'Hold More Men Accountable': Ellen Pao on What Silicon Valley Should Learn from Elizabeth Holmes's Conviction

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side-by-side photos of Ellen Pao, left, speaking at a conference, and Elizabeth Holmes, right, leaving court after her conviction
Ellen Pao (left), co-founder and CEO of Project Include and former CEO of Reddit, said she was concerned that Elizabeth Holmes's fraud conviction would give investors 'an excuse to continue to avoid investing in women.' Holmes, the former CEO of Theranos (right), leaves a San José courthouse following her fraud conviction on Jan. 3, 2022.  (Steve Jennings/Getty Images, David Odisho/Getty Images)

Silicon Valley is full of charismatic, high-flying start-up founders like former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, but very few of them are women.

Shady dealings and even outright fraud also are not unknown in the tech industry, but high-profile prosecutions of executives — like the one that led to Holmes's conviction on four counts of fraud this week — are relatively rare.

Ellen Pao, a tech investor and former CEO of Reddit, who has fought sexism in the venture capital industry, now heads Project Include, a nonprofit focused on building lasting diversity and inclusion in the tech industry.

In September, Pao wrote a New York Times opinion piece questioning why Holmes in particular was being held accountable while many male executives in Silicon Valley tend to avoid accountability for the "questionable, unethical, even dangerous behavior [that] has run rampant in the male-dominated world of tech start-ups." And some of the men who are made to answer for their actions often return to lucrative roles in the industry, she said.

KQED spoke with Pao this week about Holmes's conviction, and whether she thinks it will affect the barriers of entry for women in the industry.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you think of this week's verdict? Were you surprised by it?

Well, I was expecting a conviction. I'm glad that there was a conviction. I think it's important to hold CEOs accountable for their actions, and my main problem with this prosecution is that it's been one of the few prosecutions, and I wish more CEOs were held accountable for their actions as well.

In your opinion piece, you say Holmes should be held accountable for her actions, but that it's also sexist to not do the same for prominent male tech leaders. Are there particular examples that you were thinking of when you wrote that?

I think it's both in the broader context where we see it's harder for women to get funding. It's harder for especially women of color, Black women, Latinx women to get funding. So in that context, you see that women are often treated differently than men. And then all of a sudden you see a woman CEO being prosecuted.

But yet we look at all of the harm that's been caused by companies like Facebook — the genocide incited in Myanmar — the scandals at Uber, where there's accusations of harassment, of price gouging, of actual sexual assaults. And neither Mark Zuckerberg nor Travis Kalanick have faced any significant legal consequences, much less any kind of attempts to hold them personally accountable. The consequences, I believe, have only been to Facebook and to Uber as companies, and not to them as individuals for their leadership roles in these problems.

I've gotten so much flak for calling out Juul, which has caused so much harm in creating this youth nicotine epidemic. And it's been called out for marketing its products as safe for children, for convincing kids to market to other kids, according to some of the information that came out in a congressional investigation. And ... [w]e haven't seen Kevin Burns, that [former] CEO who's no longer there, be held accountable in any way. I hope we see other agencies really looking at this Theranos conviction as the start of holding many companies and many of their CEOs accountable.

Did you feel the coverage of the trial itself was different because Holmes was a woman?

I could not believe the number of articles about her appearance, about what she was wearing, about her hair and how she should change and what was her voice going to sound like. There was so much attention paid to her appearance and her demeanor that you don't see and, you know, you don't hear about or read about in other accounts of trials.

Why are women CEOs and start-up founders relatively rare in Silicon Valley?

I think there is a systemic sexism in the valley that comes from its origins — it was started by a group of white men who came out of the semiconductor industry. They hired a bunch of their friends who were white men, and all of a sudden that became the model. And even when I was in venture capital, the person that I worked for said, 'Oh, we're looking for men who are young and who have dropped out of school,' and they wanted those men to be the people that we looked for and invested in.

And all of a sudden, you have this self-fulfilling prophecy where the only people that you're investing in are these white 26-year-old men, and then they, lo and behold, are the only ones who are successful because they're the only ones who are given the opportunities. And then for those venture capitalists, they feel like, 'Oh, look, my pattern-matching held true. I'm going to double down on this theory I have that only white men who are 26-year-olds are going to be successful, and it keeps turning out to be true because that's the only type of person that I invest in.'

So there's a lot of this fixed mindset around who can be successful and who looks like a leader and who acts like a leader.

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Do you think the Holmes trial and the high-profile conviction will affect the barriers of entry for women in the industry?

It's been interesting to read the feedback from the column that I wrote. So many men were so angry with me, saying things like, "No, look, what she did was completely wrong, and she did something that was totally different from what these other people are doing. She is a terrible evil person!" Because they just don't want to address the fact that actually we are holding her to a different standard.

It doesn't mean that she shouldn't be held accountable. I just think we need to hold more men accountable. But the reaction where people felt so threatened by this callout of sexism in the industry, it makes me feel that for some, it's going to be an excuse to continue to avoid investing in women. They already don't invest in women, so that's not going to be a big change. But it's just going to be slower to change these folks because they've just found another excuse to hold on to the past.

What can the tech and investment industry do to improve the situation for women and give them more of a chance to found and lead companies?

I have been pushing so hard, and through Project Include as well, for people to measure — measure the demographics of who you are investing in. Not just by how many companies have a founder who is a woman or a founder who is Black. Really look at the percentage of founders, and also look at the percentage of dollars going in, because there are many venture capital firms that will invest in [some of these] companies, but not very much money. And the big dollars — you know, the $100 million investments — are still going to white men.

So let's look for the distribution of dollars and the demographics of the founders and the demographics of the CEOs and really look for: Where are you today? Where do you want to be? And how are you going to get there?

There's too much of these vanity metrics where you're looking at ... numbers that look better optically but aren't actually showing the level of the lack of funding [to] different groups. We should be really looking at the real numbers, for venture capital firms, but also for companies. And investors should be looking at those numbers, too, not just in venture capital firms, but the limited partners that invest in venture capital firms. I wish they would hold the firms that they're putting their money into more accountable.

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