clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Who's Who of the Kleiner Perkins-Ellen Pao Trial

The cast of characters that make up the Ellen Pao-Kleiner Perkins trial.

The historic lawsuit between Ellen Pao and her former employer, the powerful venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is of course a serious one.

But after a grueling month in a downtown San Francisco court room, it has also started to look a little like a soap opera.

You’ve got it all: The rotating cast of wealthy power players thrust into a nasty drama complete with a bathrobe-clad harasser, a disputed Playboy Mansion visit, a private jet, secret Al Gore dinners, workplace romance and … performance reviews. The stakes are high at potentially more than $100 million in damages. And the claws are out.

So we’ve created this very abbreviated and obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek character cheat sheet.

Vjeran Pavic

Ellen Pao

The complicated star of this drama. In 2005 Pao joined Kleiner Perkins, beginning as a chief of staff to venerated venture capitalist John Doerr. Five years later, she was promoted to a junior partner position. But she was fired by Kleiner Perkins in October 2012, a few months after filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against the firm. Pao says she was canned in retaliation for her suit and that discrimination against women was embedded in the workplace culture.

Some of Pao’s former co-workers at Kleiner Perkins have testified that she has “sharp elbows,” is a perfectionist who was “quick to take slight and see the negative,” that she’s both “too quiet” and “too aggressive.” On the other hand, another defense witness, Aileen Lee, said Pao was actually pretty fun and witty. Pao’s affair with then-partner Ajit Nazre during her tenure at Kleiner Perkins has also been a source of contention. Pao alleges Nazre inflicted serious damage on her career after the relationship ended and before he was fired for harassing another female partner.

Currently, Pao is the interim CEO of the social news site Reddit, which she joined shortly after being fired from Kleiner Perkins. Her husband, Buddy Fletcher, is a disgraced former hedge funder as documented in Vanity Fair and Fortune. He has been conspicuously out of the picture since the trial began.


John Doerr

The beloved, patrician face of Kleiner Perkins. Doerr was central in giving Kleiner Perkins probably the best decade of any VC ever in the 1990s, with a string of successful IPOs including Netscape, Amazon and AOL. Doerr mentored Pao (she was one of his chiefs of staff), and was her biggest defender and advocate when things got messy later on. From everything we heard about Doerr before he got on the stand, he came across as an imperfect but supportive boss who took Pao’s complaints seriously.

Unfortunately for Doerr, his testimony didn’t reflect how he looked on paper.

When questioned by Pao’s team, he came across as tense and conveniently forgetful. Kleiner Perkins hired an outside investigator, Stephen Hirschfeld, to look into Pao’s complaints, and on the stand Doerr somehow couldn’t remember almost anything he told Hirschfeld and that he never even read the discrimination report. Though Doerr credibly cast himself as one of the biggest champions of women at the firm, he mentioned women in the context of their gender roles a lot (e.g. “Tina is a highly respected female senior partner”) and he failed to take action on a list of concerns from women at Kleiner Perkins about gender-related issues.

Fortune Live Media via Flickr

Trae Vassallo

The undervalued and consummate team player. Throughout the whole trial, there has been nary a bad word said about the ex-Kleiner Perkins partner. While at the firm, Vassallo was key for highly successful investments in Nest and Dropcam, and she led Kleiner Perkins’ green-tech strategy. She also endured very aggressive harassment from then-colleague Ajit Nazre, who tried to force his way into her hotel room one night. At times, she said she felt slighted by her superiors, even though everyone appeared to agree she was doing good work.

Vassallo created a matrix charting the discrepancy in pay for men and women relative to the success of their investments. She then showed this matrix to the investigator contracted by the firm, who decided not to include it in his findings. Pao and Vassallo had a testy working relationship while at Kleiner Perkins, and on the stand Vassallo largely praised Kleiner Perkins. If Pao comes across as unsympathetic sometimes, Vassallo seems to be loved by everyone.


Stephen Hirschfeld

The questionable outsider brought in to evaluate the problem. Hired by Kleiner Perkins to look into the gender issues at the firm raised by Trae Vassallo and Ellen Pao. According to Pao, he talked about wanting to score a job at Kleiner Perkins, and his testimony on the stand sometimes directly contradicted his written notes from the investigation (he wrote down that one woman called Kleiner Perkins “macho,” but on the stand he said she never actually said that). He never interviewed Ajit Nazre or seriously looked at the breakdown of payment by gender that Vassallo compiled, though some say that was his prerogative as the investigator.

TechCrunch via Flickr

Chi-Hua Chien

The confident man’s man behind the all-male ski trip. In performance reviews, Chien was praised for many of the same qualities for which Ellen Pao was denigrated: They were both aggressive, territorial and harsh. Both Trae Vassallo and Pao say he was difficult to work with, that he often didn’t take their concerns or work seriously. He was the one who explicitly suggested leaving female entrepreneurs out of the 2012 ski trip, and Pao’s original lawsuit says he explained he didn’t invite any women to a partner dinner with Al Gore because they would “kill the buzz” (Chien denies ever saying this).

Pao’s side says that Chien represents the double standard to which women were held at Kleiner Perkins. Pao was responsible for an investment that went public, but Chien was the one who got a promotion. In cross-examining Chien, the defense pushed back by arguing that IPOs weren’t the only measure of investor success. And the ski trip? Chien testified that he’d actually invited colleague Mary Meeker to join them, as she had her own house nearby.

Like nearly every other partner who came up during this era — Pao and Vassallo among them — Chien is no longer at Kleiner Perkins following its internal reorganization and slim-down two years ago.

Recode / Asa Mathat

Mary Meeker

The queen of the Internet who thinks Kleiner Perkins is actually too soft. In her legendary run as an analyst at Morgan Stanley in the 1990s, Meeker was directly responsible for midwifing some of the dot-com era’s biggest IPOs. In 2010 she left Wall Street to join Kleiner Perkins and lead its Digital Growth Fund.

Meeker didn’t appear to have much respect for Ellen Pao’s professional abilities, a sentiment that came through during her testimony. She thinks Kleiner Perkins’ men are softie choir boys compared to the people she worked with on Wall Street, and that gender discrimination isn’t a problem at the firm. She also said she was comfortable without being promoted to managing partner immediately, and that she had never thought of leaving Kleiner Perkins because of it.


Juliet De Baubigny

Kleiner Perkins’ glamorous partner in charge of helping venture-backed entrepreneurs recruit talent. Friends with Gwyneth Paltrow and profiled in adoring articles, de Baubigny is one of Kleiner Perkins’ star assets. Last May, she wrote an article for Forbes about how tech can get more women, focusing on challenges faced by working mothers.

When de Baubigny testified last week, she said Kleiner Perkins was a great workplace for women. She characterized Ellen Pao as quiet and prickly, and that it was difficult to build camaraderie with her. Under cross-examination, de Baubigny denied that Pao had come to her early on about discrimination; Pao’s lawyers pointed out that de Baubigny didn’t respond to a May 2009 request from Pao on how to deal with Ajit Nazre.


Beth Seidenberg

The brainy medical technology guru at Kleiner Perkins. Seidenberg has an MD, and she used to work for pharmaceutical giants Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck. She works with the firms’ science investments, including Redbrick Health, 3-V Biosciences, Tesaro and others. (Disclosure: She wrote a guest op-ed for Re/code on hard truths for health tech entrepreneurs).

Before she took the stand, Kleiner Perkins’ attorney argued Seidenberg’s promotion to a managing partner role pokes holes in the plaintiff’s case, but Ellen Pao’s attorneys say it only came after complaints from Pao. On the stand, Seidenberg said the firm was working on improving its number of female employees. Pao’s lawyers declined to question Seidenberg.

KPCB via Flickr

Matt Murphy

The partner who took the lead in firing Ellen Pao. A senior partner with a focus on enterprise and mobile, Murphy was one of Pao’s direct supervisors toward the end of her time at Kleiner Perkins. Murphy is currently exiting Kleiner Perkins himself.

When Murphy testified, he said he did everything possible to give Pao room to improve before she was fired in October 2012, and that the firm was willing to give her a chance even after she filed her lawsuit. Curiously, he only started taking the negative notes that would lead to her dismissal two days after she filed the suit. Murphy said Pao just didn’t have much chemistry with other team members, and he affirmed his earlier characterization of her as both “too quiet” and “too competitive.”


Ted Schlein

One of the supervising partners displeased with Ellen Pao. In 2007, Schlein brought Pao into the digital growth fund he ran, at the behest of John Doerr. Pao had been approached for a job by Google Ventures, Doerr didn’t want her to go and Schlein agreed to take her on. Schlein is the central figure in how Pao was managed day to day as an investor, meaning the drama around revised performance reviews lies squarely at his feet.

On the stand, he said Pao was “entitled” and that he didn’t think she would make a great venture capitalist. He called Pao “territorial” and described her as unable to see shades of gray, that big-picture thinking “wasn’t part of Ellen’s genetic makeup.” In emails discussed in court, Pao complained managing partners subjected her to an uncomfortable conversation involving porn stars and sexual preferences aboard a plane with Schlein, Matt Murphy and entrepreneur Dan Rosensweig.


Ajit Nazre

Ex-Kleiner Perkins partner who has been described as a serial harasser. He and Ellen Pao dated for a short time, and after the relationship ended Pao alleges he punished her in the workplace. Trae Vassallo reported multiple instances of unwanted sexual behavior from Nazre, and he was fired after the firm investigated her complaints.

Since then, Nazre been working in India and keeping a very low profile.

Vicki Behringer

Lynne Hermle

The razor-tongued defense attorney. One of the top employment lawyers in the country, Hermle specializes in defending companies against litigious employees — so this isn’t her first “women kill the buzz” rodeo. She has represented a number of tech giants including Apple and IBM, and is a partner in the Silicon Valley office of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe.

She has a friendly camaraderie with plaintiff’s attorney Alan Exelrod. In a 2002 profile, the author quoted Exelrod complimenting Hermle as “a strong personality” who “comes alive in the courtroom.” Famously, her aggressive pre-trial tactics once made a rival attorney throw up. In trial, she likes to hammer at the witness with phrases like, “Didn’t you, Ms. Pao?”

Vicki Behringer

Alan Exelrod and Therese Lawless

The legal team for the plaintiff. Exelrod previously won a multimillion-dollar verdict in a case against Oracle for pregnancy discrimination, and he holds degrees from the University of Chicago, the London School of Economics and Columbia Law. Lawless is a San Francisco-based employment attorney, and her firm (which she runs with her sister Barbara Lawless) has secured multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements in cases involving the tech industry. Lawless graduated with honors from the George Washington University School of Law.

All three employment lawyers are widely respected by their peers, and other attorneys have been coming out in force to see their performances in a rare and high-profile trial in this area.

This article originally appeared on