Stories of sexual harassment at tech startups keep making headlines, most notably including Uber. In Denver, entrepreneur Lee Mayer recently asked a board member to resign after the Silicon Valley venture capitalist was accused of sexual harassment by several other women. Mayer -- not one of the accusers -- tells Colorado Matters that she has experienced sexual harassment from other men when she has sought investment for her company, Havenly.
The venture capitalist in question, Justin Caldbeck, took a leave of absence from his firm, Binary, after several other female entrepreneurs accused him of inappropriate comments, including trying to have sex with at least one of them. "I have made many mistakes over the course of my career," Caldbeck said in a statement. "The power dynamic that exists in venture capital is despicably unfair. The gap of influence between male venture capitalists and female entrepreneurs is frightening and I hate that my behavior played a role in perpetrating a gender-hostile environment."
Binary contributed to a $5.8 million funding round for Havenly that concluded in 2016.
Havenly also received funding from 500 Startups, whose CEO and co-founder resigned last week after admitting to sexual harassment of several businesswomen. Dave McClure wrote a blog post called "I'm a Creep. I'm Sorry." He wrote, "I made advances towards multiple women in work-related situations, where it was clearly inappropriate. I put people in compromising and inappropriate situations, and I selfishly took advantage of those situations where I should have known better."
On what kinds of sexism and sexual harassment she's faced:
"It's always hard to tease out what's happening because you're a woman or versus, you know, the stage of company or the type of company you are. I think fundamentally if you talk to me or other female founders you'll start to hear commonalities in our stories -- things that we're asked. For example, [we're asked about] our family life, our love life. Potentially some uncomfortable -- sometimes crossing the line -- situations when you go to drinks with a funder or an investor or potential investor."
On how she handles these situations when they arise:
"In the past my approach has been to smile, try to avoid getting into any sort of situations where I'm ruining the ego of the person, and try and escape from the situation as elegantly as possible, and at least keep my head down, maybe laugh about it with my friends over a cocktail later... The best way that I as a woman can sort of help the ecosystem understand the value of women in entrepreneurship -- I felt -- was to be as successful as I possibly could be, and help provide jobs for women, my company's majority women, and hopefully mentor and advise and maybe even invest in, later, more and more female entrepreneurs."
On how she's rethinking her approach given recent revelations:
"I think in the past I've sort of stayed in the background on a lot of these issues. I've wanted to be an entrepreneur; not as much a female entrepreneur. But frankly I've been impressed by the bravery of some of the women coming forward and saying things were not right... And it makes you think that maybe I should use my voice a little bit more, and be a little bit more outspoken about instances in which I personally or someone I know has faced some sort of sexism... Because ultimately, over time, when these things sort of go unnoticed, it can really sort of snowball into something that's a lot bigger and affects a lot more people."
On whether it's a tipping point for how the entrepreneur community handles sexual harassment:
"Many of my other investors [most of whom are men] -- locally and otherwise -- have been tremendously supportive. And I think many of them have always been aware of this issue and have always been supportive, but I think the broader awareness is really, really helpful. It does make you feel like there's a little bit of power in numbers. It's a lonely game, sometimes, to come forward and say, 'Hey, this isn't really fair.'"
Read The Transcript
Andrea Dukakis: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Andrea Dukakis. Today, an entrepreneur from Denver joins us to talk about sexual harassment in the tech startup community. She pulled her company's involvement with a venture capital firm a couple of weeks ago. It was after one of its partners was accused of making inappropriate comments and advances to some female entrepreneurs. She says the incident has made her reexamine how she handles sexism when she experiences it on the job. Lee Mayer is CEO of Havenly, an online interior design company and Lee, welcome to the show.
Lee Mayer: Thanks for having me.
AD: A few weeks ago, venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck left his firm, Binary Capital. Several women had come forward to say he did things like send inappropriate text messages. There were also accusations that he tried to sleep with women whose companies he was considering investing in. Binary had backed your company Havenly, but just to be clear, are you one of the accusers reported in the media?
LM: I am not.
AD: Okay. And we should say that Caldbeck is currently on your board but you've asked him to leave.
LM: Yes, Justin has been a board observer for us, for a couple, about a year and a half.
AD: And he initially denied the allegations but later said in a written statement, "I've made many mistakes over the course of career. To say I'm sorry about my behavior is a categorical understatement." He went on to say, "The power dynamic that exists in venture capital is despicably unfair. The gap of influence between male venture capitalists and female entrepreneurs is frightening. And I hate that my behavior played a role in perpetrating a gender hostile environment."
So, quite a big statement. You didn't face sexual harassment from him, but I understand you've seen it other times in your career as a tech founder. What kinds of things do you hear or experience that you'd say are happening because you're a woman that might not happen to a man.
LM: I mean I think, obviously it's always hard to tease out what's happening because you're a woman versus, the stage of company or the type of company you are. I think fundamentally if you talk to me or other female founders, you'll start to hear commonalities in our stories, things that are asked for example, our family life, our love life. Potentially some, potentially uncomfortable, sometimes crossing the line situations when you go to drinks with the funder, or an investor, or potential investor. Some of those things seem to be somewhat unique to female founders or at least the female founders I know.
And I think one of the more interesting things that I've seen is also a lot of research around how potentially investors talk to women versus how they talk to men, and what they ask for from women even in terms of business metrics, over and above what they ask for from men. Now again, really hard to see that when you're talking about just me, one data point right, sitting in a room alone with an investor but it's sort of interesting now to see the research around it.
AD: How do you do research on something like that?
LM: So, there have been a number of different studies that have come out recently where people have sat in or recorded conversations between investors and entrepreneurs. And tried to abstract the differences between how an investor, potentially even unconsciously, often times in those cases, talks about a female run business versus a male run business. And now again, there are confounding factors to that, right? It could be that females typically, at least in the last five years, have historically started a particular types of company, so they tend to be more eCommerce focused or consumer focused, and maybe that's the reason.
But there does seem to be a difference and it kind of bears itself out in the numbers, right? So, female founders are funded less. I mean it's just the nature of the beast and so clearly there's something going on, as long as you believe that women and men are generally equal in capability. There's got to be something there, right?
AD: Can you give me an example of a question that you may have gotten that you suspected was because you're a woman?
LM: Yeah, like when am I going to have babies? That's not something that people normally, it doesn't seem like that's something that I should be getting asked when I'm trying to pitch a business for investment dollars. And, when I talk to my male friends, it's very rare that they say that someone in a first stage investor meeting has asked them when they're going to have children, for example.
AD: I've heard people in Colorado say that tech scene in Denver and Boulder is much more collaborative and friendlier to female entrepreneurs than Silicon Valley. Do you see a difference in how you're treated in these two places? And do you experience sexual harassment in Colorado specifically?
LM: So I think one of the things that I love about Denver is it is, and Boulder and the ecosystem here, is it's way friendlier. Certainly some of the hard edges that you hear about in New York or San Francisco seem to be blunted, or at least, smoothed here. That being said, it's still got some of the endemic problems that you find across the country I'd imagine when it comes to a really subjective arena, which is investment dollars from venture capitalists. I'll be honest, I think while sometimes certainly I find people are more supportive and certainly come across very helpful. When it comes down to dollars, it's not like Colorado is beating Silicon Valley in terms of percentage of companies that are funded by venture capital. Again, I'm a huge fan of the ecosystem. I think we have to be honest about what we are and aren't doing.
AD: What do you do in situations where you feel like someone's making an advance?
LM: That's something I've been thinking about a lot over the last couple of weeks as you can imagine. So I think anyone with any level of self awareness probably, when you come into a situation like this or you find yourself in the middle of a new cycle like this, you start to think about how you reacted in the past. I think, fundamentally, people have different approaches. Some people will be fairly outspoken. In the past, my approach has been smile, try to avoid getting into any sort of situations where I'm ruining the ego of the person, and try and escape from the situation as elegantly as possible. At least, keep my head down, maybe laugh about it with friends over a cocktail later.
Effectively, my philosophy has always been, "Keep your head down, keep your eyes on the prize." The best way that I, as a woman, can help the ecosystem understand the value of women of entrepreneurship I felt, was to be as successful as I possibly could be and help provide jobs for women, my company's majority women. Hopefully, mentor and advise and maybe even invest in leader, more and more female entrepreneurs.
AD: You mentioned men asking you if you were gonna have a baby. Would you say that's sexual harassment or sexism and does it really matter assessing that out?
LM: I think, I definitely don't want to put labels on it. It doesn't sound like sexual harassment to me. I think it's just, the question was, "What do you get asked when you're a female that you might not get asked when you're a male?" I think there is a difference. How that then turns into some sort of bias, whether implicitly or explicitly, I think is still yet to be determined. I've certainly, again, personally, but I also know many women have found themselves in situations where they're dealing with romantic advances from, for example, an investor or a partner or something of that sort. Someone that you would prefer to see in a professional context and that, I think, is where you start to cross the line.
AD: I understand you still wear your wedding ring to some meetings even though you recently got divorced. Does it work as a deterrent to these kinds of situations?
LM: I think it does for me. Some of these things are, you do funny things to try and make yourself feel more comfortable. That doesn't mean, by the way, that, I want to be clear, the majority of men that back me, fund me, are friends with me, support me, advise me, are incredibly supportive. Fundamentally, most of my promoters have been men. I am by no means trying to dismiss an entire gender, but sometimes when you find yourself in uncomfortable situations or situations where you might be uncomfortable, you sometimes do things that make you feel better. Whether it's wearing a wedding ring or, some other women talk about wearing more manly or less feminine clothing, wearing less makeup, that kind of thing. I think we all do our little pieces to make sure we stay on this side of the border.
AD: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm speaking with Lee Mayer, CEO of Havenly. It's an online interior design company based in Denver. We're talking about sexual harassment in the startup community. Mayer's company recently cut ties with a venture capital firm. That was after one of its partners was accused by female entrepreneurs of a pattern of inappropriate behavior. Mayer wasn't one of them, but she's experienced harassment in her work. How are you rethinking how you've approached these situations in the past in light of this scandal with Justin Caldbeck and Binary?
LM: I think that that's actually been a little bit of something that I've thought about quite a bit. I think in the past I've stayed in the background on a lot of these issues. I've wanted to be an entrepreneur, not as much a female entrepreneur. But frankly, I've been impressed by the bravery of some of the women coming forward and saying things were not right, whether it was with him or a number of the other men across the ecosystem that were sort of pointed to over the last couple weeks. And it makes you think that maybe I should use my voice a little bit more and be a little bit more outspoken about instances in which either I personally or someone I know has faced some sort of sexism. Because ultimately one of the things that I thought was interesting was how over time when these things sort of go unnoticed, it can really sort of snowball into something that's a lot bigger and affects a lot more people than just one person or one company.
AD: Do you think you'll speak up next time?
LM: I would like to think. I mean, again, it depends on the context. There are times where it's the right time and it's so egregious that it must be done, and there are times where it's far more subtle. In many cases, some of the perpetrators of the acts may not even know. I mean, that's sort of the nature of the beast a little bit too.
AD: These revelations about Justin Caldbeck come soon after the news about Uber, which fired about 20 employees over an investigation that found hundreds of incidents of sexual harassment. More recently, just last week, another tech mentor resigned after admitting he made unwanted advances towards several women. He wrote a blog post called, "I'm a Creep," where he basically admitted to doing what the women had said he did. That was Dave McClure of a group called 500 Startups. You'd also gotten money from them, but McClure wasn't on Havenly's board, so he didn't have as close ties. Are these incidents bringing female entrepreneurs like yourself together? Do you think this issue is reaching some kind of tipping point?
LM: So I think I've been heartened over the last couple of weeks by the incredible outpouring of support for many of these women that have come forward for us not only from women, but actually, and maybe most impressively, from men. Many of my other investors, locally and otherwise, have been tremendously supportive. I think many of them have always been aware of this issue and have always been supportive, but I think the broader awareness is really, really helpful. I think it does make you feel like there is a little bit of power in numbers. It's a lonely game sometimes to come forward and say, "Hey, this isn't really fair. This isn't really the way I want it to be," and so having sort of these stories come forward and this awareness come to be I think is a really powerful thing.
AD: To go back to the scandal we talked about, the venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck remains on Havenly's board, so I guess that means you haven't completely cut ties with Binary yet.
LM: Sorry, yeah no, he is not necessarily on our board any longer. Justin, I believe, has stepped down from Binary Capital as well.
AD: Okay, yes, he has stepped down from there. I wonder, this might be a bit of an uncomfortable question, but have you ever seen a woman take advantage of their gender with funders?
LM: I mean look, I think that some of this is trying to understand what you can and cannot do within the context that you're given and whether or not it's "I'm going to take advantage of the fact that I am a woman and thus I stick out a little bit more and I have a platform that I may not have as a man", or you know something of that sort, but you see men doing it too. I think that that's okay. It's okay to use what you have to try and sort of further the interest of your company and your employees. I think where you start to get a little stuck is when you see sort of institutional or systemic biases, whether it's gender or economic circumstances or racial bias, that kind of thing.
AD: Lee, thanks so much for joining us.
LM: Thank you for having me.
AD: Lee Mayer is CEO and Co-Founder of Havenly, an online interior design firm based in Denver. We talked about sexual harassment in the tech world, given the recent resignation of a couple of venture capitalists who had funded Havenly. One was on the company's board until the sexual harassment revelations prompted Mayer to cut ties with him. They've asked him to leave the board. You're with Colorado Matters from CPR News.