Pando

The bros have got to go

By Sarah Lacy , written on November 19, 2015

From The Gender Wars Desk

A lot of people joked and laughed reading Tinder CEO Sean Rad’s cringeworthy interview with the London Evening Standard yesterday. It could have been a bro-manifesto.

If the blue-shirt-and-khaki Harvard MBA drop-out with an expense account was the pox on the dot com bubble, the poster child of this one – as more unicorns inevitably become unicorpses – will be the cold, unfeeling bro-grammers turned entrepreneurs.

The ones who shrug “We’re just a platform” when a home is destroyed or a woman is assaulted. The ones who are happy to create an entire new working class to serve the more well off, living an almost magical on-demand lifestyle mostly subsidized by venture capital dollars. And if those people don’t earn a living wage or jobs are replaced by robots later on? Oh well. That’s just the future. We can’t stop it. The cold, dispassionate disrupters, who openly brag to journalists about all the women they are getting on their way up to the top.

Give it another 18 months and guys like Rad will be the caricature of this era that may have – by then – lost billions in paper worth, destroyed jobs, and ruined lives.

The interview was funny. I mean, Rad comes off as so un-self-aware he could be a Ricky Gervais character.

But I worry that amid the over-the-top confusion with sodomy and sapiosexual by a man who runs a hook-up app, one thing isn’t causing as much consternation as it should:

Rad is “defensive” and still “upset” about the article, muttering  mysteriously that he has done his own “background research” on the [Vanity Fair] writer Nancy Jo Sales, “and there’s some stuff about her as an individual that will make you think differently.” He won’t elaborate on the matter.

With that, Rad just did a clumsier version of what Emil Michael threatened to do to me and other journalists a year ago. A reminder, courtesy of Buzzfeed:

Over dinner, [Michael] outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

At least one year ago there was outrage that a tech company would do this to a journalist. Uber was forced to swiftly apologize and call the remarks “inhuman,” was mocked on late night TV and compared to the Sopranos and Voldemort. The Washington Post wrote about Uber’s “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day."

Where is that outrage now? Almost 24 hours after the interview was published, Rad hasn’t even felt the need to apologize for, or clarify, his remarks publicly.

Others are trying to help a bro out, both off the record in private conversations with journalists, and publicly on financial news shows.  Match’s chairman, Greg Blatt, went on CNBC this morning, explaining that Rad only meant he’d “Googled” Sales and didn’t like some of her articles, that the comments were taken out of context and that he understood some corrections were forthcoming on the article. 

Update: We asked the Evening Standard's Charlotte Edwardes if that's true. She responded "No, there are no 'corrections' because there were no inaccuracies."

Blatt sounds like a like a dad who has to cover up for his man-child son the day before an IPO. No one would say  “there’s some stuff about her as an individual that will make you think differently” if they meant “I read her previous articles and respectfully disagreed with them.” Even an idiot would know that.

Unfortunately, CNBC’s resident idiot, Joe Kernan, was too busy bro-ing it up about Rad’s sex life to make that obvious point. Kernan ignored the comments about Sales entirely and instead said he “felt bad for [Rad]” in comparison with his own sexual history. Fragile Male Ego syndrome at work, ladies and gentleman. Had Becky Quick not been on the set, I wonder if a difficult question on the topic of threatening a female journalist would even have been asked.

Match Group and their allies are now walking back Rad’s candid remarks in the same way that Uber’s celebrity spokesperson Ashton Kutcher quickly came out and asked if it was really wrong for Uber to go after “a shady journalist,” and a friend of Emil Michael wrote a post saying she was at the same dinner and knew the whole thing was taken out of context. Uh huh. Sure. All a big misunderstanding, nothing to see here.

And then a short while later came the attacks -- the classic victim shaming playbook. Look out for blind items and guest blogged smears about Sales in the coming weeks and months. I hope it’s different this time but, again, there’s a playbook when so much wealth is at stake.

Like so many alleged ride-sharing assaults, have we already become inured to the idea that a female journalist’s personal life is fair game when it comes to tech bros defending their startups?

What’s disgusting is how gendered Rad’s attack is. This is basically from the Bro’s guide to going after a professional woman: Try to dig up dirt on her, and even if you can’t, make something up. Nothing specific? Just insinuate in an article about hookups that you know something about her that would “make you think differently.”

A few questions should spring to mind reading that:

-- Tinder is poised before an IPO. Clearly Sales’ reporting didn’t tank the company. What would Rad – or Emil Michael for that matter – do if a reporter really dug up something devastating?

-- Why was the PR person in the room worried that she and Rad might get fired over the sodomy gaffe, or by talking about how many women he had slept with, but not by Rad admitting he was doing opposition research on a female journalist?

And mostly: Why – twice now – have executives felt such little shame over these impulses and actions that it seems totally appropriate to discuss openly with journalists?

I’ll give you my explanation of the latter: Because there have been absolutely no repercussions. No one has lost a job. No investor has spoken out. Valuations have increased.

We can blame Travis Kalanick and Uber’s bro culture for setting this tone. But it’s his VCs and board condoning it that’s the real message sent to other founders. VCs wonder why the world thinks they have a gender issue. News flash: It’s shit like this.

Yesterday, I sent an email to Matt Cohler of Benchmark – the sole board member/observer that Uber and Tinder have in common. He’s also, ironically enough, a personal investor in Pando. At the time he invested, he told me he valued there being a free and critical press covering startups. Yesterday I asked if his views had changed, or if he’s done anything to condone this behavior at now two of his companies. If he’s even disturbed by it.

In my email to Cohler, I wrote:

As far as I'm concerned Uber's investors who sat back and did nothing are a big part of the reason we are seeing this again. A reason a message has been sent that it's acceptable. I've talked to many Uber investors in the year since I had to explain to my children why we had armed guards at Yo Gabba Gabba Live with us, and I've heard the justifications for how they live with it. But the truth is if it was your wife or girlfriend or your children and a security team told you there was a credible threat against your safety as a result of those actions... well, let's just say you'd all feel a lot differently about it.

But until today that was my issue. The news cycle moves on.

Now, I'm disgusted watching this openly done to another respected female journalist for sport. As I said, at least people were shocked and horrified when it happened to me.

As the sole board member/observer in common between both of these companies, I'd like to know if you condone this and just think it's now part of doing business in the Valley. Is this all part of Disruption?

Does this disturb you at all? Is there anything you've done? I'm sick of VCs acting baffled that the world thinks they have a gender issue while they sit back and nod as shit like this happens. 

He hasn’t replied.

That’s not a shock. Last year, when I reached out to several of Uber’s investors (several of which we also shared, several of whom I considered friends) to understand how they were OK with someonea at the company vowing to go after my family, I got silence. Utter silence.

Actually, that’s not completely true. A few months later, I received a note from Sherpa Ventures, co-founded and run by Shervin Pishevar, one of the most public investors in Uber and one who so identifies with the Uber dream team that he lists “Strategic Advisor and Board Observer at Uber Technologies” on his LinkedIn page as his main job.

The note was an invitation to a luncheon to celebrate and honor female journalists in the Bay Area. I wish I were joking.

It’s a fact of life in Silicon Valley that entrepreneurs are under intense pressure to perform, and that pressure can test who you are and what good or bad you are capable of.

That’s why it’s vitally important that, when the worse instincts come out, there’s someone else with some distance-- a board member? an advisor? a friend? an investor?-- willing to shake that entrepreneur and tell them that’s not the way to win. That the victory isn’t worth it if it comes by making threats, digging through garbage or smearing critics.

Journalists -- whether at Buzzfeed, Pando, or most recently at the Evening Standard -- are doing their part in reporting the bad behavior. How long will we have to wait for the venture community to break its own code of silence?