What’s up with the coverage of women founders?
It’s starting to feel off.
Recently, there have been a number of reported pieces about healthcare startup founders exhibiting bad managerial skills. There’s April Koh of Spring Health, who “created panic and fear” by pushing her employees too far. There’s Erica Johnson and Alyson Watson of Modern Health, who had a vitriolic co-founder breakup and also maybe did drugs together in their spare time. Not all of the pieces have been about women (the recent takedown of Ro comes to mind), and not all about healthcare (see: the founder of Away, the founder of The Wing, and the founder of Outdoor Voices—all women), but something is starting to feel off.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good reported article about a scam. Give me a podcast about low-level business scams over a true crime podcast any day. (Also… if you’d fund a podcast about low-level business scams, let me know.)
The thing is, despite the coverage, we haven't actually had a good scam since Elizabeth Holmes. The Spring Health and Modern Health situations? Well, bad management from first-time founders isn’t exactly a scam.
In fact, one of the most frustrating parts of these stories is how run-of-the-mill the bad management actually is. In most of these stories, the women failed to run a company where employees felt like they had work-life balance. Should the founders have spent more time learning to manage the balance? Sure! But isn’t this also one of the hardest problems facing the leadership of any company, let alone first-time founders building a rapidly scaling business from the ground up?
In other words: At what point does bad management rise from a company problem to a breathlessly reported piece? And why does the bar seems to be a lot lower if it’s a woman making the mistakes?
Take this anecdote from the Business Insider piece about April Koh of Spring Health. The lede told of an employee who found himself sending Slack messages while his wife was in labor. And then his manager told him to stop:
One former employee described working through a paid "mental-health day" at her manager's direction. A current employee said he joined a video meeting from a hospital bed while he was being treated for COVID-19, though his manager told him to sign off when seeing he was ill. And another said he responded to email and Slack messages when his wife was in labor, until senior leaders told him to stop working.
I’m not saying this is a good culture…but compare it to Travis Kalanick presiding over the creation of Greyball to elude police officers, and Adam Neumann leading a round of tequila shots after laying off employees. (And never mind that by the time this egregious behavior attracted scrutiny, Uber and WeWork were already huge companies.)
Of course, this isn’t to excuse bad management. Nearly half of employees surveyed by Udemy in 2018 reported leaving their jobs because of bad management, and the atmosphere at work can have serious repercussions on an employee’s sense of wellbeing. This is especially true during the pandemic, when so much of our social interaction is coming from Zoom meetings with colleagues.
But the takedowns of men founders in the media—Adam Neumann, Travis Kalanick—usually happen after those men move from bad management into outright breaking the law and/or creating a legendarily hostile company culture.
Even then, these founders are often seen as mavericks rather than poor leaders. As Shohini Gupta, a Build Associate at 8VC, noted, “Everyone’s reaction to Adam Neumann was like, ‘that’s just how CEOs are! Oh, SoftBank gave them too much money!’”
She went on to point out that a lot of the worst tendencies seen in founder downfall stories (pushing employees too hard, failing to build a diverse and inclusive team, being harsh and unlikeable) can be directly traced to the pressures of blitzscaling a venture-funded business. With men founders, their reactions to these incentives are treated as such, not as an indictment on their management skills. With women founders, the same reactions seem elevated to the level of personality traits. Kalanick was a hard-driving CEO. Koh, apparently, is just a mean person.
There’s another element here that I alluded to when I compared low-level scams with true crime podcasts. In the last few years, some media outlets have become known for covering these low-level scams, and they do a great job of it. These articles go viral in certain media, business, and tech circles, and everyone talks about it on Twitter for a few days. There’s a strong incentive, as a reporter, to have that be your piece.
I get it, perhaps better than most. Not only do I love reading and talking about the latest imbroglio The Cut is covering, but my newsletter really took off when I wrote skeptical coverage of MultiPlan, Clover and Cityblock. Unfortunately, as I saw someone on Twitter put it once (I can’t find the tweet or I would cite it directly), everyone’s looking for the next Theranos, and there was only one Theranos.
I suspect part of the reason the coverage feels so imbalanced, beyond the obvious misogyny, is that the media is still trying to find the appropriate balance in covering tech. Over the last 15 years, coverage has swung from too-positive to too-negative. At the same time, vocal leaders in the tech space have contributed to the hostile environment by advocating for action against journalists and media outlets. Journalists and their editors, meanwhile, seem to have lost their sense of what is newsworthy and what’s just another addition to the pantheon of takedowns of women founders.
So where does that leave us? Per the half-serious suggestion of Gupta, “female founders need to budget in a line item for ‘post hit-piece PR.’”
This information shouldn’t be taken as investment advice (obviously), and the opinions expressed are entirely my own, not representative of my employer or anyone else.