Entrepreneur Sarah Nadav was talking to a potential investor at drinks at a major tech conference, when he leaned over and stuck his tongue into her mouth.
“I was like, what the hell? I’m a fucking CEO! What are you doing?”
She pushed him off, but he tried again – this time more aggressively. Nadav ran away and that weekend made the decision to close down her startup and take a year off to “try to get physically and mentally back into shape”.
Nadav, now the CEO of Civilize, is one of numerous female entrepreneurs to come forward to talk about their experiences of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. In the last week, the public testimonies of dozens of women has triggered a huge backlash and the resignation of at least two venture capitalists.
Some of the accused have fallen on their swords, with apologetic blog posts entitled “I’m a creep – I’m sorry” and “I have more work to do”. Although critics were quick to argue these were about PR damage control more than meaningful accountability.
It began when numerous women accused prominent venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck of sexual harassment, prompting the Binary Capital co-founder to step down. He was shortly followed by Dave McClure, who left his company 500 Startups after he it was revealed he sent a Facebook message to a potential employee saying “I didn’t know whether to hire you or hit on you”.
All this comes four months after engineer Susan Fowler’s viral account of facing unwanted sexual advances and discrimination at Uber sparked international outrage and led to intense scrutiny of the frat-house culture across the male-dominated industry. Women have since come forward with claims of mistreatment by numerous high-profile players, including Tesla.
“There have been a lot of women speaking out over the years,” said Leigh Honeywell, a Silicon Valley engineer who publicly accused a prominent digital privacy researcher of sexual abuse. “What is somewhat new is the consequences and the level of power of the people being held to account.”
Around 90% of startups fail. A critical ingredient to their success – at least in the short term – is attracting enough money from the right venture capital firm or angel investor. In addition, this elite group of moneymen (and they are disproportionately men) can add a stamp of approval to a fledgling business that in turn helps to attract more investment and publicity. Silicon Valley treats these investors like demigods, in front of whom founders must parade themselves in order to stay afloat.
“The power dynamics are ridiculous,” said Nadav, who spends her time between Israel and the US. “The men involved are so entitled. They’ve got wealth, they’ve often got charisma. It’s not just women kissing their ass, everyone is kissing their ass.”
This power imbalance means that bad behavior often goes unpunished, particularly since there’s no codified professional framework to protect founders when they are interacting with investors: there’s no employment contract, no human resources department, and no sanctions for those who abuse their positions of power.
“In many ways these guys are invincible,” said employment attorney Kelly Armstrong. “They are so successful, so accomplished and so revered that most women will not come forward for fear of damaging their career permanently. It’s a very small world.”
Among the factors setting the table for misbehavior is the tendency to mix business and whatever pleasure can be derived from drinking alcohol and snacking on crudites in a hotel bar.
“Most deals are done in a very social setting,” said Fei Deyle, whose startup Lollipuff was selected by the prestigious startup incubator Y Combinator. The three-month program culminates in a Demo Day where founders pitch their companies to Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists.
At Deyle’s Demo Day, she recalled a group of investors listening to her pitch, then steering her toward an angel investor who was “completely drunk” and promptly commented on her appearance. “I guess they thought it would be pretty funny,” she said. “Looking back, it was kind of dirty.”
Lauren Kay, whose startup Dating Ring was also part of Y Combinator, said that she thought the bar-like atmosphere of Demo Day was a “terrible setup and really rife for that kind of behavior”. Kay’s co-founder, Emma Tessler, was groped by a man offering up a $50,000 investment at the event, an experience she wrote about later: “For those of you playing along at home, that’s a man in a position of power, wielding his power by offering me money, and touching my breast.”
Stories like this are rife. After the Dating Ring founders turned down the money from the groper, Kay said they struggled to raise money from investors who seemed more interest in getting a date than an equity stake in a dating company.
“There was one odd investor who kept circling back, calling us ‘beautiful,’ promising that he would invest and not doing it; investors who tried to arrange night meetings; investors who arranged meetings and then treated them like dates,” Kay recalled. “It’s not like you’re in a professional workplace. There are no rules. If you speak openly about an investor, you can be sure to be blacklisted.”
For some, the recent naming and shaming marks a tipping point for Silicon Valley.
Cheryl Sew Yeoh, who accused Dave McClure of sexual assault, said the increased awareness will make others “think twice about making a move”.
“Women are in the no-fucks-left-to-give stage,” added Nadav. “When you lose your fear and sense of shame you gain a lot of power. I hope it will instil fear in men who thought they could get away with it.”
Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, said that he has noticed a shift in the way that men in the industry are reacting to the public debate. In 2014, he wrote a blog post about sexism and diversity. “I got a bunch of guys who were saying to me, ‘It’s not a real problem’,” he said. Now, some of those same men are coming around.
Jennifer Schwartz, an attorney who has represented tech workers in discrimination cases, said she wasn’t convinced that Silicon Valley’s poisonous mentality of ruthless competition will change: “The culture in the tech industry is so hugely focused on this no-holds-barred, money rules the day. All else takes a backseat to people’s drive to create the next best thing, to have the next best idea.”
If proof were needed, one investor ended the week with a blog in defense of David McClure. It read: “That is what MEN do … We pursue women and women dress to be pursued, wear perfume to be pursued, and in Silicon Valley there are MANY WOMEN who dress to be pursued.”