Kleiner Perkins’ legendary venture investor John Doerr testified last week that Ellen Pao needed to “own the room” if she wanted to move up in the world of venture capital.
Today, she did just that.
Until her turn on the witness stand today, we hadn’t heard directly from Pao in the several years of run-up to the courtroom trial of Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Silicon Valley’s most high-profile gender discrimination suit in memory.
For the last two weeks, she sat stoically in the front row, looking on silently as a parade of former colleagues discussed the highs and lows of her seven-year-long career at Kleiner Perkins. Through the pre-trial documents and courtroom testimony, we’ve heard about her “dry wit,” her propensity to be “quiet” during important meetings and her purported “resentment” of other colleagues. But we’d never heard her speak.
Making her debut as a witness on the stand today, she was much clearer, stronger and more direct than might have been suspected after what several former colleagues and managers have said about her professional and personal demeanor. In fact, she’s perhaps been the most lucid and straightforward person to testify thus far.
Pao provided a forthcoming and often damning account of the alleged gender discrimination and retaliation she says she experienced over the course of her career at Kleiner. (Keep in mind, however, that she’s being questioned by her own lawyer and has not yet been cross-examined by Kleiner Perkins’ legal team.)
Here are some relevant excerpts:
It’s known that Pao entered a consensual relationship with her then-colleague Ajit Nazre who would years later go on to harass Trae Vassallo, another female partner at the firm.
Pao said Nazre began pursuing her around February 2006, seven months into her tenure at Kleiner.
“I told him I wasn’t interested. I told him to go seek counseling, that he has kids, that he should be with his wife,” she said. “We had this conversation several times.”
Pao went on, “He continued to pursue me. He was relentless. He eventually told me that his wife had left him.”
“After he told you that his wife had left him, did you initially enter into any kind of intimate relationship with him?” Lawless asked.
“No, I told him for the following month that he should really try to work things out with his wife.”
“At some point, did that change?”
Pao said it had. “After about a month, he said it was not reparable.”
Pao said that once Nazre had told her that he and his wife had indeed separated, they started “seeing each other” in an “off-and-on relationship that lasted between five and six months.”
“And how did that relationship end? What happened?” her attorney asked.
“I found that he had lied to me, and that his wife had not in fact left him. I ended it immediately and permanently,” Pao said. “I was furious.”
After the relationship with Nazre ended, Pao said it affected her work.
“He meant to make my job much more difficult,” Pao testified.
“And how did he make your job more difficult?” Lawless asked.
“It was hard to get information from him. He would cut me out of e-mails or he would take me out of e-mail threads or he would not invite me to meetings,” Pao said. “It was something that made it hard for me to do my job. We’re a small partnership.”
Her lawyer showed an e-mail between the two as evidence. It read:
“Ok, this is the second time you’ve cut me out of the loop. I thought we had moved past it, but if you want to not communicate or work together, that’s fine.”
In his email in response to her complaint, he minimized the issue: “You are making a big deal out of a 5-minute discussion,” he wrote.
Pao said that she decided to go to longtime Kleiner partner Ray Lane, who was also Nazre’s supervisor, about the situation. She told him that Nazre had pursued her and that they had a brief on-and-off relationship, and that he was now cutting her out of key work discussions. Pao suggested to Lane that Kleiner add anti-harassment policies and human resources training to its business practices.
She said that Lane had responded not with action on the HR front, but by telling the story of how he had met his second wife while they were both working at Oracle. He had been married to his first wife at the time. Lane said that he had gone on to have a wonderful life with his former colleague — and that, perhaps, Pao could have that with Nazre.
But, Pao said, Lane added that she and Nazre likely wouldn’t be able to work together. When Lane became involved with his current wife at Oracle, his wife had to quit. Pao said this implied that Lane was suggesting that she would have to leave Kleiner, too.
“Did you tell Mr. Lane that you were interested in having a serious relationship with Mr. Nazre?” Lawless asked.
“Absolutely not,” Pao said.
Lane then suggested that she and Nazre have a one-on-one lunch to try and figure out how to work things out.
(For his part, Lane said in his testimony last week that he only relayed this story to show how he understood how complicated workplace relationships could be.)
Asleep at the HR switch
Pao testified that from the beginning of her employment, it was clear that despite Kleiner Perkins’ clout, it was a very casual partnership in many ways — namely, the firm was not fastidious about certain key aspects of HR and employment policy.
Pao’s offer letter when joining Kleiner referred to “attached” discrimination and investment ethics policies that weren’t included as attachments at the time, and never surfaced at any point, according to her testimony. And later, when she went to senior partners about her issues with her former paramour Nazre, her questions about more HR infrastructure at the firm were ignored.
“I told Ray [Lane] and Ted [Schlein] about the problems that Ajit had caused for me. I said we needed HR policies and training because we were not understanding how to behave appropriately,” Pao said. At the point she brought up these issues, she was months past the end of her relationship with Nazre, but had allegedly heard that several administrative assistants at Kleiner had also experienced unwanted sexual advances from him.
“I wanted to get the firm to do something about the kind of loosey-goosey way we dealt with issues. It was important,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, her requests for more HR oversight went unanswered.
The Twitter investment that could have been
Though Kleiner’s defense thus far has focused largely on Ellen Pao’s alleged lack of the skills it takes to be a successful investor, Pao’s own testimony highlighted her role in sourcing several key deals for Kleiner — as well as at least one huge missed opportunity.
“Were there any investments that you believed that [Kleiner] should look into, that the company decided not to?” Pao’s attorney asked.
“There was a company called Twitter that I thought was really interesting,” Pao said, citing a tech company that is sure to have had name recognition for the jury. She said that she looked at Twitter in the fall of 2007. “I spent time with the founder Jack Dorsey… I tried to bring it to [Kleiner senior partner] Matt Murphy’s attention.”
Pao said that Murphy had previously looked into the company, but he had then decided not to invest. “I thought we should take another look, as I heard they were raising money again. I thought it could be an interesting investment,” Pao said. “I believe they had only raised one or two rounds of funding, so they were very early stage.”
Pao said that ultimately, her proposal for Kleiner Perkins to invest in Twitter was shot down. “Matt Murphy said he had looked at the company before, and that the founding team ‘wasn’t business minded,’ and that they would not be able to generate revenues and create a sustainable business.”
It’s not just Twitter that Pao was an early advocate of. According to her testimony, Pao led Kleiner’s sourcing and investments in RPX, which went public; Datameer, a going concern in the Hadoop and big data space; and social reading app Flipboard.
During the years when Kleiner’s top brass was focusing big bets on money-losing greentech investments such as Fisker and Bloom Energy, and the favored junior partners were plugging money into risky digital bets, such as Path and Zaarly, if anything, Pao’s judgment seems to have been sharper than the rest.
Maternity leave and the board seat at RPX
Pao also discussed in detail RPX, the legal startup that she said she championed at Kleiner. She said that after she’d convinced the firm to invest in RPX, John Doerr did not want to pursue a board seat at the company, but he saw it as a “good opportunity” for Pao.
She added, though, that he was also anxious about her upcoming maternity leave.
“He had expressed concern about my ability to work on RPX given my maternity leave,” Pao said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to feel like I’m ignoring his wishes or advice. His wish was for me not to work on it, so I wanted to make sure that I was respectful of what he had told me.”
“You went out on maternity leave. So you gave birth to a child?” her lawyer asked.
“Yes, I did,” Pao answered, eliciting a bit of a chuckle from herself and the courtroom at the obviousness of the question.
“Can you tell us whether it was a boy or a girl?” Lawless asked.
“It was a girl,” Pao said. “She acts like a boy, though.”
“About how much time did you take for maternity leave?” Lawless asked.
“I worked through Friday before the weekend,” Pao said. “I gave birth on a Monday, and I took about three months off.”
“When you returned from maternity leave, what role did you play at RPX?” her lawyer asked.
“I was a helper to Randy basically,” Pao said. “I spent a lot of time with the team. They were based in San Francisco. I probably spent an afternoon a week in San Francisco. And I worked closely with the board.”
She said she helped them recruit for several different positions, including a CFO and a head of sales. She attended board meetings and dinners. She added that Randy Komisar received some complaints from executives at RPX for not being as involved with the company’s activities as they would have liked.
“After you came back from your maternity leave, did you continue to work with RPX. At any time were you asked to join the board of RPX?”
“I was not.”
Komisar would go on to the take the board seat and RPX would go on to have an IPO. Pao said she was not invited to a dinner celebrating that IPO.
“[Doerr] said I had done all the work on RPX and had built all the relationships, but Randy needed a win so he was going to get the credit for the IPO.”
The Gore dinner
There are several things in this case that are literally a case of he said, she said — and the August 2011 dinner with Al Gore is one of them.
Since her initial legal complaint nearly three years ago, Pao has claimed that her Kleiner Perkins colleague Chi-Hua Chien organized a dinner with Vice President Al Gore in which only men were invited, and that when questioned about why women weren’t included, he said that women would “kill the buzz.”
In court over the past two weeks, several witnesses, including Chien, have testified under oath that while the Gore dinner happened to be an exclusively male event, the “kill the buzz” statement never happened.
Today, Pao detailed her own account of the Gore dinner, and firmly stood by her “kill the buzz” allegation. It turns out that Pao lived in the same building in which Al Gore had his San Francisco apartment, which she says added to her “humiliation” around the situation.
The night of the dinner, Pao said, she came down the elevator of her building and ran into some entrepreneurs who were headed to the event. “They asked me if I was going back up to the dinner, and I had to tell them, ‘No, I’m not invited,'” she testified.
Outside of her building, she ran into Mike McCue, the founder and CEO of Flipboard, where she served on the board of directors. She gave him tips on where he could park his car, but ultimately had to tell him that she wouldn’t be seeing him upstairs with Vice President Gore.
“I had to tell him, ‘No, I’m not going to be a part of this dinner.’ It was pretty humiliating.”
Later, she said, the issue that there were only men at the Gore dinner had come up at a meeting with other digital partners at Kleiner Perkins. According to Pao, Trae Vassallo and Aileen Lee had also expressed disappointment at what had happened.
“It was said that if there were women there, that the conversation would be tempered, and it was because women kill the buzz,” Pao said, naming Chi-Hua Chien as the partner who made the statement.
Only the beginning
This is only the beginning of what’s sure to be a long road for Pao on the witness stand.
It should be pointed out that as the plaintiff, Pao has thus far been only answering questions from her own hired counsel, with whom she’s clearly comfortable — the cross examination from Kleiner’s defense attorney Lynne Hermle is yet to come. It’s also important to note that Pao has had several years to hone her side of the story and prepare for taking the stand.
Nevertheless, what we saw today was a convincing, powerful appearance from Ellen Pao. Her turn on the witness stand could certainly shake up any preconceived notions that the jury may have had of her based on what they’d heard before.