Very often, Adriana Herrera is the only woman in the room, or among a small number of women in the room, when she attends meetings or training to grow her business, an e-commerce startup called Fashioning Change.
“I’m the double minority, I’m the woman and I’m the Hispanic,” she said. “Which is unfortunate because we’re a very diverse town.”
Herrera’s one of the entrepreneurs who finds the local landscape uninviting at times.
“Is innovation homogeny?” she said. “Or is it looking at different people coming from different backgrounds, educations, ethnicities?”
The situation applies to an extent in science, too, said Kevin Lustig, CEO of local life sciences company Assay Depot.
“In my 30 years in science, I have seen the situation improve significantly but we are nowhere close to having the egalitarian, meritocratic system we all say we want,” he said.
Herrera and others in San Diego have said their struggle to find footing here is part of a larger “patriarch problem” described by a well-regarded entrepreneurship author, Brad Feld. “In many cities, especially in the United States, these patriarchs are the old white guys who made their money many years ago but still run the show,” he wrote in a 2012 book, “Startup Communities.”
But how much of a patriarch problem exists in San Diego? Is it just in web, app and software tech circles, or does it pervade biotech, hardware, semiconductors and the other realms where our region makes a name for itself? And does it refer strictly to gender, or is there a legacy-vs.-newbie element to the struggle?
I’ve put the questions to about a dozen entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, scientists and others who hope to see San Diego’s ecosystem for innovation strengthened. They don’t have simple answers. But hearing a few of their perspectives helps us better understand the landscape for honing innovative ideas and businesses here.
Are Legacy Institutions Out of Touch?
The shorthand answer for a lot of people when you ask them about San Diego’s innovations: “Connect.”
That’s the organization started in the 1980s to grow businesses from local research and discovery. (Two of the group’s founders, Irwin Jacobs and Buzz Woolley, are major supporters of Voice of San Diego.)
Its mission is to connect entrepreneurs with mentors, venture capitalists and training, and to lobby for policies that will help them. People with ideas for defense, technology, sports, medical devices, communications, electronics and new pharmaceutical treatments come to the program for help and to find their footing.
More than 3,000 companies have been launched in part because of Connect, the group says. And a slew of specialty groups, some of them affiliated with Connect, has launched in the subsequent years. Biocom is the biggest of the biotech/life sciences special interest groups. There’s Clean Tech San Diego, a specialty group with events and publications that focuses on technology companies like solar energy and biofuels, and CommNexus, which works to boost local tech and software firms.
But a number of startup founders have grown dissatisfied with the options these groups offer. For some founders of particular kinds of companies – web, app and tech startups often – the legacy organizations aren’t cutting it.
“San Diego for me is a poster child for the tech patriarchy,” said Paul Kedrosky, a La Jolla-based venture capitalist and senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. “I think a lot of the institutions have long outlived some of their utility.”
Kedrosky said the world has changed since a lot of the groups started. He warns against programs that feel like busy-work – “box-checking and gate-clearing rather than enthusiastic promoters of what’s happening,” he said. But, he said, the bureaucratic hurdles don’t appear intentional.
“I think their hearts are in the right place,” he said. “It’s not that they’re malevolent.”
I figured Eric Otterson might have a literal take on the patriarch question. His dad, Bill Otterson, was the first CEO of Connect.
Now Eric Otterson works to boost startups in San Diego. He works for Cooley, a law firm, and worked for a few venture capital-funded tech startups before that. His job at Cooley is to find and help businesses that are poised to grow – the idea being they could become future Cooley clients.
He said Connect deserves a lot of credit for kicking off a culture of caring about early stage startups. The organization serves some sectors especially well – biotech, life sciences and sports companies, for example – he said.
San Diego’s character is more open and democratic than an Ivy League clique, he said. Mark Cafferty, head of the Economic Development Corporation, said San Diego is a place where you can quite quickly make a mark in whatever space you’re interested in.
But it can be hard if there aren’t many other companies in your ilk that have blazed a trail in San Diego. Like the intersection of fashion and technology, as Herrera’s experience indicates.
“I tried to help Adriana. It was hard!” Otterson said. “I can completely understand her frustration,” he said.
The “elder statesmen and women” who make themselves available to mentor in San Diego may not be as experienced in modern software, app and internet applications, he said. But Otterson quibbles with the harshness of commentators like Brant Cooper, an entrepreneurship author who tore into the legacy groups in a recent blog post. Otterson shared some frustration with Cooper recently over the region’s innovation organizations like Connect, but doesn’t take the frustration as far as Cooper does.
“It’s not worthless; let’s take it down a notch,” Otterson said. “Connect was trying to sell itself as being more than it really was. It’s a big ship and it’s hard to turn.”
Mary Walshok is another of the Connect founders and a UC San Diego sociologist who’s traced San Diego’s innovation history for an upcoming book.
“Connect, Biocom, all of these organizations are becoming the old boys,” she said. “But it’s not an ‘us vs. them.’ It’s reinvention, reinvention, reinvention.”
Is It a Gender Thing?
A recent symposium on local solar energy, biofuels and electric companies featured two panels.
On each, four men spoke. The two moderators were men. A male keynote speaker ended the evening. The presenting organization’s chief, Holly Smithson, was the only woman to appear on stage.
At a different event this past Thursday night, part of an energy-filled week focused on tech startups, all presenters at a showcase of new startups and technologies were men.
Melani Gordon, herself a startup founder and a proponent of local innovation, acknowledged the gender imbalance when she wrapped up the evening as emcee, and called for more women to be part of subsequent events.
Gender and race imbalances have been well-documented in California startups. In 2010, the vast majority – 89 percent – of the startup companies in the state that got “crucial seed funding” were founded by all-male teams, according to research by Catherine Bracy, a former tech adviser to President Barack Obama.
Martha Dennis, who worked with Jacobs at Linkabit, a precursor to Qualcomm, has watched this part of the economy grow for decades.
She first quibbled with the overall patriarch question here, pointing to forebears like Jacobs, who she said knows to “keep bringing in fresh blood” and who has put millions into funding UC San Diego and other institutions.
“When you think of a patriarch, you think, of course, of Irwin, who has in every way possible rather than in trying to control the innovation economy has tried to support it,” she said.
But in her work in tech and venture capital, Dennis said she’s often the only woman, or one of a few.
“I never have to tell anybody my last name. They go, ‘Oh, Martha,’” she said. “I’ve always been comfortable working among mostly guys. I don’t make a big deal out of it. … Yeah, I’ve been discriminated against many times. But just keep going for your goal.”
Gabriela Dow, who founded a government technology startup and now consults with local tech startups, doesn’t like the way the “patriarch problem” question pits young people against old. Her company worked because young, techy people involved “gray-haired engineers,” she said.
But the gender disparity needs to change.
“I come from a world of politics and I worked in newsrooms. It was almost always me, with (male) engineers and mayors. It is something that exists,” she said. “I don’t know what you can do about it except for involve more girls and women.”
An earlier version of this post misspelled Buzz Woolley’s name. We regret the error.