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Thursday, 6 July 2017

Silicon Valley reeling after 24 female entrepreneurs speak out about sexual harassment

It's been a little over a week since Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO of Uber in the wake of disclosures about a poisonous corporate culture where "Toe-Stepping" was considered a company value and sexual harassment was treated as business-as-usual. At the time a former Uber engineer had come out with a lengthy blog post detailing not only her boss's sexual advances, but also the company's staunch refusal to discipline him in any way. Embarrassing as this was for the ride-share unicorn, Uber engineer Aimee Lucido argued at the time that the company was being singled out for behavior that was the norm throughout Silicon Valley.

It turns out she was very, very right. Emboldened, perhaps, by the fact that sexual harassment at Uber actually had consequences, 24 female entrepreneurs who sought funding from Silicon Valley venture capitalists have told The New York Times and tech site The Information in some detail about the routine sexual harassment they faced and the sexual favors they were expected to offer in exchange for that funding.

For example, Lindsay Meyer described how, after funding her startup, Justin Caldbeck, co-founder of Binary Capital would text her at all hours of the night, asking if she was attracted to him and why she preferred spending time with her boyfriend to spending it with him. He also groped and kissed her, she told the Times. "I felt like I had to tolerate it because this is the cost of being a nonwhite female founder," she explained. She and others also recounted experiences similar to those described by female engineers at Uber: Complaints to the VCs' employers did them no good at all.

Faced with the stories in The Information and the Times, Caldbeck denied the charges, claiming he always treated women with respect. Meanwhile, his company responded dismissively that the accusations were: "a few examples which show that Justin has in the past occasionally dated or flirted with women he met in a professional capacity." Not only that, Caldbeck apparently reached out to at least one female founder he'd harassed two years earlier with an unexpected offer of funding (that she wasn't even looking for) in what seems like a clear attempt to buy her silence.

But the post-Uber Silicon Valley is a whole new place. Soon, Caldbeck dramatically changed his story. "The past 24 hours have been the darkest of my life," he wrote. "I have made many mistakes over the course of my career, some of which were brought to light this week. To say I'm sorry about my behavior is a categorical understatement..."


That was less bad, but not good enough. The company accepted Caldbeck's resignation. Matt Mazzeo, a seasoned VC who, with Caldbeck and co-founder Jonathan Teo became Binary's third partner in April, also abandoned ship. A source close to Mazzeo told Axios that he left out of concern over the allegations and because "past public statements made by the firm were not approved by him or crafted with his counsel." Earlier today Teo also resigned from Binary. With all three partners gone, the firm's future seems highly uncertain.

I'm going to pause here and marvel over the fact that in "brogrammer" Silicon Valley, being demeaning to women has so far brought down at least three bigwigs. One reason it did is a surprising one: Entrepreneurs funded by Binary banded together in protest. Their protest had teeth: A number of them announced their intention to return the investments Binary gave them, buying back their shares and severing all ties with the company. Their unity is one reason Teo resigned. (It obviously would have been impossible to make that threat with later-stage funding which arrives in bigger amounts than most founders could ever pay back unless they're acquired or launch an IPO.)

The scandal spreads
The three Binary partners are not the only VCs uncomfortably in the spotlight over harassment. Shark Tank Shark--and early Uber investor--Chris Sacca was one of the investors the women entrepreneurs named as a harasser, with one entrepreneur saying he touched her face uninvited and that it made her uncomfortable. Sacca announced his plans to retire back in April, but he also took to Medium yesterday with a lengthy apology.

And then there's Dave McClure, almost as big a deal in Silicon Valley as Kalanick was before his downfall. McClure founded early stage VC 500 Startups. One woman entrepreneur who applied for a job at the company told the Times that McClure had sent her a Facebook message saying he was "figuring out whether to hire you or hit on you." When she reported the message to another 500 Startups exec, the firm lost interest in hiring her. 500 Startups told the Times that McClure was no longer in charge of day-to-day operations because of these disclosures, and that he was receiving counseling.

This last item seems to bring things full circle, because back in July 2012, McClure publicly challenged women who were upset at the funding imbalance between men and women founders to do something about it by providing funds to female startups themselves. He wrote:

Forgive me if i'm getting a little tired of people telling me: 1) Why I need to put more women speakers on panels at conferences (we're trying), 2) How women are still at a disadvantage in tech (yeah, i know), or 3) What MEN should be doing to help WOMEN in tech (sure they could do more, but frankly it's your problem not theirs).

What he failed to recognize in his claim that women are at least partly to blame for our own non-presence in Silicon Valley is the general discrimination and demeaning behavior that women who do stick it out there have to live with daily. Today's events prove one thing. Whatever McClure may think, that's everyone's problem, not just women's.

(Source: INC.)

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