Uber's harassment scandal explosion last week has led to something unprecedented: it doesn’t happen often in Silicon Valley that an investor stands up to their portfolio company, the most valued startup unicorn in the U.S., which they funded at the very early stage back in 2010! Freada and Mitch Kapor publicly rebuked Uber shortly after its former employee Susan Fowler described in a blog how she was sexually harassed by her manager, and Uber’s human resources and upper management refused to punish the offender. The Kapors are the only investors to have publicly commented on this allegation against Uber, and I applaud them for standing out.
Toxic culture, discrimination and sexual harassment at startups are, unfortunately common in the tech world, but it’s the darlings of the industry that take all the heat: little do we know how many of such companies are there. Who can keep them accountable?
Venture capitalists could be a strong anti-sexual harassment force, if only, several of them were not already blamed for inappropriate behaviour. I keep pointing out that a woman can be approached in a harassing way by a man of any occupation, and no matter whether it’s a cab driver or a VC, women need to know how to react properly. Yes, it sounds like I’m defending men, which I do, because such professional misconduct among VCs also affects the image of those who work honestly at their métier*. How can we change that and stop offenders from using their power for the wrongdoing? We need their equally powerful peers who find such behavior unacceptable to start calling them on it. Publicly. Because sexual harassment in tech is already at the level where we all are rightly judged by our action or inaction.
This is proof enough that we need more women in venture capital, because they haven’t been compromised by their fellows’ misbehavior. It was a woman VC, Freada Kapor, who stood up to Uber (and her husband supported this move). Here is another woman VC who took a stand against a male investor at one of the prominent venture capital firms making sexual advances on a female entrepreneur. Watch my interview with brilliant Jillian Manus, a Partner of Structure Capital who put herself on the line and took the wind out of her fellow investor’s sails.
Early in my career, my then-favorite boss taught me that a great leader always ought to stand by the teammate’s side in conflicts with customers. No matter what consequences will follow behind the closed doors, the team should never be blamed in public. Strong business ethics dictates to follow this approach not only to bosses towards their employees, but it also makes a lot of sense in professional relationship between the peers, as well as can be applied to investors and their portfolio companies. It’s later that I learned with experience that great leaders also drive positive change, and if the neglecters don’t follow it, they put at risk the leader, the rest of the team, the company, and sometimes even affect the image of the whole profession or industry. We have kept the sexual harassment issues behind the closed door way too long! It’s time for leaders to bring the change.
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*This is an example of the right move from the law industry leaders: a group of 15 law professors nationwide has reportedly filed a professional misconduct complaint against White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, saying she "brings shame upon the legal profession." Read more.