John Doerr, a managing partner at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, is considered a king-maker of sorts in the world of tech. He sits on the boards of as many as 80 technology companies, including Google, and has led KPCB’s investments in such once-obscure startups as Amazon, Twitter, and Intuit.
As such, people want to know what he thinks it takes to become a successful venture capitalist. Today, on the witness stand in a high-profile gender bias lawsuit against his firm, Doerr offered an answer. “My advice for people who want to be a venture capitalist is to forget about it,” he said. “Try to be a successful entrepreneur instead.”
But the nagging question tugging at Doerr’s answer, the question at the heart of the suit, is whether it also helps to be a man.
I don’t think the venture capital world has fought off women. John Doerr
Doerr’s second day of testimony in this San Francisco courtroom provided a glimpse of the tension between his belief that the venture capital world rewards merit and his stated desire to be an advocate for women. Outwardly, Doerr has tried to show that he has put in the work to get more women into this small but influential industry. He has backed twelve women-led companies during his time at Kleiner Perkins, he testified, and had a hand in hiring many of the female partners at the firm. He has called the lack of women in the VC world “pathetic” while testifying that Kleiner’s 20 percent female workforce is well above the industry average.
At the same time, Doerr insistently painted a picture of an industry that works largely as a meritocracy. “I don’t think the venture capital world has fought off women,” he said in response to a juror’s question. No business program or college course in the world that can teach you to be a venture capitalist, Doerr testified. Above all, it’s the experience—entrepreneurial experience or considerable operating experience at a company—that counts.
But Doerr acknowledged the need for such experience is the essence of the problem women hoping to break into venture capitalism face. You learn to be a venture capitalist by doing, he said. But with the difficulties female entrepreneurs face in getting funding—funding that the venture capital industry provides—only a handful of candidates ever become qualified.
In their testimonies, top partners at the firm said Pao was 'not a team player' and described her as 'territorial.'
Doerr has previously testified that he thinks women often make better leaders, and that more diverse VC firms would produce better work. But, he said, the firms would first need to find “more female partners qualified to do the work.”
Doerr’s deposition comes in the seventh day of the trial in San Francisco court, which pits former Kleiner partner Pao against one of Silicon Valley’s most influential venture capital firms. According to Pao’s allegations, Kleiner Perkins held her back professionally while the men at the firm were allowed to succeed, and she experienced retaliation after engaging in an affair with a senior colleague that she eventually ended.
In response, the Kleiner Perkins defense team has tried to show that no discrimination existed. Pao was not promoted at the firm and was eventually terminated, the defense has argued, because she simply did not have the skills to be a venture capitalist. In their testimonies, top partners at the firm said Pao was “not a team player” and described her as “territorial.” Though the managers admitted she was a good operator, they claimed she did not have “VC instincts.”
The trial has captured the attention of the tech world, where women are still a clear minority. Apart from getting a front-row seat to a show that could air some of Silicon Valley’s dirtiest laundry, the case has the potential to change how the larger industry deals with gender inequality issues. In venture capital, the gender disparity between men and women is in similarly bad—or even worse—shape.
Pao’s team has argued that, in spite of Doerr’s declared advocacy, he too succumbed to a bias towards favoring men. At one point in the trial, Pao’s attorney played an audio clip of a conversation between Doerr and Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital, another industry star, recorded during a May 2008 meeting of the National Venture Capital Association. In the clip, Doerr says it was “very clearly male nerds who had no social or sex lives” and who were dropouts of Harvard or Stanford who were likely to succeed as some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. “When I see that pattern coming in … it’s very easy to decide to invest,” Doerr said.
Kleiner has argued that Pao consistently showed poor performance at the firm, and has tried to drive the point home by showing the court negative performance reviews from 2005 to 2012 that said Pao had trouble with her interpersonal skills. Even so, Doerr said in court that he believed in Pao’s skills and “wanted her to succeed” at the firm. Doerr fought to keep Pao at the firm when she was thinking about leaving in 2007, and again in 2009, the year she interviewed for a general partner position with Google Ventures. “I saw Ellen’s performance and potential differently than the other partners,” he testified today.
Doerr acknowledged that in 2011 he pushed for a revision in her performance review that stated Pao was “no longer on track” to be promoted at KPCB. In 2012, after years of mentorship, he relented and agreed with the other Kleiner partners that Pao should move on. “My business judgment was after four reviews citing the same problems, and all partners recommending that she leave, I couldn’t fight for her to stay,” Doerr testified. He denied that he had agreed to let Pao go because of her lawsuit against the firm.