In a male dominated sector, women in Silicon Valley are making themselves felt and even embracing fashion, writes Claire Cain Miller
LAST winter, Chanel flew planeloads of style setters to Las Vegas for a party celebrating Numeros Prives, an exhibition showcasing the brand at the Wynn hotel.
There, guests including Diane Kruger, Jessica Alba and Rachel Zoe mingled inside a giant red-lighted replica of a black Chanel 2.55 handbag.
But when it was time for dinner, Chanel president John Galantic didn’t sit at a table with the actresses, but one with Silicon Valley tech executives like Marissa Mayer (wearing a gray beaded Chanel cocktail dress) and Alison Pincus (in a classic black Chanel shift).
Silicon Valley has long been known for semiconductors and social networks, not stilettos and socialites. But in a place where the most highly prized style is to appear to ignore style altogether and the hottest accessory is the newest phone, a growing group of women is bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion.
Despite the geek stereotypes of hoodie sweatshirts, flip-flops and thick glasses, it makes perfect sense, these women say, for people interested in technology to be intrigued by fashion.
“Designing software and products isn’t all that different from the design of clothes,” Mayer, 37, the new chief executive of Yahoo, said in an interview last February. She once paid US$60,000 (RM187,000) at an auction for lunch with Oscar de la Renta.
“Like components of software,” she said, “fashion designers learned how to do this shoulder, put pleats on the skirt that way.”
Mayer, who for years was responsible for the design of Google’s search engine, proved her point when she asked Naeem Khan to make the dress for her wedding to Zachary Bogue, a financier, in 2009. She gave the designer a spec (a set of requirements that engineers write for new products) for the gown, including scalloped trim, an A-line skirt and lace, preferably with snowflakes.
“A side zip was eliminated because it would get caught on the lace and embroidery, so we realised that wasn’t feasible from an engineering perspective,” Mayer said.
Not every fashionable techie is so collaborative, but designers are nonetheless eager to explore a client base with not only money to burn but also a forward-looking ethos.
“Definitely my New York clients want to penetrate the valley,” said Allison Speer, founder of Allison Speer Public Relations, who helps introduce designers to customers in Northern California. “When we opened Bottega Veneta, they said: ‘We don’t want the social girls who do everything. We want the up-and-coming tech girls’.”
“Earlier in my career, if I had to choose between a skirt and being taken seriously, I would have chosen being taken seriously,” said Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, 42, a former Google executive who now runs a video shopping site called Joyus and said she never leaves the house without four-inch heels and at least one vintage item. “But now I’m at a point in my career in the valley where I’m judged by what I’ve done.”
Ruzwana Bashir, 29, a founder and chief executive of Peek, a travel startup, said that she was surprised when she arrived in the Bay Area and discovered that some people were distrustful of fashion.
“Perhaps they think they’re not taken as seriously if they make an effort,” she said. “In the end, I’d rather wear a nice dress, and if someone is not going to take me seriously, that’s so superficial.”
For women newer to Silicon Valley, sometimes there is pressure to blend in. “The perception in Silicon Valley is that if you dress well, you couldn’t possibly be smart, or you’re in PR but couldn’t possibly run a company,” said Leila Janah, 29, a tech entrepreneur who worked in New York before moving to the Bay Area. She has settled on a wardrobe of tailored Zara blazers, silk scarves she buys in India and chunky jewellery she inherited from her grandmother.
“I remember briefly attempting the Adidas and jeans and sweatshirt over T-shirt look, but I realised I was trying to dress like a young tech geek, and that just wasn’t me,” said Leila, the founder and chief executive of Samasource, a startup that uses the Web to connect people in developing countries with jobs. “Fashion is expressing my aesthetic sense just as much as our website is.” Sorel, the boot company, asked Leila to be a spokeswoman in its ads.
I AM WOMAN
In Silicon Valley, women stand out simply because they are in the minority, accounting for five per cent of the founders and chief executives of tech startups, a quarter of computing professionals and 11 percent of tech investors, according to industry sources. Dressing well, said Gladys Perint Palmer, director of the fashion school at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, provides a dose of confidence.
“If a woman looks good, she feels more confident, whether she is in Silicon Valley or Hollywood,” she said. “It’s biological.” There are also business advantages to standing out, said Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, an investor at Accel Partners, a venture capital firm.
“When it’s a sea of young guys in jeans and hoodies, and the VC’s are in their khakis and button-down uniform, it’s kind of a benefit to be different,” said Gouw Ranzetta, who compares her shoe collection to her male partners’ cigars and cars. (Her favourites are Jimmy Choo and Gucci, “but if it’s the weekend and I’m running around after my kids, I’m a big fan of my sparkly Converse sneakers.”)
She is quick to add that ideas and skills matter most, but a nice outfit can’t hurt.
“Silicon Valley is definitely a place of meritocracy, but if on top of it, if you don’t happen to look like the 10 other people in the room, that’s not always bad,” Gouw Ranzetta said.
Gouw Ranzetta worked in consulting in New York and travels east regularly for board meetings of media and e-commerce startups she has invested in.
“In New York retail or e-commerce or media, it’s a requirement to be in the latest fashion and completely put together from head to toe,” she said, “and on Wall Street, it’s required to be conservatively put together from head to toe. But in Silicon Valley, as businesswomen we have no uniform. I’ve actually found it more freeing because I can have a little more fashion fun.”
Some of Silicon Valley’s best-dressed women, including Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Juliet de Baubigny, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm, declined to be interviewed about their style. But others said that dressing well (and talking about it) could help erode the stereotypes that repel some women from the technology field.
“It’s possible to hold your femininity and love of fashion,” Singh Cassidy said. “Now I feel not at all at risk that people would say, ‘How can she care about dressing well and run a billion-dollar company or be smart?’”NYT