Kauffman Fellows Take On VC Sexual Harassment, Bench Mentor McClure

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fill high-level tech jobs than men. In his memo, Damore holds that he should have the right to discuss these views in the workplace, and it is widely speculated that he may sue Google over his firing. But legal experts say that an employer could be liable for maintaining a hostile work environment against women if Damore were allowed to promote his views on the job. If other workers publicly espouse Damore’s beliefs, this could become an HR headache for other companies in the industry.

Kauffman Fellows’ code of conduct

Even before the recent revelations on VC sexual harassment, Kauffman Fellows had been starting to craft moral guidelines on gender relations for the venture industry.

The Kauffman program has a longstanding vision for reform based on a set of core principles, CEO Harbach says. “We believe that the biggest challenges in the world will be solved by entrepreneurs, but they must be supported by smart, connected capital,” he says. However, VC firm partners—predominantly white males, at least in the U.S.—don’t mirror the diverse global population of entrepreneurs. This is not only bad for business, but it also leads to unjust behavior, he says.

“Harassment and discrimination stem from a lack of diversity,” Harbach says.

The network of 525 Kauffman Fellows—from all past classes and the current one—is spread out across 42 countries. From among them, a large group of volunteers called the Inclusion Crew (INCRU) has sprung up to try to change patterns of behavior that arise when diversity is lacking. For one thing, they’re working on an in-house code of conduct for all fellows, which is being updated to include a focus on sexual harassment, Harbach says.

Honoring that internal code might set an example for the global venture industry. But Harbach says that grappling with the disclosures about former mentor McClure’s alleged actions has raised a whole new set of issues. Should the organization try to monitor the behavior of people who interact with Kauffman Fellows class members? How can program officials treat a business associate fairly after an accusation of harassment?

Harbach faced this additional question from a reporter: Has the program ever received sexual harassment complaints against McClure, or any other participant?

“Unfortunately, that’s something I can’t comment on,” Harbach says.

Harbach, the father of four daughters, says he doesn’t condone McClure’s alleged behavior, and his heart goes out to the women who may have endured awful experiences. Still, Harbach says, “It doesn’t negate the good work he has done.”

Should Kauffman Fellows intercede for members who report sexual harassment through its discussion channels?

“It’s a sensitive question,” Harbach says. The organization might start with educational conversations, he says. “What’s OK, what’s not OK? Everybody has a different idea.”

The idea that Kauffman Fellows might act as a mediator for women facing sexual harassment is one of the new possibilities being raised in the current climate. “This is for sure an iterative process. We are sort of learning as we go,” Harbach says.

As Reid Hoffman suggests for VC firms, should the Kauffman organization’s code of conduct encourage fellows to call out sexual harassment or other misbehavior when they see it in their business interactions—and even within their own firms?

One of Kauffman Fellows’ board members, Brad Feld, co-founder of venture capital firm Foundry Group, proclaimed a zero tolerance stance on harassment for his firm after reading The Information‘s story about Caldbeck. In a June 26 statement on Foundry’s website, Feld said his firm would investigate any allegation of sexual harassment within its portfolio companies, or among the employees of other venture funds that Foundry invests in. If the harassment claim was found valid, Feld pledged, Foundry would call for the immediate resignation of the alleged perpetrator, “regardless of job position.”

“Over the years we’ve been made aware of instances of sexual harassment and while we’ve always tried to be helpful, our actions often haven’t been strong enough,” Feld wrote. “From this point forward, when we encounter something unacceptable, it’s our responsibility to confront it. The offending party has the opportunity to apologize, own their behavior, and change it going forward. If they don’t, then we are no longer interested in having a relationship with that person.”

Susan Mason, one of the earliest Kauffman Fellows and a board member of the organization, doesn’t think there should be a hard and fast rule on calling out business associates who are accused of sexual harassment, or who appear to be engaged in harassing behavior. “I think that’s an individual decision,” Mason says. “Fortunately for me, I’ve never experienced that,” she says, referring to harassment.

Mason’s experience with Kauffman Fellows seems to have worked just as intended to advance the program’s diversity goals. As a former microprocessor designer and entrepreneur with an MBA, Mason joined the second Kauffman class in 1996. During the two-year fellowship, she started work at Onset Ventures, where both the founders were her mentors. She stayed there until 2011, when she formed her own firm, Aligned Partners, with another Kauffman Fellow. Since then she has mentored both men and women in the program. Through the years, she has enjoyed deal-sharing opportunities via the Kauffman Fellows network, she says.

“Women have equal opportunity at those deals as men do,” Mason says. Aligned Partners often funds companies with female CEOs or female founders, she adds.

Jessica Straus, a member of the current Kauffman Fellows Class 22, is starting her membership in the network in a more contentious era. Straus seems inclined to encourage people in the venture industry to set off flares when they confront sexual harassment.

“There needs to be a clearer path for entrepreneurs and investors to report bad behavior,” Straus says.

Straus is entering the Kauffman Fellows program at the height of visibility for the problem of sexual exploitation by VCs. She has played a role in the greater visibility of such barriers for women. For the past three years, she worked on policy issues for the National Venture Capital Association, a VC trade group, where in 2014, she helped to launch a diversity task force.

Now, while participating in the fellowship program and working as an entrepreneur in residence at GE Ventures in San Francisco, she’s also part of Kauffman’s Inclusion Crew. Ultimately, the group is “trying to bring a huge cultural shift to an industry that needs it,” Straus says.

Photo courtesy of Kauffman Fellows

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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