In a new article for The New York Observer this week, Adrianne Jeffries and Ben Popper declare that in the male-dominated world of technology start-ups the line between friendly networking and sexual harassment is a very fine one. Though they wrote about a few men they honed in on Charlie O’Donnell, a “power networker” and Principal at one of the most highly-respected startup investment firms in New York, First Round Capital, in particular. The writers portray O’Donnell as a womanizer who uses his position as an investor to woo potential female entrepreneurs and then tries to have romantic relations with them:
“I once scheduled a meeting with someone and it turned out to be a date,” one well-connected female techie told Betabeat. That someone was Mr. O’Donnell. One female founder was “asked out to dinner on the pretense of it being a meeting, but it turned out to be a date” with a local venture capitalist, who followed up with an extended series of flirtatious text messages. That man also turned out to be Mr. O’Donnell. In fact, Mr. O’Donnell’s name came up repeatedly in the course of reporting a more general story about women in tech.”
Now, none of the sources that were used in this article were named which drew much criticism from readers. Many notable women in the tech industry including Change The Ratio founder Rachel Sklar and Google’s Caroline McCarthy also rushed to O’Donnell’s defense in the comment section of the article. But then again there were some commenters who said the article painted a very accurate picture of this man. One woman, who used the name “female_ceo,” wrote:
“The fact that so many women are coming to Charlie’s rescue is absolutely frightening to me. Here is a guy who abuses his power as a VC, to the point where a story that was originally intended to be a general article about women in tech and awkward situations, was instead turned into a story centered around Charlie – solely because almost EVERY SINGLE WOMAN interviewed for this article mentioned the abuse of power issues with Charlie.
In my experience, he hit on my Co-Founder so unabashedly, so relentlessly, that even when she told him she was not interested, he sent her a text saying “oh, but you are too sexy to give up on…” This abuse went on for months. My Co-Founder would call me at least once a week with a new Charlie story. And the sad thing was that she felt incredibly uncomfortable calling him out on this behavior. He is a senior member of one of the most prestigious VC funds in the country, and it is his responsibility to not abuse this power or cross ethical lines.
Beyond my personal story, I have heard multiple accounts (from both men and women) of his attempts to manipulate and take advantage of first-time entrepreneurs.”
The debate over this man’s character is interesting but what is even more interesting is that it seems when it comes to sexual harassment the lines become a bit more blurry in the world of technology start-ups and networking. With so many more men in this field than women, women often have the upper-hand in that they automatically stick out at industry events which can get them more positive attention, but they also seem to be looked at as potential business partners and potential romantic conquests at the same time. The New York Observer cited Nancy Slotnick, who works as a dating coach and is the founder of Facebook application MatchMaker Cafe, in the article. She said, “There’s so many situations where you could be trying to figure out, is this a date or not a date,” she said. “These days, people work so much, especially entrepreneurs, and if you’re trying to meet someone for dating, you have to do a fair amount of switch-hitting.” She said a whole other level is added to the dynamic when the players in the relationship are a founder and a venture capitalist.
We reached out to a few female entrepreneurs on the venture capitalist and founder relationship. One said she hadn’t experienced the whole “date or not a date” situation but she said she could easily see how it would happen. She said a good way to distinguish the meeting would be to ask if you should bring your computer along to demo your product. Be smart about it. Look for red flags, like a VC asking you for a “drinks meeting” at 9 pm, one woman said. She added that, and this is nothing new, men sometimes misstep (not just in technology) and assume something is a date, when it isn’t.What female tech founders should take away from that article is that people need to make intentions clear, set boundaries and be forthright if someone starts to cross the line.
One female founder quoted in the article said, “Navigating such relationships is simply part of the territory, she said. “Initially, I remember it being a barrier for me. But I also found that once you prove yourself and you prove that you know what you’re talking about, it works to your advantage, because the industry is so male-dominated that when a woman comes into the room, everyone pays attention.”
And with more women serving as officers of venture-backed companies with successful exits, women-owned businesses are more likely to survive the transition from raw start-up to established company than the average and women-owned or led firms are the fastest growing sector of new venture creation in the U.S., this is the time to pay attention to female entrepreneurs.