ES01Elissa Shevinsky ’01 has not only been an EphBlog favorite of late, but was recently featured on the cover of the Williams Alumni Review (pictured above is her Twitter avatar, drawn from that cover illustration). Shevinsky is a serial entrepreneur with a focus on cyber-security; her current company is JeKuDo, which is “building the very best easy to use privacy tools.”

Shevinsky is also now the author/editor of the recently-published “Lean Out,” available from Or Books and (naturally) for your Kindle or Nook. The collection of essays and perspectives from women working in Silicon Valley includes an introduction and commentary from Shevinsky along with a couple of her own essays. Full disclosure: Shevinsky and I are what she might call “introvert friends” on Twitter and regularly “favorite” each other’s tweets.

“Lean Out” tackles a popular and sensitive subject: the overwhelming male representation in Silicon Valley and the larger tech industry, one of the highest-value and highest growth areas of the economy. In “Lean In,” Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg advocated for women to be more proactive in challenging this norm by doing more to be accepted into existing power dynamics and transform the “system” from within.  Relatedly, many tech companies have claimed that there is a purported “pipeline” problem — a shortage of women with STEM and computer science backgrounds, coding skills, or even video game experience that translates to a subsequent shortage of women interested in the industry.

Many critics — including several of the writers collected in “Lean Out” — have challenged these claims.  Many women, particularly those coming from diverse backgrounds, object that Sandberg’s perspective as one that requires women in the tech industry to adapt to the system, rather than building a new system for women and by women.  Others, including Shevinsky, believe that the focus on a “pipeline” is a diversion, little more than a marketing effort by big tech companies to  transfer attention from culture (hard to measure) to an issue that can be quantified and to which they can dedicate eye-catching amounts of spending.  In this view, the claim that there aren’t sufficient women in the hiring pool is akin to the implausible suggestion that there aren’t enough actors in Hollywood.

Taken individually, the essays in “Lean Out” might read as a collection of diversity-oriented polemics: interesting as descriptions of individual experiences, identities, and related challenges, but many would be ultimately unsatisfying (the identities of authors include a well-balanced mix of sexual, gender, racial, and ethnic identities). One exception: Katherine Cross’s essay, “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds,” an analysis of why the dominant Silicon Valley nerd culture is resistant to criticism from feminists. Agree or disagree, her analysis gives good insight into why individuals and groups can simultaneously be privileged and marginalized, although readers will recognize she might not agree with that characterization.

It is taken together that the greatest value in “Lean Out” is revealed as Shevinsky’s selection and structuring of the whole. Each writer adds a piece to our understanding of the culture of the technology industry — and each person brings their own view regarding how best to tackle the problems they see as creating an environment of exclusion. The juxtaposition of their suggestions, moreover, reveals that many approaches, taken alone, risk undercutting precisely the parts of the system that make others feel included, at least at times. Far from the simple solutions proposed in the polemics of online fora, “Lean Out” reveals a thorny knot that even Alexander might be unable to cut.

Take, for example, the concerns laid out in “Lean Out” about a brogrammer culture that makes outings for drinking cheap beer an integral part of many companies’ cultures.  Participating in these outings – which fuel interrelated cultural problems like unwanted sexual advances (and worse) and fart jokes (and worse) – may be a cultural and career necessity for many who would otherwise not participate.  But not only are they irreplaceable to the individual and team identity of their enthusiasts, but more than one writer in “Lean Out” recounts an instance when participating was an inclusionary experience, at least at the time or for a while.  So the answer can’t be just to replace alcohol fueled bar hopping with estrogen fueled coed outings to the ski slope or the bookstore.  And while doing so might make the introduction of sexist apps at major conferences less acceptable, would that really even matter to the presence of women at the partner level of venture capital funds or, ultimately, to investments in diversely-led startups?

Where does that leave Shevinsky and the “Lean Out” reader? Certainly with a lot to think about. But the structure of her book provides a clue that there’s more in her mind than merely provoking discussion or repeating the demands of others that people change their sexist ways. “Lean Out” opens and closes with passages by FAKEGRIMLOCK, the startup robot dinosaur. (Yes, this is a thing). Both are calls to action: not meant to provoke some centrally-led reform effort or even a social movement by the many, but for an individual action by the entrepreneur, “You”: “You Belong in Tech” and “You Must Start Up.” And then there’s the essay “Build a Business, Not an Exit Strategy,” by Melanie Moore, also near the end of “Lean Out.” Her simple present-value analysis of startups seeking an IPO home run vs. those seeking to grow on a human scale — and the explanation of why VCs are in the business of finding home runs and not the latter, presents one “Out” approach. It’s clearly one that serial entrepreneur Shevinsky is comfortable with. And it’s a reminder that what the tech industry may most need to create a set of spaces where the authors in “Lean Out” (and millions of others, men and women alike) can thrive is a different sort of diversity: a diversity of vision that yields a true variety of opportunities.

Elements of Shevinsky’s experience at Williams appear in one of her own essays, “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem,” and I’ll excerpt a few details in a subsequent post.

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