Walk down Silicon Valley�s Sand Hill Road, ground-zero of the world�s venture capital industry, and you�ll find it a male-dominated place � and still largely white.

aileen_lee.jpgMost firms have no female partners. Almost none have appointed an Asian American woman as partner � despite the large number of Asian American women active in Silicon Valley�s start-up world.

So the good news coming from Silicon Valley�s best-known venture firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is long overdue: It has promoted Aileen Lee (see profile), an Asian American woman to “principal partner.� It also promoted Matt Murphy (see profile) to principal partner. Both had been associates and have worked at the firm for about four years.

MattMurphyLG.gifKleiner has backed some of the most innovative technology companies of our day: Amazon.com, Google, Sun Microsystems, Netscape, Compaq � the list goes on.

In an increasingly global economy, a VC firm like Kleiner will arguably need a diverse partnership to maintain that edge.

We did some checking around, and found only two other Asian American women venture capitalists at Silicon Valley firms, Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, over at Accel Partners, and Michele Law, of Greylock. A third is Claudia Fan Munce, managing director at IBM Venture Capital Group, which is IBM�s corporate development arm, and not really a venture firm.

We met Aileen Lee about two years ago, and found her friendly, bright, and refreshingly down-to-earth. She doesn’t want to make a big deal out of the promotion, but some of her Asian American female colleagues were happy. �The bottom line is, this is something very very rare,�� said IBM�s Fan Munce.

Most female VCs don�t like to talk about any glass ceiling — even though many associates grumble about not being promoted as quickly as male counterparts, Fan Munce said. �Women who succeed tend to be those who never felt the glass ceiling was there,�� Fan Munce said. �For those who are sensitive of the glass ceiling, who are aware of it, and are cautious or resentful, it becomes an inhibitor.�

Lee is highly regarded by senior people within IBM, Fan Munce said. IBM had invited Lee to discuss investment opportunities in China when Lee was there for a visit, she said.

The scarcity of women, especially Asian women, in VC-land is understandable, both Fan Munce and Gouw Ranzetta said. Fewer women opt for a career in technology, and fewer still stick with it. It also takes time to get VC credentials, which include a technical degree, an MBA and relevant experience at start-ups.

The venture industry is younger than most industries � about 35 years old � and white males started out with an advantage. �We�re still at the early stages in the game,�� said Accel�s Gouw Ranzetta, who became perhaps the valley�s first Asian American female VC in 2000. �It�s significant whenever an Asian American gets promoted, or whenever a woman gets promoted,� she said.

Lee is known for her background in consumer business, where she worked at Gap in various roles, helping to build and run its Web site, and at Odwalla and The North Face. She�s an MIT grad, and once taught English in Shanghai.

Matt Murphy has a BS in Electrical Engineering from Tufts, a Stanford MBA, and had various work experience before joining Sun Microsystems, where he ran the carrier business development. He then joined a start-up NetBoost, leading product management for the network processor company, which was sold to Intel 1999. Already active as a partner for Kleiner, Murphy serves on the board of a stealth �wifi cellular convergence� company.

We checked in with Mike Dolbec, a former associate at Kleiner who knew Murphy there before leaving to join Orange Ventures, a telecommunications venture group in San Francisco. Dolbec said he tried to hire Murphy away from Sun when Dolbec worked for 3Com�s corporate venture group. �He was a really sharp guy,� Dolbec said.