On the heels of settling a sexual harassment lawsuit earlier this month, the founders of virtual reality startup Upload have broken their public silence with an apology for how they handled the issue.
The lawsuit was filed in the spring and was settled earlier in September. However, it was apparently only as the New York Times was on the verge of publishing an extensive story about the lawsuit late last week that Upload cofounders wrote an “open letter.”
“We want to apologize for the turmoil the past few months have caused. This has been an incredibly difficult time for our members and students in the LA and SF spaces, our partners, advisors, investors, the Upload team members, both past and present, and the community at large. As leaders of this organization, we let you down and we are sorry,” says the note, signed by CEO Taylor Freeman and president Will Mason.
The lawsuit was filed in May by Upload’s former director of digital and social media, Elizabeth Scott. She claimed the company had cultivated a sexually charged atmosphere at the offices that included having a dedicated “kink room” where employees were encouraged to have sex.
The company, formerly known as Upload VR, reported that the lawsuit had been settled earlier this month, but did not disclose the terms. It did release a statement at the time: “Our primary focus at Upload is education, which we believe is the key to growing the mixed reality ecosystem. We are deeply committed to creating an inclusive community to empower the pioneers building the future.”
The allegations came as the tech industry was reeling from broader accusations about pervasive sexual harassment. This included the controversy over Uber’s treatment of women, an issue that led to founder Travis Kalanick being forced out of the company. By comparison, the Upload story had not attracted nearly as much mainstream press, and the Times’ story sought to ask why that was the case.
“In contrast to the venture capitalists who were knocked off their perches this summer by harassment complaints, Upload was scarcely dented by the publicity surrounding Ms. Scott’s suit. Mr. Freeman and Mr. Mason were not forced to resign. Investors did not pull their money. The company’s events continued, if in terms that were a bit more muted,” read the Times’ story.
The Times noted that just as it was about to publish, Upload’s cofounders posted the open letter in which they acknowledged that an initial statement they’d made stating claims of sexual harrassment were “without merit” was a bit callous.
“We understand the silence from our end has been deafening to many of you who are looking for answers,” the letter says. “We also realize that our response to the initial statement request exacerbated the problem by immediately discrediting the need for self-reflection. These last few months have been a driver of change that brought forth difficult but important conversations about our internal culture and the overall state of diversity and inclusion within the industry. Although we’ve stayed quiet externally during this process, we have been focused internally on assessing ourselves, examining our culture and finding the right team to help us build the most inclusive and empowering environment possible going forward.”
The founders noted that they had brought in new senior management, including “external HR support for the first time, conducted HR training for everyone in the company, established structured performance review systems, reviewed all salary and equity data for fairness, and put mechanisms in place for safe reporting of any issues. In hindsight, things we should have done from the start.”
The pair also spent the weekend responding to comments on their respective Facebook pages, where they posted the link the letter.
“The statement was made without the proper amount of time for full reflection, and it was wrong for us to so flippantly say that anyone’s feelings are ‘completely without merit’,” Mason wrote in one comment. “This was a harmful statement that is endemic of the issue at hand, and it was not our place to say it. Dismissal of those claims wholly dismisses the possibility that we are wrong in any way and if there is one thing this industry has taught me, reality is the perception of the individual.”
Still, the open letter was part of a larger round of soul-searching by former Upload partners and employees in recent weeks. Following the settlement, former Upload creative producer Danny Bittman wrote an extensive post on Medium noting that he and most of the Upload San Francisco staff quit after the lawsuit was filed.
Bittman said employees began comparing notes and concluded there were massive problems with Upload’s culture. When the founders insisted the claims were false via meetings and conference calls, the staff rebelled.
“So when they tried to convince us that they were telling the truth, and that the allegations were just an overreaction, we went absolutely insane on them,” Bittman said. “They said they felt bad for what they were putting us through, and that they would do anything we wanted to make things right. We said tell the truth or step down. Then they acted like they never offered to do anything and denied the validity of the truth.”
Likewise, Robert Scoble, who was an entrepreneur in residence at Upload until this past March, apologized on Facebook for his initial defense of the founders.
“To those I have hurt, I’m sorry, no matter how minor the sin,” Scoble wrote. “To the community: I’m sorry about what has happened here. Danny is right, until we can have an open conversation, healing won’t happen completely. Pain, loss, and fear are hard contexts to provide leadership within. To Elizabeth: I’m sorry for adding onto any of your pain.”
On Saturday, Scott posted the above message on her Facebook page.