Accuser in Kleiner Perkins sex bias case attacks firm

March 10, 2015, 12:54 AM UTC
Ellen Pao walks to a courtroom in San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco
Ellen Pao walks to a courtroom in San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco, California February 26, 2015.
Robert Galbraith — Reuters

Ellen Pao took the stand for the first time in her gender discrimination lawsuit against top venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and described how she tried to change its old boys club culture.

But despite her complaints, she said, little improved over the years until she was ultimately pushed out.

“I wanted to raise a problem and get the firm to do something about the loosey-goosey way we dealt with issues,” said Pao.

Pao is suing her former employer, Kleiner Perkins, for $16 million in damages for allegedly retaliating against her after she complained about inappropriate behavior and after ending a sexual relationship with a co-worker. Kleiner has responded that Pao lacked the skills to be a venture capitalist and never got along with her colleagues.

The trial in San Francisco Superior Court is being closely followed in Silicon Valley, where women are a distinct minority at high-tech companies and the investment firms that fund them. Testimony, much of its supported by emails, has pulled the curtain on the behind-the-scenes dealings of one of the highest-profile investment firms in the industry. What it has shown is a partnership rife with bickering, egos and self-promotion. It has also highlighted the limited role women play at Kleiner and their complaints about being sexually propositioned, being asked to take notes by male colleagues and feeling that their work is minimized.

Under questioning by her attorney, Pao described her affair with Ajit Nazre, a then-married partner at the firm. She claims that he pressured her into the relationship and then cut her out of meetings after she ended it. In a calm confident voice, Pao tried to emphasize her moral character by saying she repeatedly turned down Nazre’s advances and advised him to seek help with his marriage. It wasn’t until Nazre told her he had separated from his wife that she gave in, only to find five or six months later that he had lied to her.

“When I found out that he had lied to me and that his wife had not in fact left him, I ended it immediately and permanently,” Pao said. “I felt manipulated and deceived.”

Pao, who is currently interim CEO of online bulletin board Reddit, eventually complained to Kleiner partner Ray Lane about Nazre’s behavior. But she said he suggested that she should marry him instead. If their relationship restarted, he warned Pao that she would have to quit her job at Kleiner. He did not suggest, however, that Nazre should quit his.

According to Pao, Lane did not consider her complaints seriously and told her not to “make a mountain out of molehill.”

Additionally, she said Juliet de Baubigny, who handled human resources for Kleiner, resisted getting involved. After complaining about Nazre, Pao said that de Baubigny seemed to be aware of the problem, but she took no further action.

Nazre was ultimately fired another female colleague, Trae Vassallo, complained that he showed up at her hotel room door during a business trip wearing a bathrobe and asking to come in.

In other testimony, Pao tried to counter Kleiner’s arguments that she was unqualified for the job. She listed her education, training and accomplishments and underscored her ability to speak Mandarin, which the firm highly valued given its interest in doing business in China.

Pao also revealed during her testimony that she had originally turned down Kleiner Perkins’ offer of the associate partner position because she felt it was too junior for her. John Doerr, a Kleiner Perkins partner and Pao’s eventual mentor, refashioned the position to give her more responsibility and the ability to work on investments in an effort to convince her to join, which she did.

“It’s a real pleasure to write this performance review,” Doerr began his letter to Ellen about her performance review for the 2005 to 2006 period. He said she had excelled in her many duties as his chief of staff, but then wrote what would become a familiar refrain in her future reviews – that she needed to work interpersonal relationships.

Pao later added that even as late as 2011, there was no sign that Kleiner Perkins was unhappy with her performance despite the decline in partners including her in meetings and outings. She was fired several months after filing suit against the firm, which has repeatedly pointed to job reviews over the years that says she’s “territorial” and prickly.

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