In December 2016 — in the wake of sexual assault allegations against prominent men like Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and then-President-elect Donald Trump — tech writer April Glaser posited a simple solution for combating sexual assault: create a tool that would combine identity verification, encryption, anonymization, and messaging to enable sexual assault victims to report their assaults and connect with other victims who had reported the same perpetrator.
As Glaser envisioned it, this platform would be a trusted, fully encrypted system that would allow a victim to maintain control of her identity. If others were to report the same perpetrator, victims could be alerted and invited to join a private messaging center. There, they could communicate, coordinate, and, if they decide to, send a report to law enforcement and any organizations affiliated with their alleged assailant.
A system just like that called Callisto already existed on college campuses, and Glaser argued that it was a relatively trivial matter to expand the technology to victims who’ve already graduated college (or never attended in the first place).
Two years after Glaser’s piece, Callisto announced plans to do just that: this summer, the organization will launch a new version of its platform, one designed to allow tech startup founders to report harassment and abuse from investors. Though this new platform — referred to as the Callisto Expansion to differentiate it from the campus version — is limited to a relatively small, elite group of users, the team notes that it’s just the first stage in a larger plan to expand the service to a variety of industries, empowering harassment victims everywhere with the tools to fight back against abuse. (Callisto representatives declined to be interviewed when contacted for comment for this piece.)
Given Callisto’s success on college campuses, the platform may be the best shot we have at providing sexual assault victims from all walks of life with access to the sort of assistance that Glaser dreamed about — assistance that, in a post-#MeToo era, feels even more necessary than ever.
But even as free access to this platform is extended to denizens of startup accelerators, co-working spaces, tech conferences, and wherever the Callisto team locates tech company founders, there are some issues that suggest the road ahead might not be a smooth one. In its move from the ivory tower to Silicon Valley, Callisto has made fundamental changes to its inner workings, changes that might undermine the very value Callisto offers survivors.
More troublingly, there’s the fact that even though the Callisto Expansion has identified harassment from investors as a major threat to its users, the organization has taken funding from a collection of six venture capital firms. Is the Expansion truly a way to help startup founders fight back against harassment from investors, or is it just a way for some prominent VCs to divert attention from the pervasive harassment and sexism that exists within the tech industry?
Though the Expansion marks a bold new step for Callisto, it’s not the organization’s first venture outside academia. In July 2017, Callisto partnered with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB), a prominent force in the comedy world that had been rocked by allegations of sexual assault within its community just one year before.
A UCB representative spoke of Callisto in glowing terms, and UCB students I spoke with had similarly positive feedback. Stefanie Flamm, a New York-based writer and actress who used the platform this past October, was incredibly impressed with Callisto’s patient, trauma-aware interface. “I got to take my time submitting the report, so when I went in to meet with [a UCB administrator] I wasn’t starting from square one,” she tells me over Facebook Messenger. “I’ve had to report other individuals in person, and it was really triggering and retraumatizing, so having the little bit of groundwork covered in the report helped me feel way more in control of the situation.”
There are parallels between the harassment women experience within the tech and comedy scene that might suggest that what’s good for UCB might be good for the startup world as well. Both tech and comedy are relatively small, cloistered communities that are heavily dominated by white men — in particular, a handful of gatekeepers at the top. Like startup accelerators, schools like UCB can help students build the essential connections they need to succeed, and they can also be the site of traumatic experiences that ultimately drive women out of the industry.
Although women across the tech industry are forced to deal with sexism and harassment, the situation for startup founders is more isolating than most. In order to succeed in Silicon Valley, founders must curry favor with venture capitalists and investors. And, as Ellen Pao’s 2015 lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers revealed, those environments can often feel toxic to women. Entrepreneurs who endure harassment don’t have the support of a human resources department, or even the protection of the EEOC, while investors like Shervin Pishevar are said to repeatedly abuse their power, only rarely facing any consequences. When an entrepreneur is harassed by an investor, it’s not always clear what the appropriate recourse is. And that reality is one of the major reasons why the Callisto Expansion holds so much appeal.
Just having someone — or some platform — to turn to in these instances is a tremendous source of comfort. And the potential to connect with other victims, to receive proof that your experience was part of a pattern of abuse and not something you brought on yourself, holds tremendous appeal as well. Without a system like Callisto, “the only way to report is to put yourself on the line,” Lisa Wang, founder and CEO of SheWorx, tells me. “It’s one thing to report, it’s another thing to be taken seriously and have a whole wave of support and exposure that helps push the issue forward.”
Establishing patterns of abuse, rather than merely reporting isolated incidents, can help build that wave. And for founders who are more interested in being known for their creations than their victimization, being able to direct attention away from their own experience of abuse or assault and toward a perpetrator’s extended history of abusive behavior can help mitigate some of the lasting impacts of coming forward.
Not everyone is convinced that the platform is capable of living up to its hype. When I spoke to some of Callisto’s detractors (all of whom asked to remain anonymous), their concerns were wide-ranging: some worried that Callisto’s model might not make sense when transplanted to the startup scene in Silicon Valley. Indeed, some of the realities of the startup experience that justify Callisto’s expansion — the lack of a human resources department, the nebulous sense of where to turn when things go wrong — are what make this expansion so fraught.
Callisto’s success on college campuses relies on the platform’s ability to partner with, and enhance the efficacy of, existing reporting systems. If a college student reports an assault to Callisto, the platform can help them process the aftermath of an experience at their own speed, rather than requiring them to immediately report. It can also offer information about on-campus resources and regulations. But it’s an addition to, not a replacement for, the Title IX offices that ultimately process the reports.
At the University of San Francisco, one of Callisto’s first partner schools, the platform is just one of many reporting options that are offered to students, including reporting in person and an additional, more immediate online reporting option. While USF Title IX coordinator Leighia Fleming values being able to offer Callisto as an option to students, she notes that on her campus it’s the least popular way to report an assault. For undergraduates, reporting in person or with an online tool that doesn’t require them to create an account seem to be preferable to Callisto. The platform is most popular with grad students who live off-campus and students seeking out information on how to assist a friend who’s experienced an assault.
Even at UCB, where Callisto is a primary reporting tool, it’s just one component of a larger system. Callisto helped Flamm through the initial drafting of her report, but it was the UCB administration, and not Callisto, that ultimately dealt with her assailant, removing him from his improv team and staff position.
But with the Expansion, Callisto is the sum total of the reporting process, and that makes the next steps much more nebulous. What happens when a serial perpetrator has been identified by the platform and users have been connected to an options counselor? If two (or more) startup founders report the same VC to Callisto, will they be directed to go to the police? In a situation where there are repeated instances of sexual assault, and victims can go in knowing their accounts will be bolstered by each other, getting guidance through the legal reporting process would certainly be beneficial. But making a police report, and navigating the criminal justice system, is a vastly different experience than reporting sexual assault to a Title IX administrator on a campus that’s partnered with Callisto. And it’s unclear how effectively Callisto will be able to help users deal with police officers who may be uninterested in sensitively handling their reports.
Also, what if the users report harassment — like an inappropriate proposition, a dirty joke, or grabbing someone’s ass — rather than assault? Abhorrent as these things are, they’re not considered police matters, and it’s unclear what recourse Callisto provides beyond a general knowledge that a harasser has targeted multiple people. Will victims be instructed to go to the press? To complain to a harassers’ firm?
All this assumes that the Callisto Expansion successfully identifies serial perpetrators to begin with. According to a white paper on the platform’s cryptography, Callisto users identify their perpetrator by supplying a cellphone number, a social media URL, or an email address, but it’s unclear how two reports will be matched if the users supply different information about the same offender. If I report @vcharasser from Twitter, but you report email@example.com, will the system understand that we mean the same person?
Furthermore, because the Callisto Expansion isn’t affiliated with a Title IX office or other investigative body, users who report the same perpetrator are directly connected to each other, and that’s a reality that opens up the possibility that someone might falsely report a colleague, boss, or co-worker to flush out and intimidate someone who’s actually been abused. There’s also the matter of what happens if a report does lead to a court case — one that ends in a not guilty verdict. Does Callisto update reports in that instance? And if it doesn’t, does that render the entire project liable for defamation charges?
Yet the most troubling aspect of the Callisto Expansion is the thorny conflict of interest embedded in the DNA of this project. How can Callisto truly protect its users from abusive members of the investment community when its own existence is dependent on that community’s largesse?
An optimistic read might be that venture capital firms are lining up behind Callisto because they truly want to be held accountable. Indeed, one could certainly point to Greylock Partners’ past response to internal sexual misconduct and partner Reid Hoffman’s history of speaking out against harassment as evidence in support of the possibility. (When reached for comment, Hoffman declined to be interviewed for this piece. Greylock Partners’ director of communications directed me to Hoffman’s public statement about the Callisto Expansion.)
But one could also thumb through the websites of all six firms that have committed to fund Callisto, notice that, by and large, they’re predominantly staffed by men, and realize that one of the biggest problems underpinning the harassment and assault endured by many female founders is one that Callisto alone is ill-equipped to solve.
“The startup venture community is undoubtedly a boys’ club,” Wang tells me. “Money, power, it’s all consolidated in a small, homogenous group of men… Until power is taken from that group, nothing is going to change.”
If the Callisto Expansion works as advertised, there’s a chance it could help destabilize that boys’ club, clearing away some of the barriers that prevent female founders from rising to the highest levels of power. But as long as the Callisto Expansion’s existence is contingent on the generosity of that boys’ club, it’s difficult to see how it will be able to effectively hold its members accountable.
There’s no question that Silicon Valley needs a way to help keep women safe, to enable them to do their jobs without having to worry about harassment from abusers within the community. Empowering female founders to push back against abusive investors could be a powerful first step to making the tech industry a more female-friendly place.
But right now, it’s not clear whether the Expansion is a step toward actual change or just another instance of — as one source called it — “#MeToo-washing.” Paradoxically, the structural change that Callisto hopes to bring to Silicon Valley might need to happen before Callisto can actually be effective.