Last week the Women’s Technology Cluster hosted an awards event for the 4 venture capital firms who during 2003 invested in the most companies lead by women (apparently data is not available for 2004). The WTC is a business incubator headquartered in San Francisco that helps women leaders build technology businesses. I agreed to give a keynote talk and learned that I was to be the “entrepreneur keynote” as counterpoint to Cynthia Ringo’s VC keynote.
This was interesting, as I tend to thing of “entrepreneur” and “founder” as synonymous. And of course, in the technology world “entrepreneur” is pretty closely tied with venture capital and the search for many multiples of return on investment. Neither of these quite fits my role in the Mozilla project. Although I was involved in the creation of the Mozilla project, the role was not that of a “founder” creating an idea and bringing it to life. I was closer to that with the creation of the Mozilla Foundation, but this was still much more of finding a way to organize and lead an existing group of people than the prototypical founder’s role. And of course the basic goal of the Mozilla project is not focused on a large return on investment. We need to generate enough funds to keep the project vital, but that is far different than the typical startup as an investment vehicle.
But nevertheless the definition of “entrepreneur” turned out to be not that far off and the work I actually do is entrepreneurial enough that I found I had plenty to say. I spoke mostly about the “sense of possibilities” that I think drives most entrepreneurs. Those possibilities can be focused on making money, on creating technology, on helping others, on enriching one’s own life — the substance of the possibilities is not the key. It’s the sense that they exist, and the act of will required to bring them into existence. I also think that most entrepreneurs have a sense of the part of the possibility that they most want to conform to their internal vision. In some cases, that’s the whole thing, and the entrepreneur maintains control over all significant aspect of the project or the company.
My case is very much the opposite. The actual technical direction is not my space — my colleague Brendan Eich provides leadership in that arena. Beyond that, and far more unusual, is the degree to which the identity of the Mozilla project and the Mozilla Foundation is shaped by the myriad of participants and volunteers.
There is of course a piece of the Mozilla project where I have a very strong sense of the possibilities and a determination to see things proceed in a way that makes sense to me. That area is the organizational structure of the project. How do we integrate the various constituencies? How do we organize ourselves? How do we provide enough structure to build top quality products and still provide room for individual initiative and serendipity? How do we integrate the core development with the Spread Firefox community marketing effort, the mozdev.org development community, mozillaZine, the localizations groups, our International Affiliates which now include Mozilla Europe, Mozilla Japan and Mozilla China, and the numerous companies that use, develop and distribute Mozilla technology?
How do we remain the center of great technology and individual drive as we integrate with commercial teams? How do we create polished end-user products? How do we generate funds and remain true to our mission? How do we integrate employees of the Mozilla Foundation, employees of other companies and volunteers? How do we create an asset of great value, keep it vital and maintain it? These questions are only a part of the Mozilla project, and yet they provide plenty of challenges.
Of course, this was also a gathering celebrating VC investment in companies with women CEOs so I noted how often I find myself in meetings where I am the only woman. Or more accurately, how often I think back to a meeting to consider its content and realize in retrospect that I was the only woman. Being the only woman in a group of decision-makers is so common that I rarely even notice it any more. Looking at this gathering as I spoke I realized that this not noticing is probably learned behavior. This may seem obvious but it was a new thought to me.
Later Heidi Roizen noted during her acceptance comments for Mobius Venture Capital that she’s recently learned of a business school professor who taught the same case study — a study about Heidi herself — to two different sections of a class. In one section the study was about Heidi Roizen, in the other it was about Howard Roizen. Afterwards the professor conducted a survey asking questions like “How much do you respect the protagonist?” “How much would you like to work with / for this person?” Howard scored noticeably higher than Heidi, particularly among the male students. I can’t vouch for the study or the methodology as I’m recounting Heidi’s message. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that our “meritocracies” remain highly flawed and subjective.
After the formal program ended one of the women from the Women’s Technology Cluster challenged me to take personal responsibility for the low percentage of woman hackers in the Mozilla project. I refused, saying I would take responsibility with her, and the rest of our society for this problem, but wasn’t willing to take additional personal responsibility. We have not yet begun trying to direct the nature of the community that develops around Mozilla beyond our nascent international efforts. It would be interesting to hear whether other people think I’m more responsible than most for the low percentage of Mozilla Foundation employees and key volunteers who are women.
All in all it was quite an interesting evening.