It is an understatement to say I am glad I said “Yes!” to Penny Herscher’s invitation to join her and a delegation of four other Silicon Valley executive women in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Gaza and Ramallah. The group is WE2, Silicon Valley Women for Economic Equality. The mission was not only economic equality, but also getting women a seat at the table with a belief that peace will follow via bridging differences.
I have written before about challenging myself to connect with and befriend more people who do not look like me. Even so, I am sorry to say that my awareness of unconscious bias has not completely stopped me from having unconscious bias. I’d like to tell you about several instances where my unconscious bias revealed itself on this trip.
Our delegation initially spent time in Tel Aviv with women entrepreneurs, executives, board members and 9th-11th grade girls in STEM programs — all hosted and organized by Startup Nation Central. Then we traveled to Gaza to meet with Gaza Sky Geeks, where we spent two days mentoring and learning from young startup founders and coding students — half women and half men! When we arrived, we were shuffled into a small room for a briefing on what lay ahead the next two days and then we headed into our one-on-one mentoring sessions. The conscious bias I had about women with head coverings — that they are oppressed — was immediately and thankfully challenged.
The most memorable moment of my travels was the second day at GSG during my first one-on-one mentorship session with a young man who has a successful 40-employee gaming company, another burgeoning unique t-shirt company, and yet another startup in development. First, he revealed that his wife had been in my roundtable the day before and when they sat down to dinner that night, she encouraged him to schedule a mentoring session with me the next day.
In our session, we discussed his companies and his plans to go to Comicon in San Diego. Then he said “…and finally I am here to solicit your advice about my wife. She is so smart and talented, yet she doesn’t have confidence. What can she do to gain confidence?” At this point water was percolating in my eyes like mudpots. He explained how he had not intended to marry, at least not for a while. He saw his wife at an event and found her to be extraordinarily beautiful. He asked a family friend for an introduction and their relationship thrived from there. I was moved by his love, caring and support, as well as the way he shattered my aforementioned bias with such grace.
When our delegation returned to Tel Aviv, we had a robust roundtable conversation over lunch with women founders of startups, nonprofits and community organizations. We learned via several earlier conversations and presentations that one of Israel’s main marginalized sectors from the workforce is ultra-Orthodox Jewish women. Included in our roundtable was an ultra-Orthodox multi-channel communications tool startup founder. Her business is scaling and thriving alongside her family, which she describes as another startup! She really blew the water out of any bias or stereotype I may have had regarding what kind of work an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman can do.
In Ramallah, at a host corporation’s headquarters, our event included high school girls in STEM, college graduates, and women working in corporations or startups. What resonated most for me at that event was my/our unconscious bias when we arrived at the host company. There was a UN-like U-shaped table at which we decided to sit among the attendees who arrived after us. Four of us from the delegation were talking solely with each other, while two others — Penny, the organizer, and Erin Keeley, who had previously mentored in Ramallah — were already mingling. As the young women arrived, they clustered in conversations in their own groups just like the four of us.
After some time, I had that unconscious bias light bulb go off. After all, we had not stuck together when we met the Israeli women who looked like us — we dove into networking! I immediately stood up and said, “I am going to go introduce myself,” and members of my group readily followed.
Another light bulb moment occurred at the airport as I was leaving to fly home to San Francisco. The first of three Customs and passport control stops was with a woman in her twenties who asked me where I had traveled and what the purpose of my trip was. I figured I would get empathy for our mission and swiftly pass through. I was transparent in disclosing our workshops in Ramallah and Gaza. She said, “One moment please,” and walked about 20 feet to another couple of young women customs agents. She came back and asked me some more questions, such as whether anyone had given me anything. I said, “No.” The young customs agent again went to the other two. The third time, one of the two, who introduced herself as a supervisor, asked me some final questions and then released me to the next two final stages which included scanning.
Later, during my flight, I had the revelation that when I was being interviewed by the young women, I subconsciously was awaiting their big boss, who in my biased mind was a man.
And finally, turning unconscious bias on its head: in my solo travels after our WE2 commitments ended, I fortuitously happened upon the Beit-Hagefen Arab Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa, Israel, which had an exhibit titled “Unmarked ID, 2017” by Hamody Gannam, addressing whether we can “evade gender, racial and class definitions” via a photographic-scientific study. “The artist cultivates bacteria taken from different people, documenting them with a microscopic camera, and blowing up the photographs. The result is a unique type of personal portrait…the portraits created by Gannam tell us nothing about the social identity of their subjects, but at the same time, they are intimate and singular.” If we could only walk around and see each other as Hamody Gannam’s beautiful images of cultivated bacteria, there would be less bias and more peace in the world.
*For a detailed description of our mission, trip and hosts please see Penny Herscher’s blog post.
Kim Clancy is founder and CEO of search firm Hampton O’Bannon Partners, LLC (HOP, LLC). She handcrafts retained board member searches in the small and midcap SaaS space, helping CEOs and Nominating Governance Committee Chairs find effective, efficient and enjoyable board members who are trusted in the boardroom from day one and who keep shareholders happy.