Jul 7th 2015

Women, VCs and Unicorns, Oh My

Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times posted an interesting story on Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures and little known creator of the massively popular Silicon Valley term, “unicorn.” This, as you will likely know, is a term often used by tech journalists and VCs to describe start-up companies that reach one billion dollar valuations.

In the article, Ms. Lee notes that she created the term in the fall of 2013 because she felt the industry needed a memorable and fun way to describe the unique phenomenon that was taking place in Silicon Valley. For the first time, American software start-ups were reaching valuations of a billion dollars. The unicorn term perfectly captured the elusive goal of every VC firm in identifying the next startup that could be deemed the “winner of all winners.”   Her instincts were spot-on as suddenly, use of the term exploded in Silicon Valley, with tech journalists incorporating “unicorn” into every sexy headline.

What disturbed me about Manjoo’s article was his discovery that little credit for coining the term was given to Ms. Lee.  Despite the fact that she conceived the term from solid research spanning a decade of data and was known as a successful venture capitalist in her own right, her term was lavishly used by others without reference.  I wonder if that would have ever happened if Ms. Lee was a male venture capitalist. Certainly in an industry dominated by men and huge egos, proper credit would have been due – and expected.

For those of us that grew up with the Internet and proper rules of netiquette (how dated that term now seems), it’s been ingrained in us to attribute proper credit and direct links.  Now that content on the Internet is so pervasive, does proper credit still matter as much or have we just become too lax? In any case, how unfortunate that Ms. Lee and her firm have to specifically request on their company website that proper attribution is appreciated.

Ms. Lee appears to be fine with not getting the credit “most of the time”. Like most successful and accomplished women, she doesn’t need Silicon Valley validation to make her feel more important.  She’s focused on her own firm and her own portfolio of start-ups and entrepreneurs.  She did her research and created a useful term that is now widely used.  Job done.

But I can’t help but think that in someway Ms. Lee deserves more credit.  There are a lot of women VCs in the Valley like her that are doing great work and I’d like to see these women get the attention they deserve.  After all, the growing influence of women in Silicon Valley can no longer be ignored or overlooked.  And they are certainly not as elusive nor no longer a rare phenomenon like the mythical unicorn.


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