Why We Must Have Zero Tolerance for Sexual Misconduct in Venture Capital

12-07 13:48

Time Magazine published its “person of the year” edition today and honored “the silence breakers” for speaking up and forcing our society to confront its position towards men in power exploiting their power for sexual gain. Real change is clearly needed.

These brave women who have taken on personal risks and faced doubters to change the culture globally to stop sexual misconduct, harassment & gender bias deserve the recognition x1000 along with the many other women who have spoken up.

As I talked with my wife about it she tells me, “The problem is that every woman has had some bad experience in their lives or careers but it’s risky to speak up for fear of retribution or being labeled ‘a complainer.’” She sent me this very powerful article that talks about how men have viewed the #MeToo movement and I found this instructional.

Men must speak up, too. We must create space for women to have their voices be heard and respected and believed.

I titled this post “We Must Have Zero Tolerance in Venture Capital” but of course I could just say “zero tolerance anywhere” because that’s true. As a VC let me specifically just speak out for our industry.

As VCs we find ourselves in power relationships in nearly every interaction we have, which means we need a much higher standard of accountability for our actions. There are things that are never appropriate, like physically forcing yourself on another human who doesn’t want to be touched or groped. When you’re in a power situation you have to be extra conscious not to use your power in ways that are exploitative but where you feel you might be able to get away with it.

An absurd version of this is the comedian Louis C.K. who thought it was ok to pull out his junk and masturbate in front of women because he “asked permission.” We feel conflicted when hear about these actions by people that we had admired (like Louis C.K or Charlie Rose) and then later find out that he they were bad people. This is what Sarah Silverman wondered out loud when she said, “ Can You Love Someone Who Did Bad Things ?’.

I think the answer is yes. You can love them and want rehabilitation and perhaps one day redemption but when a person has exploited a position of power they don’t deserve our sympathy above that of the victims and they don’t deserve a free pass back into power. Victims must always deserve more respect than a flawed human being in search of redemption.

And of course this is how I have felt about Dave McClure because despite the fact that I love the guy and respect all the great things he actually did do for women or minorities I cannot allow myself to place his needs above those whom he exploited. I got in a little bit of trouble for publicly thanking Dave for apologizing authentically rather than attacking victims as many others have. I later realized that when you stand up for an apologizer you diminish a victim. These are lessons we are learning in real time. It’s hard for all of us to figure out our own morality lines, which is why I think so many people are struggling with how and when to speak up, what to say and when to forgive.

Men in a position may find that somebody much younger or with less power or in need of your money or connections is willing to go along with a request that makes them uncomfortable but for which they feel powerless to turn down. An obvious example would be inviting a woman to your hotel room under pretenses that “it’s only to work” and then having that woman be in an uncomfortable situation where they fear for their safety.

In our industry this has happened much more frequently than perhaps we would care to admit. Please read the image below that comes from the testimony of Trae Vassalo (then a VC at Kleiner Perkins) about the actions of her male counterpart Ajit Nazre

This is the kind of shit that women have to put up with from exploitative men in power. Because so many men like me are never present when these indiscretions happen, we can literally be blind to it. It’s not that I thought every man was a saint but I was incredulous that a professional man in the VC industry could act this way. I was wrong. I am grateful to the many women who have spoken up and made me realize the kinds of actions they’ve had to deal with their entire lives. And it has to stop. Literally — zero fucking tolerance for this kind of behavior.

It is not ok to be a comedian and grope women who ask for photos with you as it appears Al Franken had done. The fact that I agree with Al Franken’s politics is irrelevant. This isn’t about politics — it’s about protecting and respecting women.

Which brings me to the story if this week — Shervin Pishevar. I have known Shervin, liked him and respected his big bets as a VC like Uber and Hyperloop. This past week he was accused of having made sexual advances on 6 women in a well-researched article published by Bloomberg’s Emily Chang . Shervin is apparently threatening lawsuits for defamation and claiming it’s the equivalent of a “right wing conspiracy.”

Here’s the thing — I know the journalist Emily Chang and trust her reporting. She is thoughtful and thorough and would never chase headlines without evidence. She apparently worked on the story for months and had 6 sources for her article and she says that several were willing to go “on the record” until they heard about lawsuits for which they asked to have their names removed. Having no names of accusers makes it harder for the rest of us to weigh in; however, I trust the veracity of Emily’s reporting and I therefore BELIEVE the accusers. And having no names of accusers is precisely what abusers of power want and why they wield legal threats to obtain silence.

I have also met the young woman in the story, Austin Geidt, from Uber. She is not quoted in the story but third-party sources have validated that she received unwelcome advances from Shervin. And unless I hear a denial from Austin I must say that I BELIEVE her, too.

What are we to do? So many of us are freaked out about how and when to speak up lest we get something wrong. Of course we want to make sure there’s enough evidence lest we are guilty of a mob-like response. Of course a single accusation can’t be enough to publicly incriminate somebody.

But when there’s a pattern of behavior profiled across many women and researched by a trusted journalist who has examined evidence, we must speak up and make sure this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated no matter how powerful somebody is and no matter how many people they threaten and try to silence.

In hindsight, many of us in VC and tech are saying, “How did so many people in Hollywood know about Harvey Weinstein and not say anything?” Yet when it’s in tech or VC we seem much slower to speak up. It’s much easier for us to sound acrimonious when it’s not our own industry.

In VC we must have zero tolerance for our peers who are pervs. As men you must call out bad behavior when you see it or know about it. We can’t let women alone have to deal with the consequence of the bad behavior of a minority of men in our industry. In an industry with only 7% of partners at VC funds being women — it literally must fall on us to speak up.

I know many of you won’t feel the safety to write this publicly yourself but I know many, many men have voiced a similar opinion to this blog post to me privately. So if you’re one of the men (or women) who want to put an end to the kinds of behaviors we hear reported about Shervin Pishevar, Justin Caldbeck, Dave McClure and other men — please at least Retweet this article in support. Sharing alone is better than complete silence.

And complete silence on this topic is what many of my female friends in the industry are telling me has been so hurtful about this past week. I first saw it from fellow VC Ashley Mayer. I felt it was brave of her to speak up and wondered how and when I should speak up, too.

I traded many messages with Sarah Kunst on this topic. I told her that had initially wanted to wait to see more names revealed even though I of course believed Emily Chang’s reporting. She encouraged me to speak up now. She said that the silence was deafening and once voices come forward others often follow.

Sarah Lacy has been early and vocal on female empowerment and calling out bro culture behavior. Rose McGowan risked her career. And Susan Fowler literally changed my mind about the culture at Uber and the need for change. If others risked careers by not staying silent — the least I could do was use my position of privilege to try and offer some air cover for others who feel the same as I do about all of this. I figured I could and should speak up, too.

So when people like Justin Caldbeck try to teach at Duke University on the ‘bro culture’ only 6 months after sexually harassing and assaulting women- we must say, NFW.

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