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Saint John to Take the Stand: Kleiner Perkins Leader John Doerr to Testify in Pao Case

In a nasty fight, Doerr has somehow come off looking like a gentleman.

Kleiner Perkins

When former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Chi-Hua Chien testified in the gender discrimination suit rocking Silicon Valley this month, he told the story of an all-male work dinner he organized in San Francisco. After the dinner, some of the partners of the storied venture capital firm took issue with the guest list.

In court last week, plaintiff’s attorney, Alan Exelrod, asked whether there was a conversation about how no women were invited.

“I believe it was John who asked,” Chien said.

In the lawsuit pitting former partner Ellen Pao against Kleiner Perkins, John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist who famously played key advisory roles at companies including Amazon, Sun and Google and who also hired Pao, has consistently come off as a thoughtful mentor, who’s stayed above the fray, entering only to express dissatisfaction at the firm’s treatment of Pao.

In emails shown as evidence in court, Doerr chastises his colleagues about their treatment of Pao, encourages positive re-writes of her performance reviews and advocates firing a particular bad actor, partner Ajit Nazre, whom Pao said discriminated against her after she broke off their romantic relationship.

But Doerr’s protection wasn’t enough. Pao sued the firm in 2012 and was fired later that year. Tomorrow, in the case’s most high-profile testimony so far, Doerr is expected to take the stand.

Doerr will be appearing as a witness for the plaintiff, and he’s also expected to be called later in the trial for Kleiner Perkins’ defense. In the first week of the trial, questioning has taken longer than estimated, but due to Doerr’s busy schedule he has been moved up in the order.

Several times over the past week, Doerr’s name has come up, almost always as an advocate of Pao and of women in general. In a messy, nasty fight, Doerr appears to come off as a gentleman, maybe even a saint.

When Pao was thinking of leaving, Doerr wrote to Ted Schlein, a senior partner who ran the digital investing group and who brought Pao onto his team: “I hope in the end Ellen stays. I’d be disappointed if there are parts of our culture or workplace that cause her to leave.”

When Pao complained that Nazre was causing problems in the workplace, senior partners at the firm encouraged her not to “make a mountain out of a mole hill.” Doerr wanted him fired. Remarkably, even Pao was advocating for Nazre to stay. She wrote Ted Schlein: “My message to John was, I think Ajit is sorry, the firm is aware that he has a problem… we should move forward. [Then-senior partner] Ray [Lane] and I agree that John seems to be settling down. … John seems to want to punish him professionally.”

When Schlein and a cadre of other partners wrote and re-wrote Pao’s performance review to be progressively more critical, Doerr stepped in.

He wrote to Schlein in 2011: “I assure you we would not enjoy the profits we will realize at Flipboard, RPX, or iControl without Ellen. She’s had only one full year to operate in Digital, and we’re concluding we should tell her to get an operating role? I don’t know how a junior partner could have a better year than Ellen did — measuring results, profits, increase in value — except for her clash with Randy. And honestly, I think they both behaved badly there.” Doerr was referring to Randy Komisar, with whom Pao had argued about patent startup RPX.

Schlein was irritated that Doerr had stepped in when the rest of the team had already reached consensus on Pao: “I can postpone her review. I am disappointed after all these conversations with the entire team that we are still debating her,” he wrote in one email.

On the stand, Schlein seemed annoyed by the Doerr-Pao mentorship, though he took pains never to criticize Doerr.

“I certainly know John had strong affections towards Ellen,” Schlein said, adding later: “John was extremely protective of Ellen … a little paternalistic, in a way.”

Attorney Lynne Hermle, representing Kleiner Perkins, used that same idea in her opening argument.

Pao was “like a surrogate daughter” to Doerr, she said.

But the Doerr-Pao relationship did fall apart at some point. When Pao ultimately filed her lawsuit in May 2012, it was Doerr, standing with the firm as its leader, who fired back with a statement calling her claims “false accusations.”

“In the end, facts — not unfounded claims — will determine the outcome of the suit filed against us. We will vigorously defend our reputation and are confident we will prevail,” Doerr said.

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