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The Reality Of Sexual Harassment In Silicon Valley (And What To Do About It)

Business

I wanted to address some of the disturbing news that broke recently about sexual harassment of women raising capital in Silicon Valley.


Sexual Harassment Again? Really?

Men treating women in professional settings in ways that violate basic rules of decent behavior that any college freshman would understand is nothing new. Unfortunately, this type of thing happens all the time in every industry. But when stories surface from women entrepreneurs about inappropriate encounters with male VCs, it's just another wake-up call that we have so much more work to do before we can reach gender parity in the entrepreneurial world.

A brief recap: In late June, The Information, a tech news site, reported that six women called out Justin Caldbeck, co-founder of Binary Capital, for “unwanted and inappropriate advances.” These experiences happened when these women were raising money or looking for guidance as they started their own businesses.

Three of the six women went public. Susan Ho, co-founder of Journy, a travel agency for Millennials, said Caldbeck texted her in the middle of the night asking to meet up while in the process of discussing investing in her startup. Leiti Hsu, another Journy co-founder said the venture capitalist grabbed her thigh under a table at a bar. And Niniane Wang, co-creator of Google Desktop, allegedly said that Caldbeck attempted to sleep with her while informally recruiting her to work for his company.

These stories involving Caldbeck sparked a huge conversation on social media. Many women shared their stories with other publications like Techcrunch and Fortune, including Wethos founder Rachel Renock (one of the winners of the pitch competition at the Million Dollar Women Summit) who was featured in the New York Times coverage of this issue in Silicon Valley.

Caldbeck’s initial response was total denial of these allegations, but as the story spread, he issued an apology to the women who spoke up. A small victory, but also a reminder that there are still many more Caldbecks who will never deliver apologies in print and have already sabotaged hundreds of companies in early stages run by women.

As a huge advocate for women raising money, it’s disheartening to see that this kind of sexism and the inappropriate advances that I’ve heard about anecdotally for years is even more rampant than I thought. And it's important that the offenders feel on notice. I think we can check that box now.

Now What Can We Do?

Let me tell you my take on this. There have always been men like Caldbeck who are part of the problem, not the solution. I have met them in every phase of my career, but I also personally know plenty of "good guy" VCs who fully support women entrepreneurs and stand for more equitable treatment of women. Some of them are on my advisory council for Million Dollar Women and many more have funded thousands of women-run companies.

While the media is heavily focused on the offending VCs right now, I want to remind you that rapid change comes from building new networks that champion women entrepreneurs.

These new networks include the VC firms (even the all male ones) that have pristine gender track records and women-owned VC firms and women's angel groups. Let's find them, work with them, build successful businesses, bring other women with us and just let the moldy cherry tomatoes fall to the bottom of the crate.

Studies show that when minorities make up over 30% of the group they are integrating, discrimination problems tend to subside. We are far from that 30% today, but we will get there.

Today just 3% of women entrepreneurs make a million in revenues and only 4% of VC money goes to women entrepreneurs. That needs to change.

I’ve made it my mission to work on getting these two statistics to be relegated to history (remember when women couldn't vote or get a credit card or loan in their own name?) by supporting women entrepreneurs with everything I’ve got and building a thriving community so that we can succeed in greater and greater numbers, no matter how many tomatoes are in the box. We will see these 3% and 4% numbers soar in our lifetimes by building powerful networks that cross gender, race, age and industries.

How to Avoid Moldy Tomatoes

If you are a woman entrepreneur and have found yourself in a situation with a male VC you know seems over the line, stop working with them immediately no matter how much money is on the table (they don’t deserve to work with you and be a part of building your dream company!) and make sure to warn other entrepreneurs to avoid them as well. Always do your research, not just online but by asking other women who have raised. It's a small world when you are raising capital and there is pretty much nowhere to hide.

By connecting with other women entrepreneurs through communities like Million Dollar Women, SheWorx, NAWBO and Dreamers and Doers, we will be able to identify who to steer clear of and who to put at the top of your pitch list.

I believe the best way to keep moving the needle on the growth of women-run businesses is to focus all of our time and energy on the VCs and investors in this space who want to see women entrepreneurs succeed. What do you think? Come find me on Twitter @juliapimsleur or Facebook.

For additional fundraising resources, check out this free list of female-friendly angels, VCs and accelerators.

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Politics

Michael Bloomberg Can’t Handle A Woman With A Voice (aka Elizabeth Warren)

Elizabeth Warren majorly called out "arrogant billionaire" Michael Bloomberg for his history of silencing women through NDAs and closed-door settlement negotiations. Sound familiar? Probably because we already have a president like that. At this point, Bloomberg may just spend the remainder of his (hopefully) ill-fated presidential campaign roasting on a spit over a fire sparked by the righteous anger of women. A lesser punishment than he deserves, if you ask me.


At last night's Democratic debate, Michael Bloomberg could barely stammer out an answer to a question on whether or not he would release any of his former accusers from their nondisclosure agreements. His unsatisfactory response was basically a halting list of what he has done for certain nondescript women in his time at City Hall and within his own company.

But that certainly wasn't enough for Elizabeth Warren, nor should it be, who perfectly rephrased his defense as, "I've been nice to some women." Michael Bloomberg is basically that weird, problematic Uncle that claims he can't be racist, "Because I have a Black friend." In a society where power is almost always in the hands of straight, white, cisgendered, men being "nice" to a lucky few is in no way a defense for benefiting from and building upon the systematic silencing of all marginalized communities, let alone women. Stop and frisk, anybody?

Here is a brief clip of the Warren v. Bloomberg exchange, which I highly recommend. It is absolutely (and hilariously) savage.

But let's talk about the deeper issues at hand here (other than Warren being an eloquent badass).

Michael Bloomberg has been sued multiple times, yet each time he was able to snake his way out of the problem with the help of his greatest and only superpower: cold, hard cash. Each time these allegations have come up, in Warren's words, he throws "a chunk of money at the table" and "forces the woman to wear a muzzle for the rest of her life."

As reported by Claire Lampen of The Cut, here are just a few of his prior indiscretions.

  • Pregnancy discrimination—Bloomberg reportedly told a former employee of his to "kill it," in reference to her developing fetus.
  • Sexual harassment—You could literally write a book on this subject (someone did), but for the sake of brevity...
"I'd like to do that piece of meat" - Michael Bloomberg in reference to various women at his company.
  • Undermining #MeToo—Not only did he defend the accused, but he went on the disparage accusers every step of the way.
  • Defaming transgender people—Though he claims to support trans rights, he has also been qupted multiple times as referring to trans women as "some guy wearing a dress."
Yeah... That's not a winning formula for me, Mike.

Furthermore, Warren points out the simple fact that if, as Bloomberg claims, these instances were simply big misunderstandings (He was just joking around!) then why go to all the trouble to cover them up? Does Michael Bloomberg think women can't take a joke? Or can we only surmise that the truth of these events are far darker and dirtier than we could even imagine?

Certain commentators have called Elizabeth Warren's debate presence "agressive," especially in regards to this instance but also continually throughout her entire campaign. If asking poignant questions to known abusers who are seeking to further their own political power is considered "aggressive," then I am here for it. Bring on the aggressive women, please and thank you.

Calling a woman aggressive for being confidant and direct is a gendered complaint. You don't see anyone whining that Bernie is "aggressive" when he goes off on a screaming tangent. Also, have you seen our president? He's basically the poster boy for political temper tantrums. But still, it's Warren that is deemed "aggressive," for honing in on the exact issues that need to be considered in this upcoming election.

This type of derisory label is another aspect of how our society silences women—much like Bloomberg and his NDAs. Because "silencing" is more than just putting a "muzzle" on someone. It's refusing to listen to a person's cries for help. It's disregarding what a woman has to say, because she's too "aggressive." It's taking away someone's power by refusing to truly hear their side of the story. Because if you aren't listening, responding, or even just respecting someone's words, they may well have said nothing at all.

"Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard." - Renecca Solnit

Nondiscolusure agreements are a legal gag for people who have experienced harassment and abuse at the hands of those above them.

Gretchen Carlson, possibly the most famous person subject to an NDA, is one of these people. Her story is so well-known that it has even been immortalized on film, in 2019's Bombshell. Yet she is still forced to maintain her silence. She cannot tell her side of the story even when Hollywood can. She was cajoled into her current position after facing harassment in her workplace. She didn't have the power then to do more than accept her fate. And now, she doesn't have the power to tell her story.

She was, and still is being, silenced.

After her experiences, Carlson was moved to fight for all women to have the power over their truths. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times she declared: "I want my voice back. I want it back for me, and for all those silenced by forced arbitration and NDAs."

Carlson may still be tied to her NDA, but there are those who go a different route. Celeste Headlee, who wrote an op-ed on SWAAY about her experience, chose to break her nondisclosure agreement. Though doing so undoubtedly opened her up to numerous legal ramifications, she knew that she could no longer "sign away [her] right to justice."

Because that is what an NDA is all about, signing away a person's right to justice. Their story is their justice. Their NDA is a lock and key. Headlee may have broken through that lock, but she must face the consequences.

Neither Carlson nor Headlee are any less brave for how they have handled their journeys. They are both actively working to shift the cultural and political norms that led them here, and their work will, with hope and time, lead to real change. But they are just two drops in an ocean of women who are held hostage by their nondisclosure agreements, by men like Michael Bloomberg, and by a society that would rather silence them than let truth and justice be had.