The Quiet Efforts to Overcome the Men-Only Environment in a Startup

Namrata Rao

Senior Manager, Product Management at Salesforce.com


"Bro-Culture" and It's Issue for Startups

It's no surprise that in startups, men still outnumber women. Plus, the constant cultural changes in the environment add a great deal.

When the company still consisted of about 10 - 15 employees, it was mostly about keeping the environment alive during my time at a startup. As we continued to grow and the world started to evolve, more conversations revolved around women in the workplace. During the shake-out phase of the company, we realized that the underlying culture began to change, whereby each of us was able to see the shift in dynamics within our teams within the larger group.

We noticed small differences, such as men outnumbering the women in senior executive positions. Women of color, like myself, were hardly anywhere near. Plus, women asking questions during all-hands meetings were reducing in number, or the way it was being tackled was different from how it would have been otherwise.

Although it may not sound like a big real-time problem, it's about a startup evolving with new people coming in and building a culture. Sad to say, but it was becoming more like the Silicon Valley "bro culture," and women in the company realized the strain. That was when we knew that something needed to be done to address the issue.

Talk About It and Take Action

To begin with, the person I reported to was a powerful woman. In that regard, we already had a woman at the executive level, and unconsciously, I felt inspired and empowered to see that dynamic. The level of assurance that there are women at the executive level who were calling the shots and making the decisions made me feel that I had a voice, too.

Coming from Singapore to the United States, I tried to figure out the cultural dynamics. In Singapore, women are much more outspoken and assertive, which I never thought about such issues twice. After moving to a different landscape, I realized that the dynamic was skewed, where more people were talking about women in tech.

Being able to open up to some of my female colleagues via one-on-one to talk about shared feelings. "Have you experienced this?" or "is there something I should be doing to do better?" were some of my queries. Opening up and communicating with my colleagues gave me a lot of exposure.

Once we communicated to align the issues in line, the next step was to identify what could be done about it? We found out that there was a forum, but we needed to elevate it slightly. We were aware that such a forum existed and talked to the organizer to elevate what they were doing. Joining the committee of organizing events and lifting the forum with new ideas was all it was about.

Finally, it boiled down to execution. We had to ensure that those ideas came to life if anyone had ideas. We let people know that we were doing it for a cause while providing them a voice to speak and making them as comfortable as possible.

As part of a breakfast event, we got everyone in a room and played Brene Brown's TED Talk on the power of vulnerability. The video played for about 10 - 15 minutes, and by the end, it took a while for everyone to soak in the information and start talking. Afterward, everyone started thinking about what was happening in the workplace and what could be done about it.

Creating Psychological Safety

  • Understand the cultural dynamics before pitching into doing anything. Per my experience of moving countries and continents, I have always kept it at the forefront of being new to a culture. In that regard, the first step for me was to understand it entirely and then express my feelings or how to do things better based on the sensitivity of the culture.
  • You are never the only one going through a feeling. If you speak to your colleagues or anybody in the workplace, you'll find someone just on the same page as you. Having that rapport is essential, and there is no better way to solve anything than clear communication.
  • It's essential to actively participate in changing things around us. In my case, there was a forum, but I was not participating in it until it hit me that I should be bringing in new ideas to move the needle. If you already have a forum, start working on it and make a difference, and if not, create a new one.

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Namrata Rao

Senior Manager, Product Management at Salesforce.com

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentMentorship ProgramsWomen in TechOvercoming BiasIndividual Contributor RolesTeam & Project ManagementDiversity & Inclusion

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