Ellen Pao talks Kleiner, the trial and her hopes for a tech reset - Axios
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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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Trump administration backs Obama-led climate effort

Obama and Trump meet at the White House after Trump's election. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

A career State Department official speaking at a conference Thursday on behalf of the Trump administration backed a climate policy then-President Obama pursued shortly before he left office.

The policy phases down powerful greenhouse gases found in a range of everyday appliances. This is the most explicit and public the Trump administration has been about supporting it.

The big picture: The conference, held this week in Montreal, is about a recent amendment to the Montreal Protocol, a global treaty created 30 years ago to fix the hole in the Earth's ozone layer, which is now it's achieving its goal. World leaders, led by the Obama administration, agreed in October 2016 to the Kigali amendment, which would phase down emissions of powerful greenhouse gases in refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are used in many appliances from air conditioners to refrigerators.

Quoted: "The United States believes the Kigali Amendment represents a pragmatic and balanced approach to phasing down the production and consumption of HFCs, and therefore we support the goals and approach of the Amendment," said Judith Garber, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

What's next: Rhetorical backing for the amendment is one thing, but to have it actually take effect, the administration needs to send it over to the Senate so it can vote on its official ratification, as the Senate has done on other amendments and the original treaty 30 years ago. "There is no timeline currently determined for these steps, but we have initiated the process to consider U.S. ratification of the Amendment," Garber said.

Fast facts: The Montreal Protocol is a treaty about the ozone layer, but this latest amendment from Kigali represents an evolution to concerns about climate change. The 2015 Paris climate deal, which is a non-binding treaty that didn't require congressional input, is mostly about cutting other greenhouse gases from energy and land use. It's wholly separate from the Montreal Protocol.

Bottom line: Process matters a lot here. One of the biggest complaints of Trump administration officials about the Paris deal is that Obama circumvented Congress (because he knew he wouldn't get support from the GOP-controlled Senate). The Kigali amendment backers, which include chemical makers like Honeywell and Chemours, are emphasizing how this is a collaborative process with Congress and is about the Montreal Protocol, not climate change per se.

My thought bubble: If/when you see this process unfold further, don't expect congressional Republicans and the administration to focus at all about the climate change angle. It'll be all about collaboration and protecting the environment and creating business opportunities for industry.


Go deeper:

  • Read my two Harder Line columns on this topic: Why industry is backing the policy, and how your air conditioner is caught up in all this.
  • The amendment is set to go into force (for those that have officially signed onto it) in January 2019, thanks to Sweden just recently signing on and meeting the ratification threshold, per the NYT.
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A new bird species is seen emerging in real-time

A medium ground finch, one of the two Galapagos finches that led to the new lineage.

Photo: Uwe-Bergwitz / iStock

Scientists have directly documented a new species evolving in the wild for the first time, according to the BBC. Fittingly, the event was seen in Galapagos Island finches, the same group of birds that helped Darwin solidify his theory of evolution. The research, published Thursday in the journal Science, started in 1981, when a single male from a different finch species came to the tiny island of Daphne Major.

Why it matters: This is the first time the formation of a new species has been observed in real-time in the wild. More than that, it shows how just a single individual can breed with one from another species, leading to the creation of a new species.

For several decades, scientists have been meticulously documenting minute changes in different finch species on the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago that's been referred to as a "natural laboratory for evolution."

How it started: The initial hybridization event happened in 1981 on the Galapagos island of Daphne Major, where evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant conducted most of their research. They studied the group so closely that they noticed when a male large cactus finch, native to a different island 65 miles away, arrived on the island and began breeding with a local population.

What happened: Native females didn't recognize the songs of the new hybrid males, so instead of breeding with the local population as expected, the hybrids bred within their population. This paper shows that after just two generations, they stopped breeding with other populations and have remained reproductively isolated ever since.

Taking off: "In most cases, the offspring of cross-species matings are poorly adapted to their environment," writes Rory Galloway for the BBC. But the large size of these hybrids has allowed them to exploit resources the native birds weren't using, so the birds have flourished.

Go deeper: It just so happens that Darwin's personally annotated copy of The Origin of Species is up for auction. The Guardian has the story.

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Swedish power plant burning H&M clothes instead of coal

Frenzied customers grab clothes, shortly after H&M opened a new store in Los Angeles. Photo: Damian Dovarganes / AP

A Swedish power plant is burning H&M clothing as a way to move closer to becoming "a fossil-fuel free facility by 2020," according to Bloomberg.

Why it matters: Per Bloomberg, Sweden runs on "an almost entirely emission free-power system," and moving plants to burning only trash and biofuels will hopefully "edge out the last of its fossil fuel units."

  • Head of Communications for H&M in Sweden, Johanna Dahl, told Bloomberg: "H&M does not burn any clothes that are safe to use...However it is our legal obligation to make sure that clothes that contain mold or do not comply with our strict restriction on chemicals are destroyed."
  • The Swedish plant has reportedly burned 15 tons of H&M clothing in 2017 thus far.
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More young people are becoming farmers

Photo: LM Otero / AP

"For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest Census of Agriculture," the WashPost's Caitlin Downey reports in a front-pager with the lovely headline, "A growing movement":

  • 69% of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.
  • Why it matters: "This new generation can't hope to replace the numbers that farming is losing to age. But it is already contributing to the growth of the local-food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape."
  • Where it's happening: "In some states, such as California, Nebraska and South Dakota, the number of beginning farmers has grown by 20 percent or more."
  • The millennials are "far more likely than the general farming population to grow organically, limit pesticide and fertilizer use, diversify their crops or animals, and be deeply involved in... farmers markets."
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Uber's data breach cover-up could be the last straw for some riders

Photo: Richard Vogel / AP

Uber's "latest misbehavior involving a data breach cover-up revealed this week could be the impetus for people to ride elsewhere," according to AP's Tom Krisher in Detroit and tech writer Barbara Ortutay:

  • "[R]iders have fled from the service before, but enough have stayed because of the Uber's convenience."
  • "[T]his week the state of Colorado fined Uber $8.9 million for allowing employees with serious criminal or motor vehicle offenses to drive for the company. Then came the stolen data, which has touched off more government inquiries."
  • Why it matters: Polling by Brand Keys Inc., a New York-based customer research firm, "found that in 2015 Lyft passed Uber as the most trusted of ride-hailing brands, and trust in Uber has been eroding ever since."
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How Trump risked a key intel relationship

Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador Kislyak at the White House in May. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry Photo via AP

Astonishing reporting from Vanity Fair's The Hive, by Howard Blum ... "What Trump ... told Kisylak after Comey was canned ... During a May 10 meeting in the Oval Office, the president betrayed his intelligence community by leaking the content of a classified, and highly sensitive, Israeli intelligence operation to two high-ranking Russian envoys, Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Lavrov":

  • Israeli spies and counterterrorism forces had discovered that "ISIS terrorists were working on transforming laptop computers into bombs that could pass undetected through airport security." That led to new U.S. and British restrictions on flights from abroad.
  • "[T]he Israeli mission was praised by [the American espionage community] as a casebook example of a valued ally's hard-won field intelligence being put to good, arguably even lifesaving, use."
  • "Yet this triumph would be overshadowed ... when ... Trump revealed details about the classified mission" to the Russian officials in the Oval.
  • Why it matters: "[F]resh blood was spilled in [Trump's] long-running combative relationship with the nation's clandestine services. Israel ... would rethink its willingness to share raw intelligence, and pretty much the entire Free World was left shaking its collective head in bewilderment."
  • Listen in.

P.S. Paul Manafort took at least 138 trips to Ukraine between 2004 and 2015 while consulting for Russian and pro-Russian oligarchs, McClatchy'sPeter Stone and Greg Gordon report:

  • "As the GOP platform committee drew up party positions a week before the Republican National Convention, a plank calling for the United States to provide 'lethal weapons' for Ukraine's defense was altered in a controversial and mysterious move."
  • An "American consultant in Ukraine said that Manafort ... had boasted he played a role in easing the language."
  • "Charlie Black, a onetime partner of Manafort's, says he remains baffled by the change. 'It was inexplicable to me that a majority of platform members would have taken a pro-Russian position on Ukraine.'"
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More than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar

Photo: Bernat Armangue / AP

This aerial photo shows the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, housing Rohingya Muslims who fled across the border to escape violence. More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when the army began what it called "clearance operations" following an attack on police posts by a group of Rohingya insurgents.

Go deeper: The big picture on the crisis

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Black Friday sales expected to grow due to healthy economy

Antsy shoppers wait for a Best Buy to open on Thanksgiving in Overland Park, Kansas. Photo: Charlie Riedel / AP

"With the jobless rate at a 17-year-low of 4.1% and consumer confidence stronger than a year ago, analysts project healthy sales increases ... The National Retail Federation ... expects sales ... to at least match last year's rise of 3.6% and estimates online spending and other non-store sales will rise 11 to 15%," per AP.

  • "Black Friday has morphed from a single day ... into a whole season of deals, so shoppers may feel less need to be out."
  • Stunning stat: "Analysts at Bain say Amazon is expected to take half of the holiday season's sales growth."
  • AP reports that Hatchimals are hot:
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Franken apologizes over latest claims, cites "warm" personality

Al Franken at The BookExpo2017 in New York City. Photo: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx

Democratic Sen. Al Franken has issued a statement about the latest allegations that he groped women while posing for photographs, saying he has taken "thousands of photographs" and is a "warm person," but acknowledging he "crossed a line for some women." He says he is sorry he made "some women feel badly."

Why it matters: Franken is in survival mode after four allegations of unwanted contact, and facing an Ethics investigation and some calls to resign. He's walking a tightrope here, not denying the individual accusations while portraying them as rare missteps resulting from his "warm" personality, rather than a pattern of creepy behavior. He says he plans to win back the "trust" of his constituents.

Full statement

"I've met tens of thousands of people and taken thousands of photographs, often in crowded and chaotic situations. I'm a warm person; I hug people. I've learned from recent stories that in some of those encounters, I crossed a line for some women — and I know that any number is too many. Some women have found my greetings or embraces for a hug or photo inappropriate, and I respect their feelings about that.

"I've thought a lot in recent days about how that could happen, and recognize that I need to be much more careful and sensitive in these situations. I feel terribly that I've made some women feel badly and for that I am so sorry, and I want to make sure that never happens again. And let me say again to Minnesotans that I'm sorry for putting them through this and I'm committed to regaining their trust."

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Trump's morning tweets: NFL protests, Middle East "mess" and golf

President Trump took to Twitter early on the Friday after Thanksgiving:

Worth noting: This White House treats golf as a clandestine operation, never saying whether or not Trump is actually playing, so this is a rare bit of candor.