Accused VC Sends Same Sorry Sexual Harassment Email to Critics
Justin Caldbeck, whose venture firm collapsed after six women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment in June, says he’s trying to make amends. His efforts have included handwritten notes to his accusers and others to whom he now thinks he may have acted improperly, as well as emails to women who’ve been critical of him in the media.
Several women who’ve received the apology emails compared notes and found similar or identical wording in the messages. Two emails viewed by WIRED included the line, “I also completely understand that you may not believe my actions yet to be sincere and it is up to me to demonstrate over time that they are.” Both also included slightly different versions of this sentence, “I want to first let you know how incredibly deeply and profoundly sorry for everything I did to make any woman feel uncomfortable.”
“Look at the language in the email,” says Elizabeth Spiers, founder of the Insurrection, a digital-media startup, who received an email from Caldbeck the day after she criticized a lecture he gave at Duke University about “bro” culture. “If he understood the gravity of it, he wouldn’t be speaking at Duke or sending emails that read like they were scripted,” she says. “He sincerely thinks we’re all too stupid to talk to each other.”
Tracy Chou, a cofounder of Project Include and former engineer at Pinterest, received an email from Caldbeck the same day she was quoted in a Bloomberg article about Caldbeck’s re-emergence in public. Chou found the email “almost plausibly repentant,” but suspected it was written by a crisis communications firm. She has the same suspicion about the apology Caldbeck wrote in June after The Information revealed the series of harassment allegations that began when he worked at Lightspeed Ventures.
Sarah Lacy, who critiqued Caldbeck on her tech blog Pando, received a similar letter. Chou wasn’t surprised to find that other women had been sent nearly the same email. “He has never seemed sincere about wanting to improve and make amends.”
Caldbeck says he wrote the emails himself, with help from friends, and has not hired any public relations help beyond the company retained by Binary Capital, his now defunct investment firm.
Caldbeck says he sent the handwritten notes to his accusers via FedEx. “As you might imagine, I am very reluctant to reach out to them directly because I certainly don’t want them to feel uncomfortable or in anyway triggered by my reaching out,” he says.
Those women had accused him of groping one of them under a table, making sexual propositions, and sending inappropriate text messages while they were seeking funding or advice from his investment firm. A different former employee has sued Binary Capital and Caldbeck, claiming that Caldbeck threatened her to silence complaints about inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
Caldbeck says he also sent handwritten apology letters to women who did not come forward, but whom “upon reflection, I felt I owed apologies.”
Caldbeck says the emails to women like Spiers and Chou are part of his efforts to learn about these issues from experts. He estimates that he has sent 25 to 30 unsolicited emails to people “who have expressed public interest and a passion for this space.” Caldbeck says he wasn’t aware that some recipients did not welcome his messages and used the same language in multiple emails because he was contacting people he did not know. “I’m not sure why that makes it less authentic,” he says.
Some emails went to professors researching sexual harassment and Caldbeck says he plans to deliver two more presentations advising students about the dangers of what he calls “bro culture,” which he blames for his lack of awareness about the consequences of his actions. He declined to name the schools after Duke received a negative response.
“My behavior, I think, started much, much earlier in life,” he says. He cited behaviors commonly found in “fraternity environments and athletic environments” around objectifying women. In his talk at Duke, his alma mater, Caldbeck says he spoke about how those behaviors lead to “sexual harassment in the workforce and how much damage it can ultimately do.”
Caldbeck still seems conflicted about his responsibility for the actions that prompted all these apologies. At one point in an interview, he said, “I know in my heart that I was not aware that I was making these women uncomfortable.” But when asked if he denies any of the allegations, Caldbeck said, “I take full accountability that I made any of those women feel that way and that my behavior made them feel comfortable. It’s 100 percent on me and I’m trying to own that and do the best I can to change and make amends.”
Caldbeck is adamant that he’s not trying to make a comeback. “I do not have any interest in coming back to the tech scene,” he says. Nonetheless, in his email to Spiers, Caldbeck asked for her feedback on “the website that I am making which is intended to be a resource” for men and women around sexual harassment. Spiers says it reminds her of Jordan Belfort, author of The Wolf of Wall Street. “His whole switch is I’ll teach you how to avoid people like me.”
On Wednesday, Caldbeck also inserted himself into discussion about Time naming the #MeToo movement was 2017’s person of the year. On Twitter, Caldbeck applauded the women who came forward “including my accusers” he wrote. He later deleted the tweet after several people criticized him for trying to present himself as an ally. The tweet “was to recognize a really important movement that I contributed in a negative way to and I felt like it was the right thing to do,” he says. “When I recognize that people were bothered and offended by it, I deleted it out of the respect them.”