Jessica Livingston at the Old Pro sports bar in downtown Palo Alto

Nellie Bowles

Jessica Livingston at the Old Pro sports bar in downtown Palo Alto

Culture


When Jessica Livingston, a co-founder of the influential startup accelerator Y Combinator, arrived at The Wine Room in Palo Alto, Calif., a little early for our meeting, a man who was also waiting outside the wine bar started to chat her up.

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. He asked if maybe she had some startups in her portfolio that other investors had overlooked, and asked for her contact to set something up.

She gave him the name of YC’s male president, and said to talk to him.

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 attempting to talk investments, or offering venture funding for a date.

It was supposed to have been a relaxing Wednesday afternoon for Livingston, whose newest fleet of 25 companies had pitched before investors at the Y Combinator Demo Day just the day before. We were meeting for a lighthearted conversation for my Two Drinks With column, and I was thinking that I’d call the resulting feature “Demo Day Detox,” but it didn’t seem like a good time for that.

What happened to Livingston outside the bar is the latest in a series of stories to arise with a depressingly similar pattern: Venture capitalists sexually harassing female founders (the few that exist).

Though YC has its own spotty history with gender issues, Livingston has taken a strong stand this week, with a statement against sexual harassment. She wrote on the YC blog: “Y Combinator has a zero tolerance policy for inappropriate sexual or romantic behavior from investors toward founders. Don’t even think about doing it. I will find out.”

Obvious though her statement may have been, it was at least something.

Livingston and I headed to a large beer hall called The Old Pro. She ordered a Hefeweizen, and joked that she might need a pitcher after what had happened. The waitress said she was sorry, and asked if everything was okay.

“I think so,” Livingston said.

She was wearing makeup, which she said she rarely does, and she wondered about the impact of lipstick.

I asked whether a man had offered funding in exchange for a date to her before.

“No, absolutely not,” she replied. “That’s not the culture of YC. It’s not a pattern with us.”

Why had she written that blog post banning sexual harassment?

“There are so many new investors coming into the Valley from New York and everywhere else, and we just wanted to lay that out there,” Livingston said. “The overt sexual harassment you read about — the men who say they don’t invest in women — I can’t force them to invest in women, but I can say you can’t sexually harass our founders. And so that’s what I did.”

Very few female YC founders have reported harassment, but it has happened. An investor sexually harassed Jamie Wong, the co-founder of travel site Vayable; she spoke about the incident at a YC female founders event. He had put his hand on Wong’s butt, Livingston said.

“It doesn’t happen to every woman,” she said. “But one patting on the butt is one too many.”

Livingston will be launching a site in the next month to help draw attention to the female founders within YC. She started to describe it, and then paused.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just still really shaken up. That’s never happened to me before.”

I said she shouldn’t worry. I told her about the time I was groped while attempting to cover a charity gala. We laughed about it. We talked about other things. We finished our drinks.

“The way I can be most impactful is by setting an example as a female founder, and by highlighting others. The best thing I can do is to make it look possible,” she said. “But my real passion is advising the startups.”

Livingston, who has two children (a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old), is a pretty big defender of startup culture. I didn’t bring up the concept of “brogrammers,” but she did, preemptively.

“There’s this huge misperception that [YC is] this brogramming community,” she said. “Do we fund more men? Yes. Do we wish we funded more women? Yes, we do. I’d love it if more women applied.”

Right now, it seems, everyone wants to jump into seed investing, hoping to discover the next Dropbox, a YC alum. Livingston said the new energy in startups is largely positive.

“I’m high on startups right now — and it’s exciting that they’ve become so mainstream,” Livingston said. “Though it also means there are a lot of inexperienced investors.”

Is there any way to educate investors?

“We used to do this thing called AngelConf. We’d get a panel of seasoned investors, and invite people who’d done well, maybe at Google, and wanted to start investing, and we just taught them the basics of how it worked,” she said. “Maybe we can do that again?”

It seemed like it might be a good idea.

I asked who the investor who had harassed her earlier in the night had been. She didn’t want to share his name.

Why?

“What if he wasn’t hitting on me? What if I totally misunderstood?” she said.



32 comments
whitney2102
whitney2102

 Flirting is not sexually harassment! It's a necessary step in the propagation of our species and to villainize someone for acting in accordance to their biological directive is absurd. Have we really become so obsessed with tech and political correctness that we've lost all touch with what makes us human?

Sure, he could be a slimey person but that is independent of the fact than he tried to ask a woman he didn't know out on a date, albeit ineptly. To be shaken by a man who has asked her on a date shows, if anything, that Livingston is immature and being overly sensitive.

Things are getting to a ridiculous crescendo if women and men are no longer able to express interest in each other. And we wonder why so few intelligent people are procreating—this article leads to believe that we've made a timeless human behavior a dirty crime. And sensational media fodder.

I am sure that sexual harassment exists in this industry but to highlight this as sexual harassment rather than just an awkward overture really belittles the cases truly worth of our concern.


Michael
Michael

“What if he wasn’t hitting on me? What if I totally misunderstood?”


Pretty slimey either way - asking if she's on a Match.com date when she has OBVIOUS engagement/wedding ring on her finger

aderwall
aderwall

Kara i am not sure Nellie Bowles should write for recode. Have a close look at her recent articles and give it a thought.

Mad Girl Disease
Mad Girl Disease

Is it possible that this man, who was waiting alone for someone outside a bar when a solo woman also started waiting, was wondering if she might be the previously unseen Match.com date he was waiting for?

No one comes out of this looking good. And the real issues the article so breezily name checks are done a disservice. It can only serve as evidence in comment flame wars on other blogs that all that feminazi crap really is feminazi crap.

I wonder how Livingston feels about how the piece portrays her (not well at all, IMV.) Does it accurately represent her lighthearted Two Drinks With Nellie, and Nellie's account of Livingston's account of the latter's encounter with the guy, who I imagine looks like Anthony Weiner, and who at this very moment is preparing to out himself next week in a response piece: I Was the VC Who Didn't Harass YC's Co-founder Outside That Palo Pub.


tmgotech
tmgotech

OK, Kara, now you and your staff are really sensationalizing this article.  At the time I am writing this, your headline for this article on the front page shows this:


"YC’s Jessica Livingston Was Hit On by a VC on the Way to This Interview"

Immediately followed by this:
"One patting on the butt is one too many"
You're implying that Livingston was the one getting groped, when in fact (as the article has buried), the butt-patting is a separate anecdote relayed by Livingston and regarding another woman.
Kara, I thought your site was supposed to have high integrity, what with the disclosures and high-minded launch that Recode would be different.  Instead, you're just a tech equivalent of the National Enquirer.  

Does sexual harassment occur in the tech world?  Yes.  Did it occur in this case?  That seems to be a matter of debate, although I'll go with Ms Livingston's gut that she at least felt hit on.  But stick to facts, Kara, and stop trolling for clicks.  That's beneath you. 

donttrustatoms
donttrustatoms

Here's the only problem with this article: it was supposed to be about something.

Jessica took time out as a YC partner and away from her family during a most important week presumably to say something.

The journalist elaborated a juicy story and attached it to an inflammatory topic with just enough meat, and it's getting the hits.

What's the real story?  The voice of Jessica and women founders (I am one) on the internet is practically eliminated or reduced to click bait and derogatory comments.

By the way, there were more than 80 companies that presented, not 25.

lamomma
lamomma

I don't work in tech anymore, but anyone who works in the startup world or reads Hacker News is aware of Jessica Livingston​, knows she is a YC co-founder AND that she is married to one of her co-founders (Paul Graham). So the guy was skeezy in asking for an evening follow up when she's married and investing is something she takes care of during the day as her full-time job. The reCode article doesn't give us a play-by-play of what the guy said, but if it was enough to rattle her, I imagine it was inappropriate. If you are a woman in tech, you get hit on, a lot. Quite often, inappropriately. I don't need to know the details - I believe her and she should trust her gut instinct that it was inappropriate.

Dion Madsen
Dion Madsen

Livingston said she wasn’t sure if this man was just flirting, actually attempting to talk investments, or offering venture funding for a date.


Seriously?  This is hardly a basis for a story and it diminishes the real harassment that occurs on a regular basis in tech.

Lalla
Lalla

What an absolute crock this article is.  Zero sexual harassment, some pretty lame flirting, and Jessica Livingston showing the emotional maturity of a nine year old.  If I had read her reaction without knowing what had occurred I would have guessed she had been mugged or worse.  Further, the reporter and Livingston are drawing their own myopic conclusions.  His question in regards to investors missing opportunities does not = him offering investment for a date.  I actually don't see that he ever suggested or asked her on a date and I think an emotionally stable woman would have even blinked at the entire encounter.  Finally, next time you are looking for an exit from a conversation with a man who is a supposed investor, don't job drop that you are a founder of Y Combinator.  Instead, tell him you are waiting for a friend and move on. Flirting is healthy and married women should embrace it as long as it is in line.  I have zero problem with a guy flirting with my wife because she would have the emotional maturity and basic social skills to see it for what it is, smile politely, and get rid of the guy.  She wouldn't be shaken, questioning her makeup choices, and promoting an article in ReCode about it. 

superburrito
superburrito

Debatable whether he was hitting on her, but if he was, instead of being "really shaken up" she could have just laughed and said 'nice try buddy, here's Sam's number if you really want to invest'


lksugarman
lksugarman

This is ridiculous almost from beginning to end. That a professional, sophisticated woman would be so "shaken" by some innocuous flirting is ridiculous. Has it been that long since she was actually flirted with by anyone other than her husband that she can't recognize it as flirting. Or, is vaguely flirtatious conversation now considered sexual harassment? To try to twist it into "sexual harassment" for the sake of an article is ridiculous. To miss the opportunity to note that that investor actually touched a woman's derriere without her permission constitutes assault is ridiculous. To use this 98% innocent verbal exchange into the focus of an article discounts and distracts from the issues of sexual harassment and discrimination in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.


Besides! Why did she specifically note New York investors when discussing the need to lay out the ground rules about sexual harassment?! The last time I checked New York investors don't emulate construction workers. </proud New Yorker>

Matthew Graczyk
Matthew Graczyk

Oh and another thing ... What if he did make a social overture (you can hardy call this as 'hitting on her')? What's wrong with that? He wasn't aggressive at all. He didn't lure her to a social setting under false professional pretext. He was in a bar alone. She came into the bar alone. He approached her and had a personal then immediately switched to professional conversation with her when she switched to business. Are men no longer allowed to make a respectful, delicate social enquiry to a woman alone in a bar? How should he have handled this differently?

Deckard Cain
Deckard Cain

Wow, it's elevatorgate all over again. FFS. You people are insane.

Matthew Graczyk
Matthew Graczyk

Geez! It doesn't sound like he was hitting on her at all. Everyone seems to be overly sensitive to this now that the media's reported on it so much (and those cases were truly disgusting). Ever known someone who's a cop? To them everyone seems like a criminal (slight exaggeration) because so many of the people they interact with truly are criminals. But this puts them on guard to suspect everyone they encounter.

tmgotech
tmgotech

Seriously, the sad part about this article is that what was supposed to be a meeting/interview/article about some serious tech and some successful people has become a fluff piece instead.


Way to dilute the message.  You go girl.

CNXTim
CNXTim

i think the pair of you are completely bonkers, you read sexual harassment into that encounter? zod help your daft country ... it is PC/litigant nutso.

TechChick1
TechChick1

Since my last comment has been pending for 12 hours, I'll give this another shot (I'll try to keep my WTFs to a minimum so as not to avoid any delicate sensibilities).


I am a woman in tech, and I find this article asinine and incredibly harmful to women in tech.  I've dealt with harassment personally and seen it happen to friends, and this is clearly not harassment.  


Let's review:

1.  Jessica was standing outside a bar, not in a professional setting, when a man began talking to her socially (nothing wrong so far)

2.  When she mentioned that she was a professional peer, he immediately switched to business mode and treated her professionally (kudos to him)

3.  He did not ask to speak to her husband or the male president of YC, he asked to contact her on professional terms about her professional business (this guy sure seems like a competent, appropriate, non-sexist professional)


I can't imagine any reason why Jessica would be "shaken" by this encounter or why the author would think this was worthy of a story.  Jessica herself said it was possible the guy just wanted to talk investments, so how could it possibly be inappropriate?  

This article makes it sound as though men will be lambasted for speaking to women socially under any circumstance, even if they are being polite in a social setting, and will be similarly lambasted for asking for a professional woman's contact information (because, hey, you never know if they are just offering to do business in order to get a date). That is TERRIFYING for those of us who would like to have normal, professional interactions with male colleagues and not have them run screaming from us out of fear that they'll end up the butt of an industry publication's witch-hunt no matter what they say.

This piece was published suspiciously close behind the real report of real harassment by a real founder (which named names, provided evidence, and took actual guts to publish) and the positive reaction it got.  If Jessica is trying to capitalize on that, it's DANGEROUSLY close to women to make false accusations of rape.  It cheapens the real accusations and makes it harder for women to experience real harassment to be taken seriously.  On top of driving upstanding, appropriate men AWAY from wanting to interact with professional women, that's about the most anti-woman thing someone could do.  It really sucks that the culture right now is such that we can't call a spade a spade.

tmgotech
tmgotech

So a guy mistakes her for a possible date and then engages in some smalltalk.  They have some common business interests, offers to possibly fund some of her companies, and asks for her card.


Jesus, what is the world coming to?

CassaraRadio
CassaraRadio

Thanks for this great bit of technology news, another prime example of the balanced editorializing we've come to expect from you folks at The Verge.


Oh, oops! "My bad", as the kids say. 

Jayp
Jayp

Usually, if a woman feels like she is being "hit-on", she is.  As soon as the question about a match.com date came out of his mouth -- it was a certainty. Who does that in a bar?


Any serious VC is not trolling women in bars for investment ops. 

Josef9876
Josef9876

Carlos - remains to be seen here that "everybody agrees". This is in no way a case of harassment. I man meets a woman, starts a conversation and offers to meet based on their common interest (that being investing or music...). And from what I read no he was not offering to invest in companies in exchange of a date, he was looking for investments opportunities. More importantly when she declined he did not insist or display any inappropriate behavior.

God knows I'm supportive of all the women out there and what I read recently in the press about really inappropriate actions makes me ashamed of my fellow founders or investors displaying unprofessional behaviors. I'm as vocal with these cases as I am with this one. In this case no Jessica, you were not harassed. You were hit on, which you declined. That's ok

The danger here is that there is already debate in other cases on what is ok and what is crossing the line in PROFESSIONAL environment. So if we start calling any casual encounter at a case of harassment on the basis of work being mentioned we will hurt the cases that are really out of line (like that founder mentioned in the article who was clearly physically engaged - which is totally unacceptable).

Please people let's keep our compass reasonable so we can punish the guilty with confidence and make the startup environment more healthy for women.

JerryP
JerryP

Re/code you are better than this fluff.

Carlos_AD
Carlos_AD

 Such a strange phenomenon: everyone seems to agree this kind of behavior is sexist EXCEPT FOR MEN ON COMMENT BOARDS.


So, guys on comment board, if you are truly as sexist in real life as you claim to be anonymously, please vocalize your sexism in the real world. That way, you can finally get your asses handed to you by a feminist guy (like me) or (better option) a badass lady who won't put up with your crap. 

KenG
KenG

So hitting on someone in a bar is harassment?  It wasn't a professional environment, it was a bar.  And it was such a minor flirtation at that.  


I'm glad I'm married if this kind of action is considered harassment.  It's hard enough to meet people that you have something in common with (in this case, tech investing), but if using it as an excuse to get to know somebody better is inappropriate, then doing that has just become more difficult.

bleaucifer
bleaucifer

 Elli, I disagree with your assessment.  The guy set the tone by mentioning match, asked about work, then closed by suggesting a work meeting some other evening.  He was being a jerk.

Elli
Elli

From your description of events, Nellie, it sounds like Ms. Livingston was approached by a man who asked her if she was at the wine bar for a date, who then either asked her to meet again, for either romantic or professional reasons. You provide no other context for why she was "shaken", but moreover you end by calling it harassment: "I asked who the investor who had harassed her earlier in the night had been." 


There's a problem here, and it's that you don't provide justification for your characterization of harassment. This is problematic for a number of reasons, mainly because it lends towards minimizing real encounters of harassment, which do happen very often. Your readers might conclude that this is a prototypical example of verbal harassment, see that neither the words spoken nor the outcome seemed particularly harmful, and neglect to learn about and identify verbal harassment in more injurious forms.


I think finding instances of men verbally harassing women is an important subject that you should report on and we should have a conversation about, but I think you have to either find clearer examples or become clearer in your explanation of what went wrong. 

tmgotech
tmgotech

@TechChick1 Careful with your handle, "chick".  Someone may read the wrong thing into this. :)


I agree with you 100%.  Let's look at the flip side. By this reasoning, any woman who engages in a business conversation in a social setting can now be accused of wanting to sleep her way into a job.  


Clearly obnoxious behavior should be called out, for sure.  But I get the impression that we are now on a hunt to find examples of sexism in places they don't exist.


Can we get back to the latest rumours of what the iPhone 6 will look like, please? 

TechChick1
TechChick1

Forgive the numerous typos - I'm annoyed and haven't had coffee yet

kagorges
kagorges

@Josef9876


Getting hit on gets very old when it happens in professional environments -- having it be ok really isn't ok.  It's opportunistic, callous, and can be demeaning.  Assuming it's ok for women is not a fair assumption.  Calling it ok from your perspective for other people isn't appropriate.  What's ok for you -- are you a woman? do you get this kind of treatment on a regular basis? -- doesn't mean its ok generally.  


Assume that it's ok to say exactly what you would say to someone you are never going to be interested in going out with -- that's the boundary, that's what's ok to say in this environment.  Leading with a comment about match.com crosses the line -- would you say that first thing to a peer?  Use that test.

Elli
Elli

@Josef9876 Josef -- It's important to emphasize that, according to the author's telling of it, Ms. Livingston did not say she was harassed with this incident. That was an assessment levied by the author, and it seems unwarranted based on the case the author has constructed. This is bad journalism that, as you mentioned, can confuse a community which has an obligation to reckon with existing harassment and sexism. Ms. Livingston IS, I believe, doing a great job confronting the topic with her recent declaration to YC investors.

lksugarman
lksugarman

@kagorges @Josef9876 Standing outside The Wine Bar or anyplace outside the work environment in the middle of the afternoon is not a "professional environment." This was some innocent flirting that transitioned to business.

KenG
KenG

@kagorges So standing in front of a bar is a professional environment?  I know it's SF, but still. 

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