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Female Entrepreneur Recounts Sexual Harassment, Pervasive Gender Discrimination

(KPIX 5) -- The woman behind one of the most successful female-led startups says, like Hollywood, sexual harassment is rampant in Silicon Valley.

Nine years ago, Jennifer Hyman came up with the idea of an online business that rents designer gowns to women. Her firm, Rent The Runway, has turned into a nearly billion-dollar business.

She's raised $190 million from venture capitalists - more than any other female-led startup in the country. Most recently, Rent The Runway expanded its services to appeal to more women who want to rent everyday outfits. Her success as co-founder and CEO has put her on Forbes' list of the richest self-made women to watch.

But Hyman says it didn't come without battling sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley.

"So there was an investor who sexually propositioned me and when I rejected his advances, he went to my board of directors and claimed that I was being irresponsive and potentially was not a good CEO," Hyman said.

That powerful investor was eliminated from Rent The Runway, because Hyman says she had a supportive board and enough capital. But most women seeking funding in the early stages aren't as fortunate.

Hyman says VC meetings by and large were productive, but she's had to deal with subtle, unconscious biases from men and women.

"We've definitely gone to investor meetings where people have told me, general partners at firms have said 'this must be so fun for you, you get all these pretty dresses that you get to wear and try on everyday,'" said Hyman.

Only 10 people work in the fashion department at Rent The Runway, out of 1,200 employees. Most are in engineering and logistics.

"It's dismissing us, even before you've heard the vision," she said. 'Before you've even understood what we do, it's thinking that Rent The Runway is small because we cater to women, and small because we're in the business of fashion."

Last year, the company crossed its $100 million revenue mark.

Among the advice she's gotten throughout her career - act more ladylike.

"That's what this one woman who gave me that feedback was basically saying, she's like, you know, we don't want to hear your opinions in a meeting - just sit back, and smile and look pretty," Hyman said.

She didn't take advice.

"There's just a pattern where people believe that male founders are given more benefit of the doubt, they're talked about more positively, they're lauded as visionaries and geniuses whether or not they're visionaries or geniuses," Hyman said.

Hyman says it will take more diverse venture capitalists at the table to change the game, and more successful women and minorities paying it forward. It's why she started Project Entrepreneur in partnership with UBS - a national initiative that helps female entrepreneurs access tools, training and networks to build companies.

Her advice to young aspiring who are women dealing with this male-dominated workforce?

"Keep on chugging along, being ambitious and being aggressive, as Sheryl Sandberg says, leaning in," Hyman said.

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