Female founders accuse VC Justin Caldbeck of making unwanted advances

Yesterday The Information reported on allegations made by half a dozen women working in the tech industry who say they have faced unwanted and inappropriate advances from Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Justin Caldbeck, co-founder and managing partner of Binary Capital. (Pictured above speaking about deal sourcing in this YouTube video.)

The women include Niniane Wang, co-creator of Google Desktop and a prior CTO of Minted; and Susan Ho and Leiti Hsu, co-founders of Journy, a travel planning and booking service.

Update 4:18 pm PT: Since we originally published this story, Caldbeck issued an apology and announced he is taking an indefinite leave of absence. TechCrunch has also been able to touch base with Hsu.

“While we’re happy that he apologized and we’re happy especially for the support of the amazing women and men, our strong preference would have been to not be in this position to begin with,” Hsu told TechCrunch.

“We would prefer to be focused on running our company and we’re grateful for the support we’ve received from Ellen Pao and Susan Fowler and countless other women. In addition, we thank Reid Hoffman, Josh Koppelman, Satya Patel, Mike Maples, David Hornik and other men in the industry who have also spoken out against this behavior.”

The Information also talked to three other women who said Caldbeck made inappropriate advances to them. It says these women did not want their names disclosed for fear of retaliation from the VC — and because of wider concerns they might suffer a backlash from men in the industry who don’t see inappropriate advances as a problem.

On the latter point you only have to look at recent goings on at a company like Uber to understand where such concerns are coming from.

TechCrunch has multiple female journalists on staff whose jobs frequently involve talking to VCs and technologists, at times in a one on one capacity. Many of us also have stories of similarly inappropriate behavior from male sources and interview subjects — be it being propositioned via text message late at night or having to brush off unwanted advances during a professional networking event.

But while instances of sexism and inappropriate behavior are — sad to say — not novel in the tech industry, or indeed in other industries, what’s very unusual about this story is that women are going on the record to speak out against a well-connected Silicon Valley VC.

Probably the most high profile example to date of a woman who made a public allegation of mistreatment against a VC firm was Ellen Pao, who in 2012 sued Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. She went on to lose the case — and had to pay costs of more than a quarter of a million dollars.

Pao is today tweeting a list of VCs speaking up against the things Caldbeck has been accused of doing:

Among the allegations made to The Information are that Caldbeck sent explicit text messages to women; that Caldbeck sent messages in the middle of the night suggesting meeting up; that Caldbeck suggested going to a hotel bedroom during a meeting; that Caldbeck made a proposition about having an open relationship; and that Caldbeck grabbed a woman’s thigh under the table of a bar during a meeting.

The women were all in contact with the VC in a professional capacity. Some as founders hoping to secure funding from his fund for their businesses. It’s hard to imagine a more skewed power dynamic.

Several of the women reported finding Caldbeck’s advances so awkward they gave up on continued dealings with him. Next time you remember how few founders are female and how many VCs are male, think on that.

In a statement responding to The Information’s story, Caldbeck said: “Obviously, I am deeply disturbed by these allegations. While significant context is missing from the incidents reported by The Information, I deeply regret ever causing anyone to feel uncomfortable. The fact is that I have been privileged to have worked with female entrepreneurs throughout my career and I sincerely apologize to anyone who I made uncomfortable by my actions. There’s no denying this is an issue in the venture community, and I hate that my behavior has contributed to it.”

This statement is very different in tone to Caldbeck’s initial, much more aggressive public response, in which he “strongly” denied the allegations and claimed: “I have always enjoyed respectful relationships with female founders, business partners, and investors.”

We’ve asked the firm what “significant context” Caldbeck is referring to in his second statement but have so far received no response on that. But we understand it will be responding in more detail in due course. The early stage San Francisco VC firm was founded in 2014 and focuses on consumer startups. It has more than $300 million under management at this point.

While Pao remained publicly positive about her 2012 decision to speak out — saying at the end of the case that she felt “gratified that my actions have encouraged others to speak up about discrimination in venture capital and technology more broadly” — she was also at pains to underline the massive power imbalance between individuals and VC firms, saying she was dropping her appeal “since I cannot afford the risk of even more costs to fight against a firm with tremendous financial resources and massive legal and PR armies”.