Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took On Silicon Valley's Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime

Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took On Silicon Valley's Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime

by Julian Guthrie

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Overview

An unforgettable story of four women who, through grit and ingenuity, became stars in the cutthroat, high-stakes, male dominated world of venture capital in Silicon Valley, and helped build some of the foremost companies of our time.

In Alpha Girls, award-winning journalist Julian Guthrie takes readers behind the closed doors of venture capital, an industry that transforms economies and shapes how we live. We follow the lives and careers of four women who were largely written out of history - until now.

Magdalena Yesil, who arrived in America from Turkey with $43 to her name, would go on to receive her electrical engineering degree from Stanford, found some of the first companies to commercialize internet access, and help Marc Benioff build Salesforce. Mary Jane Elmore went from the corn fields of Indiana to Stanford and on to the storied venture capital firm IVP - where she was one of the first women in the U.S. to make partner - only to be pulled back from the glass ceiling by expectations at home. Theresia Gouw, an overachieving first-generation Asian American from a working-class town, dominated the foosball tables at Brown (she would later reluctantly let Sergey Brin win to help Accel Partners court Google), before she helped land and build companies including Facebook, Trulia, Imperva, and ForeScout. Sonja Hoel, a Southerner who became the first woman investing partner at white-glove Menlo Ventures, invested in McAfee, Hotmail, Acme Packet, and F5 Networks. As her star was still rising at Menlo, a personal crisis would turn her into an activist overnight, inspiring her to found an all-women's investment group and a national nonprofit for girls.

These women, juggling work and family, shaped the tech landscape we know today while overcoming unequal pay, actual punches, betrayals, and the sexist attitudes prevalent in Silicon Valley and in male-dominated industries everywhere. Despite the setbacks, they would rise again to rewrite the rules for an industry they love. In Alpha Girls, Guthrie reveals their untold stories.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525573920
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 286,175
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Julian Guthrie spent twenty years writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she won numerous awards and had her writing nominated multiple times for the Pulitzer Prize. She is the author of three nonfiction books: The Grace of Everyday Saints, The Billionaire and the Mechanic, and How to Make a Spaceship. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE


SAND HILL ROAD
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA


Mary Jane Elmore was giddy as she looked down at the rusted-out floorboards of her old green Ford Pinto. She could see the road rushing by below. But she wasn’t driving on just any road. She was making her way up Sand Hill Road, in the heart of Silicon Valley, about to start a new life intent on changing the world.

A pretty young woman with brown hair and brown eyes, Mary Jane had graduated from Purdue University in 1976 with a degree in mathematics. She paid for her car by waitressing during college summers, wearing a small orange romper that prompted oversize tips. Her beat-up Pinto, which leaked radiator fluid and still had its original Firestone 500 tires, had taken her nearly two thousand miles, from Kansas City to northern California, where she had landed a job at an eight-year-old technology company called Intel.

Although Sand Hill Road was the center of the venture capital world, no bronze statue of a charging bull, no Gilded Age architecture, and no artificial canyons towered over by gleaming skyscrapers commemorated it. At that time it was a stretch of rolling land laced with scrub brush, sprawling oak trees, big pink dahlias, and buildings that stretched long and low like an old Lincoln Continental. The midcentury modern structures, with outer skins of cedar, redwood, and masonry, featured numbers but no names. Unlike other centers of commerce, Sand Hill Road is intentionally inconspicuous; it consciously resists contemporary symbols of money and power. Instead, it is country club hush. To Mary Jane, it was a world away from the tall cornfields where she had skittered about as a child, playing hide-and-seek, moving three rows up and four rows over, strategic and mathematical in her decision making even then.

Her aptitude in math—not to mention a prescient feel for the markets—would make Mary Jane particularly well suited for this new California frontier. And in the 1970s, that was exactly what Silicon Valley felt like, a frontier, steeped in the aggressive and hungry spirit of the Gold Rush, of adventurers and fortune seekers risking everything for a glimmer of gold, aware that only a lucky few walked away winners. The original Gold Rush days of 1849 were dominated by mining companies and merchants hawking overpriced goods. It was ruled by men: Samuel Brannan, Levi Strauss, John Studebaker, Henry Wells, and William Fargo. Women, outnumbered and overmatched, were mostly reduced to entertainers, companions, wives, or housekeepers. Things were not that different in the more recent gold rush. The Valley was always a region dominated by men, from William Hewlett, Dave Packard, Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak to, decades later, in the twenty-first century, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Tim Cook, Travis Kalanick, and Marc Benioff.

Mary Jane, fueled by peanut butter sandwiches packed in wax paper for the two-day journey, was under no illusion that it would be easy to navigate the old boys’ club of Sand Hill Road and Silicon Valley. Even today, decades after Mary Jane first arrived, 94 percent of investing partners at venture capital firms—the financial decision makers shaping the future—are men, and more than 80 percent of venture firms have never had a woman investing partner. Less than 2 percent of venture dollars go to start-ups founded by women (less than 1 percent to women of color), and roughly 85 percent of the tech employees at top companies are men. Yet technology is pervasive, and it is changing our lives. When Mary Jane first drove up Sand Hill, women made up barely 40 percent of the overall American workforce. Less than a handful of those women were venture capital partners.

But Mary Jane Elmore, the unflappable, fresh-faced girl next door, would go on to become one of the first women in history to make partner at a venture capital firm. Like the bold pink dahlias flourishing in one corner of Sand Hill Road, she and the other pioneering women venture capitalists, the “Alpha Girls,” would figure out a way to take root and thrive.

They made their way west like early-day prospectors during Silicon Valley’s headiest days, as enormous mainframe computers gave way to minicomputers, personal computers, and the Internet, just as punched computer cards had at one time set the stage for computation. Through the start-ups they would discover, fund, and mentor—financing the ideas of entrepreneurs—these women venture capitalists would play a critical role in shaping how people around the world work, play, communicate, study, travel, create, and interact. Venture capitalists influence many of the most important new inventions in drugs, medicine, and technology.

In addition to Mary Jane, there is Sonja Hoel, a blond, blue-eyed, doggedly optimistic southern belle whose investments at the white-glove Menlo Ventures on Sand Hill Road would focus on making the Internet safer and more reliable; Magdalena Yes¸il, a feisty Armenian outsider reared in Istanbul, who loved getting in where she wasn’t invited; and Theresia Gouw, an overachieving daughter of Chinese immigrants, who went from flipping burgers at Burger King to chasing down some of the hottest deals in Silicon Valley history. There are other Alpha Girls, too, such as the first investor and board member of Tesla; the woman who started the first venture fund in India; the first woman to take a tech company public; the first women to build an online beauty site; and today a whole new generation of young women financiers and entrepreneurs. These women share a determination with Alpha Girls everywhere, transcending vocation and location, working in Hollywood, academia, economics, advertising, politics, the media, sports, automobiles, agriculture, law, hospitality, restaurants, and the arts.

History is rich with women rebels who have shined a spotlight from the outside—women such as Rosa Parks, whose one defiant act became synonymous with the civil rights movement. But it is also rife with what one academic calls “tempered radicals,” those who learn to play the game to perfection—whatever the game is—before trying to change the rules. Margaret Thatcher took elocution lessons to deepen her voice, to better be heard. Georgia O’Keeffe painted “low-toned dismal-colored” paintings like male artists, to show she could, before turning to the bright desert flowers that made her a giant of American modernism.

As Mary Jane drove up Sand Hill Road on that perfect fall day, she had little sense of the hard realities ahead. She could never have imagined juggling a high-stakes job, three children, a husband aggressively pursuing his own Silicon Valley dreams, and a junior partner with outsize ambitions. But she knew intuitively that this was the right place for her: Silicon Valley was the embodiment of breathtakingly bold ideas and inventions, a region awash in unparalleled ingenuity, originality, tenacity, optimism, and opportunity. It had given rise to more new companies and industries than anywhere else in the world, including such technology giants as Hewlett-Packard, Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Teledyne, ROLM, Amgen, Genentech, Advanced Micro Devices, Tandem, Atari, Oracle, Apple, Dell, Electronic Arts, Compaq, FedEx, Netscape, LSI, Yahoo!, Amazon, Cisco, PayPal, eBay, Google, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Tesla, Facebook, YouTube, Uber, Skype, Twitter, and Airbnb.

But Mary Jane and the other Alpha Girls would need steel in their spines to stay the course, and they would pay a steep emotional price along the way. They would be betrayed when they least expected it. Silicon Valley, teeming with youthful testosterone, is a deceptively rough arena, where bullying, bias, dysfunction, and subjugation are part of the rules of engagement. In the end, the Alpha Girls—these resilient daughters of merchants, teachers, dentists, and immigrants—would come to realize there was only one way to shake up the industry they loved: by breaking and remaking its rules.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Part 1 The Valley of Dreams 5

Part 2 Getting in the Game 33

Part 3 The Outsiders Inside 75

Part 4 Survival of the Fittest 109

Part 5 Girl Power 135

Part 6 Marriage, Motherhood, and Moneymaking 145

Part 7 Life, Death, and Picassos 179

Part 8 The Days of Reckoning 209

Part 9 The Awakening 241

Author's Note 269

Acknowledgments 275

Index 277

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