The reputation of Silicon Valley as a bastion of testosterone is by now well-established, and award-winning journalist Julian Guthrie decided it was time to tell a new story—one with a little more estrogen. In her new book, Alpha Girls: The Women Upstarts Who Took On Silicon Valley’s Male Culture and Made the Deals of a Lifetime, Guthrie explores the complicated lives of female VCs through the eyes of four resilient characters. She traces their trajectories—how they’ve dealt with victories and defeats, the ways they’ve juggled work and family, how they’ve coped with sexist attitudes—to get where they are today. They were among the first investors and founding board members of startups that would go on to become the giants of Silicon Valley.
The book takes us through the achievements of Magdalena Yeşil, who helped Marc Benioff grow Salesforce; Mary Jane Elmore, one of the first women to make partner at a U.S. venture firm; Theresia Gouw, who helped build major companies like Facebook and Trulia; and Sonja Perkins, one of the first female partners at Menlo Ventures, where she invested in such companies as McAfee and Hotmail.
Samantha Todd: What gave you the idea for Alpha Girls?
Julian Guthrie: I was on tour for my last book, How to Make a Spaceship, spending a lot of time with entrepreneurs and engineers. I began to ask myself: Where are all the women in these really important and dynamic industries? Although I’d worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for 20 years, I didn’t know there was such a disparity as there is today. I started to look into tech for some kind of hidden figures, some really dynamic women who had great narratives and whose stories hadn’t been told.
I came across this figure that 94% of all check-writing VCs are men. But who is the remaining 6%, who are the women? I wanted to know what the world looks like for them, what it’s like being pretty much the only woman in the room, the only woman chasing after certain deals.
Todd: And what about today? Do you think things have changed in Silicon Valley at all?
Guthrie: With the #MeToo movement, there were all these bad guys who were outed in all these different industries, including tech, and there was a great spotlight that was shined on equity. Now you see these really strong groups like All Raise and Broadway Angels and these all-women investing platforms and political advocacy groups. I see these really promising pockets across the country where women who had climbed their way up that VC ladder and had gotten to partner, to general partner. Many are now starting their own firms.
Todd: But it’s not all good news everywhere, is it?
Guthrie: You look across industries, whether it’s home building or architecture or law or medicine or advertising, and women in the top ranks only represent between 5% and 20%. The progress across these industries has really stalled—it’s hard to imagine that we’re at this place in time and there’s still so much underrepresentation.
Todd: Tell me about the term “alpha girl.” What does that mean exactly?
Guthrie: An alpha girl is someone who goes from navigating to pioneering in whatever field, somebody who seizes an opportunity that’s difficult and persists and finds a way to thrive.
Todd: How did you arrive at the book’s title?
Guthrie: At first I had the Alpha Girls Club. I like the word “girls” because even as women, we can be girls. I think the girl should embody boldness and strength and compassion. Strength combined with girls—I love that equation. Alpha Girls is being adapted for a TV series, and a lot will be changed, with the story fictionalized, but Alpha Girls will remain as the title.
Todd: In the book you talk about how your reporting was already under way when the #MeToo movement began, but that it affected your reporting. Can you discuss that?
Guthrie: These women have to work with the guys, and they have to network. More men have honestly gotten behind this movement, this need, this call to action. #MeToo had a good effect, but there’s a flip side as well. It’s something like 60% of men who were recently surveyed in Silicon Valley in tech said that they won’t have a one-on-one meeting with a woman. They won’t mentor a woman, they won’t have closed-door meetings one-on-one, they won’t do offsite things. And that’s terrible.
Todd: If readers take away one idea from your book, what would you like it to be?
Guthrie: I would say that tech and venture capital are amazing careers for women and more women need to be in this industry that is shaping our future. An alpha girl shows how it can be done, but it’s a dynamic industry, and women should be getting into it in stronger numbers and playing a big role in shaping the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.