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Women in Silicon Valley Take on Harassment

July 17, 2017

Sweat rolled down the faces of women dressed in super hero costumes at the recent noon SoulCycle class in San Mateo, California.

Despite the thumping beat of the music, this was no routine workout. These Silicon Valley women were cycling as a protest, part of a response to an array of claims of gender inequity brought to light in recent months.

Travis Kalanick, the former chief executive of Uber, resigned from the company he co-created after women complained about the ride-hailing firm’s culture.

More recently, two prominent male venture capitalists left their roles after women complained about sexual harassment they experienced. Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal and Dave McClure of 500 Startups also stepped down after a New York Times article earlier this month described incidents of his sexual misconduct.

The controversies threaten to cast a shadow over a unique part of the U.S. tech industry - the startup ecosystem.

“There’s no glass ceiling when you start your own business,” shouted Tim Draper, a prominent venture capitalist and organizer of the event, before the cycling began. He wore a red cape and a Spider Man shirt. “You can paint it any color you want.”

The room cheered.

The venture capital industry, which finances startups, is predominantly run by men. Some Silicon Valley women say they have faced harassment when they sought financing.

“You pitch your idea and they go, ‘Oh that’s really interesting,’ and more like they were setting up dates,” said Wendy Dent, founder and chief executive of Cinemmerse, which makes an app for smartwatches.

Dent, a former model-turned tech entrepreneur, says she faced harassment during conversations with a would-be advisor. She struggled over how to respond.

“What was I going to do, go the police and say he sent me this email?” she said.

The willingness of more women to publicly come forward, including posting their experiences on social media, is making an impact, say some industry veterans. In the case of Uber, a female engineer went online to detail her experience, which included being propositioned by someone on her team. It was the financial backers of the firm who ultimately pressed for the ousting of the CEO.

“We can use things like social media now, not just the courts, to communicate what we’re all seeing within the industry,” said Kate Mitchell, a venture capitalist.

At the SoulCycle rally, Miranda Wang, chief executive of BioCellection, said attitudes about women in the industry are slowly changing.

“What we are doing now,” she said, “is making it something people have more awareness of.”

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