When the New York Times broke a story about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley last summer, Precursor Ventures founding partner Charles Hudson blasted out an email to his portfolio companies letting them know behavior of that sort would not be tolerated.
The San Francisco venture capital firm, he said, had zero tolerance for sexual harassment or bias and expected people in its network to “carry themselves with high character.” If founders weren’t being treated equally with respect regardless of gender, he encouraged them to speak out.
Another investment company, R/GA Ventures, sent out tweets showing public support for the women in its portfolio — including one in the New York Times story — who spoke out publicly against sexual harassment, which it said was an effort to let the earliest silence breakers know it heard them and supported them.
Since then, the chorus of women speaking out against gender inequality and sexual harassment in the workplace has grown louder across sports, technology, media and Hollywood, fueled by widespread social media campaigns, such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. Men have also grown vocal, with male-dominated VCs now making a better effort to be more inclusive and figure out ways to level the playing field.
SportTechie spoke with more than a half-dozen female entrepreneurs and CEOs of companies underpinning the billion-dollar technological shift in sports in order to get a temperature read on gender inequalities in sports technology. These women, who aren’t just navigating the male-dominated world of technology but the doubly male-dominated world of sports and technology, say there’s no quick fix to gender inequality, but that the increased awareness has been a good place to start.
“As soon as people become more aware, they start checking themselves,” said Ashley Wellington-Fahey, the chief executive officer of The Relish — a Precursor portfolio company with a media platform dedicated to female sports fans. “There’s a mindfulness that wasn’t there before.”
Last month, a story about a former high-ranking Major League Baseball executive brought this issue close to home for the sports technology industry when the Wall Street Journal reported that Bob Bowman had been forced out after 17 years as president of MLB Advanced Media. Leading to his departure was a pattern of behavior he apologized for, including the propositioning of female colleagues and an incident when he stood with two female subordinates in the office and referred to them as “c___s,” according to the paper.
Sarah Kunst, the founder and CEO of content company and fitness app Proday Media, has been one of the most vocal supporters of gender inequality in Silicon Valley and sports technology. Last summer she shared a story with the New York Times, which prompted one of R/GA’s tweets, about unwanted advances she received from a co-founder of the seed accelerator 500 Startups years before she founded her company and entered the world of sports technology. After Dave McClure publicly apologized, Kunst tweeted about hearing more stories from women about him and called for his resignation as general partner. McClure eventually stepped down.
Kunst has found that women in sports tech are particularly subject to implicit bias, which can lead men to believe that women don’t understand or care about sports, resulting in fewer opportunities and a shortage in funding.
“There are two main things that happen in male-dominated industries,” Kunst said. “Women are either treated poorly, such as sexual harassment, being paid unfairly; or women are just completely shut out and ignored. In my experience, there’s a lot more shutting out versus poor treatment that happens in sports technology.”
Some women said they believe implicit bias has had a negative impact on their careers, either costing them opportunities or requiring them to work twice as hard to prove they belong in the same room as men. Others questioned whether this is why there aren’t more women in sports technology, or in C-level roles in sports altogether.
Dreamfuel founder and CEO Emily White, who runs a crowdfunding platform for athletes and oversees a female-only staff, said she has been hit on during pitch meetings and “mansplained” about basic facets of the funding process as though she weren’t qualified for the job.
“There’s been some bizarre sexism that has certainly held Dreamfuel back and I’m sure held other female entrepreneurs back,” White said. “Male colleagues tend to be surprised I’m a CEO, that I run an entertainment firm, that I manage athletes.”
White said there’s often a visceral response of surprise when she goes on to explain her qualifications, such as how she had a Division I athletic scholarship for swimming at Northeastern University and has founded several companies.
Three female-founded sport tech startups received VC funding in 2017 through the first week of September, compared with 20 male-founded sports tech startups, according to data pulled by PitchBook for SportTechie. In 2016, only one female-founded sports tech startup received funding, with total deal activity reaching $7 million, compared with 27 male-founded startups that racked up $161.5 million. The data doesn’t include startups with both male and female co-founders.
Those relatively paltry investment numbers for women reflect the broader VC landscape. In 2016, venture capitalists invested $58.2 billion in companies with all-male founders, compared with $1.46 billion for women-founded startups, according to PitchBook. That same year, 5,839 male-founded companies walked away with VC funding, compared with 359 companies founded by women.
“We’re not seeing enough female founders and enough investment in females,” said Mandy Antoniacci, an entrepreneur, investor and speaker who has been an activist for women in tech.
One could argue the lopsided numbers reflect the fact that there are more men developing sports tech companies than women, but Kunst pushes back by saying the reason why there aren’t more women starting sports tech companies is because implicit bias discourages many of them from doing so.
“The reason why women are not starting sports tech companies is because they’re not encouraged and supported the same way men in the space are,” she said. “They aren’t funded.”
Wellington-Fahey said her experience with venture capitalists has been positive. The Relish was among the few women-led sports technology startups that received VC funding in 2017, according to PitchBook. Still, she had to go through great lengths to explain to investors why something like The Relish, a media site with a heavy dose of video akin to the millennial finance show Cheddar, should exist.
“The one challenge is there’s a disbelief that there’s a market for female fans, or that it’s as big as we know it to be,” she said. “It could stem from a stereotype of how we think of women when we think about sports.”
Finding silver linings
Other women who have found success say they’ve learned how to leverage confidence and intelligence to turn the fact that they’re a woman in a male-dominated industry into a non-factor or an advantage.
Sonia Sousa, the CEO of Kenzen — a real-time analytics company that works with at least 25 professional sports teams in injury prevention management through a web of patented biosensors, sweat analysis and predictive analytics — said she believes the fact that her company is partly female-founded, with a woman leading most of the company’s pitch meetings, played a role in why it took her longer than expected to raise funding. She had to answer more questions than she thinks a male-founded startup might have. But she has also found that to be advantageous.
“Sometimes I like being underestimated,” said Sousa, who has a PhD in photonics and neural networks. “I think that gives you a tremendous advantage because now they’re shocked and have to regroup, but you don’t. ”
Julie Meringer, president of gaming technology startup Your Call Football, echoed similar sentiment, saying people in the sports industry just want to work with “smart, good people,” regardless of gender.
“I don’t care what industry you’re in; if you know your stuff, people will respect it,” she said.
Sportsdigita founder and CEO Angelina Lawton, whose interactive sports agency for professional sports teams was self-funded before it announced last month a funding round led by Chicago-based venture capital firm Peak6 Sports, said being a woman has almost been a plus for her.
“These guys running these teams are looking for smart women who can generate revenue,” said Lawton, whose company develops a software application that sports teams use to create and share sales pitches with prospective digital sponsors. “I get approached a ton because I am a woman in sports tech from people wanting to invest and wanting to understand our story.”
There’s also the belief that the large amount of female sports fans who have up until recently been underestimated and underrepresented in sports-related advertising campaigns represent an untapped opportunity for female entrepreneurs. According to the NFL, women now make up 45 percent of the league’s fan base.
“We saw it quite a bit with the NFL when they started to recognize that more women have purchasing power in households and are paying attention to and participating in sports,” said Antoniacci, who is the founder and CEO of a soon-to-launch socially-conscious tech company called Give Five that was inspired by the camaraderie formed within sports communities. “All of a sudden women are attending more games, getting more involved, and all of a sudden services need to be provided for them.”
Still, there are many women who don’t feel as though being a woman is advantageous and don’t feel comfortable speaking out, which is why it has become important to create inroads for women who are looking to build careers in sports technology.
“There’s still a lot of women who have had experiences who are not going to say anything because it isolates you,” Wellington-Fahey said. “That’s a scary position to put yourself in when you already have so much you’re going up against.”
While the hashtag-related awareness campaigns have been instrumental in bringing these issues to the forefront, there’s still a need to turn all of this awareness into action, Antoniacci said. Many female collegiate athletes, for example, don’t realize there’s a way to turn their passion for sports into a career, which she said is reflected in the fact that there aren’t many female mentors in sports business.
In November, Marilou McFarlane, the former CEO of venture-backed coach-and-athlete collaboration platform Edufii, whose assertiveness, passion and strength once prompted a male investor to negatively refer to her as a “bulldog,” attempted to bridge that gap with the launch of a nonprofit called Women in Sports Tech (WiST) that seeks to build a network of resources for women aspiring for careers in sports technology.
WiST, which was cofounded by Deborah Stroman, the director of the Center of Sport Business at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, has received financial backing from adidas, IBM, Carbon, Silicon Valley Bank and Volt Athletics. With those funds it rewards women with grants for sports tech internships and offers them access to job listings, networking events and educational resources. WiST’s board is comprised of men and women, which McFarlane believes is key to its success.
“We don’t want our approach to be militant, or exclusive of men, because I know a number of men who want to join women in sports technology and want to hire women,” McFarlane said. “The opportunity for women is extraordinary right now. We just have to help young women see the opportunity.”
The Relish is attempting to play its own part as the leading platform targeted at female sports fans with a docu-series called Power Players that highlights women making moves in the sports industry. Wellington-Fahey said part of The Relish’s motivation for Power Players was to build a network of mentors that women can aspire to in an industry dominated by men.
“Women don’t have a lot of mentors and people they can look up to that are also women,” she said. “There’s still more work to be done there, and that’s a big part of The Relish’s goal: to empower not just the voice of female fans, but to also elevate the voices of women in sports.”
Stephen Plumlee, the managing partner of R/GA Ventures, said the investment company treats female and male founders equally, but tweaks its strategy based on the type of support its founders need. It has found that women, for example, not only need the financial support investors can provide, but often require access to a network of mentors and potential clients more than male founders because they tend to have more difficulty making those initial connections in male-dominated industries.
In an attempt to better appeal to female entrepreneurs, R/GA sponsored a panel at New York Techweek in October focused on what female founders need to move their businesses forward. Later this year, R/GA says it plans to launch a program that’s specifically targeted at female founders, which many women in sports tech say has been sorely lacking across the broader VC ecosystem.
“As we go forward with future programs within sports, we’re trying to make sure we’re bringing in a diverse set of founders,” Plumlee said. “We want to create a level playing field.”
Plumlee said R/GA had been working on launching the female-focused program months before the #MeToo movement gained steam and tweeted its support for Kunst, one of the first graduates from its accelerator program with the Los Angeles Dodgers, shortly after the New York Times article published last summer in a show of support.
“Sarah definitely has had an impact on the discussion, but so have some of the other founders in our portfolio,” Plumlee said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re supporting all of them as best we can.”