I have founded a company called AboveBoard which launched today. This will come as a surprise to many who know me: I am supposed to be retired. I certainly didn’t expect to launch a brand new venture at this stage. So why this company, and why now?
I am lucky to have had a great career as a serial entrepreneur that has taken me a long way from where I began: after starting out in tech as a secretary 30+ years ago, I went on to found three companies and lead two others before stepping down in 2018 to care for a daughter who was losing a 5-year battle with Lyme disease. I just couldn’t be a good Mom and a good CEO—and Mom wins. So I transitioned into the classic executive “retirement” of serving on boards and advising startup CEOs. It was enjoyable work, and as my daughter started to recover I expected to continue on that track. Throwing myself into a new venture is a (happy) surprise.
Why do it again? I feel called. AboveBoard represents both an enormous market opportunity and an expression of my deepest-held personal values.
I founded AboveBoard because we have a clear path to creating a fundamental shift in the dynamics of executive hiring, one that is way overdue and will have far-reaching social impact.
AboveBoard addresses a gaping chasm in a huge market. Today, when a company decides to hire an executive or board member, there are only have two options: do it themselves or hire a retained executive search firm. Either way, it’s a closed process with no transparency: those roles aren’t posted on LinkedIn or made public in any way. Retained search (or headhunting) is a great model for some situations, but there’s no reason for it to be the only available option. There is tremendous opportunity in offering a new approach with a new value proposition.
And, it turns out, this lack of hiring options is directly tied to an immediate and pressing need: diversity. In the past few years demand from companies to interview more diverse slates of candidates has been growing, and it’s reaching a new peak. It turns out that the current lack of diversity and the lack of alternatives in search are actually the same problem!
How does that work? Companies that recruit directly reach out to their networks, and headhunters reach out to their networks, and both of those networks are (unintentionally) exclusionary. People tend to know people who look like them, and since neither companies nor search firms are diverse, their networks aren’t either. I had plenty of personal experience with this in my years leading and hiring at my companies—even when businesses are strongly motivated to hire for diversity, it’s hard to translate that intention into action. If we want a different result, we’ll need a different approach.
I came to understand all of this while I was Chairman of Thrive TRM. Thrive is a SaaS platform used by executive recruiters inside search, private equity, and venture capital firms as well as large corporations. It was started by True Search, a crazy successful search firm focused on the growth ecosystem that I had known since their founding as a client and candidate. I had enormous respect for True: the firm is growing by bringing rare innovation to an otherwise stale industry, and making smart investments in initiatives like Thrive. The firm’s co-CEOs Brad Stadler and Joe Riggione are tremendously successful, big thinkers who know their industry inside-out and think about it in a uniquely innovative way while staying humble and down to earth. As Chairman of Thrive, I spent a day a week at True’s headquarters, and I learned search from them, from the inside.
Working with Brad and Joe, as well as Reed Flesher and the entire team at Thrive, I came to understand the scale of the opportunity. And with that realization, the stars aligned: my daughter was recovering, I loved working with the True team, we had identified an enormous market opportunity and a compelling offering, and it tackled an issue I felt strongly about. We enlisted two outstanding engineers from the Thrive team, John Parsons and Marni Duffy, to build the product, and I started selling.
Then George Floyd was murdered. Christian Cooper was profiled for birding in Central Park. And countless similar stories rose into the general public’s awareness all at once. Due to COVID we were all stuck in our homes with no distractions or excuses, and for the first time, white people couldn’t look away. Many, I believe, began to genuinely recognize systemic racism that they had long looked past. As the backdrop for this new venture grew into a broader national reckoning, I could feel the threads of my personal, political, and professional lives coming into alignment.
I grew up on the boundary between Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, New York, in the 60s and 70s. My block was white, Korean, and Indian, but sat within an otherwise all-Black neighborhood. I learned early on that real diversity is complicated, never as simple as a stock photo of a Black and a white toddler holding hands. As a teen I was the only white girl on my city basketball team, and at 6’1” and blonde I really stood out. My teammates called me “light bulb” and looked out for me. We had mutual trust and a strong bond. But I also witnessed disturbing incidents that revealed the subtle, and not-so-subtle, ways that my Black friends suffered fundamental injustice.
I remember one Fourth of July, when the uncle of an Italian American family a couple houses over pulled into our alley in his patrol car and opened up a trunk full of illegal fireworks that he’d collected for his nieces and nephews. He laughed about having taken them from kids in the neighborhood. As a pre-teen I had a strong sense that something was very wrong with that—I didn’t understand it fully, but like all children, I could sense the injustice, I knew that the rules weren’t being equally applied.
A decade later I witnessed the logical conclusion of those unspoken rules. I was coming home late on the subway and switching trains at West 4th Street. The subway in those days was gritty and crime-ridden, and we used to carry a dime and a token in our socks to call and ride home in case we were mugged. I never was. But that night, when I passed through the empty level at the north end of the station, I witnessed a terrible thing. A cop with a billy club in his hand stood behind a Black man on his knees, handcuffed, facing the white tile wall. I heard the thud as he struck him. I remember vividly the metallic taste of adrenaline in my mouth and the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness—all I could do was run.
Most of the economically successful white people I have worked with abhor the idea of racism and other forms of discrimination, but those issues are purely theoretical to them. Racism happens at a distance, in other people’s communities, far from the boardroom. Ironically, it’s easier to convince yourself that discrimination isn’t present when--as a direct result of discrimination—there are no people from underrepresented groups present. I see the structural forces that exclude people from influential positions in business as exactly the same as the forces that I saw at work in the streets of New York when I was young. Both apply different sets of rules for different people. Working in the white male-dominated tech startup world, I’ve encountered sexist bias: an unwelcome hand on my knee, being mistaken for a customer service rep, being asked to get coffee, and, of course, being paid less. While I would never compare what I’ve experienced with what it’s like to be Black or brown in America, these things live on a spectrum, all rooted in the same problematic patterns of unequal access to power.
Happily, we know that diverse teams are more effective than homogeneous teams. Installing leaders with different backgrounds serves shareholders, employees, and the broader society—even if getting there is easier said than done. For example, the last company I joined had a homogeneous white, engineering team. The reasons for that were complex, but there were some obvious issues. One was that the standard hiring screen included: “Would you like to have a beer with this person?” That question doesn’t sound like it’s “about race,” but most people would rather have a beer with someone just like them; these biases are so natural that most of us don’t even realize that we're discriminating. They’re the foundation of a system that has different rules for different people while pretending to be meritocratic. Thankfully, we know the solution: research shows that hiring executives who are on the flip side of these experiences brings the issues to light and leads to cultures that do, in fact, value peak, holistic performance.
And that is why what we’re doing at AboveBoard matters so much. We have the opportunity to create impact at multiple levels: we help executives of all backgrounds get the jobs they want and deserve, we enable companies to hire the very best talent wherever it is, that talent drives the companies’ performance—and all of that together changes the world.
With the right solution at the right time and True on our side as a co-founder, we’ve come out of the blocks strong. Even before launch, we had five clients sharing their opportunities with our members: Warburg Pincus, Summit Partners, Audax Group, Insight Partners, and WW (one step from Oprah!) in addition to True. In our first 10 days live, over 1,000 execs joined, 51% of whom are female or an underrepresented minority, and over half of whom are in the C-suite. If you’re an executive reading this, especially a woman, Black, or Latinx executive, I hope you’ll join to be connected with opportunities from companies like Pinterest, GitHub, Ford, Walmart, and Twitch.
More than ever before, I am bringing my best full self to this company. It is special for me, weaving the threads of my life into a powerful rope. We are living through immense change, and I’m old enough to know that change comes fastest when it comes from the top. When we transform the face of leadership to reflect the face of America, and beyond, we will be transforming companies from the inside and creating a ripple effect that has the potential to change society. My mission is to drive AboveBoard’s success and create the change that I need to see in the world.
My 17 year old daughter is a sophomore in college, studying computer science. She is one of <5% in the major who are women, and he loves the work but her male peers make her wildly uncomfortable. She shared an NPR story with me (go listen!) that got me thinking about my own start in the field.
I graduated from high school in 1981. We had a computer area in the student lounge with a couple of TRS-80s. Only a few socially awkward boys used them. That was the era when the computer field was transitioning from a relative balance in genders, including pioneering women, to male domination. (Read or listen to the NPR story for why–it is not that women aren't good at it). I had no interest in computers at that time.
I have two men to thank for changing my mind.
Between my freshman and sophomore years in college I worked as a girl friday (yes, we still had those then) at a small architectural firm called Peter Woll Architects. It was in NYC, across from the Brooklyn Bridge on Dover Street, near the Fulton Fish Market. This is what it looked like then. Drafting was all done by hand still and the firm was a very early adopter of CAD. Peter Woll gave me the job of implementing the system. The most difficult, and fun, part of the project was physically connecting the necessary pieces of technology–one might call it networking, but not in any way we'd recognize today. I spent many hours at Cables & Chips, which I am trilled to discover still exists! At that time, it was located on the second floor of a tiny building in the fish market (get the pun?). I'd walk up the steps, slippery with fish scales, and have a long conversation with someone who would hand solder whatever I needed. It usually took a few times before the component would work properly. In retrospect, I don't know if Peter figured that there was minimal risk in giving me this assignment since I wasn't earning much or whether he had some intuition that I'd be good at it. Regardless, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity and for the perspective that early experience gave me: the best way to approach new technology is to try it. I gained a level of comfort and confidence in dealing with technical unknowns which has been invaluable, particularly as a non-technical person in the field. Thank you Peter.
The second thank you goes to Dr. Jonathan Baron. In my sophomore year in college, I took a cognitive psychology course with him. Dr. Baron was doing work related to that of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversy, who were pioneering behavioral economics. I was fascinated by the coursework and did very well, and Dr. Baron gave me a job as a research assistant. There were Commodore 64s in his lab, and I taught myself to program, consolidating data from a very large study of Alzheimer's Disease using cassette tapes as storage medium. I loaded the data into the University's DEC VAX and taught myself SAS from a manual so I could run multivariate regression analyses. This all seemed natural at the time, but after listening to the NPR story, I realize that it is extraordinary that Dr. Baron gave me, a girl, this project.
Flash forward 30 years, and I have had a successful career in technology, the last 20 at the helms of a series tech companies, a role that is held <5% of the time by a woman. I don't think any of that would have happened without Peter Woll and Jonathan Baron. I hope that there are many men like them today, assuming that a girl or young woman can do it, and giving them the shot.
p.s. My 14 year old daughter, after reading this, said " Wow Mom, you sure did get a lot of lucky breaks in your career." Yep.
The New Yorker just published a long, loving profile of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, appropriately titled “A Woman’s Place”. For a brief moment in time it was at the top of Techmeme. Sheryl also did a popular TedTalk.
She mostly blames the male domination of the tech industry (and world leadership) on women. I think, mostly, she’s on the right track. She gives solid advice to young women - “lean in”, find a 50-50 husband, wait to have kids until you’ve established yourself (and don’t think about it until then). She focuses on what we can do rather than what others do to stop us, and I agree with that appraoch 100%.
She’s also an interesting model. She has all the normal super-powers: crazy-smart, hard working, clearly emotionally intelligent. She also had a critical and powerful mentor (get yourself one of those, girls). And she espouses some unusual views, including some I’ve been advocating for years: an approach to managing life based on blend rather than balance, forget about career planning, don’t focus on the fact that you’re a girl. I like Sheryl, I bet we’d get along well.
Yet it pisses me off that she’s the newest girl tech darling. Why? Because she’s a #2. She may be the best #2 in history, but I wish we had #1 role models.
After receiving the 10th email asking why I’m changing my name, I decided I’d just explain.
My parents named me Lucinda Bromwyn Duncalfe. Roughly, it means light princess of the cowshed (yeah). Lucinda is an old family name from my Mom’s side. Bromwyn is what they really wanted to name me but were worried about how unusual it is - it’s Welsh. My full name is (truncated) iambic pentameter. I always liked my name, always felt comfortable with it, like it says who I am. (As does Lu, which has a lot fewer letters and has followed me, sooner or later, everywhere since I started playing basketball in 7th grade.)
The first time I married, I eloped and did nothing by the book; the marriage was an utter failure. Trying a different approach seemed like the thing to do. So the second time I did the full traditional thing, white dress and all. Although it took me a while, that included changing my name. I first tried Duncalfe-Holt but that was too long and awkward. I didn’t start using Holt alone until my first daughter was in school, when family cohesion seemed important. The idea that I should give up my name, just because I’m female never sat well with me. Now, 8 years later, I don’t think it matters if my name is the same as my husband’s and daughters’, and I still feel a lot more like Lucinda Duncalfe than Lucinda Holt.
I played with the idea of changing back for about a year. A few months ago I started the expensive, onerous process. When you get married you just go to a Social Security office and they change your name. Changing credit cards etc is a pain, but the name change is nothing. I’m told that it’s straightforward in divorce too. But in my situation I had to get fingerprint cards done, present myself to the Court, pay a big fee, then publish a notice in two newspapers, obtain proof of publication, and I still have to go before a judge.
Coincidentally, my court date is next week. That timing turned out to be good, since I’ve moved on from ClickEquations and had to change my contact information anyway. So, as of yesterday publicly, and next Wednesday for real, I’m back to being who I was for the first 37 years of my life.
It’s going to feel great. Like home.
Today Fred Wilson posted about VC-backed women entrepreneurs. Being one, I thought I’d weigh in.
First, let’s be clear about the numbers. Forbes says (emphasis mine):
“According to the Center for Womens Business Research, the number of firms run by women grew at nearly twice the rate of all U.S. firms from 1997 to 2004. But a new study released this month by VentureOne, a unit of Dow Jones, shows that the number of women-owned or women-run businesses backed by venture capitalists has been on a slippery decline since 2002.
“To be clear, the number of venture-capital-backed,female-owned firms wasnt very big to begin with. In 2002, only 7.55% of all venture-backed companies had women as chief executives. But in the first half of 2006, that number fell to 3.7% (the lowest percentage since 1997). The number of venture-backed companies with women in top management bottomed out at 29.7%versus 34.8% in 2002.”
We received only 3.7% of the deals, and even worse only 2.7% of the dollars. My experiences anecdotally support those tremendously sad statistics. Just this week I was at one of our VC’s portfolio company conference. Other than the fund’s non-investment staff, there were two women. The second was a VP of Marketing. At another investor’s conference earlier this year the statistics were the same. In the many rounds I’ve raised Ive pitched to a woman exactly twice.
Why? I don’t know. But here are two thoughts.
First, the VC-entrepreneur relationship is based on trust. (At least one way the VCs have to trust that the entrepreneur is going to do well with the investment.) Most of the entrepreneurs I talk with view trusting a VC as 1) a nice-to-have and 2) naive. I’ll save that for a later post. The main point here is that VCs do have to trust the people managing their companies. I believe that people tend to trust those who they understand. It’s a lot easier to understand people who are like oneself. VCs are (white) men, so they’re more likely to trust (white) male entrepreneurs.
Second, expanding to a cultural divide, I think that most women are ill-suited to raise venture capital. Most VC pitch meetings are a jousting match. The first time I raised capital, I had a potential angel investor who wanted his VC friend to look at us and opine. I called the VC every day for about three weeks, and he kept ducking me. Finally, his secretary slipped and said “I’m sorry, he’s on the phone.”
“I’ll wait,” I replied.
That VC kept me on hold for almost an hour. Finally, he picked up the phone, and proceeded to drill in and belittle me. After too much of this, it became clear to even me that I wasn’t go to get anywhere, and i purposely, by mistake, referred to him as a vulture capitalist. “Ah,” he said, with a smile in his voice, “like I didn’t know I kept you on hold for 45 minutes. I come by my arrogance honestly, I was a cardiac surgeon before a venture capitalist.” And then, since I had established my machismo, we made nice. Many months later, I pitched that VC’s firm. Although he was health care and our deal was tech, he joined the meeting, recounted the story with gusto and recommended to his partners that they should back anyone with my persistence and “ability to go toe to toe.” It’s an extreme example, but it does illustrate the competitiveness in the environment. Women just aren’t brought up to be so in-your-face.
For me, the fact that there are so few women entrepreneurs is a huge positive. I’m memorable I suspect that VCs I pitched for TurnTide in 2003 are 50 times more likely to remember me today than a male with as good a company. Being 6’ tall puts me on equal footing. Growing up surrounded by boys and spending my first 25 years consumed by highly competitive athletics taught me to be comfortable in the boys’ world without being a boy. But, although the status quo might be good for me, I can’t be selfish on this issue and wish that things stay the same.
Women and men are at the peak of the bell curve wired differently. We give birth, and we typically bear more family responsibility than men. We tend to be better with people and worse with machines than our husbands. But the sum of all of these differences, and more, cannot explain even half of the 26x difference between the number of men and women in whom venture capital invests.
Whatever is going on isn’t fair and it hurts everyone. Great women with great companies that fit the investment profile for venture capital are being passed over because they don’t fit the cultural profile. So the companies can’t take full advantage of their opportunities. And investment returns are suffering because good deals are being missed.
I've started and/or run too many venture capital-backed software companies, plus one ill-fated food startup.