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.  

Today we go back to work

I haven’t really been into politics since college. Yesterday, I cast a vote for the first time in 8+ years, and today, I’m disappointed in our country.  It isn’t right to have a president who has:

  1. Screwed over numerous business partners, customers, and employees and workers
  2. Made countless racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic comments including (but not limited to) calling Mexicans rapists, and would like to ban people of a particular religion from immigrating to the United States
  3. Bragged about committing sexual assault and has been accused by multiple women of committing sexual assault

I have deep faith in our country.  The US, like most of the West, has enjoyed, for centuries, a legal infrastructure that is the foundation of our businesses and industries.  This is what has allowed entrepreneurship to thrive in this country.  Contrary to what many say, our recent election doesn’t alter America’s long-term prospects, but in the near term, we are in trouble.

Regardless of your politics, Donald Trump’s ethical and moral deficiencies are concerning and disappointing.  My fear is that this country will devolve, that this country will somehow see Donald Trump as a role model and think that it is OK to screw over people, to be divisive, and to sexually assault others.

It’s also days like these when we rise up as Americans and remember why we do what we do.  No matter what is happening in the public sector right now, today we go back to work.  As a bi-product of our work, we will continue to combat these things.

Today, we go back to work to continue building, investing, and coaching technology companies that change our lives and society for the better.  We go back to work to continue to level the playing field for all entrepreneurs, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or pedigree, in order to not only build a better society but to bring about progress and technology for all people and not just a select few.  We continue to be more inclusive rather than divisive and judge business ideas, business partners, employees and contractors on their competence and character rather than on what they look like or where they’re from or whom they love.

Today, we go back to work to continue to chip away at the bizarre power dynamics that may often exist in industries, such as in tech and investing — to abolish sexual assault, sexual harassment, and even just pattern matching by what people look like and not on the basis of character, grit, and results.  It makes me angry that I’ve heard too many cases in this industry this year alone, and yet, few will talk about it openly.  We need to be more vocal about this to move our society forward rather than sweeping issues like these under the rug.

We have a lot of work to do; let’s continue to make progress.

 

Cover photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

You’re thinking about startup work-life balance all wrong

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Most people (including many of my friends, peers, investors) think startup work-life balance is about time – like it’s an 8 hour day or something.  But they are ALL wrong.  Let me digress and come back.

I loved my teenage years.  But, when I describe them to other people, most people think they sounded horrible.  Why?  Because I did homework all the time.  I didn’t go to parties.  I didn’t hang out with friends outside of school.  I didn’t watch TV or movies (I think The X-Files was popular sometime in those years, but to this day, I still don’t know whether Mulder/Sculley was the guy or the chick.)  I spent most Friday nights doing math.  And I programmed for fun.  My parents aren’t Tiger parents.  I just loved it.  That WAS BALANCE to me.  Would I have wanted to take 4 more AP classes?  Hell no.  I would’ve broken down.  Would I wanted to have gone to parties.  Absolutely not – I wouldn’t have had time to work on our robots.  Spending that rough amount of time compartmentalized in that way was right for me.  It made me happy. Things progressed and went well on all fronts.  But, this kind of schedule wouldn’t have been right for other people.  I know lots of people who had this kind of schedule growing up and hated it.  That’s too bad.  Looking back, it was clearly wrong for them.  Conversely, I have other friends who spent way more time studying and on their geeky hobbies than I did and equally loved their time.  I wouldn’t have been able to have had their schedules, but it was the right balance for them.

So, going back to the startup work-life balance issue.  On one hand, you have this article which talks about Elon Musk taking one vacation in the past four years – as if that’s an unbalanced bad thing.  Frankly, it sounds to me like he doesn’t need vacation very often.  That IS BALANCE to him!  On the other hand, Ryan Carson often describes his 4-day week, and that’s balance to him.  Both Musk and Carson are manning fast-moving ships. Balance isn’t something you can quantify as a set amount of time.

Some people work more quickly than others.  Some people think more quickly than others.  Let me dive into something concrete.  People in our industry seem to applaud all-nighters.  Every time you pull an all-nighter, it could be that you don’t need much sleep, and that your optimal achievement-level is on very little sleep.  But, it could also mean that you’re just a lot dumber and less efficient than your peers who could do the same thing without pulling an all-nighter.  I’ve certainly pulled lots of all-nighters at LaunchBit that made me feel super slow the next day.  Clearly, that’s not my optimal point on a regular basis.  We need to think about what schedule is optimal for each of us on an individual level.

So let’s STOP talking about work-life balance in terms of 8-hour days or some other arbitrary fixed amount of time.  Let’s START talking about how we can all find more productivity on an individual level while keeping the ship moving quickly, having fun, and without breaking ourselves.

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