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Perspectives on women’s success in Silicon Valley: An interview with Magdalena Yesil

11/30/2018 David Boehmer and Rebecca Foreman Janjic
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Born in Istanbul, Turkey, Magdalena Yeşil is a lifetime entrepreneur and venture capitalist who founded and exited three technology companies in succession in her 30s. She is the first investor and a founding board member of Salesforce, now a Fortune 100 company serving more than 150,000 enterprises around the world, and has been an early investor in more than 30 technology companies. Last year, Yeşil released her second book, Power Up: How Smart Women Win in the New Economy.

Heidrick & Struggles’ David Boehmer and Rebecca Foreman Janjic talked with Yeşil in September 2018 about steps that both women and tech companies can take to make Silicon Valley a place where more women enter and succeed. What follow are edited excerpts from the conversation.


Magdalena Yeşil


Magdalena Yeşil is a lifetime entrepreneur and venture capitalist who has been active in Silicon Valley for three decades. She founded three technology companies, earning her Entrepreneur of the Year from Red Herring magazine, and has been an early investor in more than 30 tech companies, including being the first investor and a founding board member of Salesforce. She is also a founder of Broadway Angels, a group of women angel investors and venture capitalists.


What women can do to bolster their success

Women frequently tell me that they don’t feel welcome in the technology sector and that they don’t believe they can succeed in Silicon Valley. Many take themselves out of the game because applying for jobs in male-dominated tech companies and working in the tech sector feel demoralizing. But I’ve had a great and fulfilling career in Silicon Valley, as have plenty of other women. And though it has never come naturally to talk about myself or my achievements, I believe that young women today—so many of whom are disenchanted with Silicon Valley—desperately need role models to pattern after in the world of technology. They need to know they can make it, and they need to see how others have done it. In Power Up, I share the perspectives that I believe have contributed to my success and that might help other women as they endeavor to find their rightful place in tech.

Stop being afraid of failure

I think the fear of failure holds many women back from success. If we think failing is unacceptable, then we don’t take risks or make mistakes—but when we play it safe, we can only go so far.

We women need to adjust our attitudes when we fail. We cannot let our failures define us. We need to accept failure as part of business, learn from it, and become better because of it. If women can embrace the fact that failure means we are willing to take risks and try new things, we will be better able to move forward and talk about our “negative” experiences from a place of strength. We need to be done with self-doubt and double-guessing ourselves. That stifles our ability to take risks, try new things, and venture into the unknown.

Refuse to be a victim

One of my favorite one-liners is to get an A in attitude and an F in victim. It’s one thing to have been victimized; it’s another thing to feel like a victim. Sometimes terrible things happen that are outside of our control. In those situations, we must work for that A in attitude, no matter how horrible a morning we had, how unfair the accusations we received were, or how degrading our annual review was. If you have a good attitude and believe in yourself, people are going to feel that strength. A positive attitude grounded in self-worth goes a long way.

I don’t want to minimize the experience of being victimized because it can be truly terrible. It’s not easy to rise above such an experience and pick yourself up. And it’s important to have an outlet for the pain that comes with being victimized. But we cannot fall into the mind-set of a victim, thinking we are powerless. In fact, we have a lot more power than we think, and we have full power when it comes to defining our self-assurance and self-worth. I do not let my anxieties get to me. No matter how sleepless my nights, when a new day begins, I leave all my anxieties behind, get dressed in clothes that make me feel empowered, and go out there to fight the next fight and win.

What organizations can do to bolster women

My years in Silicon Valley have also given me perspective on ways organizations can step up, improve the experiences of women in tech, and attract more female talent.

Embrace and expand on Me Too

For centuries, women have been tolerating injustices, harassment, and worse at the hands of powerful men who have abused their power. But as a society, we’re becoming a lot more willing to talk about these topics, not shame the victims, and take action against inappropriate behavior. Part of taking action—beyond reprimanding and punishing aggressors—is having conversations with both genders about women in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and inappropriate use of power. The Me Too movement is only the tip of the bigger discussions we need to have about equality, and women and men in positions of power within organizations need to demand that we have them—including, and particularly, in Silicon Valley. Publishing third-party salary surveys and correcting inequalities that are uncovered is an example of taking such action.

Strive for diversity—not quotas

While I believe in the importance of diversity, I do not support quotas. The best person should get the job, not because of their race, not because of their gender, not because of their religion. Those are artificial labels. When I was researching and interviewing for my book, I came across a law firm that wanted to have more female lawyers entering its pipeline, so it recruited young lawyers based on their gender. The women they hired spoke to me about their struggle in this working environment. Many of the senior partners, and not just men, would not put them on the best projects, as they believed these women got their jobs not because they were the best—but because they were women. That, to me, is a disservice to those young women.

Maybe I’m an idealist, but I believe a better system for achieving diversity is a meritocracy. For meritocracy to work, however, people in power—both men and women—need to open the funnel at the very onset of a talent search. You can’t just hire the people you went to college with. Even though it’s much easier to recruit someone you know, you have to interview a highly diverse community of candidates. This kind of thoughtful recruiting is the right way to introduce diversity into companies—not by imposing a mandated quota. And the meritocracy has to continue past the hiring phase, to providing promotions that are blind to labels such as race, gender, religion, and so on.

***

Women happen to be the majority in this country right now, so let’s step up and own that power. We can create a lot of good and effect big change by demanding equality, talking openly about injustices, and staying strong, even when we fail or are knocked down.


About the authors

David Boehmer (dboehmer@heidrick.com) is global managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Financial Services Practice; he is based in the San Francisco office.

Rebecca Foreman Janjic (rfjanjic@heidrick.com) is global managing partner of the Global Technology & Services Practice; she is based in the San Francisco office.


David Boehmer Managing Partner +1 415 981 2854
Rebecca Foreman Janjic Managing Partner +1 415 291 5215

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