“Don’t even think about doing it,” Y Combinator’s Jessica Livingston wrote. “I will find out. Y Combinator will not continue to work with you.”
The post follows increasing publicity surrounding the sexual advances and discrimination that female founders often find when seeking investors for their startups. Wired published stories from female founders who experienced bias, reminding readers with the title “This Is What Tech’s Ugly Gender Problem Really Looks Like.” Following that, Forbes published the anonymous account of a female founder who said if women want to lean in, they better “armor up.”
Some even took to Secret to discuss the problem, where a post asked specifically which male venture capitalists make inappropriate sexual advances on female founders and “trick them into dates.” The Secret post has garnered multiple accusations of libel and defamation, with commenters arguing it was not the proper platform to disclose the names of the venture capitalists guilty of this behavior.
Secret, Silicon Valley’s depository for anonymous gossip about blow jobs and the latest firings, should not be the place to make serious reports about such offensive and inappropriate behavior. But the fact that founders are reporting their highlights that women entrepreneurs have few other places to go without jeopardizing their own reputations.
They have no human resources departments, and fears about backlash to such accusations make it incredibly difficult to even talk with business partners and other investors, especially considering the relative power investors have compared to fledgling entrepreneurs.
A female founder with a young company runs directly into the deep, dark waters of moneyed (and largely male) gatekeepers and may be reliant on funding that comes from the same investment houses that continue to tolerate this kind of discriminatory behavior.
Since the anonymous Forbes magazine piece and the post on Secret, some have argued this problem will be impossible to correct until women start going public and naming names. But the onus should be on the investors who are behaving inappropriately to change their behavior and on their colleagues who stand by and let them to say something. Those who are harassed should not be blamed for wanting privacy. Re/code founder Kara Swisher said it best at an intern networking event I attended last month when she reminded the mostly male panel and audience it’s not just “up to the women to lean in or whatever the fuck they’re supposed to do.” Investors, particularly male investors, need to sit at the table on this issue, too.
Prior to the recent media attention, sexual harassment from investors to founders remained taboo. Y Combinator President Sam Altman told Valleywag the company had taken action in the past, not inviting allegedly offending investors to Demo Day and not sending them referrals. But by finally talking about the issue publicly, Y Combinator has paved the way for other accelerators and investors to adapt similar zero-tolerance policies.
“Nearly all the investors we know are completely upstanding and professional, but even one inappropriate incident is too many,” Livingston wrote.
Then let’s see those upstanding and professional investors create some change.