The long-term cost of sexual harassment

When news recently broke that multiple women have accused 500 Startups founder Dave McClure of sexual harassment, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. In 2015, I was propositioned and groped by a 500 Startups venture partner named Tristan Pollock during an event here in Taipei while working as a contributor for TechCrunch. After 500 Startups conducted an internal investigation, McClure told TechCrunch’s Editor-in-Chief that disciplinary action would be taken against Pollock. I am devastated that someone I trusted to see the details of my encounter with Pollock and deal with him appropriately had, in fact, made many women feel equally uncomfortable.

I saw many comments praising McClure for his “courage” after he wrote a blog post titled “I’m a Creep. I’m Sorry.” The truly courageous people, however, are the women who have come forward. As we have seen in the past few weeks, nothing really changes until victims give up the protection of anonymity to talk about their experiences with sexual harassment. I realized that I need to tell my story, too.

Writing an apology takes a few hours, at most. For a year after Pollock groped me, I experienced what I now realize were PTSD-like symptoms. I had not anticipated them and was completely unprepared to have intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and anxiety attacks in situations or around people that, for one reason or another, triggered memories of the incident, which took place on October 7, 2015.

Pollock was visiting Taipei to represent 500 Startups at a local startup hub and meet with entrepreneurs in the program. My friend, who worked at the startup hub, and I had just finished attending a networking event at a restaurant. We were outside when three men arrived and greeted my friend. I hadn’t met any of them before, but I later found out that they were Pollock, another staffer at the startup hub and a Taipei-based 500 Startups employee.

Pollock told the group that he wanted to go to a bar. I was getting ready to leave because my husband had just called to let me know he was done with work, but my friend asked me to join them, so I told her I’d stay for a drink. As we were walking, we heard Pollock say that he hadn’t had much luck on Tinder in Taiwan. My friend told Pollock I’m not available because I’m married. Then she added that I like white men, because my husband is white. I was dismayed to hear her describe my relationship like that, especially because it seemed to intensify Pollock’s interest in me. He put his arm around my shoulders and whispered “Can’t you pretend you’re single?” in my ear. I shrugged him off. Our group bumped into a man with a Pomeranian and Pollock started asking him about his dog. I was relieved because I thought he was done focusing on my relationship status.

When we walked away, however, Pollock grabbed my hand and asked me why can’t I pretend I’m single. His behavior was escalating quickly and I was frightened. I tried to pull away repeatedly. I splayed my fingers and twisted my hand, but he held on. I looked for the other two men in our group, but they were too far ahead. My friend, who was several yards in front of Pollock and me, turned around and held her phone up. I realized she was taking a photo. Later, when I asked her why she had done that, she said she didn’t get what was going on. Being photographed in that situation by someone I kept hoping would help me felt terrible.

Pollock finally let go of my hand when we had to cross a street. I saw a taxi queue a block away and told my friend that it was late and I needed to go home. She walked up to me and playfully tugged at my arm, asking me to stay. Pollock came up to my other side and grabbed my other hand, again. He slid his hand down where my friend couldn’t see and grabbed my butt, as if to pull me in toward him.

I had been catcalled and verbally harassed before, but never touched sexually without my consent by a stranger. I backed away, got into a taxi and went home.

Soon after the incident, I wrote down a detailed description of what Pollock did to me. I saved the photo my friend took, even though I hated knowing it was in my storage. I told the startup hub what had happened, because I was worried that Pollock would do the same thing to a female founder. TechCrunch’s editor contacted 500 Startups on my behalf a few days after Pollock sexually harassed me. I didn’t feel comfortable doing so myself, but I wanted to make sure that I never ran into Pollock at a startup event in Taipei again. 500 Startups’ human resources manager emailed me, asking for my account of the incident, and I sent it to her. Afterward, I was told that 500 Startups carried out its own investigation and internal response.

Pollock remained (and remains) an entrepreneur-in-residence and venture partner at 500 Startups. I was confused that he wasn’t fired after groping me and I wish I had asked why, but I felt overwhelmed. I had covered several 500 Startup investments before in my time as a contributor at TechCrunch and heard founders speak well of McClure, so I decided to take it on faith that he and his colleagues would handle Pollock appropriately.

A few months later, I began to suspect that despite 500 Startups’ internal response, Pollock still didn’t understand the impact his actions had on me. I had no contact with him after the incident, but in March 2016, five months after he groped me, Pollock submitted a post through Crunch Network called “How sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are creating the next big tech companies.” I saw after it was posted on TechCrunch. It was extremely upsetting to see his byline on the site he knew I work with, especially on an article in which he wrote:

“Vice technology, or ViceTech, is turning sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll into viable, trustworthy companies that power some of our culture’s most loved products and experiences. This newfound accessibility for consumers and businesses is erasing past taboos and, in return, is allowing people to have more fun, and that’s driving more vice companies to launch, grow, and get noticed by the investor community.”

As someone who had experienced Pollock’s own version of “ViceTech,” I felt victimized again. I thought about emailing 500 Startups the link and asking how effective their internal response had been if Pollock thought it was okay to publish those words where I was guaranteed to see them. My husband and I were expecting our first child, however, and I decided not to take further action because I was sick from pregnancy complications. Most of the people I worked with at TechCrunch did not know Pollock had groped me, but they took his post down after I told them (Pollock republished it on Medium).

By that time, I was already experiencing intrusive thoughts. They started a few weeks after my encounter with Pollock, when the initial shock had worn off, and would continue for about a year. During my pregnancy, I found my prenatal exams stressful, because I did not want to be touched by nurses or my doctor. I startled easily when people approached me, even if it was my husband and I hadn’t seen him first, especially at night. Once I was rocking my newborn in a swaddle, trying to soothe her, and I started crying because I felt that I was holding her against her will and it brought back bad feelings even though it was the only way to get her to sleep.

I turned down all invitations I got for tech events and conferences. I isolated myself from people in the industry, including the friend who was with me that night. During my maternity leave, I considered leaving tech reporting because I didn’t know how I could do my job effectively if I was too anxious to network with potential sources. I was scared and have been for almost two years.

In the last few weeks, the many stories that have emerged about sexual harassment in the tech industry forced me to re-live my encounter with Pollock. While reading Cheryl Yeoh’s account of her experience with McClure, I was shocked to realize that the most serious incident she describes, during which she says McClure pushed himself onto her and kissed her without her consent, took place in 2014, the year before Pollock groped me. I began to feel more uneasy as new details emerged that conflicted with the narrative by 500 Startups’ leadership of how it handled sexual harassment charges against McClure, including an email sent to staffers by partner Elizabeth Yin about why she resigned.

As a tech reporter, I have wondered if my decision not to write about the incident with Pollock meant I was complicit in a culture of silence. But I didn’t want to lose my privacy, too, on top of everything else I lost when Pollock groped me. I am terrified about publishing this article and the impact it will have on my life. Women like Yeoh, Sarah Kunst, Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, Leiti Hsu and Susan J. Fowler, however, have shown me that there is a way forward for those who want to go on record about their experiences. No matter how uncomfortable it makes me, I know I will feel worse if I don’t speak up.

I want everyone in a position of influence in the tech industry to understand the psychological toll this kind of violation takes on victims. It is not just a workplace issue or a legal issue. It is a human rights issue. It robs women of time. It takes away energy they wanted to give to their careers or families. It fills them with shame about the most intimate parts of their lives. I’m also painfully aware that many of the women who have come forward about harassment are women of color and, in particular, Asian women.

In an apology to the Australian startup ecosystem, 500 Startups co-founder and new CEO Christine Tsai wrote that at recent events, the firm had “held Dave up to the community as a hero.” For companies in emerging markets, 500 Startups represents a rare opportunity to get Silicon Valley funding, and from my conversations with founders in Taiwan, I know many of them really did lionize McClure and, by extension, anyone else connected with 500 Startups, too. Without safeguards, that dynamic can very quickly become exploitative.

I want people like Pollock and McClure to realize the emotional damage they can do to someone in a few minutes. They need to understand that they, too, are diminished by their actions. I want 500 Startups, along with every other venture capital firm, to know that this problem isn’t limited to the most powerful men at their companies. It is a profound moral failure that permeates every level of the industry and gives victims no safe outlet to report abuse. It is a problem that cannot be solved with apologies or resignations. It means organizations lose talented, valuable workers, especially women, while retaining people who are a legal and moral liability.

When someone crosses what should be an impermeable boundary and physically assaults another person, that needs to be a fireable offense. When incidents are reported, there must be an airtight system in place that includes transparency for everyone involved, but especially victims who have already had their sense of safety violated.

As many women, including Yeoh and Brittany Laughlin of LatticeVC, have already said, the current system of reporting is broken, and it breaks people who would otherwise be building the future.

Editor’s note: Both 500 Startups and Pollock were solicited for a response to this account. 500 Startups provided the following statement:

“500 Startups investigated Ms. Shu’s complaint as soon as we learned about it nearly two years ago. We spoke to her, Mr. Pollock, and several other witnesses. Although the various accounts were inconsistent and the investigation was inconclusive, we took internal action that we felt was responsive and reparative, and we communicated that action to TechCrunch’s Editor-in-Chief, Matthew Panzarino. Mr. Panzarino stated in a subsequent text message that Ms. Shu was ‘satisfied’ by our internal actions adding that ‘At this point I believe we can close the books on this one…Thanks for taking the time and treating it seriously.’”

Update: After the article was published, 500 Startups provided this additional statement:

“When we initially looked into Ms. Shu’s account approximately two years ago, we spoke to several witnesses whose accounts and impressions of the events in question varied considerably. Nevertheless, we took the matter seriously and based on the facts made available to us took disciplinary actions with Mr. Pollock that we deemed appropriate at the time. Indeed, TechCrunch’s editor-in-chief expressed that both he and Ms. Shu were satisfied with the actions we had taken and informed us that he considered the matter to be closed.

As Ms. Shu’s posting contains new information, 500 Startups has decided to immediately engage a third party investigator to review the results of our previous investigation. We have also placed Mr. Pollock on an administrative leave of absence while we await the results of the investigation. We will take appropriate action based on their findings and recommendations.”