Their stories came out slowly, even hesitantly, at first. Then in a rush.
One female entrepreneur recounted how she had been propositioned by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist while seeking a job with him, which she did not land after rebuffing him. Another showed the increasingly suggestive messages she had received from a start-up investor. And one chief executive described how she had faced numerous sexist comments from an investor while raising money for her online community website.
What happened afterward was often just as disturbing, the women told The New York Times. Many times, the investors’ firms and colleagues ignored or played down what had happened when the situations were brought to their attention. Saying anything, the women were warned, might lead to ostracism.
Now some of these female entrepreneurs have decided to take that risk. More than two dozen women in the technology start-up industry spoke to The Times in recent days about being sexually harassed. Ten of them named the investors involved, often providing corroborating messages and emails, and pointed to high-profile venture capitalists such as Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital and Dave McClure of 500 Startups.
The disclosures came after the tech news site The Information reported that female entrepreneurs had been preyed upon by a venture capitalist, Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital. The new accounts underscore how sexual harassment in the tech start-up ecosystem goes beyond one firm and is pervasive and ingrained. Now their speaking out suggests a cultural shift in Silicon Valley, where such predatory behavior had often been murmured about but rarely exposed.
The tech industry has long suffered a gender imbalance, with companies such as Google and Facebook acknowledging how few women were in their ranks. Some female engineers have started to speak out on the issue, including a former Uber engineer who detailed a pattern of sexual harassment at the company, setting off internal investigations that spurred the resignation in June of Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick.
Most recently, the revelations about Mr. Caldbeck of Binary Capital have triggered an outcry. The investor has been accused of sexually harassing entrepreneurs while he worked at three different venture firms in the past seven years, often in meetings in which the women were presenting their companies to him.
Several of Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists and technologists, including Reid Hoffman, a founder of LinkedIn, condemned Mr. Caldbeck’s behavior last week and called for investors to sign a “decency pledge.” Binary has since collapsed, with Mr. Caldbeck leaving the firm and investors pulling money out of its funds.
The chain of events has emboldened more women to talk publicly about the treatment they said they had endured from tech investors.
“Female entrepreneurs are a critical part of the fabric of Silicon Valley,” said Katrina Lake, founder and chief executive of the online clothing start-up Stitch Fix, who was one of the women targeted by Mr. Caldbeck. “It’s important to expose the type of behavior that’s been reported in the last few weeks, so the community can recognize and address these problems.”
The women’s experiences help explain why the venture capital and start-up ecosystem — which underpins the tech industry and has spawned companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon — has been so lopsided in terms of gender.
Most venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are men, with female entrepreneurs receiving $1.5 billion in funding last year versus $58.2 billion for men, according to the data firm PitchBook. Many of the investors hold outsize power, since entrepreneurs need their money to turn ideas and innovations into a business. And because the venture industry operates with few disclosure requirements, people have kept silent about investors who cross the lines with entrepreneurs.
Some venture capitalists’ abuse of power has come to light in recent years. In 2015, Ellen Pao took her former employer, the prestigious venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to trial for allegations of gender discrimination, leveling accusations of professional retaliation after spurned sexual advances. Ms. Pao lost the case, but it sparked a debate about whether women in tech should publicly call out unequal treatment.
“Having had several women come out earlier, including Ellen Pao and me, most likely paved the way and primed the industry that these things indeed happen,” said Gesche Haas, an entrepreneur who said she was propositioned for sex by an investor, Pavel Curda, in 2014. Mr. Curda has since apologized.
At a mostly male tech gathering in Las Vegas in 2009, Susan Wu, an entrepreneur and investor, said that Mr. Sacca, an investor and former Google executive, touched her face without her consent in a way that made her uncomfortable. Ms. Wu said she was also propositioned by Mr. Caldbeck while fund-raising in 2010 and worked hard to avoid him later when they crossed paths.