Former Intern Takes General Catalyst to Task On Gender, Again

8/22/14Follow @xconomy

What happened after an MIT summer intern blogged about her sometimes-difficult experience as a woman in venture capital?

Partners at Boston-based firm General Catalyst tried to find ways of spinning the news into something positive, but didn’t really address her concerns—and in one case, a partner burst into a meeting and launched into an angry, finger-pointing tirade, former intern Erica Swallow says in a guest post on the Wall Street Journal website.

I’ve asked the firm for comment, and haven’t heard a response back yet.

Swallow’s experience highlights once again the peculiarly male-heavy demographics of venture capital as a sector: a recent Fortune survey found that women make up only 4 percent of the senior investing partners at more than 90 VC firms nationwide.

That imbalance affects investment decisions. One Harvard Business School study recently found that VCs tend to co-invest with people who share their backgrounds, even though it can be bad for business. Another study by Harvard, MIT, and University of Pennsylvania researchers found that investors tend to prefer pitches from male entrepreneurs over females, even when they’re presenting the same material.

In her original blog post for MIT’s Sloan business school, where she is a student, Swallow wrote that her summer internship at General Catalyst was a mixed bag. On one hand, she enjoyed the people she worked with and found the work interesting and fulfilling.

But she was disturbed by the distinct lack of women in any senior investment role (General Catalyst has one woman on its investment team, at the more junior associate level). Her proposal to research women-led companies to find possible investments was rejected, she said, because there wouldn’t be anybody to carry on the project once she left.

“What message do you think I heard when I was the only woman, at a lowly intern position, sitting in on founder pitches and investment meetings? In short: VC is no place for a woman,” Swallow wrote.

In a Wall Street Journal report about Swallow’s blog post, General Catalyst officials seemed open to dealing with the criticism. “We engaged immediately with her with a focus on trying to learn how we can do better and also how to improve the internship program,” managing director Adam Valkin told the newspaper.

Back at the office, however, Swallow says that engagement was not all constructive. Swallow, who actually had a week left on her internship when she blogged about it, wrote in the WSJ on Friday that General Catalyst’s reaction to her public complaints was mostly concerned with protecting the firm’s image.

In one meeting that stretched over multiple hours, she wrote, an unnamed male partner essentially shouted her down for going public with her complaints:

“We were chatting about the initiatives that the firm was a part of that were promoting diversity and inclusion, when another partner stormed in and began reprimanding me, telling me that I needed to apologize to the women at the firm and saying that I had no right to disclose the ongoings of the business. He said the post was misguided and anger-filled, and he was disturbed that he had received emails from LPs and portfolio founders asking how I could have done what I did. After multiple calm responses to his shouting, I couldn’t take it anymore. He had been standing and pointing furiously at me the entire time, while everyone else was seated. I stood up, tears falling from my eyes and my breath becoming uncontrollable, and said I wasn’t going to take this treatment.”

This won’t be the end of the discussion on women in VC and entrepreneurship. For her part, Swallow hopes her experience—and her outspokenness about it—will prompt an open discussion of gender imbalance in the VC industry and ideas for making it better, rather than keeping complaints behind closed doors.