After VC Justin Caldbeck admitted to harassing women entrepreneurs, The New York Times published a piece about the harassment culture of Silicon Valley. Dave McClure and Chris Sacca, venture capitalists mentioned in that piece, have now responded. Both were genuine, but they took widely different approaches. Their actions now will determine whether the culture of tech funding ever actually changes.
This is a difficult piece for me to write, because both McClure and Sacca were, until recently, widely respected pillars of the venture community. McClure is an angel investor and, until last week, was CEO of the VC firm 500 Startups, with investments in over 500 companies. Sacca was an early Google employee, CEO of Lowercase Capital, and one of the sharks on “Shark Tank.” I don’t know either, but I am Facebook friends with McClure and have interacted with him on Facebook.
Update: There are now further accusations about McClure, which required me to apologize for what I’ve written here. I leave the full post up for the record.
Dave McClure’s apology is about the best you can do
If you’re apologizing, you’ve done something wrong. Some people feel what Dave McClure did is unforgivable. If so, there’s no point in analyzing his apology, because there’s no chance of him making things any better.
I think that once you’ve done something wrong, you need to come clean about it, apologize clearly to those you hurt, and explain how you’re going to fix things. Using this standard, McClure has done about the best you can do. Let’s take a look at his apology on Medium.
I’m a Creep. I’m Sorry.
By now you may have heard I fucked up, and people are calling me a creep.
While I’d like to believe that I’m not a bad or evil person, regardless it’s clear that some of my past actions have hurt or offended several women.
And I probably deserve to be called a creep.
Commentary: McClure puts both his guilt and apology in the title, where it belongs. He links to the New York Times article. Then he temporizes, explaining that he’s not evil and the weasel word “probably,” which undercuts the sincerity of what he is saying. On the other hand, this narrative is real and personal. McClure is talking like a human, not a PR robot, so you at least want to read on.
So, what did I do?
I made advances towards multiple women in work-related situations, where it was clearly inappropriate. I put people in compromising and inappropriate situations, and I selfishly took advantage of those situations where I should have known better. My behavior was inexcusable and wrong.
Commentary: This is as clear an admission of guilt as you will see in any apology. It uses “I” not to talk about how sad and awful this is for the apologizer (which is what Justin Caldbeck did), but to take responsibility for wrongdoing. If you cannot start your apology this way, go back and fix it.
With respect to the NYT article above and Sarah Kunst specifically, I’d like to sincerely apologize for making inappropriate advances towards her several years ago over drinks, late one night in a small group, where she mentioned she was interested in a job at 500. While I did not offer her a job at the time, a few days/weeks later I did refer her to my co-founder Christine Tsai to begin a formal interview process with 500, where Christine and others on the team met with her. Ultimately, 500 decided not to offer Sarah a job. Again my apologies to Sarah for my inappropriate behavior in a setting I thought was social, but in hindsight was clearly not. It was my fault and I take full responsibility. She was correct in calling me out.
Commentary: This is the only specific instance mentioned in McClure’s apology, most likely because it is the one we all read about in the New York Times. He admits to what he did wrong and then explains what happened. This is also instructive in that a woman who turns down advances doesn’t get the job. Regardless of whether on merits that was the right decision for 500 Startups, after McClure hits on her, there’s no way his company can evaluate her fairly without implying a connection.
For these and other incidents where I have been at fault, I would like to apologize for being a clueless, selfish, unapologetic and defensive ass.
To all those I let down, and especially to those I directly offended and hurt: I’m very sorry. [Bold in original]
Commentary: You may find the lack of specifics here to be a flaw. But if McClure mentions any other women, he risks further embarrassing them. He also risks lawsuits. Given that he is unable to mention any specific women. But he does take responsibility for being a creep. I hope that he has specifically reached out to individual women and apologized to them privately, but this apology doesn’t describe that.
I’m ashamed I didn’t change my behavior until I was forced to do so by circumstance and by others. The reality is, I was stopped from further bad actions by those who spoke up about my offenses, at substantial risk to their personal and professional reputations… and subsequently, by Christine and others on the 500 team. I won’t try and thank any of those folks right now, or act like I wanted that ass-kicking. But yeah… guess I kinda needed that.
When confronted about what happened, I was at first defensive. What did I do wrong? We were just hanging out! Why are people so upset? I tried to present my crappy behavior in the best possible light. I didn’t have much empathy for the people I hurt and offended, and rather than face up to my own shallow motivations, I rationalized my actions and came up with reasons to find blame in others, rather than solely with me.
After several tough conversations with Christine and senior management at 500, I realized that — guess what? — *I* was the problem. I wasn’t full of goodness and light as I thought, and I needed to take a closer look at the stranger in the mirror staring back at me. Somewhere, I had lost the plot.
Commentary: This is, again, personal and genuine. You may find McClure’s original denials to be reprehensible, but they are typical of men who don’t realize that what they’ve done is wrong. It matters that his colleagues did manage to convince him that he was wrong. This narrative ought to be instructive to anyone in business who has been accused of harassment.
As a result of the above intervention, I agreed to hand over day-to-day management of 500 to Christine, and she is now leading 500 in the new role of CEO. My role has been limited to focus on fiduciary obligations to our investors as a general partner of our funds. Along with the above, I also started regular counseling sessions about a month ago to address my shitty behavior and poor judgement. I don’t expect anyone to believe I will change, but I’m working on it.
Commentary: McClure’s actions have consequences — he is no longer CEO of the company he founded, as his cofounder explained on 500 Startups’ blog. You may believe that the company should fire McClure completely. But it’s not clear that an investment company with McClure in a key role in so many startups could do that, or that it would be best for the companies in which they invested. [Update, added later . . . McClure has now resigned completely from 500 Startups.]
I’d like to state clearly that my past actions are most certainly my own fault and responsibility. Until recently, Christine and other senior management at 500 were unaware of my actions. Once they did become aware, they took steps quickly to investigate and prevent further inappropriate behavior. You can place the blame squarely on me, not Christine or anyone else at 500.
In the next few days as I get feedback from many (many) people, I plan to speak further with Christine and the 500 management team, our investors and advisors, and others to figure out the best possible outcome for 500. As this is a group of hundreds of people and companies, I would not want my individual interests to overshadow what is best for them (not me). I am also cognizant that many people outside 500 — including those I have hurt or offended — have strong opinions as well, and I am doing my best to listen.
My personal failures aside, 500 has long supported a diverse community of entrepreneurs including women, minorities, LGTBQ, international, and other overlooked founders. Despite my many mistakes, I sincerely hope 500 will be able to continue that mission. To the extent my actions have now made that more difficult, I am truly sorry to Christine and the 500 team, to our founders and investors and partners, to the larger global tech community, and again most specifically to the women I have hurt or offended, all of whom I have clearly failed.
Commentary: In addition to the women entrepreneurs, McClure’s actions affected his company, and he is apologizing to that community as well.
And I know “sorry” means absolutely nothing right now.
Again, what I did was wrong. It wasn’t and isn’t acceptable. I’m working on behaving differently in the future. If you have suggestions or feedback or criticism, I’m open to hearing all of it. I’m guessing you probably have some.
Thanks again to everyone who has ever helped me/us along the way to 500.
Please continue that journey.
Commentary: I think the reason that this apology works is that McClure is clearly humbled and thinking of others in nearly every paragraph. While he explains how he felt and what he’s doing, there is very little attempt to justify, temporize, or mitigate his actions. This is admirable, even if the conduct that preceded it is deplorable. If you cannot forgive what McClure did, then you won’t learn anything from this. But if you are a human being that has made a terrible mistake, you should do what McClure did here. Some of you may believe that change is impossible. I don’t. Based on this — and testimony from others now discussing McClure’s conduct and their interactions with him — I am hopeful that McClure will not only change, but will be a positive force for changes in the whole tech community.
Chris Sacca’s approach is academic rather than humble
I won’t dissect Sacca’s apology at this level of detail. But it’s nowhere near as clear or direct. Here’s how it starts:
I Have More Work To Do.
Yesterday, the New York Times wrote that, back in 2009, a woman I knew well at the time accused me of touching her face at a mutual friend’s party in Las Vegas.
While I dispute the account of what happened that day, eight years ago, I do own that in the past, especially in the early days of my career, I have sometimes played a role in the larger phenomenon of women not always feeling welcome in our industry.
Commentary: It’s not the best way to start by disputing charges in the paper. But eventually, we get to the actual post he wrote:
This week saw deserved outrage over the treatment of female entrepreneurs. The examples that the many brave women in tech have finally brought to light are objectively awful. Venture capitalists benefit from an imbalance of power when working with founders, so investors exploiting the vulnerability of women seeking funding is simply abusive.
Twitter is abuzz with appropriate vitriol toward the perpetrators and an industry which looks the other way, and it has been heartening to see men in our business making pledges to behave with common decency.
However, if you follow my Tweets closely, you might’ve noticed that I didn’t jump in with the mob. I retweeted a bit and liked a few Tweets, but this entire time, I’ve been struggling about how to weigh in.
Why? Because as more and more brave women have come forward to share their own tales and experiences from the hostile environment of the tech world, it has become clear to me there is a much bigger underlying issue in this industry, and I am realizing at times I was a part of that.
Over the last week, I have spoken with friends, friends of friends, heard from people from my past including stories of how I’d behaved, and read incredibly thoughtful and courageous essays. I’ve learned that it’s often the less obvious, yet pervasive and questionable, everyday behaviors of men in our industry that collectively make it inhospitable for women.
Listening to these stories, and being reminded of my past, I now understand I personally contributed to the problem.
I am sorry.
Particularly when reflecting upon my early years in Silicon Valley, there is no doubt I said and did things that made some women feel awkward, unwelcome, insecure, and/or discouraged. In social settings, under the guise of joking, being collegial, flirting, or having a good time, I undoubtedly caused some women to question themselves, retreat, feel alone, and worry they can’t be their authentic selves. By stupidly perpetuating a culture rife with busting chops, teasing, and peer pressure to go out drinking, I made some women feel self-conscious, anxious, and fear they might not be taken seriously.
I am sorry.
Commentary: We have two “I am sorry”s, but it’s clear that Sacca is not as far along on this journey as McClure is. “I said and did things that made some women feel awkward, unwelcome, insecure, and/or discouraged” is a long way from “I was a creep.” The post pivots to focus on Silicon Valley culture and how Sacca will work to change it.
Perhaps Sacca has not made the mistakes that McClure did, and has less to apologize for. But this is a strange post, since it inserts him into the middle of the discussion of sexism, misogynism, and harassment in Silicon Valley exactly when he’s been accused of being part of that same culture. He ends with this.
But let’s be abundantly clear, this is not a one time thing. It’s a practice. Let’s continually hold each other to higher standards. Let’s become part of the solution by putting our time, energy, voices, and money where our mouths are. Let’s listen and learn to create an industry that is genuinely welcoming to all.
Commentary: Despite the repetition of “I am sorry” this is not really an apology, it’s an analysis and a call to action.
I think things are going to change in Silicon Valley and tech investing as a result of the bravery of these women coming forward, articles like the one in the Times, and public and specific apologies like Dave McClure’s. But it’s going to take a while, it’s going to be nasty, and there will be lawyers.
I look forward to your thoughtful and civil commentary on this post.