Dispatches from business school students about their internships are usually cheerful accounts of new opportunities and expanded horizons. Erica Swallow, an intern at Boston venture capital firm General Catalyst, took a different approach.
In a blog post for students at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, where Swallow is about to start her second year, she called out General Catalyst for making her feel underestimated and excluded as a woman. She says her superiors went on a public relations offensive and had several adversarial meetings with her after they read the blog post.
The episode highlights a growing debate about sexism in the technology industry and how to deal with discrimination at work. Women in startups and venture capital have spoken—often anonymously—about sexism and harassment at venture capital firms. Their reluctance to be named speaks to the risks some women associate with speaking out about discrimination.
“I thought it was important to put a firm’s name to it, and also put my face to it, so it seems more real to people reading it on the other side,” Swallow says about why she wrote the blog post, which was published a week before her internship ended.
“What message do you think I heard when I was the only woman, at a lowly intern position, sitting in on founder pitches and investment meetings? In short: VC is no place for a woman,” Swallow wrote in her post.
The day after the post was published, Swallow says she was shuttled between several meetings with superiors at the firm, meetings that were often tense and combative. General Catalyst declined to comment for this story about the specific allegations Swallow made regarding the firm’s reaction to her original post.
“The majority of the conversation was around, ‘how do we make this a positive story for GC?’” she says, referring to the meetings at General Catalyst. “They were confrontational.” On one occasion, she says, a partner yelled at her, demanded that she apologize for the post, and said she had “broken a bond of trust” with her superiors. Swallow says she left the meeting in a hurry.
“Tears were streaming down my face, and I stood up and said, ‘actually this is going to be last day here,’” Swallow says. She says the partner eventually apologized to her, and she returned to the firm for an hourlong meeting the following Monday.
Other women in the industry aren’t sure the best way to confront discrimination is to make noise about it. “When a community is small, the stakes are sometimes really high when you open your mouth,” says Kelly Hoey, a 48-year-old marketing officer at the technology company Cuurio.
Hoey, who says she is impressed with the bravery of younger women who are speaking out publicly, generally believes the best way to fight sexism is by excelling professionally, even if that means stomaching a few indecencies on the way up.
Hoey says women, to cause real and long-lasting change, should make people pay for their prejudice—literally. “The only way to hurt some of these people is by them missing out on the next big thing,” she says. “Hit them in their pocketbooks; that’s the only way they’re going to change their behavior.”
Swallow wrote about the fallout from her blog post in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, detailing the reaction of her firm and some of the comments on her story.
“The biggest issue I take with feedback to my post is advice from individuals who think that I—and the industry—are better off keeping these stories behind closed doors. ‘It shows considerable lack of judgment to publicly cast aspersions on the heavy hitters in an industry you wish to break into. Does she really think this will help her career?’ one Internet commenter wrote. Another questioned my ‘maturity’ for speaking up, and another chimed in: ‘Imagine the conversations that are going on now between the partners—who made the decision to bring in this particular female for a coveted internship (which many other males and females would have killed for). She is most certainly making them regret their choice.’”
Hoey, who is on the board of several technology startups and founded an accelerator focused on female entrepreneurs, says circumspection can be valuable where career achievement is the ultimate goal. “If crying foul is not going to make [women] successful because they’re going to be ostracized by every other investor out there, then lets find a way to work around this.”