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The 'Queen of the Internet' defends Kleiner Perkins in gender discrimination trial

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Mary, Mary, quite contrary

One catchphrase that keeps popping up in the Kleiner Perkins trial is "needed a win." Why was Ellen Pao denied a board seat? Kleiner patriarch John Doerr said the senior partner who got the gig "needed a win." "Kleiner needed a win. Everybody needed a win. I could use some wins," he added. If a billionaire venture capitalist like Doerr is aching for a win, just imagine how equal rights advocates in Silicon Valley — faced with platitudes about diversity, being called crazy, or deafening silence — feel. However, yesterday’s testimony from Mary "Queen of the Internet" Meeker reinforced the sentiment that Pao’s $16 million lawsuit may not be the case to hang their hopes on.

"I think Kleiner Perkins is the best place to be a woman in the business," Meeker told the court without a hint of hesitation. For Meeker, who joined the venture capital fund almost five years ago to lead Kleiner’s digital growth fund, it certainly sounds like it has been. The Morgan Stanley veteran, known for identifying companies like Microsoft and America Online before everyone else, said she had not been excluded from events because of her gender or observed any gender discrimination. For the past three weeks, Pao, now the interim CEO of Reddit, has been trying to establish a pattern of bias against female employees. Meeker’s testimony plowed right through it.

In 2012, Pao filed a lawsuit against Kleiner, the top tier venture capital firm behind Google and Amazon, for gender discrimination and retaliation, including holding female investors back from very lucrative promotions. This lawsuit is not Ellen Pao vs. Institutionalized Sexism
Now, three years later, there’s an expectation — a fantasy, even — of what putting Silicon Valley on trial for sexism should look like. But Meeker’s statements on the witness stand served as another reminder that this lawsuit is not Ellen Pao vs. Institutionalized Sexism. This is Ellen Pao invoking California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act and possibly coming up short.

Bias in the workplace is rarely easy to identify. In order to vote in Pao’s favor, the jury will have to believe that Pao’s gender "was a substantial motivating reason" in Kleiner’s decisions not to promote her to senior partner. And Meeker’s mere existence seems like proof that women can thrive at Kleiner Perkins. But comparing Pao and Meeker — and their experience — is like comparing a struggling, but promising company like Twitter to a force of nature like Facebook. Comparing Pao and Meeker is like comparing Twitter and Facebook

Under Meeker’s leadership, Kleiner’s digital growth fund invested in Twitter, Spotify, and Alibaba. On the witness stand, Meeker acknowledged her "Queen of the Internet" moniker — "though I will not take any responsibilities for what I was dubbed," she added with a small smile. Meeker’s time was so valuable that the lawyers were forced to squish all their questions into about an hour and 15 minutes. She maintained a kind of bemused aloofness throughout the process, shrugging her shoulders when Pao’s attorney Alan Exelrod tried and failed to point out inconsistencies in her testimony. She gave off the impression that she was able to win at Kleiner, just as she had at Morgan Stanley.

Meeker’s time at Morgan Stanley is worth closer inspection — indeed she mentioned that she knew many of Kleiner’s top partners from her time as an analyst there. Doerr, she said, had been trying to recruit her for "a decade." According to a Fortune article from 2001, those close relationships "utterly compromised" Meeker as a stock picker. Doerr rode to her defense, telling the magazine, "I don’t think of Mary as an analyst." Meeker was already behaving like a VC: she chose not to downgrade Amazon, a Kleiner investment, even though it was falling from its peak.

Meeker ran with dotcom hype men like Henry Blodget or Frank Quattrone, maintaining what Fortune called "upbeat ratings" even as "internet stocks have crumbled and entire companies have vaporized," in order to protect Morgan Stanley companies, as well as the tech bubble she helped launch. Meeker ran with dotcom hype men
That kind of ethical fluidity is not a liability in Silicon Valley: it didn’t hold Blodget back from raising more than $50 million in VC funding, or Meeker from becoming a venture capitalist. (Pao also caught a lucky break in terms of keeping her past hidden from the jury.) Judging by Kleiner’s defense, being "passive" or "dismissive" is much more likely to impede the promotion of female investors.

In one of his old Bloomberg columns, Michael Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, pointed out that Meeker was the only one of the pack who avoided "grisly ends." Lewis offers a variety of theories as to why. Perhaps the firm’s "tech people" erased damning emails, perhaps the emails weren’t damning at all, or perhaps New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer didn’t think beating up Meeker was a good look, politically.

"You have to earn it every day"All that time on Wall Street seems to have made Meeker fit right into Kleiner culture. Pao’s complaint mentions an all-male ski trip and two all-male dinners at Al Gore’s house. Meeker said she was invited to the ski trip and one of the Al Gore dinners. "Al is a very special person," she told the court, describing a cozy dinner party where guests helped themselves to a buffet and sat with plates on their laps. Where Pao resented being relegated to a board observer instead of holding a board seat, Meeker said she enjoyed the challenge: "I sort of like that. You have to earn it every day."

How do we reconcile the diametrically opposite experience of Pao and Meeker? Meeker came into Kleiner Perkins as a general partner whereas Ellen Pao came in as a junior partner, focusing on chief-of-staff duties for John Doerr. Since Meeker started out so high up, there were only three places for her to go: managing member of her own digital growth fund (getting a say in who gets "carried interest"), a general partner in Kleiner’s main funds, and a member of the operating committee (the Grand Pooh-bahs for Kleiner who make decisions across the partnership and not fund-to-fund). 

Much has been made of the fact that Meeker was not initially named a managing member of her own fund, but she said it was just an administrative issue, telling the court: "I am not always the fastest signer of documents." Kleiner numbers its general funds, and Meeker said she was on the "investment committee" for KP 15, even though "I was not a general partner."

Where Pao had notebook after notebook of complaints, Meeker could not have seemed less bothered by the state of affairs. Meeker wasn’t even looking to join the operating committee. "I am happy with my role, my title, my compensation in the fund I am on," she told Exelrod. Female junior partners lacked sponsors who wanted to invest in their career
How can one female investor come out so resentful and one come out so happy if there were only a handful of them to begin with?

One major factor is that Meeker and Pao differed in the kind of structural support they required. In court yesterday, Kleiner’s counsel asked Meeker if she made herself available to mentor Pao. "I think I’m around, though I can’t say I’m the most available," Meeker responded. People were seeking Meeker’s time, not the other way around.

When Pao fielded questions from the jury on Friday, they asked her why she didn’t set up a mentorship program for herself; she said, "I didn’t think we had the critical mass." There were only three senior female partners, and "they weren’t really sponsoring people."

Can structural change happen without "critical mass"?

But the three male junior partners who were promoted over Pao in 2012 each had a sponsor. Pao, on the other hand, testified that she and another female partner named Trae Vassallo wouldn’t get that much time from management and had trouble getting people coming to their meetings. Ted Schlein, the leader of Kleiner’s digital group, sponsored Chi Hua-Chien, but for women, Pao said, "It was more of an advice from time to time vs. investment in their career."

Meeker’s testimony, not to mention her success, undermines Pao's argument about endemic gender bias at Kleiner Perkins. However it also demonstrates how hard it is to prove gender preferential treatment; too often, you know it only when you see it — even then it depends on who’s looking. And Pao’s complaint doesn’t paint a clear crime scene. That makes it hard to imagine Pao or the advocates who support diversity in Silicon Valley ultimately getting "the win" they need.