“That correlates more with any other success factor that I’ve seen in the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. If you look at Bezos, or Andreessen, David Filo, the founders of Google: they all seem to be white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life.” – Audio of John Doerr at meeting of the National Venture Capital Association, 2008.
On Monday I took a break from the Pao v. Kleiner Perkins courtroom to visit Jason Calacanis’ LAUNCH Festival, hoping to get a sense of the shockwaves the trial was sending through the startup ecosystem. On that score, I was underwhelmed and unsurprised – most of the male founders I spoke to had at least some awareness that the trial was happening, and thought it looked bad for Kleiner. Several told me that while they would take it into consideration if Kleiner offered them an investment, they didn’t think anyone else really would.
The gender ratio at LAUNCH was around 3.5 men for every woman, perhaps slightly better than the 80/20 split at at Kleiner Perkins.
After a few hours in the “pit”, I found some respite among the carpets and cushions of the device free yurt outside the main expo hall. My only companion within the sanctuary was a suit-clad, middle-aged gent on his phone, pecking away at a laptop. Shortly one of the yurt’s caretakers popped in, and informed this fellow that he was in a device free zone and he’d have to pack up his digital prostheses. “You are breaking the rules,” he said, feigning stern and absently plucking his guitar.
“This is Silicon Valley, that’s what we do here,” the man replied, making no move to obey the request. “We disrupt.” Told he had twenty seconds, the man asked for forty and as time ran out he added, “just one more email.” His beardy interlocutor improvised a song on that theme and mirthfully shamed him away.
Back on the sixth floor of San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday, strong hints of this particular brand of defiance began to emerge in the testimony of John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins’ leading light, a king among the kingmakers.
The promise of Doerr on the witness stand has brought more spectators to the gallery, and more cameramen (all men) waiting patiently outside in hopes of a candid snap of Doerr or Pao or some other star of the trial. Uncomfortably, those male paparazzi have set up camp just around the corner from the women’s restroom.
Alan Exelrod: Only two of the 80 companies you’ve invested in were lead by white males?
Doerr: That dropped out of Stanford– that was my statement.
Exelrod: So there were other white males?
Doerr: Yes. And Asian males.
If those packing the courtroom were expecting a show, Doerr was happy to deliver. Prior to Doerr taking the stand, Kleiner witnesses had acquiesced to the formalities of courtroom decorum – formalities like: lawyers ask questions, and witnesses answer.
But during his testimony, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Doerr showed no such deference to juridical norms, frequently cutting off the plaintiff’s attorney in the middle of a question, finishing his sentences, answering a question with a question, and once even responding to an objection before the judge could rule on it. The judge gave him a quick lesson in how things work:
Exelrod: Objection, Heresay.
Doerr: It’s first person evidence.
Judge Kahn: You can’t respond to an objection, and your rules of evidence are a little off.
Pao’s attorney Alan Exelrod often seemed at a loss to keep Doerr from expanding well beyond the scope of a question, requiring Judge Harold Kahn to gently advise Mr. Doerr to stick to the point. Even Lynne Hermle, the lead attorney defending Kleiner Perkins seemed at times to lose control of her own client.
This is not to say Doerr has been a “combative” witness; he was generally quite affable and at times funny, though he testified that “humor is a great lubricator in business situations,” so it’s possible we were witnessing self-deprecating warmth as a defense strategy.
When Kleiner’s attorney asked Doerr to explain why he had once said at a venture capital conference that white, male nerds were a guaranteed “success factor,” Doerr explained that “it made people laugh.”
Lynne Hermle: Have you backed female founders or cofounders? Can you tell us about that?
Doerr: I have the same high bar whether the founder is female or male. I want the most outstanding people. Almost always, women are better leaders than men. So I’m really committed to getting more females to found companies, sit on boards…
Despite Kleiner’s insistence that, as a firm, it is an anti-hierarchical partnership of equals, the man on the stand was clearly accustomed to running the show. Kleiner Perkins’ internal performance reviews have featured prominently throughout the case. If such a review were made of Mr. Doerr’s courtroom performance, it would likely go like this: John Doerr does not like to take direction, even when it’s absolutely necessary.
Visiting a zoo is both educational and sad. The same could be said for Doerr’s appearance in court – it was remarkable to get so close to a lion of the venture capital world, but behind the bar, stripped of his mystique, an observer is left depressed by the chain of events which brought him there.
Alan Exelrod: At that time  was there talk of transitioning Ms. Pao off of RPX?
John Doerr: Yes.
Exelrod: Did you tell Ms. Pao that Randy [Komisar] needed a win?
Doerr: Yes. (Pause). Everyone needed a win. Kleiner needed a win, Randy needed a win…I needed a win.
Judge Harold Kahn: What was that, can you speak up?
Doerr [resting his hand on his cheek]: I could use some wins.
Leaving the court, I headed to the Battery – a posh members’ club on the rim of San Francisco’s Financial District. My gracious member-sponsor, and the reason for my visit, was Cindy Gallop, the founder of Make Love Not Porn.
Gallop is an outspoken advocate of gender equality in the workplace and of normalizing the frank discussion of sexuality. Gallop has been following the Pao case closely.
“The details of the case are depressing and all too familiar for women in business, but the important thing is that it’s being laid bare. In cases like this there are far too many settlements that no one ever hears about,” she said.
Not that Gallop believes we should all assume sexless personae in our professional lives. Far from it.
“Men and women are different. There is no way we will ever have completely asexual relations in the workplace. Professionally, sexuality can work very well for both sides, and it can be fun.”
She explained that, at an advertising agency which she founded and ran, the incidence of inter-office relationships was extremely high but that it was a healthy workplace environment nonetheless. She attributes this to an even gender split among her employees, and the prominence of women in the firm’s leadership.
“If every level of Kleiner Perkins had a 50/50 split, none of this would have ever happened,” she said.
Gallop believes tokenism is far too prevalent on corporate boards of directors, that one or two women on a board does little to effect change since “the alien organism is forced to adjust to her environment.”
I asked her if there was a possibility that men in venture capital leadership might look at the fallout from this case and decide not to hire more women. That they might be considered too much trouble. Gallop was characteristically frank: “I imagine that thought could cross some people’s minds, but they’d be absolute fucking idiots not to hire more women.”
“It’s a sure way to make a lot more money.”