Malaysian tech entrepreneur not pressing charges against American CEO who 'sexually assaulted' her

Malaysian tech entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh. PHOTO: THE STAR / ASIA NEWS NETWORK

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysian tech entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh says she will not be pressing charges against a prominent American venture capitalist whom she alleged had sexually assaulted her three years ago.

She also said that the main reason she was bringing up the issue now was because she wanted to create greater awareness of sexual harassment and abuse of power.

"I will not be lodging a report because I don't think there's a point. I am not a litigious person and my intention with telling my account wasn't to sue him, whether in Malaysia or the United States.

"It was to bring to light how sexual harassment and the abuse of power happens. It happens everywhere, whether in the US or Asia, and it also happens to women regardless of their positions," she told The Star via e-mail.

In a blog post on July 3, Yeoh, the founding chief executive officer (CEO) of the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC), alleged that Silicon Valley-based 500 Startups co-founder and CEO Dave McClure had forced himself on her after a night of brainstorming at her apartment in Malaysia.

MaGIC, which comes under the Finance Ministry, was officially launched in April 2014 to boost the Malaysian technology start-up ecosystem. Yeoh was the CEO from then until January 2016.

"If you put yourself in my shoes at the time, as the new CEO of MaGIC and two months into the job, I wasn't in the right position to deal with the consequences of reporting, especially when the environment isn't supportive of it.

"It would have made no difference if I were in the United States.

"My purpose for exposing Dave (McClure) was not to get retribution for myself, but for other women who had suffered worse and can't speak out about it yet.

"I want to bring more awareness that these things happen more often than people think," she added.

Yeoh's blog post came in the wake of a New York Times article on sexual harassment in Silicon Valley.

In June, Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck apologised and quit after several women based in Silicon Valley came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment.

The New York Times said it spoke to more than two dozen female entrepreneurs who had described unwanted advances, touching and sexist comments by investors, and named McClure as one such investor.

McClure has since resigned from 500 Startups after apologising in a blog post "I'm a Creep. I'm Sorry".

That blog post was in fact one reason why Yeoh decided to give an account of her own experience.

"When Dave McClure published his public apology, I wasn't happy that he downplayed his misdemeanour to making 'inappropriate comments'.

"He was still trying to rationalise and justify his actions, which didn't sound like he was remorseful for what he did, and the public was condoning his actions because they didn't know the truth," she said.

"Unknown to the public at the time, his resignation as CEO of 500 Startups was a result of another sexual assault incident, reported by an internal employee back in April 2017.

"However, he did not admit to that in his apology either. Therefore, his fans and supporters assumed that Dave had resigned on the basis of merely an 'inappropriate comment,' vehemently supporting him and pleading him to get back in action.

"Even successful female entrepreneurs like the founder of Slideshare, Rashmi Sinha, was fooled, and wrote a blog post calling for others to support him - she later retracted this after my account was published," she added.

Although he had resigned as CEO, McClure was still involved with 500 Startups as a general partner, and was still influencing key business decisions, according to another 500 Startups Partner, Elizabeth Yin, who resigned the day Yeoh's story broke out because of the lack of transparency within the firm.

"I felt that if I never told the truth, and if none of his other victims are able to speak up, then the severity of his misdemeanours would've been buried and condoned," Yeoh said.

Yeoh said people needed to understand that women do not speak up on sexual harassment because there is a culture of victim-blaming, and the Internet was "especially harsh to women because of gender biases".

"Not everyone is able or willing to put themselves under public scrutiny for a topic that is so emotional and personal," she said.

"Some women may be fundraising, running a company or have a personal situation that they're dealing with, and would be unable to deal with the emotional and mental trauma that comes with speaking up.

"Until guidelines and safe channels for reporting sexual harassment are defined and created, and there is widespread awareness and support for reporting sexual harassment, women would not feel safe to go on record to speak up," she added.

Yeoh also noted that there wasn't even any proper reporting mechanism at any venture capital (VC) firm to protect victims from repercussions.

"Given that nobody at 500 Startups had the power to fire McClure (the cofounder), an official complain to 500 Startups didn't seem to make sense," she said.

"Now that the industry is finally waking up to a series of other public sexual harassment cases at Uber and Binary Capital, VC firms are taking this more seriously and hearing victims out," she added.

The Silicon Valley-based ride-hailing company Uber Technologies Inc has also been hit with a series of sexual harassment complaints. These, and other issues, saw CEO Travis Kalanick resigning from the startup in June.

Having gone through such an experience, Yeoh is adamant to help other women deal with it.

Her July 3 blog post included suggestions on what corporations and start-ups should do to create a safer and defined environment for reporting sexual harassment.

And she has some advice for other women who suffer from sexual harassment.

"Write a detailed account of the incident immediately after and gather any evidence of the incident if possible.

"Try to e-mail the account to yourself immediately, so you get a timestamp of when it happened, and CC a close friend or a family member if possible.

"And whenever you feel ready and safe, report the incident through the right channels.

"If you feel comfortable, send your account to the offender and let him know how hurt you were and that you do not accept his behaviour. I did the same.

"It's not just the role of the victim to report, but also for the firms, the community and the general public to be more supportive," she added.

The Malaysian-born Yeoh, who is now based in San Francisco, is currently self-employed and working on a few personal and consulting projects. She is also on the board of, and advising, a few start-ups.

"I'm in a much better and more secure position today than I was two to three years ago.

"I'm not running a start-up or a public company, I'm married to a supportive husband, and I don't have any material threats holding me back from reporting this," she said, referring to her blog post.

"At the time (of the alleged assault), I did not have the time nor the emotional capacity to deal with it.

"I consider myself lucky that I managed to defend myself and wasn't emotionally or physically hurt. So I'm fine.

"Unfortunately, after my post, I've heard from other women whom he has assaulted as well, but they're still too emotionally affected to go on record now.

"On the bright side, they're finally taking up the courage to report the incident, at least to management," she added.

Asked if McClure has apologised to her, Yeoh said he had - not in person but via Facebook Messenger, and only after he had been exposed by the New York Times article.

"I accept his apology and had some closure for myself. However, it didn't stop me from publishing my account, because everyone, including his employees, investors and all the entrepreneurs he funded, deserve to know what happened.

"I also believe that he needed to step down entirely from 500 Startups, including letting go of his general partner position," she said.

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