there for a year. I went to interviews at “Avito” and “Booking,” but nobody in Russia could give me the salary I requested. They didn’t believe me when I said I’d come back [to Russia] voluntarily. They asked me point-blank: “Do you have children? Are you married? You’re married, so you’ll be having children soon and going on maternity leave?” In the United States, incidentally, it’s against the law to ask such questions. In 2017, we decided to return to America. 

I don’t think [Yury Dud’s] video cheated women somehow. He wanted to film men and he filmed them. My husband said he wouldn’t be interested in watching anything about women because he doesn’t identify with them. And I agree. Women watch things about women and men watch things about men. But to succeed here in Silicon Valley, your gender isn’t important. You can even have no gender at all — what matters is that you’re a professional.

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Interviews by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock