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Upward Aims to Create Old-girls Network in Silicon Valley

  • Reuters

Lisa Lambert, executive director of Upward, poses for Reuters in Santa Clara, California Jan. 23, 2015.

Lisa Lambert, executive director of Upward, poses for Reuters in Santa Clara, California Jan. 23, 2015.

Thanks to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her mega-bestselling book, Lean In, the gender-disparity debate has been front and center for years now in Silicon Valley.

But another executive believes she is taking that concept one step further with her own organization, Upward. Her take: focus a little less on working harder, and a little more on old-fashioned meeting and greeting.

“Work your relationships,” says Lisa Lambert, a VP with Intel Corp.'s venture-capital unit. “Build your own network and work it.”

Upward, in less than two years, has brought in more than 1,500 members, says Lambert, 47. That's just a fraction of the 21,000 Lean In “circles” or groups, which have been powered by Sandberg's 72-week ride on the New York Times hardcover best seller list.

But Lambert, with no book in the works, is largely building her organization on word of mouth. She has launched a new chapter in Israel, and plans four more this year, in Bangalore; London; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Oregon.

“I see the disparity between professional men and women all the time in my business, and wanted to help,” explained Lambert, who holds an MBA from Harvard University and invests chiefly in software companies.

In venture capital, just 4 percent of senior investing partners are women, according to Pitchbook, a consulting firm. Just 3 percent of companies receiving venture cash have female CEOs, according to a report from Babson College.

Those numbers help explain why gender issues have become such a hot topic, especially in Silicon Valley, at the center of controversies surrounding discrimination faced by women in sectors such as game development. Most big area technology companies report low numbers of female employees, particularly at management levels.

Facebook said last year that just 31 percent of its workforce was female; at senior levels, it was just 23 percent. At Intel, which recently announced it would spend $300 million to boost diversity at the company, it was 24 percent overall and 15 percent at senior levels.

How they stack up

The two organizations work in different ways. Lean In emphasizes hard work, with structured discussions around topics like negotiation and team dynamics. The recommended size of its circles, 8-12, lends itself to bonding more than developing new contacts. Upward holds larger events, sometimes with hundreds of women, and focuses on networking.

Upward also takes a low key approach. At Lean In gatherings, some women Reuters talked with were turned off by what they perceived as a high-pressure atmosphere.

“It was like the worst kind of graduate seminar,” said Debra Hotaling, a communications manager at Ford Motor Co. in Irvine, Calif., about the Lean In meeting she attended in southern California. “You could just see there was that jostling for position, the alpha female.”

In an interview, Sandberg said she is happy with Lean In's growth, and that she counts networking as an important goal. “People love to write that things are in opposition, and they're not,” she said, referring to the two groups.

Lambert also said she viewed Upward as complementary to Lean In. She has even written a blog post for Lean In's web site about her own career as an African American executive.

Upward party

At her most recent Bay Area Upward event, more than 600 women filled the banquet rooms of a hotel in San Jose. They started with schmoozing over sliders and chicken satay, moved on to dinner, and then listened while Lambert interviewed former Yahoo chief executive Carol Bartz. Among Bartz's advice: gain confidence by faking it, assert yourself, and network, something she said she should have done more of in her own career.

“What I like about Lisa's group is the variety she has there, all kinds of people from every walk of technology,” said entrepreneur Deborah Dennis, who added she has attended every Upward event since its launch. Daniels typically exchanges at least a dozen business cards, and relishes the convivial environment.

While both Upward and Lean In have something to offer women executives, critics say groups like these shouldn't let corporations off the hook.

“We don't think the solution for promoting women is getting them to do more of anything much,” said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a London-based diversity consultant. “It's getting leaders to be better at managing at women's careers.”

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