I’m a Female 500 Startups Founder. Here’s My Story of Sexual Assault.
In the aftermath of the news about 500 Startups cofounder (and my friend) Dave McClure, I think it’s time I finally tell my story.
I’ve also experienced assault at the hands of a powerful man in Silicon Valley. At age 26, I was forcibly sexually assaulted by a VP of the publicly traded software company where I worked. This attack left me bruised and broken, both physically and spiritually. For a while, I blamed myself — why did I put myself in that situation? How could I not see that this could happen? Why did I agree to go with him to “talk about (coworker)” in private? But the truth is, this man was stone cold sober, knew exactly what he was doing, premeditated the act, and apparently believed that I was young and naive enough to just let him get away with it. He was wrong.
I went back to work and kept quiet for the next few weeks, afraid to tell anyone what had happened, afraid of what it would mean for me to accuse such a powerful man of something so horrible. But my work began to suffer. I was losing sleep, losing weight, and I’d become withdrawn. My boss finally asked me what was going on, because I’d gone from the consistent top performer to barely getting by. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him my “shameful” secret, but I told him it was serious and asked for a call with the head of HR. After our conversation, she was on a plane that same night, to interview me in person (I was working in a smaller remote office outside of CA). The company did the appropriate thing and fired the assaulter immediately, but obviously that only goes so far toward healing the wounds.
So, I understand. My heart truly goes out to any woman who’s experienced an assault. It changes you. It hardens you. It pisses you off.
Maybe it’s because I experienced this early in my career, before going on to deal with the more typical daily low level harassment and inappropriateness from men ever since, that my response to some things is the way it is. I mean, at 25 years old I was selling multi-million dollar software systems to Wall Street CIOs — while carrying around the general appearance of a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader in a business suit. Imagine for a moment the kinds of things I’ve encountered. It doesn’t excuse harassing language or actions at all, but when it comes to what constitutes (verbal) harassment, I seem to have a different bar than someone who hasn’t lived my experiences.
Some people characterize anything less than immediate and unified calls for the crucifixion of the perpetrator as victim-blaming. I’ve definitely been referred to as a victim-blamer (and worse) in the past few days, as it relates to certain situations. Maybe that’s true. And if it is true, maybe that’s because when it happens to you, that’s exactly what you do: you blame yourself. You wonder what you did to cause this man to act a certain way. You replay everything in minute detail over and over. You examine every smile, every lighthearted comment, and every look you exchanged. Of course that’s not the issue: the issue is what HE did. But most of us do react this way, sometimes waiting weeks, months or even years to come forward.
I’m working through this now, and it seems I have a way to go. I believe we all need to look inside ourselves and examine our own beliefs & behaviors — no matter whether we’re male or female — to understand how we can work together to address the myriad issues of inequality, sexism, harassment and assault in the startup ecosystem. I believe that Dave will also work hard on his own issues, and although of course I don’t condone his behavior at all, I do remain grateful to him for the support and many opportunities he gave me and my company.
Importantly though: my commitment to the 500 Startups organization and mission remains unchanged. I completely support 500 cofounder and CEO Christine Tsai and the rest of the 500 team as they work to rebuild. The work of the ~150 people there is crucial to changing the ratios in funding for all manner of underserved founders — women included, but also people of color, international founders, LGBTQ founders and older founders.
500 now has a golden opportunity to become the leading example of a respectful, inclusive, healthy climate for all founders. And I believe they can do it. Please join me in supporting Christine and team moving forward. We can all make a difference together.
Who I am:
Founder & CEO of AbbeyPost, a 500 Startups Batch 9 company that exited in 2015.
Wife, mom, marketer, entrepreneur — not always in that order.