It was just before Thanksgiving when Laura Fitton decided to go public with her account of an incident years earlier in which she said a prominent venture capitalist forcibly kissed her and made unwanted advances.
But Fitton decided to sit on her decision for a few days. A longtime member of Boston’s startup community, Fitton needed to be comfortable with the idea that she was about to report inappropriate behavior by one of the most influential people in the tech industry.
“It was very gradual,” said Fitton, an entrepreneur and executive at HubSpot. She said the risk of legal issues and backlash led to “a lot of resistance to the journalist knowing who I was, let alone the whole world.”
On Dec. 7, Fitton’s account of the incident with Shervin Pishevar appeared in the online publication Axios, with her name attached. There had been other stories published before then about alleged inappropriate behavior by Pishevar, and a Nov. 30 piece by Bloomberg , included accounts from five women — none of whom would allow their names to be published.
Fitton said she asked around about the Bloomberg story, and got the same reaction from several people: “Everybody believes the women,” she said in an interview. “But nobody is willing to act or speak up until someone’s on the record.”
Fitton said that in 2011, after a fund-raising party in New York, she and Pishevar headed to his hotel room for what she expected to be a group dinner with others from the party. At the elevator, she said, Pishevar grabbed and kissed her. She said that she rejected him and that no other guests turned up. Alone with Pishevar, Fitton said, he again made advances verbally. She said she finally agreed to let him hold her, fully clothed, but then left after the two shared dinner.
At the time, Fitton had recently sold her company, and Pishevar had just joined the powerhouse venture capital firm Menlo Ventures as managing director.
Pishevar has disputed her characterization of the events, and his attorneys have said he “unequivocally and categorically denies any improper behavior toward Ms. Fitton.”
Several days before Axios published Fitton’s account, Pishevar took a leave of absence from his current firm, Sherpa Capital, and several corporate positions he also holds. Then on Thursday, he said he would depart Sherpa permanently.
Fitton was an early expert on using social media as a marketing tool, and she co-wrote the book “Twitter For Dummies.” In 2011, she sold her startup, a marketplace for Twitter apps, to HubSpot. Among her current responsibilities is helping organize speakers for the massive annual event the company holds in Boston.
Pishevar’s reach in the technology community is deep. A former executive at Mozilla Corp., he was an investor and adviser to Uber and backed companies including Airbnb, Tumblr, and Warby Parker. He has also been a big donor to Democratic candidates.
As with other women who have come forward, it would be her word against a powerful man. Before the Bloomberg and Axios stories, Pishevar filed a defamation lawsuit against a research firm run by Republican operatives he said spread false stories that he had ties to the Russian government, and “paid money to settle a claim for sexual assault in London,” according to a copy of the complaint.
In its response, the research firm contended that Pishevar’s lawsuit is intended to “stifle negative news coverage and intimidate other women from coming forward.” The company said Pishevar also had threatened to sue Axios.
The Bloomberg story noted that several of Pishevar’s accusers did not want their names used because they were afraid of the legal risks. By then, Fitton had already decided to come forward, and the Bloomberg article only affirmed her resolve to have her name used.
“I have some privilege in that I’m not dependent on the startup world anymore,” said Fitton. “I wonder if I’m in a better place than some of these other women that I have been hearing about.”
Fitton said she also considered whether Pishevar had learned his lesson after their encounter. She said he had apologized to her, for instance, when she confronted him over the phone after the incident. Also, his record of working on prominent social causes led her to believe he had made a singular mistake, Fitton said. Pishevar was an entrepreneurial ambassador for the US State Department and a member of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
“I believed this was a good man who made a one-time mistake, and I gave him the full benefit of the doubt for six years,” she said. “He seemed very real about apologizing and understanding that what he did was wrong.”
Fitton hopes her story will lead more people to take the issue of sexual harassment seriously. But she cautioned anyone thinking about speaking out to carefully consider the potential repercussions.
“Talk to people you trust, and if possible, talk to someone who’s already done it,” Fitton said. “Obviously, be very careful who you tell and what you say, but get some advice first. It’s still quite dangerous to do this, and you need to know that you’re going to have support. Because it is scary.”
Pishevar’s attorneys have released messages he and Fitton exchanged after the 2011 encounter that show friendly banter between the two. In a statement, the attorneys said Fitton’s “frequent and regular efforts to communicate and socialize” undermines her charge that he acted inappropriately.
Among those was a 2015 message in which Fitton apologized for her reaction at the New York hotel.
“You reached out to me in a way we both badly needed at the time and I reacted with fear and shame,” the message said. “I regret that.”
Fitton said that 2015 message reflects how she valued him as a professional contact, and did not mean she accepted his actions that night as appropriate. “It’s just disgusting that they twisted it like that,” she said.
So far, she has not experienced the backlash she feared on social media. Instead, she’s received supportive comments, and her account has been featured as an example of the complexity of the problems of sex and power in tech.
“Women in tech harassed by powerful men can’t escape them if they want to stay in that field,” New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote on Twitter. “The men know that. **And then** the men use the necessary subsequent contact as exculpatory evidence.”
Philip H. Beauregard, a Boston tech executive and longtime friend of Fitton’s, said people should appreciate just how hard it was for her to come forward.
“You can’t be truly empathic with somebody, because you haven’t experienced it yourself,” Beauregard said. “I think the only thing you can do is to listen to them, say, ‘I have your back and I believe you,’ and take it from there.”