IntroductionPiotr Moncarz – Global Women in the Start-up World


Piotr Moncarz is a Consulting Professor of Civil and the Department of Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. He is the founder and Chairman of the Polish-American Trade Council. He also works as Principal Engineer for Exponent Inc. in Menlo Park, California.

The talent contests1 are not just a part of the culture of innovation but also a part of the social reality in which women—unlike in the earlier days of the industrial revolution, where the key developments where introduced by men—are becoming integral to the innovation revolution. In this world creativity and technical know-how are combined sparking new, necessary, and desirable solutions. This is a key phenomenon.

Traditionally, Polish women of middle and upper classes received good education, although it rarely included science and technology, with celebrated Maria Skłodowska-Curie being a notable exception. The situation changed radically during the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) where the post-war rebuilding of the country and later the necessity of second income in households “invited” women to applied sciences and engineering colleges.

During PRL it was declared that a woman could do any physical labor just like a man. Of course it was a complete misconception, since regardless of physical ability, this was not where the intellectual strength of women lay. Women learned how to be foremen in construction, how to drive a tractor, but the whole process was a way of forcing women to turn into men. There were fields where women found their niches—in medicine, biology, and laboratory work. There women could create their own world. Teaching at schools was taken over by women—partly because of their skills, partly because jobs in education were so badly paid that a man working there could not support a family and women could not find other jobs worthy of their education and talents.

The idea of turning a woman into a man was bad but broke certain barriers. For a while now I’ve been following Girls Go Start-up! program in Poland. It is the first academy for start-up women. Do we really need it? I am not sure. But perhaps it is easier for women to create start-ups when they are in the company of other women who also try to create something rather than in an environment full of ambitious male entrepreneurs. Maybe there will be a new system in which companies would be divided into male- and female-run. Yet if we do not change the traditional view of start-ups, which assumes that they are founded by young ambitious males, we will lose the opportunity to create new and important innovations, which in that case might never appear on the market.

Innovation, as practiced in Silicon Valley, involves creating something original, even groundbreaking, something that would respond to the needs of both the entrepreneur and the consumer, something that involves great empathy. In empathy women are much better than men. Women listen better than men, are better tuned into emotions, which are very important in creating new solutions. There are still certain blocks in this area, as for instance the fact that women, even in leadership positions in start-ups, still tend to hide behind their male colleagues’ backs. Also when they talk about their passions they do it in a much more subdued way than a male would. I think it stems from the fear of misjudgment, of being labeled as “pushy.”

In serious innovative endeavors we see more and more women in senior positions. It doesn’t surprise me. It surprises me that it took so long. Is this a process that will develop naturally, organically or will it require special nurturing and attention? Today it is too early to tell.

In the modern world there are very many educated women who do not wish to be an extra labor. They want to be leaders in the full sense of the word, so also in the areas where creative thinking is taking place, where innovations are born. This is a very important phenomenon. The Western world has already integrated women into professional life. Still, it is still common in some countries that a woman gets paid less than a man for the same work. There are many places where changes need to take place but the general tendency of integration is now irreversible.

In “Top 500 Innovators,” a very successful program for young ­scientists and people involved in the transfer of technology at Polish universities, women made up one-third of the participants and in some groups even 50 percent. Initially men were indeed more active but this trend evens out very quickly, or even changes altogether. Women in “Top 500 ­Innovators” did very well. Not only did they actively organize teamwork in workshops, where the object was to solve actual problems but also played an important role in everyday group integration. The program was nine weeks long. It is a long time for people who had not known each other before and during the program lived and worked 24/7. It was the women who led the way in organizing event and suggesting new ideas.

The role of women among the program graduates is significant. A woman chairs the Top 500 Association and there are many women on the board. When I follow their news from Poland I hear the voices of women more often than those of men. It means that some energy got released that is just as creative as the traditional male one, but maybe even stronger.

Female bosses are often called “strong, hardcore women” when they are tough and ruthless. Yet when a man fires or reprimands someone this is considered normal managerial behavior. This is because women are expected not to be tough but soft, “motherly.” It is something worth thinking about.

It’s been said that Silicon Valley is like great Olympics where you go after 1,000 hours of training and previous setbacks. A woman needs to be just as well prepared as a man. Competence cannot be substituted by ­personal charm. At some point in her life a woman enters her societal-­biological role—a fundamental, natural role in human life. And I think this plays a role in those Olympic games. When a team applies for funding as one of many, each having their own pitch, team presentation, the risk of losing a leader mid-way occurs to the decision makers, who are usually men. It is understandable. It is important to convince them that I am doing well and my approach to career and personal life is realistic and responsible.

Susan Wojcicki, a de facto co-founder of Google and today a CEO of YouTube, said once that it was possible to have a family and kids and a career. Still, one must remember that they are not parallel matters but are integrated and there’s no point pretending to the world that it’s otherwise. Susan Wojcicki speaks plainly about it. And I think such straightforward approach is the better one. To me it is so convincing that I would immediately bet on the team with such a woman rather than on an all-male one. Women need to learn such plain talk and understand that they lose a lot trying to convince people they were as good as men. They have to focus on the fact that they are great human beings who can create “something” even in a situation when they are raising children and are leading a big company. This approach might help women to be less aggressive in their career and their fight for it. If you are feeling persecuted just because you are a woman, of because you are “different” it brings out aggression which not just prevents you from winning but even puts people off. These are the matters that young potential start-uppers should learn.

In Silicon Valley, in Poland, and in many other places in the world, today and a 100 years ago there are many examples of women acting just as well or even better than men. Yet we must stress that today’s progress lies in teamwork. Today no one questions women’s essential competence. The 19th century nonsense has been retired. However, there is still little experience of work in integrated male-female teams so we should focus on how to make this process more efficient. While dealing with a mixed female–male team where a traditional male feeling of “high worth” is likely to arise, men cooperating with women must show culture, acquired at home or at school and if that’s not enough there should be external legal regulations and internal code of conduct which will not tolerate deviation in this area.

—Piotr Moncarz

Consulting Professor, Stanford University

1 Referral to Marta Zucker’s book: “Talent Olympics in Silicon Valley: Conversations with Start-up Masters” Warsaw 2015.