Ellen Pao Takes The Stand In Kleiner Perkins Trial: ‘I Wanted To Be Considered Equal’

By Heather Somerville
San Jose Mercury News.


Testifying for the first time in her high-profile lawsuit, a composed Ellen Pao on Monday detailed the testosterone-fueled culture and “loosey-goosey” workplace rules that she said created an environment ripe for sex discrimination at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.

No matter how many times Pao told the venture firm’s upper echelon about mistreatment and inappropriate behavior by her male colleagues — which not only made Pao uncomfortable but her job more difficult — her male bosses “continued to do nothing,” she testified before a packed San Francisco courtroom.

“I wanted to be considered equal to my partners, and I wanted to be taken seriously,” Pao said. Instead, the backdoor politics and machismo attitudes at Kleiner left her belittled and excluded from the partnership, and from what she saw as her rightful career path at one of the world’s the most prestigious venture firms, she said.

Her highly anticipated testimony is the most critical portion yet of a trial that has pulled back the curtains on the insular venture capital industry, and elevated the conversation about Silicon Valley’s largely male and white workforce to an international discussion.

In careful, direct and mostly emotionless answers, Pao recounted her experience at the Menlo Park venture capital firm where she worked until October 2012.

Jurors heard for the first time on Monday that Pao initially refused the 2005 job offer from Kleiner to be a junior partner and chief of staff to legendary investor John Doerr.

“I decided the role seemed too junior,” she said from the witness stand. But Doerr convinced her to take the job after he “changed the role so it would be more senior” and give Pao an opportunity to become a top investor.

But she was fired on Oct. 1, 2012, without getting that promotion, and after several negative performance reviews. Now, Pao, 45, is suing Kleiner Perkins for sex discrimination, retaliation and failure to protect Pao and other women at the firm from discrimination.

She is seeking $16 million in damages. Kleiner Perkins has denied all allegations and says Pao was fired because she was hostile to co-workers and lacked the collaboration skills needed in a partnership.

During two weeks of testimony, the jury has heard stories from Doerr and other Kleiner staff, and Stephen Hirschfeld, an investigator the firm hired to look into her complaints of discrimination. Testimony has painted her at times as a hardworking and brilliant employee who fell victim to the clubby, insensitive venture industry; and at times as a territorial, entitled colleague who didn’t have the finesse necessary to succeed in the hypercompetitive industry.

Pao now gets to tell the story in her own words, and will likely remain on the stand for the next couple of days; Kleiner’s attorney has not yet cross-examined her. The trial is expected to conclude toward the end of the month.

On Monday, Pao described an “off-and-on relationship” with her colleague Ajit Nazre, who she said “was relentless” in his pursuit of her. Initially, she rebuffed him, and told him to seek counseling and stay with his wife, from whom he said he was planning to split.

But a relationship developed and lasted between five and six months — until Pao discovered Nazre had not left his wife, as he had told her.

“I was furious,” Pao testified. “I felt manipulated and deceived.”

Pao ended their intimate relationship, and their work relationship spiraled downward, she said. Nazre purposefully left Pao off of emails and excluded her from meetings and business calls, she testified. He was later fired.

But Nazre wasn’t the only one keeping Pao on the sidelines, she said. In 2011, Kleiner partners and entrepreneurs organized a dinner at the home of former Vice President Al Gore, who happened to live in the same building as Pao. But Pao was not invited; nor was any woman, she said.

“I was pretty humiliated (that) I wasn’t going to be there, and it was just because I wasn’t a man,” she testified.

Pao also alleges she was passed over for a board seat on a company when she was 8 1/2 months pregnant, even though Pao had helped lead the firm’s investment into that company. However, she continued to work up until three days before giving birth and was asked to perform tasks throughout her maternity leave.

Pao says she repeatedly brought her complaints to Doerr and other managing partners, and also requested the firm create policies and training programs and repair the “loosey goosey way we dealt with issues.” Pao did not receive a discrimination policy when she was hired; Hirschfeld testified that the firm could not locate one when he asked.

“We were clearly not understanding how to behave appropriately,” she said.

In her testimony, she described a plane ride where other partners and business associates had a frat-boy-like discussion about porn stars, the Victoria’s Secret runway show and the Playboy mansion.

“It seemed incredibly inappropriate and it made me uncomfortable,” she said, but she “wasn’t sure what I should say (to make them stop). And I wasn’t sure how to do it without seeming like a wet blanket.”

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