Venture capital’s relationship with women just got a little more complicated.
On Monday, retired NBA superstar Kobe Bryant launched a $100 million VC fund. Called Bryant Stibel, the venture is a partnership with Dun & Bradstreet vice chairman Jeff Stibel. According to the WSJ, the pair has already invested in 15 companies since 2013, but is now making the partnership official.
So, what does this have to do with women? Think back to 2003, when a 19-year-old employee of Colorado’s Lodge & Spa at Cordillera accused Bryant of choking her, raping her, and then pressuring her to remain silent about the ordeal. The basketball star, who at first denied any sexual contact with his accuser, eventually argued that the encounter was consensual.
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The criminal case against Bryant never made it to court. It was dropped in September of 2004, when his accuser, whose sexual history and mental health were attacked by Bryant’s defense team, refused to testify. She did pursue a case in civil court, which Bryant settled.
We’ll probably never know what actually happened in that hotel room. However, Bryant’s apology to his accuser—a provision of her agreement to the dismissal of the sexual assault case against him, according to the Daily Beast—reads, at least to me, like an admission of guilt:
I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.
Will lingering questions about Bryant’s behavior in 2003 hurt Bryant Stibel? Almost certainly not. The ex-Laker star reportedly earned more than $350 million in endorsements over the course of his career, with Nike and other big sponsors seemly undeterred by the accusations. If massive, scandal-averse brands were willing to throw their lots in with Bryant, it seems unlikely that many ambitious entrepreneurs would allow their conscience to stop them from taking the athlete’s money.
Asked about the potential impact of the rape charges against his partner, Jeff Stibel told Fortune: “I think it is completely irrelevant and largely water under the bridge. A huge chunk of our portfolio company CEOs are women, and more than half of my senior executives [at Dun & Bradstreet] are female.”
Be that as it may, Bryant’s emergence as an official VC is a problem for the industry, which already struggles with its image as sexist boys club. Venture capital is still coping with the fallout over Ellen Pao’s 2015 gender discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins (Pao lost), as well as allegations of sexual abuse leveled against now-former Sequoia Capital managing partner Michael Goguen earlier this year. Meanwhile, a Fortune analysis conducted in April found that women account for just 6% of decision makers atU.S. venture firms.
If venture capitalists want to be seen as seriously addressing the problems faced by women in their industry, welcoming an alleged rapist into their ranks is not the way to start.