Sep 12, 2017

Ellen Pao talks Kleiner, the trial and her hopes for a tech reset

Photo Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Ellen Pao was a relative unknown in Silicon Valley until May 2012, when she sued her employer, legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for gender discrimination and retaliation. That complaint and the ensuing trial — which she lost — turned Pao into a household name and helped bring the issue of tech industry sexism out of the shadows.

Pao, now an investment partner with Kapor Capital and chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, has now written a book about her life, the trial and its aftermath. It's called Reset, and hits shelves next Tuesday (we'll publish a full review on Monday). She spoke to Axios about why she wrote the book, initial reactions to her complaint and her current thoughts about Kleiner Perkins.

The quick read:

  • She thinks the verdict might have been different today.
  • Pao feels many male reporters lacked empathy in their initial coverage of her complaint.
  • She doesn't regret serving as Reddit's interim CEO during the trial, but admits it was a distraction.
  • Pao continues to have a very dim view of Kleiner Perkins and its leaders, including John Doerr.
  • VC firms and corporate boards struggle to diversify because they rarely consider replacing existing partners or directors.
  • She hopes the book will give hope and spark action among those being discriminated against.

Did you always plan to write a book about the case?

I didn't think that far ahead during most of the time. But once I started getting deeper into the litigation process, it became clear to me that it was not a process for sharing experiences in a way that was going to be complete... It was hard to process it all again. I had a great ghostwriter and we had a great process, but I needed to get everything right in this book because it's the last one I'm going to write.

Before suing, did you weigh becoming a symbol for something bigger than yourself?

It wasn't part of the calculus at all. The initial press was just so negative. I did not see myself becoming a symbol at all. If anything it was pretty horrific. It was more about getting the truth out there than any expectation about what would happen to me. I spoke to some other women who had sued and they had very bad experiences, and you don't know any of their names.

Did men and women react differently to the initial complaint?

From a very general level, yes. You could see it in the reporting... Male reporters, for the most part, were skeptical of me and did not understand, had no empathy for my experiences. I think a lot of the women reporters had had similar experiences, many of them had been harassed. Many of them had been limited in their careers.

I also think there was more support from men in the public than I expected. I lot of men reached out and talked about the experiences their moms went through. One told me how his coworker told him it was happening to her and my suit helped him see it's much broader. People talked about their daughters, so there was more support, and I think people of color related to it because they'd had similar experiences. But definitely not as much from men as from women and more from people of color than from people who were white.

What part of your story didn't get enough attention at trial or in the media?

The performance reviews. It seemed to me very clear cut. They added people in a way that tanked my performance review and they had positive information that they hid. And that just seems so damning to me, but did not get as much, or clear, coverage as I would have expected.

Did you actively follow the trial coverage?

I didn't have time, so no. I was working at Reddit, trying to change the culture there. I would see the headlines on Twitter but I didn't have time to read anything.

Was running Reddit a distraction for you while the trial was ongoing?

It would have been better for the litigation if I'd been able to focus on it 100% of the time, but the work we did at Reddit during that time was really impactful. We got rid of revenge porn. We got rid of unauthorized nude pictures and every other major platform followed us shortly thereafter. It's hard to regret having chosen to do that at the same time, because then what would the Internet today look like? At the end of the day my work was at Reddit and that was my first priority.

What did the verdict turn on?

At the end of the day the people just didn't believe there was any bias in tech. And every potential juror who believes tech is a biased industry was kicked off the jury. So you have a bunch of people who didn't think there is bias in tech so they just didn't believe me.

Would it have been different if the trial was held today?

I hope so. I think the press and the public are more educated about all of the toxic behavior in tech. So I hope those jurors would have made a different decision because it would mean there has been a meaningful change in perception.

The only published book excerpt so far details a private plane conversation that touched on such things as pornography. You name Kleiner partner Ted Schlein as a participant, but leave Chegg CEO Dan Rosenweig anonymous. Why?

I don't know him that well. That was one of my very few experiences with him and there wasn't any context to it, so I didn't feel like outing him would make a difference to the story. If people really want to know it's in the trial coverage, but this was more about the systemic and repeated behavior at Kleiner than anything else.

There has been a lot of turnover at Kleiner Perkins since you left. Is it still the same firm?

I think the leader is still Ted.

John Doerr comes off particularly badly in the book.

People aspire to be inclusive. They aspire to be fair. In tech they aspire to be supportive of women. But they're not always there in their behaviors and their actions. And when you call out that difference, and when you show that gap exists, they get angry. So for a lot of people it's hard to change, hard to take down a system that works so well for you and when you don't know what you should replace it with it can be very limiting.

Do you feel John and Ted will be angry or self-reflective when they read your book?

They have not shown much self-reflection that I've seen. I'm not close to them, of course, but I'm not optimistic.

Was Kleiner Perkins the same or worse than other VC firms?

I hope that it was worse than most other firms because it was such a terrible experience. I think it was problematic because they brought in so many women who had there careers stagnate instead of accelerate. But you still see some firms that are all male or have just hired their first female investing partner and you know that those places are not great for women.

It seems hard for male-dominated venture firms to diversify, as much due to structure as desire.

If you look at the turnover at firms, they do end up firing people and forcing people to retire, so it's not as brittle as its made out to be... And you can step back. CEOs talk to me about needing more diversity on their boards. And I say to them: 'Well, then you need to tell them they need to bring in someone with a diverse background and replace themselves.' You're not going to add five more people to your board but you can replace some of the people who are on it today. It's not impossible. Same with venture capital firms.

My draft copy of Reset cites a positive Quora comment from Dave McClure after you were fired. Did that make the final version?

Of course. His bad behavior later doesn't change the fact that he did speak up for me.

What do you hope readers will take away from Reset?

I hope the biggest takeaway is we all need to act and we all need to help reset tech. What I hope to accomplish is helping the underrepresented, the people who are excluded – not just women, but people of color, women of color, people who are older, people who are immigrants – to understand what is happening to them so they don't spend 7.5 years in a job where they're never going to succeed. And I hope it also causes people who may be benefiting from the current tech system to take a look and adjust their actions and speak up for those who might not be doing so well. And to really think about what tech could be versus the path we are on today.

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