An Untold Startup Story
A story of sexual assault leading to the downfall of a female founder.
[TRIGGER WARNING: Contains content illustrating sexual assault and harassment.]
This recently popped up on my Facebook feed: ‘The Shortest PSA on How to Handle a Drunk Girl Passed Out.’
Screenshot from the PSA Video
Two years on, and my stomach still dropped, the image hauntingly similar to the one that has visited me in countless nightmares.
Testing my emotions, I watched it, breathing a sigh of relief when the pure intentions of the clip unfolded – the guy kindly gets the girl a pillow and a blanket and leaves her alone.
Naturally, I asked the painstaking question: “What if that’s all that happened?”
That wasn’t all that happened though.
I woke up with my pants undone and down (but not completely removed). My top and bra around my neck, and to my horror, Matt behind me. Holding me.
Matt was my mentor and program coordinator at a tech accelerator program which had recently invested in my startup.
I felt sick. Was that the hangover? Was it him? Both? I delusionally thought to myself “Play it cool. It’s fine.” I picked up my phone. Anything to distract, anything to avoid the confrontation that was undoubtedly coming. I wanted to say something but I had no idea what. I was buying time… the pit in my stomach getting deeper and deeper. Thoughts about our up-coming meeting – probably in a matter of an hour or so. What to do?
“Play it cool. It’s no big deal. It’s a drunken thing… I’m sure it will be fine.” I reassured myself again. I lay there frozen. My mind running, speeding through the scenes of the night before. My thoughts were interrupted by his voice, asking to “cuddle” me! My stomach churned. I refused. He asked twice more. I refused. “Why not?” he questioned me. I told him I’d been pushing him off the night before. He half-heartedly apologised.
My thoughts now beginning to get a little angry, “How could he do this to me? I’d been so clear, of my feelings – or lack thereof.”
Angry. Sick. Hungover. Headpouding. Dizzy.
My internal monologue: “What to do? What to do?”
Move, that was a good idea. “Where?”
“The shower. Go shower. Get a fresh perspective.”
I sat up, too dizzy to stand. I paused, my head spinning. He grabbed my exposed breast – my reaction provoked another apology. I mumbled something about not caring. I don’t know why.
I left for the shower. The conversation I had with myself:
“You can’t afford to have this kind of distraction, this close to demo day. You can’t afford to ruin this relationship. You’ve got a press meeting in a matter of minutes, put on a brave face, brush it aside – set the boundaries and move forward.”
Piece of cake.
Maybe this wasn’t a “normal” reaction, but I’m not sure there is a “normal” reaction. I was the only female in the accelerator. I barely had any female friends and given that I spent the majority of my time around males – I was in tech, after all – I was pretty desensitized to their nature, often finding myself rolling my eyes thinking boys will be boys.
I brushed off a lot of things that I now would never stand for. I was so driven that all I saw was an inconvenient distraction with someone who was playing an integral support role within my startup, not the deeply personal invasion and betrayal that it was. I honestly thought this wouldn’t impact me. My 23-year-old-mind was naive enough to buy into that.
So I put on a brave face, I brushed it aside. We were now on route to the meeting.
Matt had suggested getting breakfast beforehand – explaining he’d not make it through the meeting otherwise. I sat across the table from him. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. We still hadn’t spoken about “it”.
Matt had given up trying to hold a conversation with my monosyllabic answers.
My eyes welled up. I wanted to cry, but I was too tough for that, and to be honest I didn’t quite understand these emotions yet, so I stifled them down. I kept it together on the surface, while my mind drifted, trying to make sense of what I was feeling. Betrayal? I was angry at myself for getting so drunk. I felt so stupid. Had I been tricked? Was this his intention all along? Was this was the reason he’d voted me into the accelerator in the first place?
Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY via Avid Hills
The silence was interrupted by the waiter asking if we were finished, the question particularly directed at Matt as he’d only made his way about halfway through his meal. We were slow to respond through our individual sullen worlds of haze.
“Big night?” the waiter asked.
Before “it” happened
We were on a business trip where our dates to this city more or less collided. Matt had suggested booking a place on airbnb to share, a 2 bedroom.
The first night of the business trip, we were to attend the opening night of an arts event. My plans were to catch up with my cofounder Wilson later that night. When I went to leave, Matt asked to come along to meet Wilson. Surprised by the short amount of time he’d spent at the event, given how much he talked it up, I obliged.
We got to the bar where we were going to meet Wilson first. Matt ordered us drinks. He asked me about the guy he knew I was into at the time. I openly chatted about this. At the time, I didn’t think this was inappropriate.
Despite the nature of our professional relationship, Matt and I had developed a friendship. Since the start of the accelerator program, we – all the program participants and I – worked long days, often attending drinks for business networking, sharing meals most days and enjoying far too many games of foosball. It was natural that we all bonded. I’d particularly embraced these new relationships, because I’d long held a feeling that not many people “got me”; my hopes and ambitions, the excitement that sparked when discussing new product ideas and additional revenue streams. Matt and I had particularly bonded over having both recently gone through long-term relationship breakups.
As that conservation drifted to an end, Matt blurted out; “If I weren’t involved in this accelerator, would you even have the slightest feelings for me?” The shock and betrayal on my face must have been apparent. He continued, “like, even a 5% chance?”
I was dumbfounded. My stomach dropped. He began to backpedal, his words muffled by the arrival of Wilson and his friend.
I was really angry, but put on a front. As the night continued on, I avoided Matt and stuck by Wilson’s side like glue.
When it came time to leave, Matt and I shared a cab back to the place we’d booked on Airbnb. I was drunk. Very drunk. I’d tried, and succeeded, in keeping rounds with the guys.
Thinking I could figure things out in the morning, I dared not broach the topic in my drunken state… but I was still furious. Feeling stupid and betrayed. Worst of all betrayed by myself for ignoring the uneasy feeling I’d had prior to making the decision to go on the trip.
We got back to the place and I bailed in the first place possible (the couch a metre or so from the front door). My head was spinning. I felt ill. Movement wasn’t helping. I passed out, my last memory asking Matt to turn the heater on because I was frozen. I remember my teeth chattering, but I couldn’t will myself that much movement.
Yes, I was THAT drunk, and no you can’t say anything worse or more accusatory toward me that I haven’t already said to myself.
Moments before I’d asked Matt to turn the heater on, he’d made multiple passes at me, softly telling me he’d help me upstairs to the bedroom.
“No, I’m staying here,” I insisted.
“Beautiful… beautiful…” he kept saying.
Initially my rejections were soft.
I think at some level, given the nature of the relationship and the integral support he was providing (mentoring myself/my startup), I didn’t want to rock the boat too much, but when the message wasn’t being received, I got stronger and stronger – ending in forcibly pushing him away. I thought he’d taken the hint or given up.
I passed out. I don’t recall anything from then to waking up the next morning. The psychologist I later saw was convinced this was because I’d blocked it out, diagnosing me with PTSD, amongst other conditions.
Back to the “day after” “that night”
Matt went back to our Airbnb rental after that awful, awkward breakfast.
I did too. I got my stuff. I didn’t know where I was going, but I walked and walked. At some point I made my way back to the house. It was late, it was dark, it was cold.
I was praying Matt wasn’t there.
He was. He tried to talk to me, I told him I needed space. Going about my business and closing myself into my room as soon as I could, wishing it had a lock. I put a chair against the door under the handle.
I lay in bed. I couldn’t sleep. A few hours later, an apologetic email followed, signed “that annoying guy next door”. I didn’t yet know how to respond, so I left it. The next day, he’d approached me like nothing had happened and asked if I’d received his email, as if everything should now be fine.
Later that night, I conjured a response to his email. The gravity of what had happened sinking in…
“Matt, you seem to think this is not a big issue. Like in just writing me an email that things will all be fine. Let me tell you that this is not the case. I don’t think you understand how what you have done makes me feel and to what degree it has affected me. I feel completely violated. I feel sick every time I think about what happened. You betrayed me in the biggest way possible.”
The next few days were torturous, awkward interceptions on his behalf and on mine, spending as much time as I could out of the place. Once, he yelled at me whilst I was taking a bath, calling me a bitch for “deleting him from facebook” (which I hadn’t). This was the first of a series of behaviours I felt disturbing, considering he was claiming to be “apologetic.”
When it finally came time to leave, we were on the same flight.
Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY-SA via hyougushi
We landed back in our home city. As we touched down, so too did my realisation that he had my parking ticket to get my car out of the airport. A sinking feeling. I thought I was home free. I waited for him in the exit cue and asked him for the pass. At first he refused to hand it over unless I drove him home, but eventually he gave me a card (which later turned out to just be a business card). I recall grabbing my bags from the carousel and running. I’d never admit this, but I was scared. I’d never seen Matt like this. He was angry. I ran all the way to the car, locked the doors and hunted down customer service to exit the parking.
This was just the beginning
It wasn’t what happened that night, it was what unfolded afterwards.
Back home at the accelerator, during our weekly pitching event, I couldn’t look at him. He kept unusually quiet.
Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY via eyeliam
After we’d returned from the trip, I thought that after a little space and being left alone, a professional relationship would be manageable. But things weren’t getting better, they were getting worse. He sent me an email alluding to thoughts of suicide. I felt terrible. I missed the friend I’d had in him. I was sympathetic toward him, but at the same time I was battling my own anger and betrayal.
I didn’t know what to do, but the situation was not defusing – something needed to change. I emailed him saying this, and gave him the opportunity to flag the issue to his co-founder and investor in the fund, Peter – who at this time was unaware of what had happened. I was hopeful that Peter’s involvement would enable a resolution of sorts.
I asked Matt if he’d told Peter. He said yes. I didn’t think to ask what he’d said. I just assumed.
Peter emailed me, saying we should have a coffee and “talk about things”. We went for a coffee; he chose a spot on the communal table. But I was determined that the public setting wouldn’t stop me from talking. He started with a barrage of questions/accusations, such as why hadn’t I told him I’d gone on the trip? I told him that I had assumed that Matt had told him – after all, they were co-founders!
The line of questioning continued “Why were you sharing accommodation?” “Why were you drinking?” “How could you have been so irresponsible?” It felt like this was an attempt to assign the blame to me.
I’d just been taking it all in, adding in the odd defensive statement here and there. This strong-armed approach was not one I’d expected given what had happened. Now I began to take hold of the conversation, I asked: “What exactly did Matt say had happened?”
“He told me you two had hooked up.”
That sick feeling again. Anger – knots forming in my stomach. I explained to Peter what had happened, doing my best to ignore the awkward side-ways glances and uncomfortable adjustments from surrounding cafe-goers.
“Well, that’s not what he said.” Peter said, and concluded our coffee with what ultimately turned into a bit of an inspiring lecture something to the accord of: ‘If you’re going to be a (female) entrepreneur, you need to get used to this and learn how to operate. This type of thing is expected… I’m really disappointed in you… you’ve got a choice now, to be a strong driven entrepreneur or to let this ruin you.’
Finally, we went back to the coworking space. I wanted to address it all right there. The three of us – Matt, Peter, and myself – met in a room. I broke down. They asked me what I wanted, I managed; “The best way forward – to move on.” I couldn’t say much more and Peter excused me.
Saying we’d work something out.
The shame of it all started to kick in. In a debilitating way. I’d begun to unravel. I’d find myself sitting down, thinking it had been ten minutes to later find I’d been there hours. I’d go through days where I couldn’t recall what I’d done. I couldn’t think straight. I was riddled with self-doubt… Blame. I was attempting to distract myself in any which way possible and was making some pretty poor choices. The way I was dealing/not dealing with this began to affect my relationships. I began to isolate myself. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did my dreams were riddled with disturbing sexual scenarios. I’d not eat, then I would eat a lot. I started to experience panic attacks and some pretty dark thoughts. This zombie-like state was to consume me for months. Though, somehow, at the time, I was still feeding myself the delusion that I was “fine”.
A week or so probably passed. Peter met with me again. I asked if it were possible to sever ties with the accelerator, for them to relinquish shares. I just wanted out. He refused. He assured me staying in the program would give my startup the best chance of success, but he gave me the option to no longer work in the space. I hated the idea of not working alongside the other teams, being excluded from the program and much of the value. I also didn’t like the idea of not being strong enough to deal with Matt. I didn’t want to give him that gratification.
Then Matt took the initiative to inform people his story of what happened.
Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY-SA via thisisbossi
I think he thought he’d beat me to the punch.
To this day I’m not sure what he said, but people started treating me differently. The designer I was working with at the time (and Matt’s close friend) didn’t return my calls and refused to work with me. I noticed a few “friends” being withdrawn.
I didn’t have it in me to speak out at the time. It was almost demo day – I didn’t want to distract the other entrepreneurs. And I think if I’m completely honest, on some level I was afraid they might not understand or support me – Matt was in a position of power with all of them too.
I sent Peter an email, concerned about the growing toxicity of the work environment and the rumors. This email remained unanswered, and I later discovered Peter was away, unavailable on “holidays” for two weeks.
Things did not get better. I emailed Peter again, stating my growing concern for Matt, his performance and his cyclictic nature of emotions. That he was not respecting my request to keep our communication to a professional basis. Peter forwarded this email to Matt (without responding to me). Matt then aggressively approached me with accusations of slander, telling me to quit the whole “damsel in distress” act.
I sat with Matt, calming him, explaining that this wasn’t the case, this was his behavior. I tied it back to examples of his behavior, which he finally accepted, acknowledging that he wasn’t dealing too well either. I told him I wasn’t going to come in anymore. It wasn’t working. I’d work out a resolution with Peter when he returned.
As I went to leave, Matt slipped into slick mode, explaining that he and Peter had been thinking… “What would you say we were willing to reduce our shareholding to 5%, meaning that you’d have free range of the company and higher valuation?”
I couldn’t believe it. That wasn’t the point.
Enough was enough. I began to feel frustrated and isolated. My advisors suggested that I get counsel involved and this would be swiftly resolved, so I made a call to a startup lawyer, Edmond. Once I had disclosed what had happened, he offered his deepest sympathies. I assured him, I was “fine”, it was “fine”. So “fine” I was running a half marathon the next day.
Soon after, Edmond sent out an urgent email calling for a meeting with the accelerator co-founders, stating that the matters were of an extremely serious nature affecting my immediate well-being and the future of my startup. He stressed the urgency of meeting.
This email went without a response. A second email was issued offering an alternative time to meet. Still nothing.
After the second email Matt called me from a private number, stating that he would resign, if that would solve it. I told him he was not to contact me and hung up. I didn’t know what I wanted, but that didn’t really feel right either. I didn’t want to force him out of a company he’d co-founded. I just wanted out.
Eventually Peter agreed to meet Edmond and myself at the coworking space the accelerator had been based out of. Peter thought it was appropriate to take this meeting in the open kitchen area at the coworking space. It was a bit of a joke, a pointless meeting. Peter was reluctant to say anything in front of “counsel”. We left feeling defeated.
Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY via emdot
Demo day was coming up. I was so torn. I wanted so badly to pitch and to be there for the other teams that pitched too. It had been the most anticipated event for the accelerator. Peter had emailed strongly suggesting I participate. I was torn. I didn’t want to have to answer questions about why I wasn’t there, I didn’t want to look like a flake, but more importantly I wanted to take a stand against the treatment I’d received. I didn’t pitch.
Legal maneuvering continued.
The accelerators’ investment deal structure meant that to effect any material changes in my startup, I’d have to gain their consent. I couldn’t trust that they were going to act in my/my startup’s best interest and I couldn’t imagine having to deal with them at every twist and turn going forward considering what had happened.
Eventually, we received an email notifying us the lawyers on their side were looking into the matter. Eight days later we received a letter calling for a full refund of the investment in my company, withdrawal of all allegations of a sexual nature, and a deed of settlement/confidentiality.
Edmond’s response to me was: “The offer should be rejected in full and you should lift the lid on this entirely now. Any acceptance of this settlement essentially ‘lets them get away with it.’”
We rejected the offer: “The long and short of it is that the only female participant in the accelerator was sexually assaulted by the founder and director of the company, and was then hung out to dry – irreparably harming a promising company and a budding young female entrepreneur. That is nothing to be proud of. We urge your client to consider how it will take responsibility for the damage caused.”
Nothing changed. At the time, I could only imagine this was playing out the way it was because they didn’t believe what I’d said had happened. I asked one of my advisors to call Matt and let him know that it was not my intention to make this a criminal matter, nor pursue it in anyway further, but that I wanted to truth to be known, to clear things up and to move on. Over the course of the call, Matt challenged us to “go ahead and try.”
I was furious. It had been months of this. I decided to make a police report. I compiled what they’d requested and submitted the materials. I was told that it was a low priority, and that it would likely take weeks before it was addressed as they’d have to compile the report locally and then send it to the city the “alleged offence” occurred in.
That process was awful too. The policeman managing my case was highly unprofessional, making jokes as he read through materials. I had to follow up the process multiple times before it got anywhere. I was interrogated about my motivations for raising this case. I was told I’d be contacted by a local police once resources became available. The whole thing felt like some strange dream.
Negotiations went on for about 3 months, we reached an impasse. I was adamant I would not sign an NDA, and they were adamant they wouldn’t settle without one.
I didn’t have much motivation left to continue. Through this process, I’d now lost my co-founder, having a similar conversation to that which I’d imagine a captain has with their crew when the ship is sinking.
I emailed the founders of the accelerator saying that the proposed severance I’d been fighting for now seemed insignificant, that I no longer had the fight in me, that the incident, subsequent fallouts and negotiations, had taken a huge toll on me. I reiterated my intention, which I’d felt got a little lost in the process of negotiation. My goals were never about the investment or the amount of equity. It was about cutting ties and being able to move on from a traumatic experience. I finished the email stating that I understood that they had acted in what they believed to be the best interests of their company, but that this was never a commercial matter they were dealing with… rather a moral one. That email too went unanswered.
I withdrew from the startup scene. I was sick and tired about making up excuses for my startup, for not being my usual bubbly self. I continued to try and push a national deal through that would keep the startup afloat, but that turned into months of ad hoc meetings and proposals with no return, and as much as I still wanted to be that go-getter entrepreneur, I wasn’t.
I tearfully dropped the police report, after being assured Matt would be contacted. I wanted him to know what he’d done was not “no big deal” (as he’d later protested). I wanted the truth to be known, for him to come forward. But it was never my intention to press charges.
Eventually, I learned the accelerator had instituted a code of conduct (which had been one of the requests made throughout the negotiations).
All this for that, I thought.
What I now know
It was naive for me to expect that Matt would come forward.
He had everything on the line. Despite what I said, he had no ultimate guarantee I wasn’t going to publicly out him, or press charges.
I used to hold that against him. I no longer do.
It was silly of me to try and box him into a good person who made a bad mistake, or just a bad person. I felt like somehow if I could work that piece out it would make things clearer, but that’s not life.
I’m still not sure if Matt left the accelerator on his own terms or not. He was offered an amazing opportunity, with a company getting international recognition and funding. He would have been silly not to take it.
He’s since gone on to further establish himself and his reputation in the community, being commended for his efforts, “giving back” to “budding entrepreneurs” with his continued involvement in accelerators since. I used to think “If only they knew.” I no longer think that either.
I’m not angry at the people – Peter, even Matt – I’m angry at the system… or lack thereof.
That I expected protection – help from certain people around me, or at least help, if not protection. But none truly came.
That’s something that utterly shattered my trust and understanding of people’s nature. Temporarily. Now, I don’t think that’s people’s nature. I think that’s what we accept to be the nature of business.
“Business is Business”
I think that if we are to effect change, and prevent these types of things from happening, or at least lessen the harm of their aftermath, we need to stop hiding behind the adage that “business is business.”
I’m not sure that’s really how the individuals feel when they turn off the light at night – no matter which “side” they are on.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard that term thrown around throughout my experience. People seem to use it as though it makes unacceptable things acceptable.
I know companies are recognised as separate entities, but they are established by people and shaped by people’s decisions and those decisions have an impact on people; therefore business is never just business. (And, if you reverse engineer that equation, ultimately what’s best for the people will be what’s best for the company).
If you find the words “business is business,” escape your mouth or those around you, I’d ask that you pause and consider the human element to the equation… a human element that we’re seeming to get further and further away from.
A cost startups can’t afford to bear
When it comes to startups, we aren’t dealing with traditional business relationships or traditional work hours, environments and circumstances. Which means we don’t have the traditional guidelines and protocols.
Founders generally have both personal and professional relationships with co-founders, co-workers and investors.
The lines between personal and professional are often blurred. And that’s not a bad thing, until it is.
I can’t think of anything more important than the establishment of protocols to protect a company’s most valued assets: it’s people. Something that might take a few hours initially (and reiteration here and there), could prevent this type of behaviour by highlighting the inappropriateness – particularly in fiduciary relationships. Failing that, no one should feel uncomfortable in their place of work and if they do, there should be a direct line of action to minimize damage to all.
We need to recognise and soften the “pack mentality” by embracing and discussing others’ views, and being brave enough to voice our own.
If something’s not sitting right with you, chances are you’re probably not the only one thinking that. Someone has to be the first to speak up. You betray yourself in the moment that you hush your voice, when it comes to things that matter.
Silence in these scenarios, seemingly constitutes acceptance.
Inaction can have great ramifications.
In my experience, the pack mentality was the most hurtful thing of all. The weakest link (myself) being edged out, the seeming acceptance and disregard for what I’d experienced.
Remember, you collectively determine “the pack’s” values. Acceptance in that “pack” shouldn’t mean subduing values, and if it does: you may want to question if you really want to be part of that “pack”?
And finally, we need to stop the shame.
Shame almost stopped me from writing this. Shame silenced me initially. Shame turned me into an isolated shadow of myself.
Shame silences many people. Shame is what prevents people from speaking out about this stuff.
What brought me out of my shame coma was finally grokking the notion that I am not my past, but I am the decisions I make now.
If we can extend that notion not only on our own experiences, but towards others too, shame would have little power and we could get on with the conversations that need to happen to effect change.