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Bobby Franklin, the head of the National Venture Capital Association, the lobby and official voice of the spread-out industry, said his Washington-based organization is studying what exactly has gone wrong. He's discovering that some firms simply "don't know what's acceptable and unacceptable behavior," and that ideas are coming in for even some basic changes like harassment hotlines or bias training.
Franklin is also candid about the size of the sexual harassment problem in Silicon Valley and predicts there will be more allegations soon. He's hearing about some innovative solutions from his members, such as editing non-disparagement agreements that women sometimes feel silence them from speaking out.
Recode chatted with Franklin by phone earlier this week. Here are the highlights of our conversation, edited for clarity:
Recode: How bad do you think the problem [of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley] is? Do you think that we've identified the beginnings of the problem, are we still knee deep in it, or do you think we're coming to an end — at least in terms of the disclosures?
Franklin: Based on rumors that I hear — if those rumors are true — I anticipate more shoes to drop. I anticipate more people to be named. And I anticipate more things to come out.
Recode: And you do believe the rumors?
Franklin: Well — I have no reason not to, given that I was surprised by the first things that came out. So I guess fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. So I think I have to take it serious that there will be more.
Recode: How would you describe the industry's mood and stability during this time? Would you say that the industry is chronicallly on edge, or do you think people are weathering this with relatively cool heads?
Franklin: I think the industry appropriately is looking at their own firms and situations. I think they're thinking about what this implies...
...There is a lot of talk about it. There's obviously some sensational aspects to this sort of topic, that lead to the type of conversation and rumors and all that kind of stuff. They're spending time on it. They recognize, for the most part, that you've seen now negative consequences to individuals and that obviously gets their attention. So I guess I would say it feels like it is an appropriate response.
Recode: There are some contrarian investors here who are making a different case. I don't know if this is news to you, but Vinod Khosla a couple weeks ago was giving a talk. And Khosla made an interesting argument: He said that he did not think that there was as much harassment or sexual misconduct in the venture capital industry as there is in other industries — he thinks the more well-publicized incidents in Silicon Valley sort of misrepresent what he described as a fairly hospitable place for women. Do you agree with that?
Franklin: I couldn't agree with that just because I don't know enough about what it looks like in other industries. Like I said earlier — when we do feel like we're at the end of the shoes dropping and everything else, I think that would be the time to step back and go 'OK, do we have a better feel for how much has happened?'
Recode: Tell me more about what the reaction is in Washington. You represent the intersection of the industry and the government here. Have you had any talks with the administration about this issue? Have you had any feedback from insiders in DC about the way this is headed?
Franklin: No one has personally kind of raised it with me. I'd like to believe that it's because we took a very proactive approach to it when it first happened and kind of got out there and said 'this is unacceptable'...
...But I think Washington does care about the lack of diversity in our industry.
Recode: But no specific contacts from Senators, representatives or even the White House about, "What's going on in your industry, man?"
Franklin: In passing. But not officially or directly.
Recode: In general, do you think there's anything that could be done at a policy level? Whether it's regard to labor laws, or regard to rule-making at an agency? Anything in terms of federal policy, or even state policy here in California, that you think could add additional disclosures or additional protections for women? Or do you think this is just a cultural problem without a policy solution?
Franklin: Right now, we're certainly in the mode of considering everything and thinking through all the different suggestions that have come forward...
...Anecdotally, I will say that have talked to some firms in the industry that have made it their own policy that they will make sure there's a carveout on non-disparagement agreements for anything related to sexual harassment.
Recode: To the best of your knowledge, firms are considering carveouts in NDAs?
Franklin: At least anecdotally, I've talked to one firm who is marching towards a change.
Recode: Do you think that should be policy? Do you think that should be required? Are there other requirements that you personally, or at least the NVCA, would suggest to make this better?
Franklin: We're not to that point yet. Like I said, there are two important steps that I think we need to complete: One is to make sure is that we have what we feel like are the full set of possible recommendations, and then I think it's important for us to get expert input over what makes sense.
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