I should have known better. But sometimes it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
When all these revelations about sexual misconduct and harassment recently became public, people were shocked, outraged, and angry. I wanted to weigh-in with an emotional response of my own. Yet my overarching emotion was better described as the absence of one particular emotion: Surprise.
For those who can’t tell by reading my name, I am male. I was co-founder of 6 funded high-tech startups, and then spent a short stint in the venture capital industry – all in Silicon Valley. Later I escaped to become an entrepreneurship educator, advisor, investor and author. This rampant “bad behavior” is one of the reasons why I left Silicon Valley.
So, I wasn’t surprised. I was, however, surprised to see how many people who were surprised. I tweeted as much, sarcastically, about one of the offenders. Alas, 140 characters is a risky place for sarcasm, and for some, the sarcasm didn’t seep through.
A touch of the outrage ricocheted to me – a few people implied that I “didn’t get it” – mistaking my bemused lack of surprise as somehow condoning the boorish behavior. Nope. It’s about time these guys got called out, and I am in awe of the women who had the guts to do it.
Silicon Valley culture is really a euphemism for the fast paced, high growth ecosystem of entrepreneurs, startup companies and the investors that fuel them – no matter where they are located. And most who are not immersed in this culture find it amusing that we need so many articles explaining why this behavior is inappropriate, wrong, abusive, and criminal. But Silicon Valley wasn’t always so clueless.
Some might remember during the dot-com boom, there were 2 incidents within a week of each other: A prominent Silicon Valley CEO arranged a meeting with an underage female he met online. She was 14 years old when he met her in a hotel room and had sex. The other executive only got as far as the first meeting. Once they were discovered, they were each promptly fired and jailed. End of story. No one needed countless articles explaining how this was “bad behavior.” Every adult knew it; and those who didn’t know it, probably ended up being perpetrators and convicts themselves.
Fast forward to 2017. Almost daily, we’re hearing accounts of high-profile Silicon Valley venture capitalists and executives preying on, discriminating against, or harassing women. But attributing this problem to misogyny isn’t the whole story. Certainly women get the worst of this behavior – but these offenders’ victims aren’t limited to women. And the warning signs were everywhere.
Put yourself into this timeless, modern tale:
You get a coveted job as an associate or partner at a venture capital firm. Chances are, you have an Ivy League degree. For as long as you’ve been alive, people have been treating you like you’re destined for great things -even entitled to them. And now you’re in the elite VC club.
This new job puts you close to millions – maybe billions – of dollars; funding that entrepreneurs are desperately struggling to get. You may not be the gatekeeper or the decision maker, and you’re certainly not the one who will roll up your sleeves and work 22 hours a day to build the next Amazon, Google or Facebook. But none of this matters. Everyone thinks you hold the keys to the money-vault. So they line up.
Journalists and entrepreneurs treat you as if you’re an expert or a thought leader. You get invited to speak at panels, write articles on how to build a company, and on the state of the industry. People hang on your every word merely because they think you can invest in their company.
As Tevya, from Fiddler on the Roof sings “When you’re rich, they think you really know.”
So it’s hard not to get a little arrogant. People stand in line to get your business card. Entrepreneurs actually have to read books and take classes just to learn how to talk to you. You tell entrepreneurs (your customers, by the way) that you won’t even read their emails unless they already know someone else in your elite circle.
The results of your work or behavior really won’t be measured for at least 7 years (the typical lifespan of a venture fund). Meanwhile, you still get paid handsomely regardless of your track record. You can go on working for many years without ever being held accountable. Even if you aren’t successful, the industry keeps a very tight lid on such information.
Money and power, minus transparency and accountability: It can transform arrogance into hubris. And then you start crossing the line of acceptable behavior and decency. Maybe you use profanity all the time, thinking that it makes you sound blunt and honest – pushing limits and boundaries. But really it just makes you foul mouthed and immature. Regardless, people think you’re close to that pile of money, so they tolerate it. That song might as well say “when they think you’re rich, they’ll tolerate anything.”
You continue to cross the line, because you’re elite and special. No one says anything. But it’s not all your fault; you’ve have a lot of enablers.
Silicon Valley seems universally outraged at the recent tranche of revelations. But this egregious behavior didn’t go from zero-to-one overnight. It happened in small steps. And every step of the way, people tolerated, enabled, and even encouraged this behavior.
I’m constantly taken aback as to how many people publicly tolerate – even celebrate – boorish, arrogant behavior from high profile people – and somehow think that this is merely “pushing the limits and breaking boundaries.” Far too many think that this behavior is the prerequisite for success, based on a small list of accomplished celebrities, who attained their success despite this bad behavior – not because of it.
In Silicon Valley, the gateway behavior is often brushed off as a form of “bro culture” or simply as part of our lively, intense startup culture. It starts simple, maybe a beer-bash at work, with employees getting drunk – hooting, wrestling – or maybe even more subtle than that: like having a text conversation with someone, while in the middle of a face-to-face business meeting. It’s the little things that say “I don’t care what anyone else thinks – what I want to do is more important.”
CEOs and even HR directors seem to condone – and even encourage – the behavior: As if they are drawing on the logic of “we want to be a unicorn company – so we have to move fast and break things – and act unconventional and irreverent.” In other words: bad behavior is good. People tolerate it because maybe there’s something exciting about ignoring boundaries, and getting close to crossing that line.
When someone straddles that “line” long enough, it’s only a matter of time until they start feeling comfortable crossing it. How long traveling on that line before the signposts say “Misogyny, Harassment & Assault – Next Exit” ?
But surely not everyone tolerates it. Not everyone is an enabler. What happens if you try to discourage the behavior, or stop it early?
Certainly there are people in Silicon Valley who recognize the behavior in its embryonic stages. They understand that, if it’s allowed to grow, it can indeed flourish into the headlines we see today. But instead of speaking up, discouraging it, or stopping it – they do nothing.
Of course we all know why. Silicon Valley is an integrated ecosystem; a community. If you want to be an entrepreneur, a developer, an investor, or even an employee – you need to be a part of the culture. If you speak out about these small behaviors, you’ll seem prudish, petty and naive. No one wants to be that person. Few will see you as brave: you’re not a team player; you’re just a complainer, or “not a cultural fit.” And you’ll end up being marginalized or even ostracized.
It’s like working in a Hollywood cliche. If you don’t tolerate the boorish behavior by the director or producer: “You’ll never work in this town again.” In Silicon Valley’s case: “You’ll never get your company funded. Ever.”
So the voices of those who see the warning signs are filtered-out and muted. Collateral damage. At worst, they are the outcasts – not the bad-actors themselves – leaving only the enablers.
Little by little, like the proverbial frog in the pot, the arrogance, hubris, and boorish behavior increases. Inappropriate behavior, at first ignored and tolerated, becomes common and almost expected. No one seems to notice how often they come to crossing a line – a line no one should even be near.
Here we are today. Revelation after revelation; confessions and apologies. Even the apologies reveal how these guys really didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. Few ever challenged them when the behavior was merely in the ‘arrogant stage.’
Some of these guys claim they are going into counseling, or taking seminars and training in sexual harassment. This is as amusing as it is serious. All around the country, many well-adjusted men read these accounts and have cartoon thought-bubbles over their heads:
Really? You’re 50 years old, and you need someone to teach you that it’s wrong to bring an inebriated 22 year old woman back to your hotel room to try to sleep with her?
You’re married, have 3 kids, and they’re out of town. Do you really need someone to tell you that inviting a younger woman (or any woman!) to your house is inappropriate? Have you lost so much touch with reality that you think this is OK?
The maneuvering, deception, and lying that you do while trying to sleep with a 20-something entrepreneur: are we to think this is the ONLY time you deceive, lie and manipulate to get what you want?
Silicon Valley, you’ve seen the warning signs. and yet in so many subtle ways, you’ve enabled these guys. Reading all the responses to the recent articles reminds me of Captain Renault’s disingenuous proclamation in Casablanca: “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here! ”
If you work in Silicon Valley, you see the seeds of the problem every day. Watching this behavior, the warning signs, is like watching a ticking time bomb: When the bomb finally blows up and destroys everyone nearby, sure, everyone is shocked – but how can you be surprised?
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CJ Cornell is a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, now an educator, advisor and author based in Phoenix.
He is the author of:
The Age of Metapreneurship – A Journey into the Future of Entrepreneurship
(Venture Point Press, May 2017)
and the upcoming:
The Startup Brain Trust – A Guidebook for Startups, Entrepreneurs, and the Experts that Help them Become Great.
(Venture Point Press, Sept 2017)