#MeToo in startups in SEA and the silence surrounding it is deafening

The Harvey Weinsteins of SEA's startup scene: Why casting couches, sexual abuses go unreported?

Why do casting couches, sexual abuses in the startup industry go unreported? (Image Credit: 123RF)

Celine (name changed), who is currently fundraising for her startup based in Singapore, received a WhatsApp message from an unknown US number at 2 PM on October 28.

The person introduced himself as an employee at a software giant and said they had met at a tech event back in 2018. He also shared a picture of himself to see if Celine remembered him. This picture was followed by his bathroom selfie with his shirt off. Celine ignored him.

“But when he received no response from my side, he messaged again saying he is also an angel investor who invested between US$100,000 and US$300,000 in startups and wanted to meet me over a drink when he comes to Singapore on November 4. When I told him I was no longer looking for investors, he abruptly sent me a picture of his genitals. At that time, I was on a video call with my boyfriend to whom I gave a real-time explanation of what was going on,” Celine said as she recounted the horrific episode.

A horrified Celine later shared this incident with a WhatsApp group of female founders of which she is a member. She received tremendous support and encouraged many others to share their experiences. Celine later posted her experience on Twitter, along with the sleazy picture sent by the “pervert”.

Unhealthy work environment

Globally, the startup scene is notorious for an unhealthy work environment. Harassment and exploitation, such as kissing, passing inappropriate comments, and sexual innuendos, are common. Asia is no exception.

But such incidents often go unreported because many victims choose silence to avoid possible backlash and retribution from the harassers, as well as victim-shaming by the public. Thankfully, Celine mustered the courage to speak out.

After Celine shared her story with e27, we spoke to multiple women in the industry, including high-profile female founders and investors, to understand how grave the issue is. Our findings have been shocking, and we realised that Celine’s case is just the tip of the iceberg. The rot actually runs much, much deeper.

Also Read: Has the tech world done enough to check #MeToo? These speakers are discussing this topic at Echelon

Sadly, in some cases, while women promptly forward their complaints to the concerned persons/departments, they often get ignored by their employees to avoid possible damage to their brands. All this, despite the global #MeToo movement that resulted in exposing tens of high-profile international figures, especially in Hollywood. While the #MeToo campaigns had some ripples in the startup world (remember the Dave McClure expose of 2017), they died down soon without making a significant impact.

“A common problem is that many victims cannot immediately identify whether an incident of inappropriate touch or insinuation by men come under the definition of sexual harassment. Moreover, they are often afraid of reporting such incidents due to the possible backlash. The victims don’t want to be labelled themselves as ‘difficult'”, said Shannon Kalayanamitr, partner and advisor at Gobi Partners and CEO of Thai startup 5G Catalyst Technologies.

Despite being a well-known face in Southeast Asia’s startup industry, Kalayanamitr has also experienced sexual violence in the past. In one of her earlier companies, a senior male colleague in the management team she directly reported to, tried to take advantage of her. “On many occasions when work meetings ran late, he would speak about having sexual relations with me and attempt to kiss me a few times forcefully,” she said.

Kalayanamitr acknowledged that sexual harassment victims are quick to blame themselves and fear the consequences of speaking out. In her case, she felt she had no other choice but to smile, shake it off, and work through the advances — for, the future of the company was at stake, and there were broader implications on her career and reputation.

Then why speak up now?

“Over the years, I have been a mentor, guide, and advisor for women who have experienced sexual harassment. While closely working with them, I have come to realise how rampant sexual abuse is. What is more important is that nothing has been done to address the problems in the workplace effectively,” she said. “As a mother of two daughters, I want to see a change in the system, to create a safer place for all women, and encourage employers to proactively address this issue in their workplace with proper guidelines and protocols to deal with such situations without fear of repercussions to the woman.”

More skeletons in the closet

Jennifer Cheng Lo, an entrepreneur (JennClub.com), investor for her own Family Office NewChic Capital, and a partner at Ace Investment Management, also faced verbal and written harassment and inappropriate behaviours — at different times in her life and career. As recently as last week, she was sexually harassed in public at a conference while having lunch with the media and investors.

“In the early days of my career as an actor and model, I experienced first-hand the toxic culture in media and entertainment, which also permeated the finance industry during my experience at a hedge fund. Sometimes, men sitting in powerful positions belittled me and made me feel inferior due to the uneven power dynamic, making crude comments and assumptions about my success,” she described.

Also Read: Reactions to JD founder’s alleged sex crime show just how far #MeToo has to go in China

She also mentioned there are some famous investors and two tech companies that have now become unicorns, from whom she keeps a significant distance due to some incidents in the past, including inappropriate messaging and solicitation. “Even now, although being the manager of my own family office and projects, I don’t feel safe. Recently, some incidents on my social circles and network involving bullying and defamation, from both women and men, made me realise that the #MeToo movement is far from over. As a mother of three, including two daughters, I hope to see young female founders come out and share their experiences because strength really comes through unity,” she added.

Cheng Lo even lost her pregnancy due to the stress of harassment in one of the environments she worked.

The story of Aparna Bhatnagar Saxena, CEO of TORAJAMELO (an impact business that focuses on women artisans in rural communities in Indonesia) and an unapologetic feminist, is more horrifying. Saxena had to face not just sexual attacks but also gender and race discrimination. She was asked questions about her marital status (‘why are you single?’, ‘you must be difficult’), career choice (‘why do women need to earn?’, ‘marry a rich well-settled guy); and independent outlook.

“I was also propositioned and even physically touched during dinner meetings and work parties,” says Saxena. “Even in my current role, the questions are being asked ‘why I, an Indian woman, has been made CEO’.”

Through TORAJAMELO, Saxena and the team call out sexual harassment, create a safe space for women, and support diversity and inclusion.

The tales of Jingjin Liu are no less horrendous. Liu is the founder of Zazazu, a sexual wellbeing hub in ASEAN that synchronises education, consultation and products to empower women to own their sexual wellbeing.

“On one occasion, I was presenting the statistics to a US-based investor when he asked me if I was drawing conclusions out of my own ‘unsatisfying’ sex life, as founders tended to solve a problem that they face themselves. He also explained a lot about his experience in his sex life and ‘urged’ me to tell customer testimonials and my own experience,” Liu recounted.

“On another occasion, an investor grasped my necklace (which was also a discreet vibrator) without my permission. The ornament hung at the height of my chest, and he asked me to demonstrate afterwards. I also had a meeting with an investor who told me that I needed a male co-founder to get institutional funding as women have traditionally no saying in ‘sex, tax and politics’,” Liu revealed.

Also Read: Former Head of MaGIC, Cheryl Yeoh, says she was sexually assaulted by Dave McClure

These stories indicate that sexual harassment has become the order of the day in the highly male-dominated startup industry. According to Michael C. Rabonza, Partner at Connecting Founders based in Bangkok, the mistreatment of women — from sexual harassment to subordination in society — is the single most prevalent human rights abuse in history.

Connecting Founders is an advisory firm that represents women-owned businesses in attracting the right type of capital and strategic partners for their business throughout all stages of their growth.

Then there is the problem of lack of knowledge and awareness. “Sexual harassment is not always widely understood. Knowing it and getting awareness about the right to live free from violence is essential to check violence against women. Everyone needs to understand sexual harassment — men, women, people of diverse gender identities — and be clear what is respectful and safe behaviour,” says Melissa Alvarado.

“Perpetrators, or potential perpetrators of sexual harassment, need to be clear about boundaries and harassment, and there need to be institutional rules and consequences available for protection of victims and accountability for perpetrators. Those in leadership positions can seek to create workplace cultures and safe and respectful partnerships for everyone,” explained Alvarado, the Programme Manager (Ending Violence against Women) at UN Women, an organisation dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. [Here is a UN Women document on how to help founders and employers to be proactive and tackle the issue head on].

Pocket Sun, MD of Sogal Ventures and founder of SheVC, agreed. In her view, sexual harassment happens way too often, and there should be a zero-tolerance policy. Everyone deserves to feel safe at work and in public spaces, yet it’s still not a given for most women. “Jennifer [Cheng Lo] is very brave to share her experience publicly. I hope that women have safe spaces like SheVC (a community for female investors in Asia) to find solidarity and be heard and that harassers will face the consequences.”

How to check sexual attacks at workplaces, investor meetings and events?

“Creating a workplace culture that is respectful, safe and diverse is a good way to start,” replies Alvarado. “Listening to employees, including women, is an important first step to understanding what a respectful workplace looks and feels like. Clear messaging from the top that harassment and abuse will not be tolerated is key, and there should be follow-up and accountability when harassment happens. Employees are usually quite aware when harassment is not addressed and is met with silence. Laying out the company’s values and having clear policies and systems to address harassment is critical.”

But Rabonza has a different take. “I believe we need more women in power. The sooner we can achieve this, the world will be a safer, kinder, more equitable place,” he said.

Jamille Tran contributed to this story.

Ready to meet new startups to invest in? We have more than hundreds of startups ready to connect with potential investors on our platform. Create or claim your Investor profile today and turn on e27 Connect to receive requests and fundraising information from them.

The post #MeToo in startups in SEA and the silence surrounding it is deafening appeared first on e27.

,

The Harvey Weinsteins of SEA's startup scene: Why casting couches, sexual abuses go unreported?

Why do casting couches, sexual abuses in the startup industry go unreported? (Image Credit: 123RF)

Celine (name changed), who is currently fundraising for her startup based in Singapore, received a WhatsApp message from an unknown US number at 2 PM on October 28.

The person introduced himself as an employee at a software giant and said they had met at a tech event back in 2018. He also shared a picture of himself to see if Celine remembered him. This picture was followed by his bathroom selfie with his shirt off. Celine ignored him.

“But when he received no response from my side, he messaged again saying he is also an angel investor who invested between US$100,000 and US$300,000 in startups and wanted to meet me over a drink when he comes to Singapore on November 4. When I told him I was no longer looking for investors, he abruptly sent me a picture of his genitals. At that time, I was on a video call with my boyfriend to whom I gave a real-time explanation of what was going on,” Celine said as she recounted the horrific episode.

A horrified Celine later shared this incident with a WhatsApp group of female founders of which she is a member. She received tremendous support and encouraged many others to share their experiences. Celine later posted her experience on Twitter, along with the sleazy picture sent by the “pervert”.

Unhealthy work environment

Globally, the startup scene is notorious for an unhealthy work environment. Harassment and exploitation, such as kissing, passing inappropriate comments, and sexual innuendos, are common. Asia is no exception.

But such incidents often go unreported because many victims choose silence to avoid possible backlash and retribution from the harassers, as well as victim-shaming by the public. Thankfully, Celine mustered the courage to speak out.

After Celine shared her story with e27, we spoke to multiple women in the industry, including high-profile female founders and investors, to understand how grave the issue is. Our findings have been shocking, and we realised that Celine’s case is just the tip of the iceberg. The rot actually runs much, much deeper.

Also Read: Has the tech world done enough to check #MeToo? These speakers are discussing this topic at Echelon

Sadly, in some cases, while women promptly forward their complaints to the concerned persons/departments, they often get ignored by their employees to avoid possible damage to their brands. All this, despite the global #MeToo movement that resulted in exposing tens of high-profile international figures, especially in Hollywood. While the #MeToo campaigns had some ripples in the startup world (remember the Dave McClure expose of 2017), they died down soon without making a significant impact.

“A common problem is that many victims cannot immediately identify whether an incident of inappropriate touch or insinuation by men come under the definition of sexual harassment. Moreover, they are often afraid of reporting such incidents due to the possible backlash. The victims don’t want to be labelled themselves as ‘difficult'”, said Shannon Kalayanamitr, partner and advisor at Gobi Partners and CEO of Thai startup 5G Catalyst Technologies.

Despite being a well-known face in Southeast Asia’s startup industry, Kalayanamitr has also experienced sexual violence in the past. In one of her earlier companies, a senior male colleague in the management team she directly reported to, tried to take advantage of her. “On many occasions when work meetings ran late, he would speak about having sexual relations with me and attempt to kiss me a few times forcefully,” she said.

Kalayanamitr acknowledged that sexual harassment victims are quick to blame themselves and fear the consequences of speaking out. In her case, she felt she had no other choice but to smile, shake it off, and work through the advances — for, the future of the company was at stake, and there were broader implications on her career and reputation.

Then why speak up now?

“Over the years, I have been a mentor, guide, and advisor for women who have experienced sexual harassment. While closely working with them, I have come to realise how rampant sexual abuse is. What is more important is that nothing has been done to address the problems in the workplace effectively,” she said. “As a mother of two daughters, I want to see a change in the system, to create a safer place for all women, and encourage employers to proactively address this issue in their workplace with proper guidelines and protocols to deal with such situations without fear of repercussions to the woman.”

More skeletons in the closet

Jennifer Cheng Lo, an entrepreneur (JennClub.com), investor for her own Family Office NewChic Capital, and a partner at Ace Investment Management, also faced verbal and written harassment and inappropriate behaviours — at different times in her life and career. As recently as last week, she was sexually harassed in public at a conference while having lunch with the media and investors.

“In the early days of my career as an actor and model, I experienced first-hand the toxic culture in media and entertainment, which also permeated the finance industry during my experience at a hedge fund. Sometimes, men sitting in powerful positions belittled me and made me feel inferior due to the uneven power dynamic, making crude comments and assumptions about my success,” she described.

Also Read: Reactions to JD founder’s alleged sex crime show just how far #MeToo has to go in China

She also mentioned there are some famous investors and two tech companies that have now become unicorns, from whom she keeps a significant distance due to some incidents in the past, including inappropriate messaging and solicitation. “Even now, although being the manager of my own family office and projects, I don’t feel safe. Recently, some incidents on my social circles and network involving bullying and defamation, from both women and men, made me realise that the #MeToo movement is far from over. As a mother of three, including two daughters, I hope to see young female founders come out and share their experiences because strength really comes through unity,” she added.

Cheng Lo even lost her pregnancy due to the stress of harassment in one of the environments she worked.

The story of Aparna Bhatnagar Saxena, CEO of TORAJAMELO (an impact business that focuses on women artisans in rural communities in Indonesia) and an unapologetic feminist, is more horrifying. Saxena had to face not just sexual attacks but also gender and race discrimination. She was asked questions about her marital status (‘why are you single?’, ‘you must be difficult’), career choice (‘why do women need to earn?’, ‘marry a rich well-settled guy); and independent outlook.

“I was also propositioned and even physically touched during dinner meetings and work parties,” says Saxena. “Even in my current role, the questions are being asked ‘why I, an Indian woman, has been made CEO’.”

Through TORAJAMELO, Saxena and the team call out sexual harassment, create a safe space for women, and support diversity and inclusion.

The tales of Jingjin Liu are no less horrendous. Liu is the founder of Zazazu, a sexual wellbeing hub in ASEAN that synchronises education, consultation and products to empower women to own their sexual wellbeing.

“On one occasion, I was presenting the statistics to a US-based investor when he asked me if I was drawing conclusions out of my own ‘unsatisfying’ sex life, as founders tended to solve a problem that they face themselves. He also explained a lot about his experience in his sex life and ‘urged’ me to tell customer testimonials and my own experience,” Liu recounted.

“On another occasion, an investor grasped my necklace (which was also a discreet vibrator) without my permission. The ornament hung at the height of my chest, and he asked me to demonstrate afterwards. I also had a meeting with an investor who told me that I needed a male co-founder to get institutional funding as women have traditionally no saying in ‘sex, tax and politics’,” Liu revealed.

Also Read: Former Head of MaGIC, Cheryl Yeoh, says she was sexually assaulted by Dave McClure

These stories indicate that sexual harassment has become the order of the day in the highly male-dominated startup industry. According to Michael C. Rabonza, Partner at Connecting Founders based in Bangkok, the mistreatment of women — from sexual harassment to subordination in society — is the single most prevalent human rights abuse in history.

Connecting Founders is an advisory firm that represents women-owned businesses in attracting the right type of capital and strategic partners for their business throughout all stages of their growth.

Then there is the problem of lack of knowledge and awareness. “Sexual harassment is not always widely understood. Knowing it and getting awareness about the right to live free from violence is essential to check violence against women. Everyone needs to understand sexual harassment — men, women, people of diverse gender identities — and be clear what is respectful and safe behaviour,” says Melissa Alvarado.

“Perpetrators, or potential perpetrators of sexual harassment, need to be clear about boundaries and harassment, and there need to be institutional rules and consequences available for protection of victims and accountability for perpetrators. Those in leadership positions can seek to create workplace cultures and safe and respectful partnerships for everyone,” explained Alvarado, the Programme Manager (Ending Violence against Women) at UN Women, an organisation dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. [Here is a UN Women document on how to help founders and employers to be proactive and tackle the issue head on].

Pocket Sun, MD of Sogal Ventures and founder of SheVC, agreed. In her view, sexual harassment happens way too often, and there should be a zero-tolerance policy. Everyone deserves to feel safe at work and in public spaces, yet it’s still not a given for most women. “Jennifer [Cheng Lo] is very brave to share her experience publicly. I hope that women have safe spaces like SheVC (a community for female investors in Asia) to find solidarity and be heard and that harassers will face the consequences.”

How to check sexual attacks at workplaces, investor meetings and events?

“Creating a workplace culture that is respectful, safe and diverse is a good way to start,” replies Alvarado. “Listening to employees, including women, is an important first step to understanding what a respectful workplace looks and feels like. Clear messaging from the top that harassment and abuse will not be tolerated is key, and there should be follow-up and accountability when harassment happens. Employees are usually quite aware when harassment is not addressed and is met with silence. Laying out the company’s values and having clear policies and systems to address harassment is critical.”

But Rabonza has a different take. “I believe we need more women in power. The sooner we can achieve this, the world will be a safer, kinder, more equitable place,” he said.

Jamille Tran contributed to this story.

Ready to meet new startups to invest in? We have more than hundreds of startups ready to connect with potential investors on our platform. Create or claim your Investor profile today and turn on e27 Connect to receive requests and fundraising information from them.

The post #MeToo in startups in SEA and the silence surrounding it is deafening appeared first on e27.

Leave a Reply