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All-Male Ski Trip and No Women at Al Gore Dinner: Kleiner's Chien Takes the Stand in Pao Lawsuit

No women for Al Gore dinner? Why?

Kleiner Perkins

Could Path founder Dave Morin invite a female entrepreneur from a Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers portfolio company on the firm’s 2012 ski trip to Colorado, organized by then senior partner Chi-Hua Chien?

He could not, Chien said. As he explained in an email at the time, “The issue is that we are staying in condos, and I was thinking that gents wouldn’t mind sharing, but gals might. Why don’t we punt on her and find 2 guys who are awesome. We can add 4-8 women next year.”

There were no women on the 2012 ski trip, and there would be no ski trip the next year.

The second day of Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination and retaliation suit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins kicked off with her former colleague Chien, whose emails, according to the attorneys, exposed both aggression toward Pao and exclusion of women from two work-related social events, even as others at the company protested.

Both Pao and former Kleiner Perkins partner Trae Vassallo, who testified on Tuesday, have said they felt slighted and disrespected by Chien.

The Plaintiff’s Attorney

Chien took the stand. He wore a puffy athletic vest over a plaid business shirt, spoke quietly and swiveled in his chair throughout the questioning.

Chien and Pao’s working relationship deteriorated over the years, in part because he received repeated emails from her asking to include her in workplace discussions. He forwarded them to other partners with notes such as: “This constant Ellen bullshit really pisses me off.”

When Pao felt left out, he wrote to her: “It bothers me when you are territorial and turn things into an issue of ownership/credit.”

When Pao wrote him an email about her meeting with Y Combinator companies, he forwarded it and added: “This is stupid shit. Why is she always positioning when I’m just trying to help the partnership source?”

The conflict wasn’t limited to just Pao and Chien. Their colleague Vassallo told the court yesterday: “I felt like Chi-Hua didn’t have a lot of respect for me. To give a specific example, when you’re researching a new company, you need to get consensus from partners, and it was hard for me to get him to take the time to look at a company with me.”

Pao and Chien have similarly impressive academic backgrounds (she has Princeton and Harvard degrees; he has a stack from Stanford), and they both started in junior roles at Kleiner Perkins. Her attorney, Therese Lawless, tried to use the parallels to show that Pao did similar work to Chien but was not rewarded.

Lawless sought to show a gender double standard — that at Kleiner Perkins women were punished for aggressive behavior, while men were promoted. In Pao’s reviews, co-workers, including Chien, described her as territorial, difficult, harsh and demanding credit — traits that were cited as factors in her termination. In Chien’s own reviews, he was described in similar terms, but was promoted.

Lawless asked a series of questions about the startups Chien had brought to the firm and whether by 2011 any had gone public or been sold — what’s considered a successful exit for venture capitalists. They had not.

Lawless asked about Twitter. Pao had suggested Kleiner Perkins invest in Twitter in 2009; the firm had declined. When it did invest in 2010, Pao says she was excluded, and the investment was instead led by Chien and John Doerr.

But what appeared to be the most alarming parts of Chien’s time on the stand were the exposure of the details of social events he organized for Kleiner Perkins. At one high-powered event, he put together an all-male dinner party at the apartment of former Vice President Al Gore. Some of Kleiner Perkins’ senior partners were concerned about the gender dynamic, Chien said on the stand, but still no women were invited. Pao had said in her original lawsuit that Chien said women would “kill the buzz.”

When Chien organized a Kleiner Perkins ski trip, Path CEO Morin asked to bring one of the founders of Rent the Runway, the popular formalwear rental startup. Chien said no. The ski trip continued without women.

The Defense

During cross examination, the defendant’s attorney, Lynne Hermle, sought to expose Pao’s case as seizing on negative slices and slivers that belied a larger picture of positive interactions. Chien, Hermle argued, had respect for other women at the firm, and they for him.

As perhaps the best signal in his favor, Chien was asked to be a “trustee” of former Kleiner Perkins partner Aileen Lee’s new fund Cowboy Ventures, meaning he would effectively be its guardian if anything happened to her. (Lee was a peer of both Pao’s and Chien’s, and she is expected to testify later in the trial. Pao, Chien, Lee and Vassallo are all no longer partners at Kleiner Perkins.)

As demonstrated in a stack of emails from earlier in their relationship, Chien had made repeated efforts to include Pao in meetings with startups, partnership discussions and outside speaking roles. Their relationship had not fractured until later on when he became frustrated by her complaints about not being included, he said.

“Ellen would constantly try to glom onto or make her way onto other people’ initiatives instead of starting her own,” Chien said on the stand. “So it became a constant process of her not creating opportunities of her own.”

He was shown an email exchange between himself and Pao in 2010 over these issues. “I do feel left out, because I have been left out,” she said.

“At any given time inside a venture capital firm, there are 100 different things going on, maybe 200,” Chien said. “And for someone to cherry-pick one of them, it makes no sense.”

And while Chien might have been criticized in his performance reviews for being aggressive and territorial, and none of his investments had been sold or gone public by 2011 — when Pao wasn’t promoted and Chien was — that bar was not the only measure of success, Hermle said.

Some of the companies in which Chien invested went on to go public and be sold, and many of them increased in value. Meanwhile, in one performance review that included that negative feedback, Chien was also praised as “one of the best VCs in his class” and told that he “had one of the best years of VCs of his age ever.”

Chien admitted he hasn’t personally led an investment in a woman-led company, but added Kleiner doesn’t discriminate based on gender.

“It would be a terrible, terrible decision to make a decision based on anything other than potential profit for the firm,” he testified.

And about that Al Gore dinner, Chien said that only 10 people could fit in the former vice president’s living room, and only three of them were affiliated with Kleiner Perkins. Pao herself had actually suggested some invitees who were male: The CEOs of Yelp and Dropbox.

Chien insisted he’d never said anything about women killing the buzz. “Absolutely not,” he said. Pao’s filing was “the first time I had ever heard of the phrase.”

And about the all-guy ski trip? Chien said he’d actually invited fellow Kleiner colleague Mary Meeker, but she couldn’t make it. And besides, she has her own house in the area, he said.

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