The DFJ case: When should we believe a woman who claims sexual harassment?

Steve Jurvetson and Keri Kukral. Images from Flickr and Facebook.

Sexual harassment claims tend to come down to “he said, she said.” Is venture firm DFJ’s founder Steve Jurvetson a predator or a victim? Let’s look at the dueling statements.

The accusation

Entrepreneur Keri Kukral posted this on Facebook:

Threshold reached after long contemplation. Women approached by founding partners of Draper Fisher Jurvetson should be careful. Predatory behavior is rampant. The modes are varied. Silencing behavior ranges from security w/in the firm creating files on women, to potential violations of revenge porn laws, to grotesque threats. Women have been banned by heads of TED from attending conferences. I have experienced some (not all) of these things along with many others. The situation I found myself in is personally atypical and I’ve not been in any other situation remotely like it. I was not seeking investment or trying to further my career. My investment rounds have occurred entirely outside of Silicon Valley both before and after this experience. I will not step foot in SV for investment.

It certainly sounds bad. But what are the actual accusations?

  • “Predatory behavior is rampant. The modes are varied.” Sounds terrible, but not specific.
  • “Silencing behavior ranges from security w/in the firm creating files on women, to potential violations of revenge porn laws, to grotesque threats.” Is “creating files on women” actually problematic? The other items here are “potential” violations and unspecified threats.
  • “Women have been banned by heads of TED from attending conferences.” Passive: doesn’t say who is banning, who has been banned. How can a VC ban a person from attending TED — is this one of their employees or someone they invested in?
  • “I have experienced some (not all) of these things along with many others.” We don’t know what Kukral suffered since she won’t say.

The response

Imagine if this were your company and you saw this post. What would you do? You can’t fire anybody — there’s no evidence and no indication of who did anything wrong. But you shouldn’t ignore a problem like this. So you’d start an investigation. And according to sources like The Information and Recode, that’s what DFJ did, specifically investigating Steve Jurvetson. Given the flood of stories about sexual harassment, though, readers have a tendency to rush to judgment. Some of those judgments will be fair, and others will not.

In this case, Heidi Roizen, Operating Partner at DFJ, responded. Here’s her statement:

The Truth About DFJ

As many of you know, in the past few days DFJ has been rocked by allegations about sexual harassment.

I’d like to be fully transparent about what we know and what we are doing about it.

In our entire history, DFJ has never received an official complaint alleging misconduct by anyone on our team.

That said, during the summer this year, we heard about allegations of misconduct by one (and only one) of our partners from a third party. We felt the responsible thing to do was to launch an independent investigation, and so we did. It is still ongoing.

In the past week, a single Facebook post also accused DFJ of having a culture that is predatory to women.

I don’t need an investigation to state with certainty that this is patently wrong.

I am too grizzled and old to write bullshit about a company to please my boss. I’m writing this because I believe it to be true. I value my own personal reputation and integrity above any firm, and simply put, I would not work for DFJ if I felt the culture was not one of high integrity and opportunity for all — including women. Including me.

I am honored to work with a fantastic team of investment professionals and executives, many of whom are women. If you want to hear directly from us about what it’s like to work here as women in VC, feel free to email us.

This is also persuasive. But let’s take apart the facts in this as well:

  • “I’d like to be fully transparent about what we know and what we are doing about it.” Since the investigation is ongoing, Roizen is not able to be fully transparent — because the investigation may be turning things up. But at least we know from an official source that there is an investigation.
  • “In our entire history, DFJ has never received an official complaint alleging misconduct by anyone on our team.” I’m not sure what the difference is between a complaint (Kukral’s post certainly qualifies) and an “official” complaint. But this tells us, assuming it’s true, that no lawyer has ever contacted DFJ and no one has every filed a complaint with HR.
  • “We felt the responsible thing to do was to launch an independent investigation, and so we did. It is still ongoing.” Confirmed.
  • “In the past week, a single Facebook post also accused DFJ of having a culture that is predatory to women. I don’t need an investigation to state with certainty that this is patently wrong.” This is reassuring. But it comes from a woman in a position of authority. If there were problems with women who weren’t in power positions, would she know?

You cannot know the truth here, yet. And that is the point.

Nearly every professional woman I know has shared a story of sexual harassment. It’s clearly a rampant problem in business at large, and in tech companies specifically.

Does this mean that any time a woman complains of a problem, that there is a problem? It doesn’t. The testimony of a woman by itself is not enough to smear the reputation of a man. How credible is it? How specific is it? Is there any other evidence? What does the accused have to say?

When someone is accusing a person of a serious violation, I cannot just take whatever the accuser says for granted, and neither should you. This is not a court of law where the defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But unless there is credible evidence, I put the accusation in the category of “Hmm, need to keep an eye on that and see if they can prove it.” If you were the accused, you would expect the same skepticism.

On the other hand, you cannot assume that all these stories are made up. These stories don’t spring from the ether — women tell them for a reason. Every company is going to defend itself and its executives to the extent possible from unsubstantiated claims of wrongdoing. That defense in itself isn’t evidence of innocence, any more than an unsubstantiated claim is evidence of guilt.

The hard truth here is that each of these cases is complex. We owe it to the women to listen. We owe it to the accused men to hear their side. And we owe it to ourselves to weigh the evidence before rushing to judgment, even in the era of viral Facebook smears.

 

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