Now Playing

'The Most Powerful Company in the History of Silicon Valley Tried Everything in its Power to Silence and Threaten Me.'

Sarah Lacy, journalist, entrepreneur, and author on fighting Uber, fixing bro culture, and rejecting some tired ideas about motherhood.

Sarah Lacy

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Sarah Lacy
Occupation: Founder and CEO, Pando and Chairman Mom
Age: 41
Residence: San Francisco

San Francisco: Your new book, A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug, is a passionate polemic about the almost invisible role the patriarchy plays in controlling women’s lives. But in it, you detail a very visible fight that you had with Uber back in 2013. Did that event, in which it was revealed that company executives were threatening to conduct opposition research into your personal life, change your feelings about Silicon Valley?
Sarah Lacy: I moved to San Francisco in my early 20s and stayed here because I believed in a lot of good things about Silicon Valley. But I think that Uber episode forever broke something in my relationship with Silicon Valley that will never be fixed again.

You do admit in the book that you milked the scandal, though, right?
“Milking it” is not the verb I would use.

Meaning, you accepted every invitation to talk on television about it, you granted every interview request.
I did. I absolutely opted into it. The reason I wouldn’t say “milking it” is because it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t an easy thing to do. It was an incredibly painful few weeks. If anyone who knows me goes back and looks at any of that footage of me at the time, I look devastated and hollowed out. It was a really horrible experience. 

Do you think that you served as a model for other women, like Susan Fowler or Ann Lai, who would later take on powerful interests in the Valley?
I think that if there hadn’t been people like me loudly saying what this company did for years, the reaction to someone like Susan would have been really different. No one questioned her story. 

When did all of these ideas coalesce to make you want to write the book?
The last six years has been a period when I had two children. I got divorced, which stunned me. Pando had almost $400 million of threatened lawsuits that we fought off, which was brutal and hard. I had to oust two board members. The most powerful company in the history of Silicon Valley tried everything in its power to silence and threaten me. It was just an intense and insane six years. And at every step along that way, I would talk to people and they would be like, “I can’t believe you’re doing this with children.” I would just be like, “You don’t understand—my children are the only reason I am getting through it.” They were making me so much better as a human being, a boss, a writer, everything. And I just thought, God, I wasted 15 years of adulthood thinking having kids would be the end of my career because the world told me that would happen.

The subtitle of your book is The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy, but you could argue that this book is as much a manual for male managers.
I definitely didn’t explicitly write it for men. I think most men aren’t going to pick it up. But you basically have three types of men in Silicon Valley. I think there’s really enlightened people like Andy [Dunn, the CEO of Bonobos, who’s quoted in the book], who I think are the rarest. Then there are the bros, who I would say are the second-most rare. And then the most common are white men who feel that they believe in equality but have a shitload of blind spots.

How do you deal with the latter?
To me, it’s all tied in to this sense of disruption. Between the dot-com crash and the really early 2000s, a lot of VCs would not fund companies if they were breaking a law. No music companies would get funded because the ones that did, like Napster, all got destroyed and the labels sucked up all the venture capital. But then we got into this era where lawbreaking was seen as a bonus. And it was funded because of it. That was not a forever Silicon Valley thing. 

But would the Valley be the Valley if it didn’t reward disruption?
I think the naïveté of VCs is that when you fund people who love to break laws, they don’t just break the laws you want them to break. They break lots of laws. They break laws about how they treat women. They break trade security laws. They break social constructs like the right to a free press.

Why do you still want to cover this monstrous industry as a journalist?
Ugh. I don’t know. Many days I don’t. There are parts of my soul that are missing because of the last 20 years of staying in this profession. But what’s great about journalism is your name is on every story. And now I have a house in San Francisco that I bought purely off of my words as a woman. I don’t think there are many other professions where I could have done that.
 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Email Jon Steinberg at jsteinberg@modernluxury.com
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Jon Steinberg on Twitter @JonSteinberg31