Less than a month ago, Sam Altman, the new President of Y Combinator, officially declared that "Sexism in tech is real." That was the first sentence of his post on diversity. Sadly, there is now more proof of sexism in tech for those that still need convincing. Right before meeting a reporter from Re/code, Y Combinator cofounder Jessica Livingston was hassled by an investor.
When I arrived, Livingston said she was shaken, and apologized to me. The Wine Room was closed anyway, so we walked to a different bar across the street.
"I'm not crazy, right?" she said. "He was hitting on me? He was offering to invest in our weaker companies as a way to get me on a date, right? Did that just happen? Today, of all days. I just can't believe it would be today."
Livingston said she wasn't sure if this man was just flirting, actually attempt to talk investments, or offering money for sex.
"I'm not crazy, right?" That! That. That is the kind of statement whispered so often in San Francisco, and part of the reason why women in tech who experience an interaction that makes them feel uneasy (or much more clearcut forms of sexual harassment) scared to name names. It is difficult to prove or even define sexual harassment, which makes the recipient of unprofessional advances doubt herself.
Sometimes that doubt is deliberately instigated by gaslighting your experience. In this case, Livingston herself seemed unsure. So let me say, if you've been dealing with major and minor Silicon Valley investors since you cofounded Y Combinator in 2005 and it sounded like an investor was "offering money for sex," then, no, you are not crazy.
I kind of can't believe this happened to Livingston right before an interview either. Just this week, before Re/code posted this interview, a source who requested anonymity told Valleywag:
"There are a lot of female founders in YC that are really not happy with the sexism in YC, but no one will even talk about it anonymously because there are like, 7 of us."
Seven is hyperbole, of course. I asked Altman about the percentage of female founders in this class, which included 85 companies. "i just looked at the first 30 demo day pitches and 5 of them were presented by women," he wrote. "i don't have time to count rest right now, i can later if you like. have to go through all the vids and look at screen caps. also this isn't all the women, its just all the ones that present." Altman later added, "just asked another partner and he said he there were at least 9 women who presented."
He asked what she was doing there all on her own, and whether she was there maybe for a Match.com date. Livingston said that she worked in tech, and was meeting a reporter. He said he was an investor. She said she was, too; that she co-founded Y Combinator (YC). He said maybe if she had some startups in her portfolio that other investors had overlooked, he'd be happy to talk about investing in them. Maybe she and he could go and talk about those investments together one night?
She did not want to. She gave him the name of YC's male president, and said to talk to him.
Sam Altman, the male referenced above, was named president in February. The fact that Livingston needed to use him to set boundaries at this point in her career is telling. A few weeks ago Livingston herself felt compelled to issue "A Reminder to Investors" before its biannual Demo Day that Y Combinator will not tolerate "inappropriate sexual or romantic behavior from investors toward founders." It reads like a castigating high school principal, who does not want to have to tell you again, boys.
Don't even think about doing it. I will find out. Y Combinator will not continue to work with you.
News also travels fast around the YC community. Past and future YC alumni will likely find out about your actions and find them equally unacceptable.
Nearly all the investors we know are completely upstanding and professional, but even one inappropriate incident is too many.
I asked who the investor who had harassed her earlier in the night had been. [Livingston] didn't want to share his name.
"What if he wasn't hitting on me? What if I totally misunderstood?" she said.
If this is how Livingston feels, how are women without that industry cred supposed to tell their stories?
— Melinda Byerley (@MJB_SF) August 21, 2014
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[Image via Getty]