Two years ago, when accusations of sexual harassment rocked the venture capital world, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman positioned himself as a moral authority on the issue.
Hoffman—a former PayPal executive who is now partner at prominent Silicon Valley firm Greylock, proposed what he called a decency pledge to bring to light “bad behavior” in venture capital. The movement even floated its own hashtag: #decencypledge.
“I think zero tolerance for sexual harassment, especially egregious sexual harassment, is a completely feasible goal,” Hoffman told MIT Technology Review in a 2017 interview touting his personal reform efforts.
Now, with his name bubbling up in connection with recent revelations about Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to the tech world, Hoffman’s own words may come to haunt him.
In July, Vanity Fair reported that Hoffman hosted a dinner a few years ago that brought together accused sex trafficker Epstein, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg at a dinner in Palo Alto organized to honor the MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden. Musk and Zuckerberg distanced themselves from Epstein in comments after the story ran, but Hoffman did not.
Then in late August, the LinkedIn cofounder sprang to the defense of Joi Ito, then the director of the MIT Media Lab, who reportedly concealed donations from the convicted multimillionaire sex offender.
It happened in a testy email exchange that was revealed by the writer Anand Giridharadas, who served on the selection jury for an award given by the lab. Giridharadas, shaken by the revelations of Ito’s ties to Epstein and on the verge of resignation, wrote to Hoffman, Ito, and his fellow jurors requesting that Ito’s correspondence with Epstein be made public.
Ito—who not only cultivated Epstein’s patronage of the Media Lab but also took more than a million dollars for his own personal investments—did not respond to Giridharadas. But Hoffman did: The entrepreneur accused Giridharadas of being dramatic, according to the author. “Your responses frankly make me concerned about your ability to serve on an awards committee,” Hoffman wrote.
When Giridharadas said that he would step down if Ito didn’t, Hoffman reportedly accused the writer of making it “all about you.”
That Hoffman was the one to respond surprised him. “What I later learned from Ronan Farrow’s reporting was that Joi Ito was more responsive on email to a child rapist like Jeffrey Epstein than to mere me,” Giridharadas told The Daily Beast. “Another of his plutocratic backers, Reid Hoffman, answered in his place.”
In light of the responses, the writer stepped down from the jury. “It’s sad to me that anyone affiliated with Epstein will outlast me on [the jury]. And that you [Hoffman] found time in this thread to attack me before you’ve said one word critical of those who abetted a predatory felon of the worst variety by selling him reflected prestige,” Giridharadas tweeted.
The exchange with Hoffman left a sour taste in Giridharadas’ mouth.
“We don’t need Reid Hoffman to make the world a better place or fight sexual harassment. We just need him not to use his power and money to enable a plutocratic predator like Jeffrey Epstein by being the part of the legitimizing of him that occurred after his convictions,” he told The Daily Beast.
Giridharadas declined to share the entire email chain. Hoffman, the MIT Media Lab, and Greylock did not respond to requests for comment on the exchange or on Hoffman’s public commitments against sexual predation.
“I was asking questions about behavior that Joi apologized for. Why is some independent funder answering questions on his behalf?” Giridharadas told the Daily Beast. “The answer if part of what has grown out of this whole story. These donors are calling the shots over there.”
By Tuesday, Giridharadas’ name had disappeared from the Disobedience Award’s selection committee website, but Ito’s remained.
ITO’S FALL FROM GRACE
Ito, an influential figure with a deep Rolodex of contacts in academia and the technology industry, led the MIT Media Lab to global prominence and swelled its coffers with hefty private donations over his eight years as director. He resigned after a New Yorker story revealed Ito had accepted more money from Epstein than previously thought, and made coordinated efforts to conceal these contributions.
A social-climbing money manager who registered as a sex offender after pleading guilty to a prostitution charge in 2008, Epstein killed himself in August in federal jail while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. After his initial conviction and 13 months in jail, he attempted to launder his reputation by donating to and socializing with a wide array of prominent scientists and politicians
Those associates and donation recipients—Hoffman among them—have come under fire in recent months as new allegations surfaced.
Revisiting his “decency pledge” a year after his initial commitment, Hoffman expanded on his vision, encouraging venture capitalists to “refuse to do business” with sexual harassers. In a blog post, Hoffman rails against “Outrageous and immoral behavior”—a phrase he repeats three times for effect. Hoffman specifically condemns behavior that “ignores the power relationship” between two individuals, like a manager and an employee or a VC and a founder.
News stories heralded Hoffman’s campaign as an idea poised to sow deeper change. “A plea for ‘decency’ in shaken Silicon Valley,” the BBC headline read. “Venture Capitalists, Tech Leaders Back ‘Decency Pledge,’” The Information wrote.
Hoffman remains close to the MIT Media Lab and funded “a $250,000, no-strings-attached prize” known as the “Disobedience Award.” The principles that form selection criteria for the award are “non-violence, creativity, courage, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.”
In 2017, the MIT Media Lab gave one of its honorary orbs, a replica of its “Disobedience Award,” to Jeffrey Epstein.
Remarkably, a year later, the Lab gave the award to Tarana Burke, the creator of the hashtag #MeToo, and others who ignited conversations around sexual harassment and gender discrimination in academia.
Ethan Zuckerman, a Media Lab faculty member who resigned over the Epstein revelations, was one of the driving forces behind the award, according to The Boston Globe. MIT told the Globe the orb given to Epstein was not a copy of the Disobedience Award but declined to say how it was different.
The contradiction disgusted Giridharadas, who joined the jury in April and was not involved in selecting last year’s recipients.
“Here you have people who are talking a good game giving award to #MeToo founders, but where they actually have power, which is to decide whether to help legitimize a child rapist who preyed upon young girls, instead of using it to shut him down, they use it to help him come back into society, which, for all we know, helped him continue his crimes,” Giridharadas told The Daily Beast.
This story has been updated to reflect that Giridharadas was not on the jury that selected Burke for an MIT Media Lab award.