Ellen Pao says that in 2005, she initially turned down a job at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, deciding that the role was ultimately “too junior” for her. Testifying for the first time in her lawsuit against the storied venture capital firm, Pao said Kleiner Perkins told her they would change the description from a job focused on operations to one focused on investing.
“I was told there would be an opportunity for me to invest in companies,” she testified in San Francisco Superior Court today.
But the chances for advancement she expected never materialized, Pao alleges. From the witness stand, Pao sought to portray herself as an employee whose career stagnated not because she lacked the qualifications but because of gender discrimination at the hands of a workplace culture biased toward men.
Pao’s long-awaited appearance on the witness stand represents a pivotal moment in the trial, now in its third week. The suit is being watched by much of the tech world as a potentially landmark case that could change how Silicon Valley views and deals with the thorny issues of gender politics over which it has stumbled for years.
In tech, women are a still distinct minority. The numbers are even worse in venture capital—especially in firms’ upper echelonsfirms. According to one report, only 4 percent of senior venture capitalists are women.
On the Stand
Pao, who left Kleiner Perkins as a junior partner in 2012, has sued her former employer because she believes she deserved one of these senior positions. She alleges that the firm’s managing partners unfairly passed her over for a promotion and penalized her for complaining about the male-dominated culture at the firm. Pao also claims she was pressured into an affair with a more senior colleague during her tenure at Kleiner, and that he retaliated against her when she broke things off.
With her testimony, Pao and her lawyers are not only seeking to present her argument to the jury but also Pao herself. The Kleiner defense team has sought during the trial to paint Pao as a colleague who had “sharp elbows,” was “dismissive of peers,” and who “did not come close” to being qualified for a promotion at the firm.
On the stand, Pao, wearing black-rimmed glasses and dressed in a structured purple blazer, appeared composed, speaking in a firm, even tone and gesturing with her hands while answering questions from her attorney, Therese Lawless. She sounded confident, if not a little rehearsed. In her line of questioning, Lawless sought to establish that Pao was a capable, qualified, and empathetic worker who was subjected to the firm’s objectionable culture.
Pao’s qualifications were a strong match with Kleiner Perkins’ requirements, right down to whether the candidate spoke Mandarin, she testified. But she was hesitant, she said, because didn’t want a job that would groom her for an operational role So Pao said she was told she would have the opportunity to work directly as an investor.
“This coming year, I’d like to help you with one of your goals to find a company for you to incubate at KPCB,” managing partner John Doerr, the firm’s most famous investor, wrote in a performance review for Pao during her first year.
Pao said she joined a team that ranged from five to fifteen people who supported Doerr, a cohort insiders at KPCB called “Team JD.” Though others on the team performed similar duties, Pao said she was given a lesser title. She also claimed that a male partner for whom she advocated to join the team was promoted over her despite having insufficient experience.
Pao also delved into her accusations against former partner Ajit Nazre, who she says coerced her into having an affair. Pao decided to bring her suit against Kleiner in 2012, she testified, in part because of partner Trae Vassallo’s claim of sexual harassment against Nazre, who left the firm in 2012 and is not named as a defendant in Pao’s case. She also suspected him in incidents of sexual harassment involving three administrative assistants and testified that Juliet de Baubigny, the firm’s head of human resources, told her she thought Nazre “was a sex addict.”
Nazre began pursuing her around February 2006, but she told him he wasn’t interested and that he should seek counseling if he was having problems in his marriage, Pao said. But Nazre continued to pursue Pao, she said. “He was relentless. Eventually, he told me his wife had left him,” she said on the witness stand.
After an on-and-off relationship that lasted for about six months, she found out that he had lied to her about leaving his wife. “I ended it, permanently,” she testified. “I was furious. I felt manipulated and deceived.”
After she ended the relationship, she said, Nazre began cutting her out of email threads and not inviting her to meetings. Pao and Nazre both worked on Kleiner Perkins’ team focused on investing in so-called “green tech.” Despite the conflict, Pao believed that she and Nazre could move forward and have a good working relationship. After Doerr caught wind of their relationship and breakup, he wanted to punish Nazre by firing him, she testified. But Pao fought for Nazre to stay, believing that he was a more productive employee than other partners.
Even then, by 2007, Pao testified she was ready to leave the firm because she was unhappy with the company culture, especially in its dealings with entrepreneurs. She brought up her concerns in a company memo in which she suggested that the firm change its ways: “Don’t be an asshole,” she wrote.
A Better Place
But Pao ultimately decided to stay at Kleiner Perkins, largely because she was convinced Doerr would address her complaints regarding the company’s problematic culture. “I thought John was being genuine about my concerns, and that he would be able to move us forward,” she testified. “I thought the firm would be a better place.”
In 2009, Pao testified that she wrote a self-review that mentioned her problems with Ajit Nazre once more. “I continued to bring up the issues and Kleiner Perkins continued to do nothing,” she said. Eventually, Doerr asked her to revise this review because he thought it was, in Pao’s words, “too self-promotional.”
Pao never heard that the partners were dissatisfied with her work performance up until the first half of 2011, she testified. But by 2012, the year she filed a written complaint, her relationships with all the managing partners—including her mentor, Doerr—had soured.