What I Learned Working for a Silicon Valley Startup

Less than a year ago, at age nineteen, I set out to learn about the tech industry, landing a job at a promising robotics startup. In spite of my initial excitement, my experiences there left me severely discouraged. The objectification, marginalization, and harassment I observed and experienced in my eight months there have made me realize that this is a story that needs to be shared. My intention with this post is not to shame the company or the many good people who work there, but to mobilize young women working in tech to speak out and change the industry for the better.

I started as a marketing intern after my freshman year at Northeastern University. At that time, there were fewer than twenty full-time employees at the company. I was infatuated with the amount of responsibility I was given. Going into my internship, I expected to do standard intern tasks, like planning parties and entering data. Instead, I conducted competitive research, analyzed pricing strategies, controlled our AdWords account and presented during board meetings.

At the end of the summer, I was offered a full-time position. I didn’t want to drop out of college, but was open to taking a year’s leave of absence to continue my on-the-job education, and the substantial salary (not to mention stock options and many other perks) could contribute to the cost of college.

Deciding to accept the offer was hard. The level of opportunity and responsibility led me to believe it was too valuable to pass up. However, in hindsight, the egregious pattern of behavior I witnessed by some members of the executive team should have been a bigger factor in my decision.

The first red flag came in August. A fellow intern and I were looking for our boss to clarify questions about the stock options outlined in our offer letters. The boardroom door was open and we found our boss sitting at the table with the CEO and the VP of Sales. They invited us to join them, which we did, and our boss left the room to take a call shortly after. When she shut the door, the CEO began telling us graphic, sexual stories involving other employees.

One story was about an employee who allegedly sent the CEO porn while the CEO was in meetings with auditors–on more than one occasion. He proudly told us he opened and watched the videos all the way through during the audits. He then graphically described and pantomimed a sexual act called “gloving.” He explained the act several times–it seemed that he interpreted the confusion on our faces to mean that we didn’t quite understand the mechanics.

Another story was about an employee the CEO had previously worked with at a different company. A group of engineers and said employee supposedly took a weekend trip to Las Vegas and hired a prostitute for the night. The CEO described a situation in which the engineers were “Eiffel Towering” with the prostitute, and one engineer accidentally ejaculated onto the other’s naked body. He said that the two men were “making eye contact” at the time. “Company culture was ruined after that,” he told me.

The other intern and I were mortified. Never having encountered a situation like this professionally, we had no idea how to respond. So we nervously laughed along. Our boss, upon learning the details of the episode, had a long talk with the CEO and apologized profusely to us, explaining that the company was recruiting experienced HR professionals for this very reason.

And this was my first lesson: if someone’s behavior seems like a red flag, don’t ignore it and think it will stop–because it won’t. These warning signs were indicative of a culture trickling down from the top in which sexual harassment and blatant sexism are rampant.

In October, now a nineteen-year-old full-time employee, I walked past the CEO on my way to grab a soda. I overheard him telling a group of employees about another employee’s sexual deviancy. On my way back to my desk, he stopped me and said,

“And you, too, Perry. That shit you’re into is weird.”

My mind raced, wondering what he could be referring to. I realized that he was making an inappropriate joke at my expense in front of a group of men. Again, I was mortified.

I was working on incredible projects, taking on projects the size and importance of which I wouldn’t have expected to work on for years. In the face of prodigious opportunity, it was easier than I ever would have thought to look past such abhorrent behavior. We still did not yet have an HR department, largely because male executives talked about “culture changing when a company gets HR.”

I was not the only person at the company who experienced sexism and harassment. Last fall, two engineers were fired for “performance issues.” One was the company’s only female hardware engineer; the other a man who was an outspoken feminist.

I cannot speak to their performance, but I do know that the woman had been vocal about the sexism she was experiencing. Once, she told her boss that he had used a sexist word that offended her. He took the issue to his boss, whose response was to ostracize her and accuse her of being a “problem,” ultimately implying that she had created a toxic work environment. She was put on a side project, and not long after, fired.

The feminist male engineer had been disturbed by some of the executives’ comments for a while, and finally had the courage to confront a particularly badly behaved executive at the company Halloween party after he made comments about another employee’s genitalia. The executive groaned and said something along the lines of, “Oh, give me a break.”

The events around the two terminated engineers were alarming to the now two women on the executive team and prompted them to accelerate their recruitment of a seasoned HR team.

It really is important to carefully read all contracts concerning employment before signing them. Some may involve waiving basic rights. The separation agreement that I refused to sign included a non-disparagement clause that severely restricts what terminated employees can legally say about their past employer, including reports of assault, fraud, and harassment. I assume the engineers’ separation agreements included the same clause, and that they signed them, preventing them from ever speaking about these issues.

There was an underlying culture of intimidation at the company. An executive stored a bazooka (yes, the real kind) next to his desk. His nephew was a company security guard who carried a gun during the day. The executive also talked openly about his brother being the former head of a huge California Mexican gang. The walls of the executive’s office in the company’s former headquarters were covered in popular graffiti artist Banksy’s work, most prominently featuring a panda holding two guns and the Mona Lisa holding a bazooka. While I recognize that these are works of art and the executive can have them on his wall if he chooses, coupled with the known presence of actual guns in the office, I imagine the walls were a daily reminder to feel frightened. Though I only saw them at the Halloween party which was held in the old headquarters, they stuck in my head whenever I walked past the executive’s new office.

The December holiday party was pivotal for me. Two hours in, an employee in a different department walked over to my boyfriend and me and accused me of being my boyfriend’s “booty call.” My boyfriend responded that, no, I was his girlfriend, at which point the man said, “When you take her home after this party, remember: ‘stop’ means ‘go deeper.’ ‘Stop’ means ‘go deeper,’ and ‘no’ never means ‘no.’ I mean it, man.”

When we returned to work the following Monday, I saw him in the kitchen and felt very uncomfortable. But then I started questioning why I should feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t the one who had made threatening rape comments. I wondered if I should say something to my boss, then immediately dismissed the thought, thinking I would be labeled a complainer and that people would think I was overreacting, or that I would be fired in retaliation. As the day went on, I became increasingly upset as I realized that a big reason this type of behavior still exists — why men can make women feel threatened and unsafe at work — is that women often don’t speak up. I told my boss about the incident the next day. She assured me that I was not overreacting and that I would be protected, and escalated the issue to our new Head of HR.

The man was fired that week. For a moment, I thought the company was heading in the right direction and that my voice had been heard. Until I was fired a few work days later, along with my female boss and the young man who had been in the boardroom with me when the CEO told disturbing sexual stories. The official reason I was given for being fired was that the company was “restructuring Sales and Marketing.” Except that no one in Sales was let go, and the young man who was fired was a designer who worked mainly with the software team. I believe he was fired to throw people off the trail of thinking that my boss and I were being retaliated and discriminated against.

This was my first, and so far my only, experience in tech. In light of an increasing number of women describing similar experiences, it’s clear that this type of toxic culture is actually quite common. I’ve noticed that, in the comings forward of other women who have experienced sexual harassment at work, management and HR often ignore their complaints. I believe this is the result of a failure on the part of investors and shareholders to hold their companies and executives to adequate ethical standards.

It disheartens me to think that this is the way the tech industry is right now. I’m optimistic, though, that a change can be made. The first step is for people to come forward with their stories. Harassment and discrimination aren’t reserved only for tech giants. Small and mid-sized businesses are just as at risk for having an unhealthy culture. The more these issues are talked about, the more pressure will be put on investors and shareholders to take harassment and discrimination seriously and stop pushing smart women out of the industry.

In the past few weeks, almost everyone I’ve talked to has asked me if my experience has scared me away from tech. It hasn’t. That said, this isn’t the tech industry I want to work in when I graduate from college in three years, and I know I’m speaking for many ambitious young tech hopefuls in saying so. I’m more driven than ever to work to make the industry an accessible, livable one for women.