Doerr's Diversity Joke Falls Flat Months After Kleiner-Pao Trial

  • Tech-industry conferences have history of gaffes on the topic
  • Doerr later apologizes, calling it `an unfortunate joke'

John Doerr, an accomplished venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has spent a lot of time in the past year defending the firm’s meritocracy, after navigating a grueling gender-discrimination trial. While the experience may have taught him how to win in court, he still has a few things to learn when it comes to talking about diversity in public.

“We have two new partners who are so diverse that I have a challenge pronouncing their names,” Doerr said Tuesday on stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, after being asked about diversity in venture investing, a profession dominated by white men.

Even if Doerr was joking, as he later said, the comment drew ire on Twitter, where a TechCrunch reporter posted the quote. He’s not alone in his on-stage shakiness about the subject. As diversity becomes a crucial issue in technology, with companies pledging to meet recruiting goals for their workforces and minorities coming out with stories of discrimination, the industry’s thought leaders haven’t always kept up.

Nadella’s Blunder

This time last year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had to apologize for one of the biggest such gaffes: telling women that they shouldn’t ask for raises and instead trust “karma.” Earlier this year, at Re/Code’s Code conference, many speakers were asked about diversity. Even though the question was expected after the first few panels, several executives who came on stage seemed unprepared to address it.

Just last week, a women-in-tech-themed panel at Inc.’s Dreamforce conference was meant to highlight the accomplishments of YouTube Chief Executive Officer Susan Wojcicki and Honest Company CEO Jessica Alba. But conference organizers chose a moderator not well-versed in technology. Gayle King, co-anchor of CBS This Morning, asked Wojcicki several questions about her children -- including if they were all from the same husband. The Next Web blog called the panel“patronizing” and “insulting.”

Unfortunate comments like these -- which are usually quickly caught by social media observers --- don’t always reflect a company’s efforts on the issue. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has been vocal about working to fix the gender-pay gap. Kleiner Perkins does discrimination training to combat “unconscious bias,” and has been working to improve the minority representation at its own firm and portfolio companies. Kleiner faced stepped-up scrutiny during a gender-bias case brought by former junior partner Ellen Pao. A jury rejected her claims. At Disrupt on Tuesday, Doerr outlined some of the firm’s efforts to do better.

And as soon as he left the stage, Doerr recognized his mistake.

“Friends, my apologies,” he said on Twitter. “It was an unfortunate joke that was not funny. I have deep respect for my partners Swati and Muzzammil.”

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