From Creepy Comments to Sexual Assault
I’m shaking as I write this, not quite knowing where to start. As I’m sure Susan Fowler and Niniane, Susan & Leiti probably did, I’ve struggled long and hard over whether to come out with my own account of sexual harassment. After Sarah’s story in the NYT was published, I was quite sure I wouldn’t, because I thought I didn’t have to.
But after reading Dave’s post “I’m a Creep. I’m Sorry.,” I couldn’t help but feel compelled to tell my story. While Dave acknowledged and apologized for his “inappropriate behavior” towards multiple women, I felt it generalized his actions to inappropriate comments made in a “setting he thought was social.” It definitely didn’t address the severity of his sexual advances towards me and potentially others.
I’m now ready to tell my account of what Dave McClure inflicted on me 3 years ago, in my own apartment. It’s not just inappropriate, it’s assault.
When facts and details are not publicly disclosed, the whole matter gets lumped into one big black box of inappropriateness. Non-consensual, sexual advances are not the same as flirtatious comments from a creepy dude. The degree of harassment matters. Here’s why.
Just go onto Dave’s twitter and blog to see the swarm of comments supporting him for his authentic apology and courage in writing it. One guy even tweeted that Dave was just being Dave – he has always been, and will always be inappropriate! He’s famous for that. Big deal!
“Dave you’re not a creep, you’re a solid dude. I sorta wish you didn’t apologize for wanting a sex life like other human beings.”
“Dave, well done; continue. Listen, yr head went on a pike but yr past behaviour is THE NORM, every industry & setting. Keep communicating.”
“ This took guts. Respect to Dave as well here a great example.”
“Jesus F*cking Christ you are a MAN and hit on a woman. That is NORMAL behavior. Don’t let people neuter you publicly for being YOU!”
“you are only human! i wish u the best“
“Read your story of self castration. Sorry you felt it necessary. Theyre still going to call you a monster foreever. Shouldnt have apologized“
“Unpin this immediately and delete that medium post. You have nothing to be ashamed of. No counseling needed. You are a f*cking MAN OWN IT“
This is why I decided to tell my story. If I don’t, it would be far too easy to condone “inappropriateness,” and far too easy to gloss over it. Dave and other men in positions of power, could still react defensively and try to rationalize their behavior, as Dave did initially. If someone has a wife and two kids and still wants to sleep with other women, that’s their choice. But if someone uses their power as a VC to make repeated sexual, physical advances on women in a professional context, that goes way beyond being a creep.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that I still believe that 500 Startups stood for and continues to stand as a bastion of inclusiveness in the industry. 500 may have been co-founded by Dave McClure and Christine Tsai in 2010, but today, 500 is made up of 100+ diverse individuals, and thousands of diverse founders. 500 plays a crucial role in early stage funding and has been a strong supporter of many female, minority, international, LGBTQ and otherwise underrepresented founders. I would like us to keep that in mind while reading this, that the misconduct is directed at one individual, not the entire firm. I believe in 500 Startups and want to find constructive ways to deal with this.
Dave has done a lot for many founders, and people (including me) are grateful for his support in many ways. What he’s done for the startup community is commendable. It’s tough for some to accept the truth that Dave abused his power for sexual gain and put women in compromising, powerless positions. But we need to acknowledge the difference between inappropriate behavior and assault. What I experienced with Dave was the latter.
<> I just spoke to Sarah Kunst and learned from her that at least 12 other women including me, have faced sexual harassment or advances from Dave of various degrees. Some of them are portfolio company CEOs like myself. They’re afraid to come out, but some eventually will. I had doubts publishing this, but after talking to Sarah, it is clear to me now that I can’t just sit silently and trust that Dave’s behavior will stop, or that we can just file his misconduct under “Dave being Dave.” This is about protecting other women who might otherwise be subjected to his future unwanted sexual advances.
My Personal Account of Sexual Assault from Dave
3 years ago, I’d just moved from Silicon Valley to Malaysia, to take up a position as the Founding CEO of MaGIC, a government-funded innovation agency in Malaysia that was launched by President Obama and the Prime Minister of Malaysia on April 27, 2014 to spur tech startups in Malaysia and later Southeast Asia via its accelerator programs.
Given that my startup Reclip.It was previously funded by 500 Startups, and I had a good working relationship with Dave, I had already spoken to Dave about setting up an accelerator in Southeast Asia. He said he’d consider doing it if I helped him raise USD$10M for the fund, which would be managed by Khailee Ng, a fund manager of 500 Durians at the time (a microfund for Southeast Asia). I subsequently got the investments they needed secured.
On June 6, 2014, Dave flew into Malaysia to meet some of these investors and other tech players in the industry. I invited him to attend my board meeting that day as well. After the meeting, Khailee, Dave, and a few others (including two other females), decided to come over to my apartment to brainstorm about 500 Startups’ new Growth / Distribution Accelerator, Cerebro (later rebranded as Distro Dojo) and also a hashtag for MaGIC, the organization that I was leading.
What started out to be an innocent night of just jamming and hanging out at my new apartment turned into a nightmare episode that has been haunting me for the past 3 years. Dave kept pouring scotch into my glass before I finished drinking throughout the night, and hours into the night way past midnight, suddenly, everyone except Dave decided to order a cab. They all promptly left, and left Dave there with me. I was quite confused by how that happened so quickly.
I quickly asked if Dave wanted to leave like the rest of them but he said no. Perplexed, I offered him to crash on the couch or the guest room and proceeded to show him the guest room. Then I went into my own bedroom but Dave followed me there, and that’s when he first propositioned to sleep with me. I said no. I reminded Dave that he knew my then-boyfriend and that we’d just talked about him earlier that night.
At this point, I led him to the door and told him he needs to leave. On the way out, he pushed himself onto me to the point where I was backed into a corner, made contact to kiss me, and said something along the lines of “Just one night, please just this one time.” Then he told me how he really likes strong and smart women like me. Disgusted and outraged, I said no firmly again, pushed him away and made sure he was out my door.
Once he was gone, still in shock and in tears, I immediately called my boyfriend at the time and told him what had just happened. I couldn’t shake off thoughts of what might have happened if he had applied more force on me, or if I hadn’t been able to defend myself. The fact that I had to say no multiple times, and that he had push himself onto me and kissed me without my consent was way more than crossing the line of inappropriateness. It’s legally considered a sexual assault.
Unfortunately, I felt like I couldn’t speak up at the time, or even tell Khailee about it, because we had the Distro Dojo deal at stake and we were supposed to sign an LOI that week. I was extremely conflicted about it. On one hand, I was really upset with Dave’s individual misconduct and never wanted to work directly with him ever again, but on the other hand, if I said anything, I would most certainly kill the Distro Dojo deal. The deal wasn’t even for a personal benefit (if I were raising funds for my own startup, I wouldn’t have taken his money), but it has widespread regional impact. It was so important to Southeast Asia that Distro Dojo be established there. In hindsight, the program has indeed made a lot of positive impact to companies such as Grab, KFIT, Bukalapak, and others, and many would argue that 500 plays a fundamental role in the region’s startup ecosystem.
I just had to suck it up and put the incident behind me. Even if I spoke up, I wasn’t sure at the time if my story would be taken seriously. In fact, I felt like I had to “play nice” and avoid any sort of awkward confrontation for fear of repercussions on the deal. It’s the worst position to be in when you feel helpless about something you know was outright wrong. The point is, that I shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place.
Plus, as a new CEO of such a public organization at the time, and with a huge task ahead of me, I just couldn’t spare the emotional or mental energy to report this incident at the time, and if you knew me over those 2 years, I was barely able to come up for air. It’s not easy for women to report incidents like these, and everyone is in a very different personal situation.
It wasn’t until later in 2015 that I was able to reveal this to 3 of my close friends. I knew this was something I wouldn’t be able to keep to myself forever.
When Dave finally got around to apologizing to me, it was a half-hearted message on FB.
I was disappointed that he used words like “If that incident last year made you feel uncomfortable, I’d like to apologize,” and “if I misread things or acted inappropriately.” If? It showed me that he did not think what he did was wrong, was not remorseful, did not own up to it and it was not a sincere apology. He even didn’t apologize on his own accord.
Dave didn’t feel compelled to change his behavior until forced by others. In his recent blog post, he admitted he was defensive even when caught and tried to rationalize his behavior with Sarah. He did not addressed the severity of the advances he made on me, nor the extremely conflicted and difficult position he put me in given that we had a business deal in the works. Like Sarah’s situation, he downplayed the incident as “misreading the situation.”
But This Wasn’t The First Time I’d Been Propositioned by Dave
On June 14, 2011 when I had successfully raised a seed round for my startup CityPockets, I hosted a networking event for entrepreneurs & investors in New York City with my friend Gary. Dave stopped by my event around midnight to congratulate me. After the event ended, I got a text message from Dave, stating his midtown hotel and room #. He asked if I wanted to “drop by his hotel room to chat” because he had a bottle of wine. Confused and unsure how to reply, I said I was tired and on my way home, no thanks. That was that.
I kept thinking to myself… this can’t be a proposition! It’s simply crazy! What balls does a VC have to send such a text that I can easily share with the press? (I’ve since lost the screenshot of the text). I still said to myself, maybe I misread it? Maybe it’s nothing and he just wants company? I brushed it off and continued on with life, but at the same time, being more wary of Dave.
Less than a year later, in March 2012, I was in Mountain View raising money for my startup when Dave pinged me to catch up at the 500 Startups office. Upon telling him about my new startup, Reclip.It, Dave offered us a spot at 500 Startups’ Batch 4 Accelerator, even though the program had already started a week ago.
A few months into the accelerator, Dave invited me to be his +1 for the Xconomy Napa Summit on June 7, 2012. I felt lucky that an unproven founder like me got to attend this prestigious event that’s limited to 100 VCs and top entrepreneurs. What an opportunity! I was beginning to feel like Dave was truly a great supporter of female entrepreneurs and generously opened doors for people like me.
That night after dinner, we all retreated to our own villas. Shortly after, I got a text from Dave, again asking if I’d come over to his room because he had a bottle of wine. I was reluctant to believe that he would be so bold as to proposition me as an investee. I was also curious about what he wanted, so I went to his room, telling myself not to drink too much and that I could always rely on my black belt in Taekwondo if it got to that.
But I didn’t need to defend myself at all that night. We chatted all night over a bottle of wine, Dave sitting across the room from me the whole time, relating to me how he was lonely and an entrepreneur just like all of us, that nobody understands his side of the story as well as his own failures, struggles and insecurities. I felt good that he confided in me and encouraged him to share it with the world, that he doesn’t have to hide behind his tough, hardass persona. A month later on July 7, 2012, he published his “late bloomer” story on svbtle.com and the story went viral.
From that point, I thought OMG, I’m so silly to think that Dave had any sexual interest in me! Geez, I misjudged him. He’s a good person and is doing amazing things for female and minority entrepreneurs! He turned a cautious skeptic into a huge fan and supporter. Clearly I was wrong. I was fooled for 2 years.
The Devil Is In The Details
I was speaking to a good friend of mine earlier, and she told me of her own recent experience being propositioned by a new LP for her fund. She reported it to her manager, and her manager had taken over the relationship from that point on. Apparently, this LP met her for happy hour drinks and told her that he’s in an open relationship, and that he regrets she’s married. He proceeded to tell her that she’s sexy and asked if she’d consider an open relationship as well, as he put his hands on her back. She snapped at him and quickly left the scene. When I asked what she told her manager, she said she didn’t tell him any details and just said he was being “inappropriate” to her.
Here is where I stopped her. And myself. I realized at that point, that the devil is indeed in the details. It’s far too easy to gloss over the details and lump everything in as inappropriate, but I believe that the severity needs to be put under the spotlight.
When I probed, she explained that she didn’t feel comfortable putting in black and white what the LP had said to her because she was so shocked and panicked that she couldn’t remember the exact words he used, and she didn’t want this to be a case of “he said, she said.” She didn’t feel like she could confidently report him unless she had hard proof like a text message or an email.
How Do We Fix This?
This is where the narrative has to change. We can and have to take action to make it safe for people to report these incidents.
This is where it has to be fixed – the fact the burden of proof always falls on the person reporting the incident. That the unfortunate victim didn’t have a framework for which to report the incident and wasn’t provided training on how to identify the different degrees of harassment in the first place. An inappropriate remark is not the same as a direct sexual proposition, and is certainly not the same as a non-consensual physical approach with force.
This model of reporting is broken. We can reduce bad behavior by having more open conversations when someone crosses the line, instead of an all-or-nothing approach. Creating smaller feedback loops will help make change faster.
I agree with Laughlin’s call to treat stories as data points, not accusations, and to put a transparent sexual harassment policy in place. I’d also like to add the following actions:
Action 1: Clearly Define the Different Levels of “Inappropriateness” in a Formal Company Harassment Policy
Level A. Verbal or Gender Harassment:
- Inappropriate comments, remarks or suggestions have been made that makes the other party feel unsafe or uncomfortable (e.g. in the case of Sarah Kunst)
- Generalized sexist statements and behavior that convey insulting or degrading attitudes about women (e.g. Insulting remarks, obscene jokes or humor about sex or women in general)
Level B. Direct Sexual Propositions or Seductive Behavior:
- Unwanted, inappropriate and offensive direct propositions implying sexual advances has been made (e.g. sexual invitations like “would you consider sleeping with me or come to my hotel room, etc”, insistent requests for dinner, drinks or dates, persistent messages, phone calls and other invitations)
Level C. Sexual Bribery or Coercion:
- Solicitation of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by promise of reward (eg funding, closing a deal, etc); the proposition may be either overt or subtle
- Coercion of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by threat of punishment; examples include negative performance evaluations, withholding of promotions, threat of termination.
Level D. Sexual Imposition:
- Unwanted and nonconsensual sexual imposition and physical advances (such as forceful touching, feeling, grabbing, kissing) or sexual assault
Providing a framework like this clearly defines which boundary level has been crossed to both parties and makes it easier for the victim to report the incident without fearing the need to quote the perpetrator verbatim. The perpetrator either made a comment, directly propositioned by inviting, made a threat, or made a physical move.
Firms can define their A-D levels themselves, or better yet, create a standard policy for the entire industry. This effort requires a working committee to come together and define this in a thoughtful, thorough manner. The policy should apply everywhere, even out of the office as long as work is discussed, and all incidents should be reported whether anonymously or named.
Action 2: Create a Safe Channel for Harassment Reporting
To make it safe, a special channel (like a hotline # to dial) should be created where specific harassment incidents can be reported with no repercussion. If possible, the victim should write a full account of what happened and send it to the perpetrator to make sure he’s aware of his level of inappropriateness and the victim’s full disapproval of it. (Update: I eventually did this, and Dave said he couldn’t deny any of it.)
Again, to Laughlin’s point, all firms should record the incidents as data points, not accusations. It’s very easy to discredit a story, especially if you personally know the person and stand by his character because you’ve never seen him doing it. But the purpose of recording an incident is to serve as a data point and a warning to the perpetrator, letting him know that it’s not okay. If repeated behavior is reported, the company will have to take firm action and investigate the matter more seriously.
This “hotline” has to be made highly visible and accessible, and be directly addressed by someone at the partner level (perhaps such as Christine in 500’s case) to convey how seriously the firm takes this.
Action 3: Train VCs and Founders on How to Identify and Report the Different Levels of Harassment
Creating and defining a harassment policy isn’t enough. Adequate training should be imparted by all firms, not just to every investor and staff member, but also founders and portfolio companies.
Given the prevalence of this behavior (sometimes even subconsciously) within our industry, a different kind of awareness and training needs to take place, addressing gaps in power dynamics and the abuse of power that can happen with sexual advances.
Founders and Partners of the firm need to be directly involved and speak to their own pledge against sexual harassment in the workplace. There should be a clear avenue where portfolio companies can easily be informed about the firm’s sexual harassment policies and what to do in the event that it happens to them, as well as how to report incidents without feeling compromised in any way.
Action 4: Conduct Sexual Harassment Surveys
VC firms should also conduct frequent and proactive surveys of their (male and female) founders to ask them if they’ve had any form of harassment inflicted upon them, and encourage them to report these incidents.
Separately, they should survey their own partners, associates and staff members on what behaviors they consider acceptable vs crossing boundaries and ask for admission of any wrong doings as a step to create awareness and as a reminder that there are severe consequences if they are caught violating company policy and abusing their position.
If implemented correctly, these measures will raise the awareness of the issue and catch it before it becomes an unspoken norm. I hope that everyone can learn from these two weeks of a black spot in the tech industry and that we no longer have to quietly tolerate sexual harassment from here on or be conflicted about whether we should report it. With this, I also hope that we can pave the way to affect change in other industries as well, as this issue is not exclusive to tech.
I am finally tell this story now, because I’m in a much better and more secure position today, than I was 2-3 years ago. I’m not running a startup or a public company, I’m married to a supportive husband, and I don’t have any material threats holding me back from reporting this. Unfortunately, most women who suffered similar or worse, are just not able to tell their stories yet, but I hope this sparks change that some day, they’ll get relief and closure from their own harassment experiences.
With that, I want to reiterate that I sincerely believe in the work that 500 is doing and have nothing but good things to say about the rest of their team. I may be hurt by Dave, but I remain a huge supporter of 500’s work.
Since the news broke, I have been talking to Khailee and Christine about this to give constructive feedback on what can and should be done, and I’m very thankful that they fully support me in publishing this account, and in calling for Dave’s resignation this morning.
These were the actions of an individual, rather than a representation of the entire firm and rather than run away from the problem, I would like to step up and be part of the solution. Even if it means reaching out to the very firm whose founder betrayed my trust.
I am working with the 500 management team to tackle the sexual harassment issue in our community, to come up with policies, training and proper awareness, to ensure that this never happens to another female founder again. I choose to believe that we can find a positive from all of this.
If there are others out there who had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Dave or others, I’m here to listen and offer my support. Please do not hesitate to reach me via hello @ cherylyeoh . com. I’m currently based back in the Bay Area.