It was nearly three years ago that TechCrunch broke the story that Ellen Pao, then a partner at vaunted Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, was suing the firm for alleged gender discrimination and professional retaliation she said she experienced after reporting a colleague for sexual harassment. Subsequently, Kleiner responded that Pao’s case has no validity, and that her failure to advance at the firm was due solely to her personal and professional shortcomings as an employee.
It was, and continues to be, an explosive and messy case, with a number of damning allegations on both sides. And now, after many months of failed settlement negotiations and pre-trial meetings, both sides are getting their day in court. At stake is $16 million, which Pao’s legal team says represents her lost earnings as a result of the alleged gender discrimination and retaliation.
Today in a packed courtroom at San Francisco’s Superior Court, the legal teams representing Pao and Kleiner Perkins have begun laying out their arguments in front of a 12-person jury. I’m here in the courtroom today, and TechCrunch will be reporting on the case as it plays out in the days ahead.
The judge presiding over the case, Harold Kahn, has penciled in at least four weeks for the trial. Detailed testimony regarding the somewhat arcane financial and operational details of how venture capital firms are managed will be presented alongside the material allegations at hand.
Testimony to come
Along with Pao, who left Kleiner in late 2012 and is currently serving as the interim CEO of Reddit, a number of key Silicon Valley power players have been subpoenaed to testify as witnesses in the case.
This morning, Pao’s lead attorney Alan Exelrod said that former Kleiner Perkins partner Trae Vassallo will be testifying about the sexual harassment she allegedly also experienced at the firm from Ajit Nazre, the same former Kleiner partner at the center of Pao’s claims. Vassallo, who is still working for Kleiner as a strategic advisor, is set to testify as early as this afternoon, Exelrod said.
Meanwhile, Kleiner’s lead attorney Lynne Hermle named prominent Kleiner staffers Mary Meeker, Juliet de Baubigny, Beth Seidenberg, and Susan Biglieri as examples of people who will take the stand to testify to Kleiner’s purported gender inclusiveness. Other possible witnesses include longtime boldfaced names in technology investing including John Doerr, Ray Lane, Ted Schlein, Randy Komisar, Chi-Hua Chien, and others.
The easy take is not the full picture
Many in the press seem to be seizing on depicting this case as a symbol of a larger issue: the difficult road that women often face in the technology industry. As Pao headed out of the courtroom today for the lunch break, a swarm of reporters with cameras and microphones rushed up to her hollering questions such as “Is Silicon Valley a boy’s club?” in a manner familiar to anyone who’s seen paparazzi videos from TMZ and the like.
As compelling as that approach surely is to mainstream readers and quick clicks, to me it seems reductive, as it’s become clear over the past few years the Pao case has played out that this is not a simple case of women versus men. There are multiple issues and allegations at play, and it’s a sensitive and unique situation with a number of conflicting accounts. The jury will have a challenging road ahead as it works to suss out what is true, false, right, and wrong here.
Embedded below are the briefs of Ellen Pao’s complaint against Kleiner Perkins, and Kleiner Perkins’ response, respectively:
Photo credit: Ellen Pao leaves the Civic Center Courthouse along with her attorney, Therese Lawless, left, during a lunch break in her trial Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)