Review of Ellen Pao’s book

“The Self-Styled Martyr of Silicon Valley: The odd tale of Ellen Pao” (Commentary) is a review of Ellen Pao’s Reset book (see Ellen Pao writes something kind of interesting). The review summarizes the facts:

Pao is a former corporate attorney and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who went to work for the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins and then, in 2012, filed a $16 million gender-discrimination lawsuit against it. She alleged workplace retaliation by a partner at the firm with whom she had a brief affair. Then she alleged that she was fired in retaliation for the lawsuit. Potential damages could have run as high as $144 million.

Is it true that she was an “entrepreneur”? Wikipedia says that she worked for a couple of established companies, such as BEA Systems, prior to joining Kleiner Perkins. Is any non-government job in the U.S. now considered “entrepreneurship”? [And remember that she could have made a lot more than $144 million without risking an unfavorable jury verdict; see Litigious Minds Think Alike: Divorce litigators react to the Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins lawsuit]

Apparently Pao is working her kid pretty hard for the book, having the sad little nine-year-old wonder about the gender balance of a “coding camp.” (Did this happen organically? I’ve seen a lot of gender-unbalanced groups of children and never heard one comment on the gender balance.)

We learn that Pao is a good example of The Son Also Rises and also regression to the mean. Her parents both have engineering PhDs; Pao earned a bachelor’s in engineering and then a law degree.

Based on my experience as a software expert witness, Pao’s description of big law firm life isn’t recognizable:

Pao goes to work for Cravath, Swaine & Moore, … one male partner would always lose his copy of the documents they were working on and would have to look over the shoulder of one of his female underlings. She saw him one day staring down the shirt of one of her female colleagues …. In another instance, “a senior partner would… plant himself just outside the doorway of my colleague’s office, licking an ice cream cone while staring at her.”

Perhaps due to the fact that law firms bill by the hour, I’ve never seen one lawyer simply stand in a hallway for any reason.

The reviewer is as skeptical as the jury regarding Pao’s stated reasons for her failure to make senior partner at Kleiner:

This is all perfectly believable [including the senior partner putting on a display of idleness for everyone else at Cravath to see?], but the problem is that things went downhill for Pao when she started sleeping with one of the other partners—one Ajit Nazre, who was married and had children. … how old do you have to be before you recognize yourself as a walking cliché? Sleeping with a married guy at the office who promises to leave his wife for you?

Apparently estimating the probability of your married sex partner suing his or her spouse is not a subject taught at Princeton or Harvard!

Pao’s conversion (as seen in Bruno) of Buddy Fletcher from homosexual to heterosexual is touched on only lightly in the review: “Fletcher had relationships with men before he married Pao.” This review is the first place that I’ve seen a description of Mr. Fletcher blazing a trail recently followed by some Hollywood celebrities:

It’s no surprise that Pao’s book doesn’t get into the fact that Fletcher himself has been accused of sexual harassment and discrimination by employees. In 2003, Fletcher was sued by a man he’d hired to manage his home in Connecticut. The man alleged that Fletcher made sexual advances toward him. A few years later, Fletcher was sued by another property manager, who claimed he had been fired after refusing Fletcher’s sexual advances. Both men reached confidential settlements with Fletcher.

Who else loves Ellen Pao as much as I do? “The case did make Pao a feminist talking point for a time. She notes that she earned praise from Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg for her brave stance.”

In some ways the most interesting part of the review is that proof by repetition succeeds. The author of the review is Naomi Schaefer Riley. Her Wikipedia page indicates no technical training and no experience ever working for a tech firm or even living in a part of the country with a significant tech industry presence. But she feels comfortable talking about the bad stuff that happens in Silicon Valley:

For all her faults, Pao is not wrong about the “brogrammer” atmosphere at these companies. … At many Silicon Valley firms, men really do act like they are in a college dorm. Their conversations and behavior are completely inappropriate for work,

How does Ms. Riley know that the 35-year-old programmers vesting-in-peace at Google are partying like fraternity brothers? What is the evidence that the typical Silicon Valley firm includes “conversations and behavior” that are more “inappropriate” than what might occur in a car dealership or an airline crew lounge?


Ellen Pao writes something kind of interesting

“This Is How Sexism Works in Silicon Valley My lawsuit failed. Others won’t.” is an excerpt from Ellen Pao’s Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, a book released today.

One part of the Ellen Pao lawsuit that never made sense to me was “Why would the Kleiner partners want to make themselves poorer by pushing out a high performing junior partner?”

The excerpt explains some of this. First, it seems that Pao was essentially hired as a secretary, not as an investor:

When I first got the three pages of specs for a chief-of-staff position at Kleiner Perkins in 2005, it was almost as if someone had copied my résumé. … John Doerr wanted his new chief of staff to “leverage his time,” which he valued at $200,000 per hour. [actually worth a lot more under the California child support formula]

It was fun having sex with a married guy at work:

[Ajit Nazre and I] started seeing each other and had what eventually amounted to a short-lived, sporadic fling. It was fun bonding over work. Ajit told me the history of the firm and gave me the scoop on departed partners, and I felt like I was at last being let in on company secrets. Finally I had someone who was willing to talk about the dysfunction we saw in our workplace, and to be honest about how decisions were really made.

You know that you’re with a homophobe if your female partner objects to you having sex with other men:

During our first date in New York, he told me during hours of conversation that he had previously been with men, something I never had a problem with but which would later be used in the press as evidence that our marriage was a sham. We got engaged just six weeks after we met.

Here’s the most interesting part, though…

One secret of the venture-capital world is that many firms run on vote trading. A person might offer to vote in favor of investing in another partner’s investment so that partner will support his upcoming investment. Many firms, including Kleiner, also had a veto rule: Any one person could veto another member’s investment. No one ever exercised a veto while I was there, but fear of it motivated us to practice the California art of superficial collegiality, where everything seems tan and shiny on the outside but behind closed doors, people would trash your investment, block it, or send you on unending “rock fetches” — time-consuming, unproductive tasks to stall you until you gave up.

Venture capital’s underbelly of competitiveness exists in part because the more I invest, the less money for you, my partner, to make your investments. And we’re all trying to make as many investments as possible because chances are low that any one investment is going to be successful. Partners can increase their own odds by excluding all of your investments. And as a junior partner you faced another dilemma: Your investments could be poached by senior partners. You wanted to pitch your venture so it would be supported but not so much that it would be stolen. Once a senior partner laid claim to a venture you were driving, you were better off just keeping quiet.

In other words, it may be that Kleiner wasn’t a pure partnership and therefore Pao’s allegations might not have required each Kleiner partner to act against his or her self-interest. (Though, even in a state where a jury was willing to award $417 million to a woman who used talcum powder (USA Today), Pao’s lawyers couldn’t convince her jury.)

I’ll be interested to hear from readers who decide to invest in Ms. Pao’s book.



Ellen Pao is a “woman of color”

Six different readers emailed with news of Ellen Pao’s book project. This answers to some extent the question that I asked in “Ellen Pao’s new job?” (but it does cast some doubt on the merits of her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins; if she were in fact a competent venture capitalist and therefore had sufficient skills to beat the S&P 500 by investing in young companies, why wouldn’t she have been snapped up by some greedy investors looking for yield?) It comes close to answering What should Ellen Pao’s forthcoming book be titled? (July 2015)

What I found most interesting in this Jezebel piece on Pao’s new book is the statement from the publisher: “one of the few visible, prominent women of color who have reached the C-suite in corporate America.”

The “corporate America” phrase is interesting because Reddit had roughly $8 million per year in revenue while Ms. Pao was CEO. By that revenue standard, the manager of three McDonald’s franchises would also qualify (Forbes) as a member of the corporate America C-suite. (Compare to Rosalind Brewer, responsible for $57 billion in sales at Sam’s Club.)

An Asian-American qualifying for the “women of color” category is yet more interesting because it shows the evolution of victimhood in our society. About 20 years ago a Korean-American friend was denied membership in a Harvard Law School Women of Color group. Today she would be able to join?

Title ideas from the July 2015 reader comments:

  • From VCs to Reddit: How I exposed Silicon Valley sexism
  • Pao! Right in the Kisser!
    The Sayings of Chairman Pao
    How to Get Ahead in Business without Really Trying
    How to Marry a Millionaire
    Mean In
    Rean In
  • Pu$$y Warrior, Fighting White Male Patriarchy: the Ellen Pao Story



Will the New York Times like their own plaintiff as much as they liked Ellen Pao?

The New York Times didn’t wait to hear the evidence before lauding as meritorious Ellen Pao‘s employment discrimination claim against the one-percenters at Kleiner Perkins. Now they’ve got their own plaintiff, Marjorie Walker (“Here’s why I’m suing the New York Times for discrimination” (Guardian)), alleging that they discriminate against “older, minority and female employees” in favor of “young, high-end and primarily white” workers.

One common thread is that the Times doesn’t have any difficulty in making up its mind about these lawsuits. Just as they were quickly sure that Ellen Pao was right, they’re confident that Marjorie Walker is dead wrong:

A spokeswoman for The Times called the suit “entirely without merit” and said “we intend to fight it vigorously in court.’’ — “Suit Accuses New York Times Executives of Bias”

What do readers think? Ellen Pao’s argument was that the Kleiner Perkins partners wanted to make themselves poorer by bringing in a less qualified person as a partner (my initial posting on the lawsuit where I wondered what their motivation could be). Marjorie Walker and her co-plaintiff Ernestine Grant argue that mid-level managers at the Times are favoring workers under 40 rather than workers over 60.


Ellen Pao’s new job?

According to the New York Times, Ellen Pao is one of the most qualified workers in the United States. She is also nearly ubiquitous in the media. And the U.S. labor market is supposedly tight, especially for high-skill workers. Ms. Pao’s last full-time job was in July 2015. Why haven’t we heard about Ms. Pao being snapped up by another venture capital firm or being hired to exercise her unique skills on behalf of another enterprise?

[Ms. Pao was a “luncheon keynote” speaker on December 10 here in Boston at the Massachusetts Conference for Women. She was part of “A Conversation on Workplaces that Work” and characterized as “entrepreneur, investor and writer”.]

Readers: What happened to Reddit after Ms. Pao’s departure? Has the company done better or worse under the new management? Is the site better or worse from a user’s perspective? (I’m assuming that the collapse of Internet advertising and the rise of Facebook imposes a generally negative trend on sites such as Reddit, independent of who is CEO.)


Love for Ellen Pao

One of my classmates from MIT (we graduated when the Wisconsin ice sheet still covered most of Massachusetts) emailed to say how excited she was that young women were suing employers more frequently than women had in the past (unclear that this is true; it could just be that Ellen Pao-style lawsuits now get more press coverage than previously). Ellen Pao in particular is a hero to her. Why? “Lawsuits force men to listen up.”

I responded with “ask yourself why a U.S. company would want to hire women at this point at the same wage as a man. If every female employee comes with a statistical risk of being sued and spending $10 million defending the discrimination lawsuit, then the only way for the female employee to be equally valuable to the company if she is paid a lower wage. … So women like Ellen Pao actually lower the wages of other women in the workforce.”

Was she persuaded by this Econ 101/Accounting 201 argument? Apparently not because she responded with “This email of yours is wrong and ignorant and sexist.”

MIT built its own Ellen Pao before the Ivy League did: Gretchen Kalonji

Can you think of anyone with top academic credentials who got fired from a job for underperformance, sued to get paid for having XX chromosomes, and who was tied to the world of nonstandard sexuality?

No, not Ellen Pao of Princeton and Harvard, Kleiner Perkins/Reddit, and (at least formerly) gay men.

Gretchen Kalonji, a 1980 graduate from the MIT materials science department, eventually became a professor at MIT. She was denied tenure in 1988, analogous to Ellen Pao’s failure to be promoted to senior partner at Kleiner. Kalonji sued MIT, eventually settling in 1995 for “an undisclosed amount” plus “MIT also agreed to spend at least $50,000 a year for 5 years on a national program encouraging women and minority grad students and postdocs to move onto university faculties.” (

Kalonji moved west and ended up in a same-sex relationship with Denice Denton, the chancellor of University of California Santa Cruz. Denton was described as “admired for overcoming gender and sexual-orientation biases and for taking a practical approach to social justice issues” and “ensnared in an investigation into unreported pay and perks in the UC system and was criticized after $600,000 in renovations were made to her university home.”

Denton arranged a $192,000/year job for Kalonji as the University of California’s “director of international strategy development” (sfgateWSJ) . Denton subsequently committed suicide, leaving an estate worth perhaps $2 million. Kalonji then sued the estate for more than 100 percent of this value (argument: (1) if it had been legal for two women to be married then Denton would have married her; (2) had they in fact been married, Denton would have updated her will and left everything to Kalonji instead of to Denton’s blood relatives). (Santa Cruz Sentinel) Kalonji ultimately settled this lawsuit in exchange for roughly $750,000 in real estate (Santa Cruz Sentinel).

What do readers think? The New York Times gives all credit to Ellen Pao and, implicitly, Princeton and Harvard. But it would seem that an MIT graduate blazed the trail…

Global douchebag circuit: Aspen Institute, Ellen Pao, and Buddy Fletcher

In sifting through all of the press coverage around Ellen Pao’s attempt to get $176 million out of Kleiner Perkins, I missed one salient feature: Pao met her husband, the then-gay Buddy Fletcher, at the Aspen Institute (Pao’s profile on the organization’s “Global Leadership Network” section; see also Fletcher’s page).

In case the various investor lawsuits against Fletcher motivate the Aspen folks to edit their site, I am cutting and pasting the most important parts here:

Alphonse pursues an uncommon investment strategy combining traditional investment management, corporate finance, quantitative methods, and social responsibility. Since 1991, Fletcher Asset Management has invested more than $1 billion in dozens of promising companies. In 1996, the company had about 25 employees, and there were days when Fletcher, this tiny company (by Wall Street standards), accounted for more than five percent of the New York Stock Exchange’s trading volume. Alphonse started working in the investment arena after graduating from Harvard in 1987. He first joined the Wall Street investment firm of Bear, Stearns & Co. and in 1989 was lured away by GE’s Kidder, Peabody & Co., a giant in the Wall Street-based investment industry. Alphonse soon became an active philanthropist. The recipients of his generosity have been the NAACP, Harvard University, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, New School for Social Research, and the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. In collaboration with other groups, Alphonse has launched a $50 million multi-year initiative in education which includes a fellowship program providing $50,000 fellowships to educators, lawyers, scientists, artists, economists, and others who work toward equality. Alphonse was named “Entrepreneur of the Year 1999” by Ernst & Young. He has an A.B. from Harvard University and a Masters degree from the Yale Environment School. Alphonse is a member of the 2007 class of Henry Crown Fellows and the Aspen Global Leadership Network at the Aspen Institute.

I guess we should give the Aspen folks credit for realizing that Fletcher had “an uncommon investment strategy.”

Can readers think of another love story that would be more consistent with going from Harvard to the global douchebag circuit? Here’s my personal entry: “We met at the Aspen Institute and then fell in love at dinner seated between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu at Davos.”

[And separately, if these two are representative of America’s contribution to the current global elite is it any wonder that our economic growth is anemic?]


What should Ellen Pao’s forthcoming book be titled?

Ellen Pao has been axed from her job at Reddit (timeline). She failed to collect on the $176 million that she was seeking from Kleiner Perkins. Her husband seems to be underwater financially due to legal fees associated with defending against various fraud lawsuits. Pao apparently still gets checks from Kleiner, payouts from deals made during her time as a junior partner, but presumably at age 45 she eventually needs to find a new way to make money.

If Ellen Pao actually had the superior ability as a venture capitalist that Kleiner was allegedly unable to discover, she could become the richest person in the U.S. in fairly short order, simply by backing the right startups and taking the standard 2 and 20 percent fee (presumably investors in VC funds would forgive her history of litigation if she could earn consistently high returns for them). That Pao went to work as a salaried manager of an existing company (Reddit), however, suggests that she doesn’t know how to outperform the S&P 500 (like most VCs, according to this analysis!).

As noted in this April 2015 posting, Ellen Pao could have been paid $238 million tax-free for having sex with her old boss at Kleiner. From a legal point of view, the fact that Pao is now married does not impair her ability to earn money from bearing out-of-wedlock children with (or selling abortions to) any of the high-income men that she might meet in Silicon Valley. However, at age 45 it might be tough for her to establish a profitable pregnancy (see, however, for how the career opportunity of child support profiteer might be extended).

Could Pao just get another W2 job? Having embroiled Kleiner Perkins in years of litigation, being married to a man who embroiled his previous employer in race discrimination litigation, and having failed to meet expectations at Reddit, she doesn’t seem like a new employer’s likely first pick. (except maybe the New York Times? all through her Kleiner lawsuit they kept writing about how wonderfully qualified Pao was; the Times has a digital division and now they can use their editorial insights about how exceptional Pao’s performance was at Kleiner to earn some superior profits by hiring Pao for themselves)

One idea would be for Pao to write a book. It seems that at least a large fraction of the New York Times readership would want to read it. “It’s Silicon Valley 2, Ellen Pao 0: Fighter of Sexism Is Out at Reddit” is a July 10, 2015 NYT story that describes Pao as “a hero to many.” Note how the Times editors were confident that a jury in the nation’s most liberal plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction got it wrong. After hearing weeks of evidence, the jury decided that sexism was not the reason that the partners (both male and female) of Kleiner decided not to promote Pao. But, according to the plain words of the headline, there must have been sexism blocking Pao’s career there because that’s what she was fighting against (not “Phantom Sexism” or “Alleged but Disproven Sexism”).

The market for books by female managers at Silicon Valley companies has been proven out by Sheryl Sandberg (see my review of Lean In). By using a ghostwriter, Sandberg demonstrated that Pao wouldn’t even have to do the wordsmithing in order to enjoy an income as an author. That does leave an open question… what should Ellen Pao’s book be called? And what would be a good outline of content?


  • reader comment (Susan, 94085) on NYT article:

“I’m a female Silicon Valley executive who worked with Ellen at Microsoft. Ellen should look for a job in academics because that is her core competency. Working in the business world, not so much. Her story is illustrative of a commonly-held misconception among some that great academic success always translates into great success in other areas. Both Ellen and her employers have bought into this fallacy with disastrous results: employers have continued to hire her for jobs with increasing responsibility, wrongly hoping that she will one day live up to the promise shown at Princeton and Harvard, only to be disappointed; and, Ellen still can’t accept that she can’t repeat her academic success in the business world, which has caused her to believe that her failure is the result of discrimination.”

  • one from Ambrose Birece in “Hades”:

“Ellen Pao encapsulates the myth of elites in America. Silicon Valley and Wall Street both suffer from tautological thinking where the best are the best. However again and again we see the mediocrity of our “elite” schools. (See: Bush, G.W.; also Summers, Larry)
Ellen Pao represents entitlement of the elites personified, a sort of Peter Principle for the well heeled: they keep getting promoted, regardless of their incompetence, because of old school ties. And yet America was and is built by the Scrappy Classes, not the country club set looking to get their kids into the Ivies, Stanford, or Duke.”

Tim Hunt, Ellen Pao, and how to get rid of old tenured faculty

Seventy-two-year-old Tim Hunt, the English Nobel Prize-winner, was forced to resign a professorship after some public comments. This has gotten a lot of press due to the number of people who enjoy thinking of themselves as smarter than a Nobel laureate. Let’s benchmark Hunt’s career-ending statement against Kleiner Perkins’s experience employing Ellen Pao:

Tim HuntEllen Pao at KP
Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab
You fall in love with themMarried partner wants to have sex with her
they fall in love with youShe wants to have sex with married partner, assuming that he will leave current wife and children.
when you criticise them, they cryWhen you criticize her, she goes to court for “$16M. Shake that pu$$y!” (reader comment on February 2015 post, though it was later reported that Ellen Pao was seeking an additional $160 million in punitive damages)

Would it be fair to say that Kleiner Perkins incurred roughly $10 million in legal fees and a lot of aggravation to confirm Hunt’s hypothesis, at least with respect to this particular “girl in the lab.”?

[Update on the Ellen Pao case: the unsuccessful plaintiff now seeks $2.7 million to cover some of her legal fees and costs (cnet) in exchange for waiving her appeal rights against Kleiner, which presumably already incurred at least $10 million in legal fees and expenses. Coincidentally this is the amount that Pao’s husband owes in legal fees for one of his lawsuits and also the amount that the IRS is trying to get out of him (link from post about the total litigation generated by the Pao-Fletcher team). Will she get her fees paid? “You get your fees paid if you’re a female family court plaintiff,” said one litigator, “but having a vagina doesn’t get you a free lawsuit in other venues.” (see previous post about how Ellen Pao would have fared in family court)]

More productively, the Hunt case provides some guidance for universities struggling with how to get rid of old tenured faculty. The original concept of tenure was paired with a mandatory retirement age, e.g., of 65. Such age-based mandatory retirement is now prohibited by federal law and schools have discovered that it is not rational for highly paid and unproductive professors to retire. Being on campus is like being at a lively cocktail party. Why trade that to sit home alone?

Tenure doesn’t mean job security, however. A friend who is a physics professor at UC Berkeley points out that he “can be fired for any reason, except incompetence.”

A lot of older professors hold beliefs that aren’t in sync with current political dogma. People who were “liberal” in the 1970s would be called “reactionary” today. At Harvard College, 96 percent of professors support Democrats (Crimson). It should be easy to winnow out a lot of older professors simply by exposing their failure to keep pace with evolving concepts of what it means to be “liberal” or “Democrat.” Get out a video camera and ask a series of carefully crafted questions:

Eventually one of these oldsters will probably say something sufficient to justify termination on the basis of creating a hostile environment, etc.