The Tumultuous Times of Ellen “Chairman Pao”
There’s always been an old adage in the advertising world – “All publicity is good publicity” – however the sheer stupidity of that statement is enough to give old PR hands heartburn.
And the prime examples to prove its invalidity are the ups and downs of ex-Reddit interim CEO, Ellen Pao.
Ellen Pao’s current peak ended on Friday with her resignation from her post at Reddit
Since 2012, Ellen Pao has gone through an unbelievable series of highs and lows worthy of earning its own mini-series, starting with her $16 million case against former employer – Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers.
Her current peak ended on Friday with her resignation from her post at Reddit, in the face of overwhelming negative responses from Redditors’ hivemind, a roughly 213,000 signature-strong petition demanding her resignation on Change.org, and the official reason of differences with higher ups over the future growth rate of the website.
And now, the statements coming in from Reddit Board of Directors and ex-head honchos possibly suggest that Pao may have simply ended up being a patsy for the decisions of others, rendering her pain and humiliation at the hands of disgruntled Redditors entirely pointless.
Over the last few months, we’ve seen this story unfold and encompass everything
One obvious fact visible to anyone who followed this high-octane drama over the last month is that none of Pao’s decisions were evaluated at face value, and instead she faced constant uphill battles due to her sexual discrimination (not harrassment; there’s a difference, people) lawsuit against KPCB, with accusations of everything from “suing her way to the top” to gilding her own comments on Reddit (the ultimate taboo) flying around left and right.
Over the last few months, we’ve seen this story unfold and encompass everything from gender discrimination in big-money Silicon Valley, to the insidious power of trolls on the Internet.
So, let’s take a quick look at the past few years of Ellen Pao, and let you readers evaluate facts as you would.
Episode 1: Lawsuit Against KPCB
Ellen Pao, then corporate lawyer with a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from Princeton, and a JD (Juris Doctor) and MBA from Harvard, was recruited in 2005 as technical Chief of Staff for John Doerr, senior partner at KPCB and the man heading the firm’s early backing of Twitter.
Cut it anyway you like, that was a golden job – one for which Pao perfectly fit the qualification profile released by the company.
She eventually developed a close enough relationship with Doerr to describe herself as his “surrogate daughter”, and he remained one of her most ardent supporters till her dismissal in 2012.
Fast forwarding to 2012, life had been unpleasant for Pao at KPCB to say the least, if her account was to be taken at face value. One particular aspect was her persecution for complaining about Ajit Nazre, junior partner to managing partner Ray Lane.
Ellen asserted that she was originally pressured into a consensual relationship in 2006, and was discriminated against after she decided to break it off after a while, alleging the influence of Ray Lane to be partly responsible for further discrimination against her.
Complaining to her mentor, Doerr, failed to resolve the situation, which got worse as Nazre received a promotion as Pao’s boss in the Greentech division of KPCB.
In fact, there was even communication between the managing partner and Pao where he urged her to move forward from the issue at hand, advising her to delete said email since it couldn’t be encrypted.
As well, Doerr testified that he was pushed to make peace with Nazre in 2007, after the complaint, at the behest of other partners – and Nazre’s only punishment was a small docking from his bonus pay.
But, Nazre’s activities finally came to justice after another partner, Trae Vassallo, also lodged a formal complaint that Nazre behaved inappropriately during business trips, and even once came to her hotel room in a bathrobe.
This finally resulted in him being fired from his various posts in 2012. However, this fact was extremely hard to deduce at the time since it was done rather quietly by KPCB.
Furthermore, after Pao decided to take matters into her own hands for her discriminative treatment at the hands of the firm – the powers-that-be of whom allegedly kept her from becoming a senior partner, and treated her offensively – she was fired in 2012, five months after she intiated legal actions against them.
Holes In The Case
To sum up the decision – Pao lost the case in a 9/3 verdict in favor of KPCB on all four claims, as judged by a jury of six men and six women.
However, the case did manage to bring to light the entrenched sexism of the tech-oriented venture capital world in self-professed “meritocratic” Silicon Valley, a professional stream which carries the sorry rate of 4% of women in higher corporate roles.
The biggest problems faced by the jury were that the official reason for firing was “performance problems”, which continued despite repeated reminders and a performance enhancement plan for Pao.
Further compounding the issue was her marriage to hot-shot hedge-fund manager Buddy Fletcher, who was accused of running a Ponzi scheme.
KPCB’s lawyer, employment law specialist Lynne Hermle, tore into that association and Pao’s testimony, made easier by the fact that Fletcher was currently facing bankruptcy due to the fraud charges and reparation payments to clients, and that the demand for $16 million by Pao at this point in time would help her husband’s insolvency.
The last problem was the nature of the complaint itself. While Pao alleged that sexist behavior was rampant in KPCB, her particular complaint was against the senior partners and their professional treatment of her and Trae Vassallo – specifically, being kept out of the loop in important meetings and decision making processes, being excluded from important social gatherings with clients and influential supporters because women are a “buzz kill”, being held back from becoming a senior and general partner, etc.
However, the under-the-skin nature of said complaints made it altogether too easy for KPCB to launch back with their own witnesses who described the firm as the best place for a woman to work, dedicated to diversity, and the rejoinder that Ellen Pao was “difficult to work with”, territorial, defensive, entitled, could not “own a room”, was not a “thought leader”, was an unfit personality for the rest of the team, and more, as corroborated by John Doerr.
Ellen Pao’s particular complaint was against the senior partners
Given that her charges required proof of small yet important details, like proving beyond doubt that being left out of some decision-making process or a seat on the board of a specific venture was a conscious and deliberate move against her because of her gender was nigh-on impossible, and that it required testimonial support from other junior employees who themselves depended upon the approval of the partners under trial for advancement in their careers, maybe the bar for evidence in this case was unreasonably high to begin with?
All that can be said for sure is that Trae Vassallo herself testified that she received advancements after Pao’s alleged maltreatment, although she was originally denied the same opportunities, possibly to guard the firm against the ongoing problems with sexual harrassment.
One way or another, when dealt with rationally by a jury requiring explicit proof, Ellen Pao lost the battle.
Episode 2: The Reddit Fiasco
For those of you closely following up on the drama at Reddit, fiasco seems to be an appropriate way of describing the entire situation. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
After her experience at KPCB, Ellen Pao started working for Reddit as a consultant, finally coming aboard under the aegis of Strategic Partnerships in April 2013. In November 2014, “Business and Partnerships Strategist” Ellen Pao replaced ex-CEO Yishan Wong on the throne of Reddit.
Since then, she enacted a campaign to clean up offensive and illegal content from Reddit, in a series of moves called by some as “ham fisted”.
Without proper information and communication with the moderator community in Reddit, five highly disturbing subreddits – some dedicated to fat shaming and extremely racist content – were shut down without site-wide intimation in advance, though the communities in question had previously been warned.
This started the countercampaign by Redditors against perceived censorship, on the website which boasts to allow all users to post any kind of content without administrative intervention – good or bad – which resulted in the ensuing nickname “Chairman Pao”.
While this controversy was still freshly raging, it was quickly followed up by the firing of Victoria Taylor – a highly respected moderator of the popular “Ask Me Anything” subreddit, as well as Reddit Communications and Talent Director.
Carried out without any explanation from the involved parties, this move incensed the Reddit users and moderators, which led to 300 sub-reddits switching their modes over to “private” – essentially shutting down access to the public at large in protest.
Given the already-building momentum of the anti-Pao movement, this decision sent the community over the edge – with Ellen Pao even receiving several death threats and other unsavory communication from users, and several photoshopped images of hers circulating around the Reddit community.
Conclusion And Verdict
Although Ellen Pao had attempted to apologize for and rectify the screw-ups under her command, namely the lack of communication over concrete enforcement plans of the company’s new direction, she was still driven out of her job due to a clash between the users’ demands and those of her superiors – namely, on one hand, the ability to post anything irrelevant of political correctness or even common decency, and on the other hand the corporate desire to clean up their site to enable commercialized advertising while simultaneously nurturing user growth.
Any one even remotely familiar with Redditors’ attitude towards commercialization, and the sheer paradox inherent within the corporate wish, would understand that nothing would successfully resolve those demands – maybe except for a common enemy for both, and a last minute step-in by a known and beloved folk hero, such as the founder of Reddit himself?
Does that seem too far-fetched? Well, less so than assertions by ex-CEO Yishan Wong that the entire fiasco was a way to circumvent the publishing firm currently holding Reddit and reverting control to the founding “old guard” of the website, such as Alex Ohanian and Steve Huffman – both of whom are now in charge, the first put on the board through the insistence of Yishan Wong, and the other replacing Ellen Pao as permanent CEO for the foreseeable future.
Anyway, conspiracy theories aside, one thing that’s clear by this point is that the direction and moves attributed to Ellen Pao could possibly have been enacted on behalf of the board of Reddit, and so may be unlikely to change in the future.
What’s even more clear is that the treatment received by Ellen Pao, regardless of who made the call, at the hands of Redditors was simply appalling, and even “sickening” in the words of board member Sam Altman.
In any case, if the unbridled power of the internet is now forceful enough to shove out the managing head of a company, perhaps it’s time we consider this – unless we start self-policing, someone else probably favoring the powers-that-be will be sure to do it for us.
As for the rest, as well-researched as my opinion may be, I’m just one voice.
In an interest to learn of popular opinions on both matters, the veracity of Ellen Pao v. Sexism as well as the need to self-police on the Internet, what do you think?