The Men that Shrank Me
There is no main event, there is no assault, there is just the slow, unrelenting hacking away at my sense of self and self-worth
I sit at the small wooden table, leaning forward over my latte, hands grasping the white clay mug too tightly. The venture investor sitting across from me is in his late thirties with a bald head, the young kind of bald that’s perfectly shaven, tight and shiny. He wears a standard issue blue button-down and gray fleece, and he reclines cross-legged in his cafe chair as he makes his observations.
“The market for healthcare technology is only going to grow,“ he proclaims. I find myself unable to say things like this: basic, well-known facts, but spoken with the grand air of revealing a hidden truth. He seems to do it for a living.
“Our thesis is that B2C technology is becoming saturated. B2B software operating within the healthcare system is the big opportunity.”
I have already said “yes,” and “definitely,” too many times in this meeting, I know that, but I continue because it is the only strategy I have.
“Totally, yes,” I say, leaning forward, “absolutely, uh huh, definitely, that makes total sense.”
Then comes another observation:
“You know, I love female founders,” the man says, reaching an arm over his head to languidly scratch his neck. “They always know when to step aside. I had this one female founder who, after series A, was really honest about how she didn’t want to take it further. So we were able to find a new CEO and do a healthy transition.”
I pause for a moment, that familiar nausea rising in my stomach.
“Uh huh,” I say, “totally.”
I have nearly landed my first real investor. We are having a light and easy final meeting before locking in the investment. We are sitting around an oval table in a co-working space called More Disruption Please; I know that it might as well be a satire of this whole thing, but the rental price for desks is low here. My almost-first-investor is a friendly young man who has already made a fortune in the Valley and has a reputation for making founders feel comfortable and supported.
The crisp winter light shines into the conference room through a floor-to-ceiling window, and he enthusiastically tells me his thoughts on founders. He likes founders from Brown, my alma mater, because he has an inkling we are still untapped.
“All those Harvard kids want to be Zuck now, it’s mainstream, but kids from Brown, they still need to have a certain initiative to move out to the Valley.” It doesn’t make sense to me, of course, it seems like splitting some pretty damn fine elite hairs, but what here does make sense to me?
“Yes,” I say, “definitely.” He feels moved to continue:
“Female founders too. I have a thesis that female founders are always better investments. You have to work three times as hard to get anywhere.”
Another damn thesis. But this is meant to be a compliment. I should take it as a compliment, I tell myself.
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I am working my ass off to try and make this startup happen, the way women do. I’m in Austin, Texas for the South By Southwest conference, a verifiable orgy of panels. I hate conferences, being a sensitive introvert, but I’m not going to the panels anyways, I’m here to meet people with money.
I was invited by a rich Austin native who made his fortune founding a company that sold some kind of pre-paid credit card. We met at a networking event where we had a long conversation about the nature of capitalism—something genuinely substantial—which led to ongoing text and email exchanges. He wanted to help me, he had said. He believed in me. He thought I had something special.
And so he invited me to Austin, offered to pay for my trip, offered me his spare bedroom. Now, sitting in his living room on an Eames-style recliner, I am wondering if I have said “yes” too many times. Other founders I know, men, get flown around on private jets and put up by investors who are courting them. I have even told this man, in plain words, before agreeing to this trip, that, just to be clear, I was not interested in anything romantic.
”Totally,” he had said, “Definitely. I just want to help you.”
Now he sits across the living room on an overstuffed couch. The apartment is a modest size, and everything in it is clean and expensive like in a furniture showroom. I have been having chronic foot pain for many years, and it is mostly managed, but right now it’s flaring up. We are talking about chronic pain, and all at once he is sitting on the ottoman in front of me. He has my stocking foot in his hand and is taking off my sock. He is rubbing my foot. It happens so quickly, I am paralyzed.
“I just want to rub your feet forever,” he says.
It’s a year later and I am now engaged. I do not have an engagement ring, but I’ve started wearing a ring that looks like a wedding band on my left ring finger when I go to conferences. It’s a small protection, but it seems worthwhile.
I am at my company’s booth on the trade show floor and the young sales guy at the next booth says, “Tell me about your husband,” as if he has already seen through my lie. I stumble through a description of my fiancé.
“When was the wedding?” he says. My face burns hot as I make up an unconvincing story. I am certain he knows. I feel stupid and young.
I try to focus on getting people to my booth, generating leads. A famous doctor with a big Twitter following stops at my booth and we chat. He’s in his sixties, gray and distinguished, with the easy, knowing smile of an older white man who has fully established himself in the world. He knows that I know who his is. I do know who he is, and I know he can help us. I do my best to engage him. It seems to be working. He gives me his card.
I’m packing up the booth at the end of the night and he stops by again. We chat about a recent news article, and he walks with me to the sidewalk to get an Uber. We stand side-by-side.
“My wife has cancer,” he says, apropos of nothing. He lays his hand on the small of my back, gently caressing the top of my pencil skirt.
A potential business partner invites me to dinner. He is in his fifties, with thick dark hair and a dark beard that is starting to gray. He has been friendly and open to my ideas, and I hope we can progress towards a deal.
We sit at a steakhouse with cloth napkins on our lap, me on a bench and him caddy corner in a chair. He decides to give me some spontaneous sales coaching.
“You see,” he says, “if you are going to sell me something, you really have to convince me that I want it.” He has a little smirk going at the edges of his mouth, his salt and pepper beard twitching upward and his eyes fixed on mine. There is a moment of silence.
“Like, for example,” he continues fluently, “if you were going to try and get me to leave my wife, you would really, really have to convince me.”
I smile lightly and nod, I am that accustomed to being polite.
“My wife and I are separated,” he tells me, “and I’m fascinated by you.”
I manage to produce a soft retort that I have a fiancé, and he chuckles that this fact is unimportant, and we both, somehow, lightly laugh it off—hah! Hah!
Later, I won’t remember the rest of the meal.
And this is how it goes, for five years, one event after another. Sometimes I think the events are unbelievable. Sometimes I think they are so deeply cliché and common that if I saw them in a movie, it would be boring.
There is no main event, there is no assault, there is just the slow, unrelenting hacking away at my sense of self and self-worth. There is the indignity of all the times I say “yes” to something I disagree with because the man on the other side of the table has money that I need. There is a growing awareness that any man interested in my business may very well not be interested in my business but in my femaleness, in one way or another. By year three, there is anxiety that rises whenever I meet a man who tells me that my startup is interesting. There is the reality that these are the exact people I need to meet, constantly. There is the growing understanding that rich men often feel they deserve something unearned from me: my agreement, my adoration, my interest, my body. There is the reality that, in order to progress, I give these things to them, to a point.
And also there is the cold, inescapable fact that, if I want to stay here, I will need to spend endless energy engaging in this degrading, impossible game, trying always to discern who I can trust, always being ready to escape, but doing so without offending someone important. Always being willing to say things I don’t believe. Always a fraction of myself.
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When have you experienced the slow, unrelenting hacking away at your sense of self and self-worth? What, if anything, did you do about it?