Business & Tech

SCOTT KIRSNER | INNOVATION ECONOMY

What’s to be done about male venture capitalists who harass women?

Investor and conference organizer Sheryl R. Marshall says that the venture capital firms should institute the same kinds of policies that public companies have.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2016

Investor and conference organizer Sheryl R. Marshall says that the venture capital firms should institute the same kinds of policies that public companies have.

At a rooftop party in the Seaport last week hosted by a Boston venture capital firm, there was more on attendees’ minds than mojitos, Peking ravioli, and upcoming vacations.

This was the first time, one female partygoer observed, that she’d been to a social event since “all the news.” By that she meant allegations and admissions of venture capitalists behaving badly toward women entrepreneurs, both in Silicon Valley and in Boston — not just flirty words and invitations to hotel rooms, but unwanted touching. Some of the venture capitalists, whose jobs involve spotting the highest-potential startup companies and giving them money, had resigned from their firms or issued public apologies.

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A group of women chatting with me — a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur, and a banker — wondered: Would some male venture capitalists simply stop going to schmooze-fests like this one after work? Would every compliment about a nice haircut suddenly feel awkward? And is it possible the venture capital business is undergoing real change, versus just a painful public comeuppance?

First, the problem. This is an industry that still can feel like the “Mad Men” ad agency when you visit an office. Men are calling the shots, and women are mainly in supporting administrative, marketing, or human resource roles.

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According to a 2016 report from the database firm CrunchBase, among the top 100 venture capital firms in the United States, 93 percent of the partners — the people who hold the real power, because they vote on which companies to back — are men.

Most of the male VCs I’ve met seem like upstanding people. They realize their firms’ reputations are extremely important, because they want the best entrepreneurs to seek them out looking for capital. And they know the entrepreneurial grapevine carries a lot of information about their behavior. But they also realize it’s important to be at networking events in the evening to build relationships with entrepreneurs and to gather information.

That’s where things can go off the rails. Male investors can sometimes view those functions as more of a social scene, while female entrepreneurs — wisely — view them as opportunities to chat with venture capitalists about their companies, build rapport, and eventually secure a more formal pitch meeting.

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Fred Destin, a former partner at the Boston firm Atlas Venture, wrote on his blog about one such incident:

“A few years ago, I made a woman uncomfortable at a party. She wasn’t someone I was working with or looking to fund, and we were, in my mind, in that very different ‘context,’ but she wasn’t . . . ” (The party took place late one night after the day’s proceedings at 2013 Nantucket Conference. I helped start that event, and still serve on its advisory board.)

But according to a Bloomberg News report, which quotes an unnamed female entrepreneur, the entrepreneur and Destin had discussed pitching her idea to Destin’s firm. At one point, the two danced; at another, according to the Bloomberg story, she found herself removing Destin’s hands from her body.

Destin later apologized to the woman for his behavior, “and I meant it,” he told me in a Twitter message.

Is the issue that male venture capitalists, booze, late nights, and dance floors shouldn’t go together? That’s one possibility.

Is it that most venture capital firms don’t have an agreed-upon code of conduct for the way their employees behave around entrepreneurs of the opposite sex? (There’s certainly nothing as clear as the guidelines that would govern, say, a teacher or a psychologist.)

Atlas didn’t have one at the time, according to former partner Jeff Fagnan. He also says that no one at the firm knew about the Nantucket incident while Destin was working for Atlas. Destin left in 2014, and the firm decided to split: The half that invested in health care companies kept the Atlas name, and the tech-focused investors formed a new firm called Accomplice.

Fagnan says that Accomplice, which he leads, isn’t planning to write a code of conduct, “because so much of what governs acceptable behavior in this realm is common sense,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a big part of our skill-set and jobs as VCs to have good judgment of people, behavior, motivations, and situations. No policy is going to prevent a bad actor from acting badly.” But he says the firm is “looking at policies on how to deal with incidents that happen and our procedures post an incident.”

Other firms, though, like Boston-based Flybridge Capital, have been crafting guidelines based, says partner Jeff Bussgang, on “the Harvard code of conduct between faculty and students.” The accelerator program Techstars, which works with entrepreneurs in Boston and elsewhere, recently updated a code of conduct that says it will “ban or fire mentors, investors, employees, contractors, and others who discriminate or harass others.”

At .406 Ventures in Boston, “we interact with entrepreneurs and others the way we appreciate being treated ourselves (our mothers taught us this when we were 5),” cofounder Maria Cirino wrote. She says the policy is discussed in all job interviews and during annual performance reviews.

But are guidelines enough?

Sheryl Marshall, a Boston investor and cofounder of the Capital W conference for female entrepreneurs, says one reason that sexual harassment has declined in public companies is specifically because there are human resources policies that spell out what it is, training programs about how to avoid it, and reporting mechanisms.

“Fifty percent of the reason it is less of an issue in public companies is that there are policies,” Marshall says, “but the other 50 percent is that they have boards and shareholders to answer to. They can’t do nothing about it.”

In contrast, Marshall says, the pension funds and university endowments that supply venture capital firms with the money to invest — and to pay their salaries — haven’t been aggressive enough in demanding change.

Those investors, Marshall says, could require VC firms to have conduct codes in place before they put money into the firm. “They need to say, ‘You guys, if there is any whiff of sexual harassment, you’re not going to get a nickel from us,’ ” Marshall says.

Other women say that systemic change will also require more female venture capital partners working on an equal footing with male partners at VC firms.

That, says Jill Kravetz, is “easy to say, but hard to execute, when hiring and promotion decisions are made by men in the current ecosystem. You can impose a code of conduct, but it’s still the same players in logo’d vests and checked shirts.”

Kravetz is an entrepreneur who founded the salon chain MiniLuxe.

On Tuesday, the New England Venture Capital Association holds a meeting titled “Addressing a Hard Truth: Sexual Harassment in the Venture Community.”

My belief is that talking about this more — and writing about it more — are the only things that will change the status quo.

What else do you know about this issue? Drop me a note at the e-mail address below.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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