The Ugly Truth About Sexism and Business in Portland
“Oh, you’re married and you’d just break my heart.” These were the words I forced from my lips as I turned on my heel and exited the room. This, from a girl who would, under ordinary circumstances, easily and happily knee a man for much, much less than what I’d just experienced. How did I get here? Two words: raising capital. And I wish I could say this was the only “indecent proposal” I received from a Portland businessman in the agonizing year I spent raising the money it took to launch the magazine you’re reading now.
I was convinced my business plan was sound, my concept captivating, my chances of success high. The first problem, it seemed, was that I was a 34-year-old woman who needed money from a relatively small group of people—and those people were mostly men. The other issue was that they all seemed to be connected, like in the first episode of Downton Abbey, when news of the Titanic disaster arrives and Lord Grantham says, after realizing his cousins were on board, “We will certainly know others.” The moneyed classes have not changed as much as one might think. Therefore, I set aside my usual tactics for warding off vile behavior. A few well-placed phone calls would have finished me.
The evening I describe above began with dinner and ended the way three others had within two weeks: me in tears, aghast at the lack of respect I’d been shown. I felt terribly alone. I didn’t want to confide in anyone in Portland—even my brother, with whom I was launching the magazine—for fear that they would want to fight my battle for me. So I called a friend of mine who was in the city magazine business on the other side of the country. He gave me sound advice: “Your best revenge is success. In a year you’ll be the media, and they’ll never know for sure when you decide it’s time to tell your story.”
That same year I attended the Oregon Entrepreneurship Awards, and I remarked to the man who brought me that I was surprised at the lack of women onstage. He replied, “Women just aren’t entrepreneurs of big businesses.” That night, I actually said to him, “I’ll see you back here in five years.” Happily, it took me only three. When I won the Entrepreneurship Award for Individual Achievement, a title bestowed to a woman only once before in the awards’ 14-year history, I received hearty congratulations all around. A fellow nominee warmly shook my hand and said: “When X said it was too bad that I lost, I said to him, ‘Did you see Nicole?’ Of course they chose her over me!” And he laughed.
Yes, he thought he was being funny. He thought he was giving me a compliment. But really, he told me that my hundreds of sleepless nights, punishing drive, and painstaking work had meant nothing—that I’d won the award because of how I looked. Would anyone say that to a man?
I’m not usually a bully-pulpit kind of gal, but it’s time to admit we have a problem. Nearly every local female CEO or entrepreneur I’ve met has a similar story. And while I owe Portland a huge debt of gratitude for embracing Portland Monthly and setting Sagacity on its way to becoming a very successful media company, my memories of that year forever altered how I feel about this city. While the rest of the country believes us to be a mecca of liberalism, we’re not quite as different as we should be. Yet.