With yet another sexual harassment scandal, tech finally confronts its dirty little secret
A string of sexual harassment allegations late last week led to venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck first taking a leave of absence and then, over the weekend, resigning outright. On the back of what just happened at Uber Technologies Inc., it’s a sign that the tech industry may at long last be waking up to the reality that its culture can be toxic for women.
Caldbeck, who had previously worked at Bain Capital Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, went on to form Binary Capital in 2014. Reports have now surfaced stating that several female colleagues and other women who had worked with Caldbeck had been sexually harassed by him at some point during his career.
“I’m one of the 3 women who went on the record to expose Justin’s sexual harassment,” Niniane Wang, founder and chief executive of Evertoon, wrote on Medium. “I’ve been trying to expose Justin for 7 years,” wrote Niniane. “He kept threatening reporters, and it was incredibly difficult to get this article out.”
Susan Ho and Leiti Hsu, co-founders of travel planning company Journy, also went on the record to expose the actions of Caldbeck. Off the record, three other female founders described to Axios how they had been sexually harassed by Caldbeck going back to when he was starting out with Bain Capital.
“I’m there trying to get an investment from Bain, and he’s literally telling me we should finish the conversation in his hotel room,” said the woman, who had requested anonymity. “He knew I had a boyfriend, but apparently that meant more to me than it meant to him. This wasn’t just casual flirting, which would have been bad enough.”
In response to the allegations, which initially produced a widely panned response from the VC firm, Caldbeck issued an apology, also panned, expressing that he was “deeply disturbed” at what he had been accused of, though he added that “context is missing” from the reported incidents. He went on to say, “There’s no denying this is an issue in the venture community, and I hate that my behavior has contributed to it.”
Such harassment seems to pervade the tech industry at many levels, and perhaps the Uber investigation and subsequent actions against the perpetrators signals the beginning of the end for what’s sometimes called a “bro culture.” Longtime entrepreneur and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman called for a “decency pledge,” noting that “VCs should understand that they have the same moral position to the entrepreneurs they interact with that a manager has to an employee, or a college professor to a student.”
Hoffman wrote that bad behavior should be reported and entrepreneurs should not consider working with the accused. “This behavior occurs in our industry not just because some believe it’s no big deal,” wrote Hoffman, “but also because those who do find it unacceptable don’t do enough to actively discourage it.”
According to Axios, Caldbeck is currently seeking professional counseling, while Binary has stepped away from another round of fundraising in light of the allegations.
Still, the rush by many in the tech industry to call for new behavior is hardly going to change everything overnight, if ever. After all, it’s common knowledge that this has been going on for many a year. Indeed, a 2015 survey called “Elephant in the Valley” that documented such problems for women was widely publicized in January of last year.
But survey co-author Trae Vassallo, co-founder and managing director of Defy Partners and a former general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — which former partner Ellen Pao sued for gender discrimination (and lost) — wrote in Medium Saturday that Silicon Valley might be making an “overdue cultural pivot.”
Uber’s issues and the Caldbeck mess, she said, together are “the sign of what I hope is a transforming social conscience. Behaviors that previously were swept under the rug in favor of profits and returns are now being called out by incredibly brave people.”
But she said progress will depend on more than words. “Taking real action means taking real steps,” she wrote. “It means not hiring a known harasser, it means not investing in a known harasser, and it means not collaborating with a known harasser. … We need our CEOs, board members and investors to hold our leaders accountable.”
Image: Sunghwan Yoon via Flickr
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