SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – On a 2011 business trip to New York, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture firm partner Trae Vassallo answered a late night knock on her hotel room door. A male colleague, Ajit Nazre, was standing there in his bathrobe and slippers.
“He asked if he could come in. I said no,” Vassallo said in testimony on Tuesday at the closely-watched trial over allegations of gender discrimination and retaliation against one of the highest-profile venture capital firms in the United States.
“He asked again, and I said no,” Vassalo told the jury hearing the case brought against the firm by Vassallo’s colleague, former Kleiner partner Ellen Pao, who accused Kleiner of denying her promotions after she ended a brief affair with Nazre.
Pao’s 2012 lawsuit helped spark a broad discussion in Silicon Valley about sexism and several other allegations surfaced over the next two years. For a FACTBOX please click on
Vassallo testified in San Francisco Superior court that Nazre had previously made advances at her. She said she reported the hotel incident to a senior partner at the firm. That partner told Vassallo she should be flattered, she testified, and said he was likely joking.
After Vassallo’s complaints, Kleiner began an investigation, and Nazre left the firm. Nazre could not be reached for comment and has not spoken publicly about the case.
Kleiner attorney Lynne Hermle said in court, however, that it was Vassallo’s allegations against Nazre that prompted Pao to make her own bias claims. Hermle argued they are unfounded.
Kleiner is one of the top venture firms when it comes to recruiting women, Hermle said.
She said Pao was denied a promotion because she did not have the talent to be a senior investing partner, not because of gender discrimination.
“She did not come close,” Hermle said in her opening statement of the trial Tuesday.
Pao’s attorney Alan Exelrod said in his opening statement that Kleiner had promoted only one woman to senior investing partner by 2011, despite roughly 40 years in business.
“Was there a level playing field for Ellen Pao at Kleiner Perkins?” Exelrod said to the jury. “We will prove to you in this case that there was not.”
Since Pao filed her lawsuit in 2012, women employees at Pantheon Ventures Ltd and CMEA, two other venture firms, and a co-founder at Tinder filed similar suits that were later settled.
Pao sat in court at her lawyer’s table on Tuesday and is expected to testify during the trial. Nazre, however, is not on the witness list.
In her lawsuit, Pao, now interim chief executive at social news service reddit, said her standing at Kleiner deteriorated after she ended a brief affair with Nazre. She was left out of important business meetings and dinners, Exelrod said.
Hermle said Kleiner partner John Doerr, a Google board member, has been “on a mission” to advance women in tech. Pao tries to “twist facts, circumstances and events” to support her contention of a conspiracy of gender bias at Kleiner, Hermle said.
Pao is seeking as much as $16 million from the firm, a lawyer for Kleiner Perkins has said. Kleiner could cite Pao’s current compensation at reddit to rebut her claim that she missed out on income by not moving upward at the venture firm.
The case is Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers LLC, CGC-12-520719, in California Superior Court, in the County of San Francisco.
(Reporting by Sarah McBride and Dan Levin)
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