KPCB sued over sexual harassment and discrimination

Faith Merino · May 22, 2012 · Short URL:

Will this be the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill case of Silicon Valley?

Famed Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers is being sued by current partner Ellen Pao (pictured at left), who filed a complaint earlier this month alleging rampant sexual harassment and systematic gender discrimination.

The allegations could have come straight out of the ‘60s.  Pao’s complaint details a seven-year saga of workplace bullying, sexual harassment by male superiors, a classic glass ceiling, and a senior management team that refused to act.  In short: everything we thought we had sorted out 40 years ago. 

Pao, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard with degrees in electrical engineering, law, and business, joined KPCB in 2005 as a junior partner and chief of staff for John Doerr.  The sexual harassment allegedly began the year after she was hired, when she went on a business trip to Germany with fellow junior partner Ajit Nazre.  In the complaint, Pao claims that Nazre made sexual advances during the trip and she rebuffed him.  In response to Pao’s rejection, Nazre became difficult and obstructionist.  Having been with KPCB two years longer than Pao, Nazre (pictured below) also had considerable influence over Pao’s professional life.

Pao says in the complaint that she “eventually succumbed” to Nazre’s advances on two or three occasions, but put an end to the relationship in October 2006, after which Nazre allegedly set off a pattern of retaliation that went on for five years.  Among Nazre’s retaliatory actions: he allegedly excluded Pao from business meetings, removed her from business email discussions, prevented her from interviewing potential employees, and failed to share information required for her job.  During this time, Pao complained repeatedly to HR and senior partners, but no action was taken.  Instead, Nazre was promoted to senior partner in the greentech division in which Pao worked, which gave him more direct control over her career.

Pao also says in the complaint that on Valentine’s Day 2007, senior partner Randy Komisar came into her office and gave her a book entitled “The Book of Longing,” which featured sexually explicit drawings and poems.  Komisar then asked Pao out to dinner and mentioned that his wife would be out of town.

In the complaint, Ellen Pao alleges that the more she complained, the more KPCB engaged in systematic retaliation against her, including preventing her from being promoted or earning raises by setting up her annual performance reviews to be reviewed by people she hadn’t worked with that year and even the very people she had complained about.

But more than that, Pao’s complaint paints a portrait of a Good Ole Boys Club that intentionally and systematically prevented women from being able to move up in the firm.  Not only had other women in the company complained of sexual harassment and discrimination, but Pao claimed that on several occasions, male senior and managing partners held “no girls allowed” business meetings with high profile companies.  Partner Chi-Hua Chien held not one, but two dinner events for select KPCB partners and executives from leading KPCB-funded companies—and at both dinners, only male partners were invited. 

She also claimed that women were prevented from receiving compensation equal to that of their male coworkers.  For example, while male junior partners were allowed to add multiple boards of director positions and investment sponsorships each year, female junior partners were limited to just one. 

Furthermore, while Pao claims she had led KPCB’s investment in RPX, KPCB chose Randy Komisar to act as the company’s board representative.  According to the complaint, John Doerr told Pao that she had done all the work and deserved the board seat, but that Komisar “needed a win.”  When the company ran into problems with Komisar and other board members allegedly wanted Komisar off the board, KPCB responded by urging Pao to terminate her relationship with the company so that Randy Komisar could build his own relationship.

RPX, which went public last year, declined to comment on the allegations.

KPCB isn’t commenting on the case outside of the following statement:

“In response to a discrimination complaint filed in the Superior Court of San Francisco by Ellen Pao, Christina Lee, a Kleiner Perkins spokesperson, stated the Firm regrets that the situation is being litigated publicly and had hoped the two parties could have reached resolution, particularly given Pao’s 7-year history with the firm. Following a thorough independent investigation of the facts, the firm believes the lawsuit is without merit and intends to vigorously defend the matter. The Firm has been a diversity pioneer in its industry and was one of the first venture capital firms to hire women as partners. The number of women partners at the firm is one of the highest within the venture capital arena and the firm has actively supported women in all respects.”

You can see the full text of Pao's complaint below.

Pao v Kleiner

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