The sex discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins is exposing the inner-workings of the legendary tech investment firm.
A senior partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins told of an all-male dinner party and ski trip during testimony Wednesday in a high-profile Silicon Valley sex discrimination case.
Chi-Hua Chien suggested in an email to a colleague that women not be invited on a ski-trip because they might not be open to sharing a condo, and instead to invite two men.
The testimony came in a trial involving Ellen Pao, a former Kleiner Perkins junior partner who has accused the legendary investment firm of passing women over for promotions and fostering a culture that allowed sexual harassment. The trial in San Francisco Superior Court promises to expose the inner workings of one of the top tech investment firms including the hot button issues of sex, talent and money.
Kleiner Perkins denies any illegal behavior and has responded by Pao’s allegations by describing her as difficult, incompetent and not up to a more senior job.
On the witness stand, Chien, examined by Pao’s attorney, Therese Lawless, talked about a series of events he organized in which women were left off of the guest list. One involved a dinner Chien planned at former vice president Al Gore’s apartment. Although Pao lived in the same complex, she was not invited.
Chien explained that the reasons behind the all-male events were innocuous: The dinner at Al Gore’s apartment included only ten people, two of whom were Kleiner Perkins who helped to organize it. As for the ski trip, he said he was concerned that men and women sharing condos would be unprofessional and that he did invite senior partner Mary Meeker because she had a house in the area.
Chien joined Kleiner Perkins as a junior partner in 2007, two years after Pao. But he later received a promotion to senior partner while Pao was passed over.
Pao, whose resume gold stars include Princeton and two Harvard graduate degrees, claims that former Kleiner Perkins partner, Ajit Nazre, pressured her into a sexual relationship. When she ended it, Pao says she became the victim of a retaliation and sexism including being left out of important email conservations and critical meetings.
Yesterday, in the opening day of testimony, both sides delivered opening statements that painted two vastly different pictures of Kleiner Perkins, an early investor in companies like Google and Yahoo. Pao’s attorney, Alan Exelrod, said it was routine for partners to talk about porn stars and Playboy mansions on business trips while senior management did nothing to stop them. Additionally, he said that management promoted male junior partner while failing to do so with females, despite their notable successes and longer tenures.
Meanwhile, Kleiner Perkins’s attorney, Lynne Hermle, described Pao as more of a researcher who simply didn’t have the skills to make it in the hyper competitive world of venture capitalism. Hermle pointed out that eleven other male junior partners did not receive promotions and that passing over Pao was a normal part of business. As defense, the lawyer cited performance reviews in which superiors described Pao as “territorial,” having “sharp elbows” and that “at any moment in time Ellen is not getting along with someone.” These traits, Hermle argued, make Pao unfit for being a senior partner because so much of being a venture capitalist is about working with your team.
But in court Wednesday, Pao’s attorney pointed out that Chien’s own performance reviews are peppered with similar language. In 2009, one reviewer called him “highly aggressive and opinionated,” an assessment he admitted on the stand was a fair characterization. The follow year his performance review said he “can come off as having sharp elbows and being a nasty negotiator,” which Chien also acknowledged as a true. However, Chien said no one on senior management ever said these traits would prevent him from making senior partner.
During cross-examination, Hermle tried to explain why one set of “sharp elbows” would be promoted over another by bringing the discussion back to Chien’s list of accomplishments. She focused on his four Stanford degrees (Pao only rates Princeton and double Harvard degrees by comparison), sourcing an early investment in Facebook for another venture capital firm, founding a start-up, and extensive prior venture capital experience. Hermle also went to lengths to point out that his performance reviews glowed by calling him the leader in his class, “the best VC ever,” and “the go-to person on many things.”
Chien, unlike Pao, did not expect to be promoted, he said, because it was an atypical route at Kleiner Perkins. Most junior partners leave after a few years in search of another job, and he had expected to do the same.
There was no love lost between Chien and Pao. He said that they initially had a solid working relationship, but that it disintegrated when Pao joined the digital group.
“She would just try to crowd into other people’s events instead of starting her own,” he told the jury.
Later in the afternoon, Kleiner Perkins partner Amol Deshpande took the stand. Questioning on Deshpande, who was promoted from junior to senior partner, also focused on his performance reviews and how they were similar to Pao’s.
“Amol can be quite tough on the team,” one reviewer said. In another spot, he was told he needed to work on his emotional quotient, or EQ, “with investors, CEO and partners especially when they don’t agree with you.”
Deshpande echoed Chien and said that he was never told these traits would prevent him from being promoted to senior partner.
(This story was updated with additional information)