Why Female Founders Will Outlast the Men
Tracy Chou says being sexually harassed, threatened, and stalked has been her entrepreneurial endurance training
I recently hit an 11.5-mile rocky trail run through the desert, up 1,600 feet of elevation gain. As I traversed through unknown terrain, up rocky inclines and through dried-out river washes, my feet slipping through the sand and gravel, one thought kept drifting through my mind. A mile on this run is so much harder than a mile on one of those synthetic rubber tracks, but damn, am I feeling so much stronger and more powerful. It felt a lot like my experience building my startup.
It also reminded me of a cartoon I once saw in a diversity and inclusion workshop. Two runners are positioned at the starting line of a race. One is in his running uniform and cleats, sprint position, ready to tear down a smooth track lane. The other doesn’t have on proper athletic gear and is looking down a torn-up path, obstacles in her way.
Tell me, is it fair to compare their mile times?
I feel like I’m doing the miserably tough trail running version of the startup founder race. Of course, startups are always hard. But I’m a solo female founder, working on a problem that most of the gatekeepers of capital and power neither understand nor empathize with. I’m an activist trying my utmost to dismantle those systems of bias and privilege that have elevated them and kept them floating in those roles.
As a competent and experienced software engineer, I also threaten some people’s notions of what a woman in tech might be capable of. Anticipating the reply guys who’ll come along to tell me it’s unbecoming of me to be sure of my worth, I will not enumerate all the ways in which I am outrageously better than most of my peers and yet still am treated with far less respect or even outright disrespect.
I’m a solo female founder, working on a problem that most of the gatekeepers of capital and power neither understand nor empathize with.
I have been sexually harassed during fundraising. I have had different investors inquire about my age and relationship status and tell me about their first time having sex. In a room full of men, I have been completely ignored and talked over, despite being the expert.
Although Twitter is the watercooler of the tech industry, on that platform being a woman of color with an opinion and a not insubstantial following means I deal with harassment every day — some drive-by, some extremely targeted and persistent, spanning over six years at this point.
I’m confronted with racism, misogyny, sexually explicit threats, links to Asian porn, incoherent and disturbing professions of love, conspiracy theories involving me and a former FBI director, all sorts of anonymous “heroes” just letting me know that I’m off-putting to men and that I would be more attractive and dateable if I weren’t so angry. I have been stalked in real life and then gaslit by law enforcement and private security firms trying to make me feel like I’m self-obsessed.
Over and over I’ve had men who purport to be advocates of diversity and inclusion try to take advantage of me and my company, costing me months of invaluable time, attention, and energy, not to mention so many tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
One, I discovered later, has a pattern of using his position of fame and wealth to prey on female founders, I suppose because we are more vulnerable. A potential co-founder, after negotiating vigorously for special terms that I almost acceded to, accidentally emailed me his diary full of unflattering and coded sexist thoughts about me, wondering if I would be able to step up to the role of CEO. Another job candidate sent repeated emails after a bombed interview and subsequent rejection berating me for making a huge mistake and not seeing that he would be a huge asset to the team and telling me I was a bad interviewer anyways.
The people who care most deeply for me ask me if it’s worth it to put myself through all of the pain, suffering, and stress. But how could I not? I’m one of the few that even has the privilege to try.
The stories go on. It’s a lot of abuse to take, in so many different forms.
Through all of this, I’m just trying to build my company. The great irony is that everything I’m trying to do directly addresses the adversity I’ve had to face and stare down. The tech industry’s dearth of diversity, ethics, and accountability has led us to a place where our real and digital worlds are rife with harassment — and women, minorities, and other marginalized groups disproportionately bear the brunt of it.
I started my company not only to give people a safer experience online — to empower them and protect them from bullying and abuse — but also to create a company run by a woman, with a diverse team.
The people who care most deeply for me ask me if it’s worth it to put myself through all of the pain, suffering, and stress. But how could I not? I’m one of the few that even has the privilege to try. I am immensely lucky to be able to do what I do. And the crucible of my experiences makes me uniquely suited and determined to solve these problems.
I was never a gifted runner, but by force of sheer willpower and perseverance over decades, I can now casually do the kind of trail running that I once thought impossible. The rocks, the hills, the dehydration — everything that makes running a challenge is a reminder that I’m alive, and it’s glorious to be able to move through this beautiful world. And it’s that same endurance and brutality of training that I trust will make me stronger, faster, and more resilient as a founder, an activist, and someone who is trying to make a little bit of positive difference.
A version of this was originally published on triketora.com.