Speaking up about sexual harassment is hard. But we must start a new chapter.

Disclaimer: Like with everything else on my blog, these opinions are solely mine and are not representative of my employer. 

Like everyone else in the startup world, I read this story about Justin Caldbeck with both curiosity and disgust when it went viral on Thursday. Since then, many VCs, startup founders, and reporters have called his behavior appalling. And make no mistake, his behavior is extremely appalling and inappropriate.

At the same time, this story was not at all surprising to me. In fact, I’d heard about Justin’s reputation over six years ago through the founder grapevine — when I, myself, was a founder. While I didn’t know at the time whom he made inappropriate advances towards, I did hear from other female founders to be careful. Founders do talk; you hear about which investors have a bad reputation for inappropriate behavior. In other words: there have been a non-zero number of people who have known about Justin’s behavior and have not called this out for several years.

Victims and bystanders have a difficult time coming forward to report cases of sexual harassment because there are often limited penalties for the harasser. Given the track record of the tech and startup world so far, victims have reason to believe that nothing will be done about such behavior and that they only have everything to lose by reporting it. In many cases, victims risk societal repercussions, including lack of support from their colleagues who don’t want or care to involve themselves, being told they are exaggerating, that this is normal, and to stop complaining. Worse yet, victims have to put their sense of safety and future employability on the line, especially if their names end up being smeared publicly. Even HR departments that are charted with the responsibility of helping victims may have conflicts of interest and may not actually be helpful. For all these reasons and more, all too often, sexual harassment cases go unreported, and this becomes accepted as par for the course. When this cycle happens over and over again, it can be hard to see just how disturbing and messed up this is. So huge props to Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, Leiti Hsu, and others for their courage in coming forward to publicly report what happened to them, in spite of challenges by Caldbeck himself. Their actions help us as a community right our moral compass.

Their bravery has also paved the way for more stories like this to come out of the woodwork. My friend and freshman dormmate who was previously an entrepreneur recently posted to Facebook publicly about specific advances a couple of other VCs had made on her about a decade ago when she was fundraising for her company. I respect the courage it took for her to come forward with something so personal and specific. There need to be real consequences for sexual harassment, and that only starts when victims are able to come forward with their stories.

We have a real and undeniable problem here in Silicon Valley with sexual harassment. While the perpetrators themselves are to blame, the truth is, the rest of us are also part of the problem — myself included.

A few of my friends have been victims of sexual harassment. While I’ve been empathetic, I’ve never really pushed any of them hard to come forward with their stories. Knowing that reporting sexual harassment is fraught with so many difficulties for victims (as mentioned above), I’ve largely been a useless bystander, believing that victims should really just decide on their own whether they want to take personal risk in reporting their cases. A few weeks ago, one of my friends who was a victim of sexual harassment told me that it was very difficult to come forward with her story on her own. Although she eventually reported what happened to her, she said that she wished I had been more proactive in encouraging her to come forward.  The unconditional support of friends, colleagues, and managers is so clutch in helping sexual harassment victims find courage to come forward.

And she’s right. It isn’t enough for us to be empathetic and passive. It isn’t enough for all of us to go on Twitter and say, “I won’t behave like this.” I encourage you all to also commit to proactively helping and pushing victims to come forward. In particular, people who are in positions of power — especially managers and investors — are in even more of a position to be able to help, even if they are not the victim’s direct manager or investor. It could mean taking Reid Hoffman’s “Decency Pledge.” It could mean committing to particular actions that you’ll do the next time you hear about sexual harassment in your line of work.

As I challenge all of you to think about what you can concretely do, here’s what I can concretely do to help eliminate sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in the startup world:

  • For the founders I back and have backed, if other investors have acted inappropriately towards you, I want to know.  We investors should not do business with bad apples, and I will address this issue head-on with them.
  • For employees of portfolio companies I have backed, if there is sexual harassment at your workplace that is not being addressed, I want to know about it.  I will push the founders to cultivate a safe and professional work environment. If it’s the founders themselves who are acting inappropriately, I will push them to resign and/or make things right.
  • For the teams that I manage and have managed, if someone at the company has acted inappropriately towards you, I will be your champion to help you come forward and push to make things right.

We need to stop turning a blind eye to stories about sexual harassment and unprofessional behavior. If we hear murmurings or rumors of sexual harassment, we need to follow the trail to get to the bottom of it. We need to come together to make our workplaces safe and inclusive environments. And we need to start that new chapter today.

Feel free to discuss in the comments below.

Special thanks to Min Li Chan and Eric Bahn for reading drafts of this post and providing feedback.  

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