Benchmark Hires Pinterest Veteran as First Female Partner

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  • Silicon Valley has been criticized for lack of female leaders
  • Tavel appointment follows Sequoia’s 2016 hiring of Jess Lee

Benchmark, the venture capital firm behind companies from EBay Inc. to Uber Technologies Inc., hired Pinterest Inc. veteran Sarah Tavel as its newest and first female general partner.

Tavel, who joins Benchmark from rival venture firm Greylock Partners, "impressed us with the speed and quality of her thinking," wrote Benchmark partner Bill Gurley in a blog post Tuesday. 

Her appointment highlights nascent efforts to increase diversity in Silicon Valley, where data show women made up 6 percent of senior investment teams at top venture firms in 2016, up from 5 percent in 2010. The dearth of female leadership in the technology industry has been underscored by allegations of sexism, most recently at Benchmark’s most richly valued current portfolio company, Uber.

Tavel is Benchmark’s sixth general partner, and she was Greylock’s only female investing partner. So while the move significantly changes gender diversity at Benchmark, one of the industry’s most-admired firms, it does little to move the needle in venture overall since Tavel came from a competitor.

"Greylock is a bit larger and has an ops team to help their portfolio companies," Tavel wrote in a series of tweets about her move. "Benchmark is a more intimate team."

At Greylock, Tavel invested in two companies that the venture firm hasn’t named publicly. But she has plenty of VC credibility: She came to Pinterest, where she worked as a product manager, after backing it in 2011 as part of her previous role as an investing partner at Bessemer Venture Partners. In its last funding round in 2015, Pinterest, an online bulletin board, was valued at $11 billion.

"The experience of helping scale Pinterest through a period of explosive growth is an incredible resource for the founders on whose boards she will serve," Gurley wrote. Another Benchmark partner who joined the firm in 2008, Matt Cohler, had a similar career trajectory after helping Facebook Inc. through a growth spurt as a product management vice president.

“We enjoyed the time Sarah spent at Greylock and wish her the best in her next role," a Greylock spokeswoman said. "We look forward to opportunities to collaborate with her in the future.”

Until its announcement today, Benchmark was one of several top venture firms criticized for having no senior female investing partners. Sequoia Capital hired its first female in the U.S. in that role, Jess Lee, last year. Other firms, including Accel, General Catalyst, IVP and Redpoint Ventures, still list only men among their U.S. investing partners, according to their websites.

Venture-capital firms use titles in different ways, making comparisons difficult, and some firms decline to use titles altogether. Typically, a general partner is the most senior. A venture partner often, but not always, has an advisory role and is less involved in final investment decisions.

Tavel, 35, graduated from Harvard University with a philosophy degree. In his blog post, Gurley said the firm had gotten to know her over the past year and found she "demonstrated an investor mindset that just felt consistent with our own."

In February 2016, the firm announced it had hired a sixth general partner: Scott Belsky, an entrepreneur who had sold his digital design platform, Behance, to Adobe Systems Inc. in 2012. Belsky relinquished that position at Benchmark seven months later, saying he missed being an entrepreneur. However, Belsky provided the suggestion to consider Tavel, Gurley wrote.

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