This CEO Hopes Her Story Can Change Silicon Valley's Culture Of Sexual Harassment

Why Cheryl Yeoh is speaking out now.
Cheryl Yeoh

Cheryl Yeoh was talking to a friend when she realized she had to tell her story.

The founding CEO of MaGIC and co-founder of Reclip.It told HuffPost that her close friend had read a recent New York Times article in which several women revealed stories of sexual harassment in the tech world. When Yeoh’s friend revealed she herself had been sexually harassed by a male colleague, Yeoh said she simply had a “lightbulb” moment.

When she told me that she only reported it to her manager as ‘inappropriate,’ a lightbulb in my head went off,” Yeoh told HuffPost. “I told her, ‘You can’t do that, you need to give detail.’ And I thought, If I’m telling her she can’t do that, what am I doing? I felt like I was being a hypocrite because I was telling her to give details but I haven’t even told my story.”

One of the men accused of sexual harassment in that New York Times article was Yeoh’s old colleague Dave McClure, the co-founder of the early-stage venture fund 500 Startups. One day after the piece was published, McClure stepped down as CEO of 500 Startups. In a rather exceptional move, he published an apology essay on Medium titled, “I’m A Creep. I’m Sorry.

Many people applauded McClure’s apology, but Yeoh was not satisfied ― she was angry.

So, the Chinese-Malaysian entrepreneur sat down at her computer and began writing. She wrote in detail about an experience in 2014, when she says McClure forcibly kissed her in her apartment in Malaysia.

“After reading Dave’s post ‘I’m A Creep. I’m Sorry.’ I couldn’t help but feel compelled to tell my story,” Yeoh wrote in her essay, which she published on her personal website on July 3. “While Dave acknowledged and apologized for his ‘inappropriate behavior’ towards multiple women, I felt it generalized his actions to inappropriate comments made in a ‘setting he thought was social.’ It definitely didn’t address the severity of his sexual advances towards me and potentially others.”

Yeoh listed actionable steps for companies and HR teams to use when dealing with sexual harassment reports. The devil, she wrote, is in the details.

“When facts and details are not publicly disclosed, the whole matter gets lumped into one big black box of inappropriateness,” Yeoh wrote. “Non-consensual, sexual advances are not the same as flirtatious comments from a creepy dude. The degree of harassment matters.”

HuffPost spoke with Yeoh about her story and how she hopes startup culture can lead the charge on fighting workplace sexual harassment.

HuffPost: What kind of reaction have you gotten to your post?

Yeoh: Most of it has been overwhelming support. There’s of course the occasional internet troll who is offended, but most of those comments are clearly irrational, so I don’t even think about it.

What prompted you to speak up now?

A lot of victims may have their own reasons why they don’t report. There’s so many reasons why things don’t get reported... In a way, this was the right timing because two to three years ago people would have just laughed it off and I would’ve looked silly. I think now there’s some momentum and swell in the ground with other cases so it’s more OK to talk about it now.

It took a few events for me to finally realize that I have to do this. It wasn’t like I was planning the whole time to one day expose him ― it was never like that. It was more like I realized that this culture had to change and I have a story to tell and maybe I can shed some light on how we can change this.

Can you explain to me why ― when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace specifically ― you think it’s so important to discuss the facts and details of an encounter rather than, as you wrote, lumping the whole matter into “one big black box of inappropriateness”?

I think it lends credibility to the person reporting their story. Sometimes when things are vague and there aren’t specific details to a story, it downplays the entire experience.

I just know my truth, so I felt like what I could do is tell my side of the story. I let some people read over the first version of my essay ― which was much more detailed ― and they were like “Why are you going into so much detail? You don’t need to. Just say you were assaulted or just speak to a reporter.” And I just felt like, you know what then I’m just going to be another story that could be misinterpreted or sensationalized and overblown. So, by me giving the context of how I knew Dave, what happened before and after, I’m glad that my decision to give a lot of details has ― in a way ― made my story more believable. Because it’s impossible to make all this shit up.

“Non-consensual, sexual advances are not the same as flirtatious comments from a creepy dude. The degree of harassment matters.”

- Cheryl Yeoh

Do you think more revelations are going to come about other venture capitalists (VCs)?

I think so, I think more people will have the courage to speak about their stories. More awareness has been brought to the table. Whether or not they make a formal report or come out on record, it’s OK to talk about it now whereas it wasn’t before.

Sexual harassment can be found in any workplace, but it seems rather rampant ― or at least more visible ― in the startup culture. Why do you think that is?

I actually don’t think it is more frequent. I think that people in tech are just a lot more vocal. I mean, how many finance people do you think are on Twitter? Tech people invented social media, and there are a lot more media platforms in tech to to call out sexual harassment or problematic behavior, such as PandoDaily or Tech Crunch.

Tech startups are also becoming the giants, and are dominating a lot of mainstream media. It’s a lot easier to penetrate, whereas Wall Street culture isn’t discussed nearly as frequently as it is in tech. I don’t know for sure that sexual harassment runs more rampant in tech, maybe it is because it’s a more male-dominated industry and a lot of VCs are male. When a female founder comes into the picture, it allows for a potential abuse of power. But you could say the same thing for finance, media, entertainment or fashion.

I hope that tech can also lead the charge on the issue of sexual harassment, because we are more innovative; we get to solutions a lot quicker.

Do you think the culture can actually change?

It has to. I think change always starts with awareness. Before the culture was more like, “Yep, it happens. Oh well,” and you turned a blind eye and that was it. Now, at least the culture is changing and we’re saying, “You know what guys, it’s no longer cool.”

What are your suggestions for moving forward?

The main obstacle we have to overcome is still, not surprisingly, victim-blaming. The part that I think we can instantly change in companies regarding victim-blaming is the reporting behavior. When an incident is reported, HR almost always starts from a place of disbelief. They request evidence and ask for proof. But if HR is investigating a sexual harassment case within the company, it is their duty as HR to protect their employees. That is the sentiment that has to shift.

Instead of an HR employee saying “show me evidence before I report this,” she/he has to start by believing the person reporting the incident of sexual harassment. Whatever your company policy is, if the offender received multiple complaints from multiple people then it’s very clear that some action has to be taken. If that step were to be taken, it would make it safer for people to report sexual harassment. And that shift has to be made known in the company so that victims feel more comfortable and willing when reporting their story.

What do you hope people take away from reading your story?

That these things happen to women a lot more than men think. I think women already know it, but a lot of men are shocked by it. A lot of men also assume that it only happens to weaker women or women who are naive. I think me being a very public-facing CEO shows that it can happen to anyone.

Head over to Yeoh’s website to read her original essay.

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Women Who Reported Sexual Harassment

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