It started with a story, which led to the revelation that one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent VCs, Dave McClure, had stepped down from his role as chief executive of 500 Startups over claims of “inappropriate” interactions with women.
In a New York Times piece published at the end of last week, the publication claimed Dave McClure had sent entrepreneur Sarah Kunst, who had interviewed for a job at 500 Startups, a Facebook message that allegedly read, “I was getting confused figuring out whether to hire you or hit on you.”
Confirmation then came that the leadership structure at 500 Startups had changed after the team discovered claims McClure had made unwanted advances towards other women in the tech industry.
The saga has prompted women in the local startup community to drive home the importance of calling out bad behaviour in the sector, though founders have told StartupSmart hope remains that the Australian startup scene has the power to stop harassment in its tracks.
Ms Kunst reported via Twitter on Saturday, “Story went live only a few hours ago and so far 2 more women have told me they had similar/worse experiences with @davemcclure. Both WOC.”
Story went live only a few hours ago and so far 2 more women have told me they had similar/worse experiences with @davemcclure. Both WOC.
— sarah kunst (@sarahkunst) July 1, 2017
This kicked off an avalanche of female entrepreneurs, VCs and employees sharing their tales on Twitter of harassment in the tech startup ecosystem, with prominent Australian startup figures like Annie Parker, Atlanta Daniels and Elaine Stead weighing in.
Ladies – it's time we draw the line. Time to start calling it out & making things better for the ladies that come after us.
— Annie Parker (@annie_parker) June 30, 2017
This morning McClure has published a Medium post on the issue, titled “I’m a creep, I’m sorry”, in which he says his past behaviour was wrong and that he “would like to apologize for being a clueless, selfish, unapologetic and defensive ass”.
The most recent conversation about the culture of harassment in the tech startup ecosystem was sparked by a recent report from tech news site The Information that claimed female entrepreneurs had been preyed upon by a prominent venture capitalist.
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In a statement on the 500 Startups website, chief executive Christine Tsai confirmed leadership had changed at her organisation after “we found out that my co-founder Dave McClure had inappropriate interactions with women in the tech community”.
McClure was recently in Melbourne to launch 500 Startups’ Melbourne accelerator, in conjunction with LaunchVic and the Victorian Government. Both have been quick to distance themselves from McClure, with the state’s Innovation Minister Philip Daladakis taking to Twitter to publicly explain the Victorian government did not know of the allegations against McClure.
Mr Dalidakis said on Twitter, “Our deal was with 500, not one man. And while Dave was the face of 500, he has betrayed all he stood for including his public condemnation of Trump. Who he now shares more in common with than anyone would want.”
4/9 Our deal was with 500, not one man. And whilst Dave was the face of 500, he has betrayed all he stood for including his public
— Philip Dalidakis MP (@philipdalidakis) July 1, 2017
5/9 condemnation of Trump. Who he now shares more in common with than anyone would want.
— Philip Dalidakis MP (@philipdalidakis) July 1, 2017
Dalidakis added on Twitter, “As embarrassing as some will make this out to be for me personally, it pales into insignificance with the terrible ordeal that the many women have experienced directly. And it is them that I am thinking of right now.”
Minister Dalidakis is currently on leave and his office was unable to provide further comment. LaunchVic was approached for comment.
500 Melbourne lead Rachael Neumann was similarly outspoken in her condemnation of McClure’s behaviour, stating on twitter that the news “came as a shock” and that “This behaviour needs to be stamped out of our community. Im [sic] going to do everything in my power to aggressively be part of the solution”.
3/5 This behaviour needs to be stamped out of our community. Im going to do everything in my power to aggressively be part of the solution
— rachael neumann (@rneumann6826) July 2, 2017
An ecosystem at breaking point
The events of the last few days have illustrated the toxic culture of discrimination, harassment and sexism that has been woven into the narrative of the Silicon Valley startup scene, startup founders have told StartupSmart this morning.
Anne-Marie Elias leads the Melbourne arm of Techfugees, and is a prominent figure in the Australian startup ecosystem. She says while she was “stunned” at the weekend’s turn of events, the revelations of sexism and harassment in the workplace are all too common.
“All of us have experienced this at one stage in life – we’ve all been silent about it for one reason or another,” she says.
She notes that McClure’s exit from 500 Startups has started a “really important conversation that we need to have,” that requires “leadership from men” and a community effort to report and monitor this behaviour.
“It’s like bullying in schools -someone always notices it and doesn’t say anything,” she says, noting that this behaviour will only continue if a culture of silence and intimidation is allowed to further develop in the startup ecosystem.
“Silence is as bad as perpetrating,” she says.
Hope for Australian women in tech
Founder of Girl Geek Academy Sarah Moran says after spending time developing the startup in Silicon Valley, she believes it was “as horrible as they say” in terms of discrimination and harassment in the sector.
However, she is quick to note that the Australian ecosystem shouldn’t be “tarred with the same brush.”
“We often think Silicon Valley is [representative of] all of tech’s problems – that does a disservice to all the great work people do in Australia,” she says.
“I think Australia is the best place in the world to be a woman in tech,” she says, adding that the Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne ecosystems have “diversity initiatives that aren’t tokenistic, which are built by the community and not just an add on.”
Moran hopes the Australian startup ecosystem can learn from Silicon Valley’s current crisis of culture, and hopes to see more avenues for reporting harassment in the future, with clear guidelines and information available to the community.
“This is a real opportunity to showcase why Australia is so great and to make sure we don’t repeat their mistakes.” Moran says.