Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins opened its defense in court Monday against allegations of sexism by former partner Ellen Pao by putting well-known investor Mary Meeker on the stand.
Meeker, the firm’s top ranking female partner, took on some of Pao’s most salacious claims: That Kleiner held an all-male dinner at former Vice President Al Gore’s apartment and that it organized an all-male ski trip.
Meeker testified that while the first dinner was indeed all-male, Gore hosted a second dinner that she attended alongside a second woman, an entrepreneur. As for the ski-trip, Meeker said she was invited but couldn’t make it.
Kleiner’s defense, which kicked off this morning, follows three weeks of testimony by Pao, who is suing for gender discrimination, and her witnesses. They painted a picture of a firm in which female employees are passed over for promotions, asked to take notes for male colleagues and left off the guest list of important dinners.
To counter that image, Kleiner Perkins attorney, Lynne Hermle, said she will call a roster of 17 witnesses who are expected to vigorously defend the firm and its behavior. During the trial’s cross examinations, she has gone on the offense against Pao by pushing the idea that she was unqualified for her job and a constant source of drama.
The high-profile case is being closely followed in the tech industry, which despite its image for innovation, is a lot like the smokestack industries before it. Women are in short supply at all levels.
Meeker’s appearance on the stand and stature in the venture capital industry made her testimony a potentially pivotal moment in the trial. Her presence helps to hammer home the point the firm is trying to make that women with the right qualifications can succeed.
Meeker, who had long career at Morgan Stanley as a securities analyst, strongly endorsed Kleiner Perkins and its treatment of women. Speaking calmly and with confidence, she undermined Pao’s allegations that the firm was seething with discrimination – she never saw any directly – and praised colleagues who Pao has accused of misbehavior.
“I like our team, and I like the people,” Meeker said.
Meeker, who was dubbed “Queen of the Net” in a 1998 Barron’s Magazine article, took issue with Pao’s complaints about being left off of portfolio company boards. Pao has said that being passed over for such positions, and instead participating only a board observer with little authority, is evidence of discrimination.
But Meeker countered that board observers play an important role.
“I believe being a board observer is a great opportunity,” Meeker said.
She also sang the praises of Chi-Hua Chien, a male Kleiner Partner partner with whom Pao frequently clashed, and who allegedly didn’t want to invite women to a trip because “they kill the buzz.” Chien was bright and a strong participant in meetings and investing efforts, in Meeker’s opinion, while Pao was “certainly more passive, but I think very thoughtful.”
On the stand, Meeker did commiserate with another Kleiner Perkins partner, Trae Vassallo, who had complained about a fellow colleague showing up at her hotel door on a business trip wearing a bathrobe and slippers while asking to come in. Vassallo complained about that partner, Ajit Nazre, to the firm’s management, who eventually fired him.
“That was not a great situation,” Meeker said.
Prior to the hotel incident, Pao had a brief affair with Nazre. She now says that he pressured her into the relationship and that he retaliated against her after she broke it off and then complained to management.
Before Meeker took the stand, Kleiner called an expert witness to question Pao’s request for $16 million in damages. Pao has said that the amount sends a strong message the Silicon Valley firm for her firing and for making her unemployable as an investor.
But David Lewin, a former management professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and expert witness for Kleiner Perkins, said he thought the amount was excessive. His argument: Pao didn’t really try hard enough to get a venture capital or higher-paying job and that any lost income from her eventual firing was her own fault.
Lewin, who was paid $750 per hour by Kleiner Perkins to help its case (and has billed more than $86,000 so far), explained a thesis that could be boiled down to two things. The first is that Pao didn’t broaden her search enough in terms of geography and types of positions. The second is that she had sufficient qualifications to be able to get a great job fairly quickly after leaving Kleiner, but didn’t really try.
“Ms. Pao conducted… a limited search,” Lewin said on the stand. “My understanding is that she pursued one job in venture capital.”
The job in question was based in Brazil, and nothing came out of her early conversations with the firm. Lewin later added that, to his knowledge, Pao never sought the help of a headhunting firm or other service that could help her land the type of job she wanted.
Lewin also argued that Pao’s education, work experience, extensive network she built, and even the on-the-job mentoring and training she received while at Kleiner would have put her in an excellent position to get a job as an investor, or at least a very well-paying job doing something else. In fact, Lewin believes she should have been able to find “comparable employment within one to four months” after leaving Kleiner.
Pao, who is currently interim CEO of online forum Reddit, could have avoided any damages at all, Lewin said — that’s $0 in damages, to be exact.
(This story was updated with additional information)