Fixing Tech Culture Requires Silicon Valley To Confront Its Impulse For Control

By Thomas Lee
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) San Francisco Chronicle columnist Thomas Lee salutes “Obvious Ventures” a silicon valley VC firm for hosting a discussion on sexual assault and harassment. As Lee points out, “For Silicon Valley to combat sexual misconduct and other internal woes, it must cede a little control and resist the urge to keep things quiet.”

San Francisco Chronicle

As women across the country continued to share stores of sexual assault and harassment, a curious email recently landed in my inbox.

“On November 2nd, Obvious Ventures will be hosting an off-the-record conversation with a small group of CEOs, editors and writers to discuss the state of unethical/illegal behavior within Silicon Valley,” the email said.

“Topics will include the nature of current coverage, the types of questions investigators and investors might ask earlier on to help inoculate against this behavior.”

An off-the-record event means journalists can’t report on anything people said. So why invite them? At a time when people are publicly confronting sexual misconduct, holding an off-the-record discussion about the topic seemed incredibly off-point.

Consider also that San Francisco’s Obvious Ventures was co-founded by Ev Williams, the creator of Blogger, Twitter and Medium — three tools that helped people speak democratically and openly.

“If you guys really care about the issues at hand, then I suggest that people in Silicon Valley speak up publicly,” I wrote back.

That might have been the end of it but an unexpected thing happened: The organizers agreed with me.

“We initially planned this event in the hopes of being a relaxed evening to create a dialogue around these important issues,” the email said. “You made a great point regarding the downside of an off-the-record event. We discussed internally and realized there was no need to label it that way — so the evening will now be on-the-record.”

Obvious’ reversal, though it’s a small gesture amid a sea of exclusive, off-the-record Silicon Valley events and hush-hush contracts, offers both hope and caution for people who want the technology industry to confront the pervasive sexual misconduct and misogyny infecting its culture.

On the one hand, it’s quite admirable that a venture capital firm like Obvious Ventures wants to talk about this stuff, and to reporters no less. But the firm’s instinctive need to keep the discussion private suggests that transparency won’t come easy to an opaque industry that prizes both informality and control.

“When you put leaders in a room, they feel like there’s a bigger chance that ‘I’m going to say something stupid,'” said Kate Mitchell, co-founder and partner with Scale Venture Partners in San Francisco. “But if we keep it under wraps, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

Silicon Valley is borderline paranoid. Companies frequently accuse each other of stealing talent and intellectual property.

Visitors to buildings must sign nondisclosure agreements just to grab coffee with a friend. Innocuous events like dinners, cocktail parties and conferences are strictly off-the-record.

Even TechCrunch, the tech news site whose founder once boasted about making industry secrets public, held “Off the Record” sessions at its September Disrupt event in San Francisco.

That’s not to say that discretion is never appropriate. Journalists often negotiate to speak with sources off the record to obtain information that would not otherwise be unavailable. But companies do these things so often, and impose off-the-record status unilaterally, that secrecy becomes an end in itself.

It’s no wonder that issues like sexual misconduct and racism stay in the shadows.

At least until now.

So far this year, we’ve witnessed an extraordinary chain of events even before several women accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of rape and harassment.

Powerful financiers like David McClure of 500 Startups and Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital resigned their positions amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Uber’s board of directors forced co-founder Travis Kalanick to resign as CEO after an investigation detailed a culture that tolerated inappropriate behavior toward women from top executives.

“We’ve seen more progress over the last 12 months than the entire decade before,” said James Joaquin, co-founder and managing director of Obvious Ventures in San Francisco.

Joaquin has seen a lot in Silicon Valley over the years. While studying computer science at Brown University in the 1980s, he co-founded Clearview Software, which eventually was acquired by Apple. He spent six years in marketing and engineering roles at the Cupertino computing giant.

“I certainly remember inappropriate behavior in the workplace and legal actions from employees,” Joaquin said.

But now that Joaquin is running his own venture capital firm, he’s in a position to do something.

At Obvious Ventures, investors require entrepreneurs to detail the company’s mission and values as part of their term sheets. The firm provides a “CEO Welcome Kit” to entrepreneurs and offers one of its partners to conduct a workshop on values at the startup.

But the flurry of recent events inspired Joaquin to host the event Thursday night.

“It’s enlightened self-interest,” Joaquin said. Over the past year, “we’ve seen a lack of a moral compass in a growing number of Silicon Valley companies. We haven’t done enough as venture capitalists.”

Joaquin is not the only one who’s trying to do more. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman urged venture capitalists to take a “Decency Pledge” regarding sexual harassment.

“Any VC who agrees that this is a serious issue that deserves zero tolerance — and I certainly hope most do think this way — should stop doing business with VCs who engage in this behavior,” Hoffman wrote in a blog post this past summer. Limited partners “should stop investing. Entrepreneurs of all genders should stop considering those VCs.”

“This behavior occurs in our industry not just because some believe it’s no big deal, but also because those who do find it unacceptable don’t do enough to actively discourage it,” Hoffman wrote.

But venture capitalists shouldn’t just police themselves. As recent events have demonstrated, only public transparency (women telling their stories to the media) has forced Silicon Valley to focus on these problems.

So kudos to Obvious Ventures for hosting the discussion but especially for putting it on the record. For Silicon Valley to combat sexual misconduct and other internal woes, it must cede a little control and resist the urge to keep things quiet.

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