What a year (life?) it’s been for white women, people of color and nonbinary people in tech.
First, engineer Susan Fowler came forward about her time at Uber, where she says the company ignored her numerous reports of sexual harassment. Then, three female founders, Niniane Wang, Susan Ho and Leiti Hsu, came forward about their experiences of sexual harassment and unwanted advances with Justin Caldbeck, co-founder of Binary Capital. And just on Friday, the New York Times broke the internet with allegations that 500 Startups founder Dave McClure and VC Chris Sacca had also engaged in some sexual misconduct.
Until Uber’s now-former CEO Travis Kalanick resigned, it seemed as if there were no consequences for fostering work environments where sexual harassment was rampant. With Caldbeck and Binary Capital co-founder Jonathan Teo’s resignations, followed by McClure no longer being involved in the day-to-day operations at 500 Startups, it seems that the industry may be getting to a point where it is taking a strong position against sexism and harassment. Sacca, perhaps preemptively, announced he was retiring from the VC world back in April.
In light of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct coming to light, Caldbeck, McClure and Sacca have all issued their respective apologies. Apologies are nice, but they’re just words. Words don’t change what happened. Words don’t change the trauma one’s actions inflicted on the person you harassed.
They’re especially just words when it appears the only reason you wrote your apology was because you knew the NYT was about to blow up your life (Sacca has since updated his post to comment on the timing of his apology). It appears that Sacca, McClure and Caldbeck are not necessarily sorry for their behavior and their actions, but sorry they got caught.
“I saw some of you confused by the timing of my original post,” Sacca wrote in an update. “I struggled with it too. In the end, it felt as if there would never be any good time since the subject matter is so charged at the moment. So, I decided to simply post it when I finished writing rather than saving it as a tactical response to an allegation. Overall, this is not just a one-time exercise. It’s a living outline of work that is going to take years and your feedback will continually shape it.”
But their resignations and apologies are just the beginning. More stories will come out and more stories, unfortunately, are probably forming right now. Moving forward, companies and VC firms need to take clearer stances around these issues. They also need to ensure that individual employees know how to be allies to marginalized people, and speak up if they see something that shouldn’t be happening.
Let’s try decency
LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock Partners VC Reid Hoffman suggested a decency pledge of sorts — something that VC firms can adopt to ensure their respective partners abide by the standards of human decency.
“If anyone sees a venture capitalist behaving differently from this standard, they should disclose this information to their colleagues as appropriate – just as one would if one saw a manager interacting inappropriately with an employee, or a college professor with a student,” Hoffman wrote.
We know that some VC firms are actively working on decency pledges and policies, but what if we took it another step forward to include limited partners in this discussion. LPs, the ones who fund these venture capital firms, could implement more stringent policies and do a better job of due diligence before deciding to back one VC firm over another. LPs have a lot of power to hold VCs accountable, and it’s worth including them in this conversation.
Allyship and training for VCs could also be helpful. As Square diversity and inclusion lead Alicia Burt told me last month, the goal with ally training is to “give people the tools and the language to use in order to educate one another to be an ally, so we’re not always depending on the woman in the room or the marginalized person in the room to be able to defend themselves, because it’s exhausting.”
Ally training, of course, is not going to end sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, but it can help distribute responsibility and to rid the industry of problematic people. That way, if a partner witnesses something, they would theoretically have the tools to either stop what’s going on or at least report it to the right person in the firm.
It’s in this climate that Y Combinator last week hosted its annual Female Founders Conference, where women in tech converged to discuss being entrepreneurs, as well as how gender dynamics can make it difficult to focus on building and growing a business.
YC co-founding partner Jessica Livingston kicked off her opening remarks by thanking “the women who’ve recently come forward, so bravely, on the record, to speak out about the sexual harassment they’ve faced,” she said, which was followed by a roaring applause.
“They’re my heroes,” Livingston went on to say. “Hopefully their actions will cause more women to speak up and help to end the discrimination and harassment that we as women have faced working in the startup community.”
But Livingston herself, wasn’t always vocal publicly. It took a bit of a nudging to get her to own her voice and her role as a prominent player in the tech industry, YC Partner Kat Manalac said at a small roundtable discussion ahead of the conference.
When Manalac first started at YC, “[Livingston] didn’t like talking to the press and all this stuff, and we kind of pushed her. I was like, ‘You run so much of this organization and you’re so smart and you’ve seen thousands of startups go through.’ And it would always just kill me when I’d read a story about YC and it’d be like, ‘Paul Graham’s wife Jessica.’ And I would be like, ‘Ugh,’” she said while pretending to stab herself in the gut.
Some progress seems to have been made in that area, but there is still a bevy of issues that plague women in tech. Sexual harassment, of course, is top of mind for a lot people right now. In our discussion, which included a handful of female founders and press, Shippo founder Laura Behrens-Wu theorized that early-stage founders may be at greater risk of harassment than post-seed round founders.
“I think post-seed round, it’s less likely to get sexually harassed because then you’ve already built your network in Silicon Valley,” Behrens-Wu said. “I think predators go after people that are new to the Valley and don’t have a network yet, that don’t have people to confide in or to complain to or help them stand up for them.”
It’s about the people who are just getting started in tech, she added — that they may be most at risk of being sexually harassed because they don’t have the network to back them up.
“What makes me sad there is that when people are just trying to get started that they’re getting turned away or scared away before they even have the opportunity to start building a product,” Behrens-Wu said.
A Silicon Valley blacklist
In an attempt to circumvent this sort of situation for female founders at YC, the accelerator has an investor blacklist.
“Investors know that if we’ve heard from any founders that they’ve behaved badly, they are out of the network,” Manalac said. “We will never invite them [to a demo day].”
A couple of months after Fowler’s experience came to light, YC put out a survey to female founders, letting them submit anonymously about any negative experiences with investors.
“We only got one or two submissions on that form,” Manalac said. “A couple of days ago, after the Binary Capital stuff came out, a male founder reached out to me,” asking what he could do to help. He went on to say that he’s heard terrible stories from female founders he knows, but that they’re not willing to report it to anyone or speak out about it, Manalac said.
That’s when YC opened the form to all founders, regardless of gender, to report any stories about investors in the YC community.
“We are now seeing a few more come in,” Manalac said. “It shouldn’t be the job of just women” to report these types of behaviors and experiences, she added.
“Maybe it’s on their co-founder who saw it or heard their experience,” she said. “We’re still figuring out what is the best way to kind of deal with the inputs that we’re going to get. And for clear cases, you’ll never be invited to another demo day. You’re blacklisted.”
What if we took that a step further, though, and came up with a Silicon Valley blacklist? The types of people who exhibit these problematic behaviors should not only be banned from demo days, but from working in the tech industry. There needs to be major consequences for people who sexually harass others, exhibit racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia and other forms of discrimination.
In the meantime, like Livingston said at YC’s female founders conference, I hope that people continue to come forward about their experiences in tech. YC isn’t the only firm with this kind of list, nor will it be the last — over the past week we’ve heard from several firms and investors that are interested in creating some sort of shared repository of badly behaved VCs. An effort to make sure that their founders have some sort of early warning system.
So far, this hypothetical Silicon Valley blacklist would include:
- Justin Caldbeck
- Chris Sacca
- Dave McClure
- Marc Canter
- A lot of people at Uber
- You tell me.
Megan Rose Dickey can be reached securely on Signal at 415-419-9355, and their PGP fingerprint for email is: 2FA7 6E54 4652 781A B365 BE2E FBD7 9C5F 3DAE 56BD