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Wonder Women – Profiles in Power: Cynthia Hess of Fenwick & West LLP

by Shannon McBeen on October 7, 2011

Cynthia Clarfield Hess is a partner in the Corporate Group of Fenwick & West LLP, a law firm specializing in high technology matters, where she represents a variety of high technology companies, ranging from privately held start-ups to publicly traded companies.

When Cynthia Clarfield Hess first started practicing law in New York in the late 1980s, she never imagined that her future lay in the technology-heavy silicon valleys of California. “I was mostly doing underwriter work, doing deals representing investment banks, and while I enjoyed that work it didn’t have the relationship longevity,” says Hess. So when the opportunity came to move to the West coast and start working with tech companies, she took the chance.

Her timing was unfortunate, landing her in San Francisco soon after the market crash of 2000. “We were suddenly in the middle of this pretty deep tech recession. But I persevered, and continued to meet with people and companies who went on to start other businesses,” says Hess of her survival strategy. “[I]f you connect with people who like your work and they then move on to start or join other companies, there are always opportunities. And now I have a really thriving practice.”

As Corporate Group Partner and Co-Chair of the Start Up and Venture Capital Project at the well-known law firm Fenwick & West LLP, Hess is a success story in an industry famous for its shortage of female success stories. Technology and venture capital are hold-outs in the struggle for gender equality in the workplace, and the cause remains a bit elusive, even to Hess. “I was recently at a party in a room filled with professional women in high positions from Google, IBM and other major tech companies, and we were talking about how you can really count the number of women in venture on one hand… I’m not exactly sure why.”

Some factors are more obvious than others, including the demanding lifestyle. “In law, a pretty equal number of men and women are coming out of law school–actually more women–but when it comes time to make partner, women have weeded themselves out because lots of women don’t want to have the ‘on-call’ lifestyle that often is required,” says Hess.

A friend of hers has another theory: tech and venture are industries where people almost exclusively hire their friends because a position often means a ten-year commitment (when hiring a partner at a venture firm for example). When men are making those decisions, they go back to other men who they know really well from college or sports because, as Hess notes, “you’re really locking arms for a long time.”

Still, says Hess, the outlook is hopeful. “There are a lot of very young entrepreneurs in the industry now, and I see more women; twenty-somethings or early thirties, partly now that there are so many more social media and internet businesses and companies out here. You see more women in those areas that are more consumer-based: social gaming, social networking, and so on.”

And why should these young women consider a career in what feels like inhospitable territory? “It’s  hugely gratifying to work with these companies from their very nascent stages to see them grow and become successful,” says Hess.

Finally, she says, stick with it, even when you have a family and marriage. “Don’t take yourself out of the running; stake your career goals around what you want to do. You don’t have to take yourself off track just because you want to have children and get married. I believe its possible to stick with a high-power, fulfilling career and have those other important things.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeff Malkin October 7, 2011 at 6:33 PM

I’ve been working with Cindy as a client for over a decade across 3 different venture-backed start-ups. Her counsel throughout the years has been invaluable as we’ve navigated the sometimes treacherous waters of building fast-paced technology companies. Never one to hold punches, Cindy has been an ethical beacon and a very supportive friend.

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2 Dan December 3, 2011 at 8:17 PM

More encouraging news and hope for my own daughters, that a successful career does not need to replace a home/family life. It seems clear though that especially in these economic times personal contacts trump a good education and ambition. It must be discouraging for those just entering their fields.

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