The quiet woman who took on Silicon Valley

Until Ms Ellen Pao became embroiled in one of the most sensational gender discrimination lawsuits to hit Silicon Valley, her life story read like the manual for the American Dream.

Born to middle-class Chinese immigrant parents who instilled in their three daughters the value of hard work, Ms Pao would go on to rack up a series of impressive degrees from Ivy League universities, live in some of the most exclusive properties in New York and San Francisco and secure high-paying jobs, first in law and then finance.

But in recent times, the 45-year-old's energies have been consumed by a US$16 million (S$22.3 million) suit she brought against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers in 2012. The trial began two weeks ago.

The firm is one of the most storied venture capitalist (VC) companies in the tech world. Kleiner Perkins boasts nearly all the who's who of successful technology start-ups in its investment portfolio. Google, Twitter, Spotify, Uber, Snapchat, Zynga - you name it and there is a good chance the company had invested in it.

To hear Ms Pao - now interim chief executive of social news website Reddit - tell it, that success masked a company gripped by a sexist macho culture, one that did nothing to stem her persistent harassment by male colleagues and overlooked her for a deserved promotion because of her gender.

"It's been a long journey, and I've tried many times to bring Kleiner Perkins to the right path," she said in court. "I think there should be equal opportunities for women and men to be venture capitalists. I wanted to be a VC, but I wasn't able to do so in that environment."

Her detailed allegations include being subjected to the unwanted advances of a colleague, Mr Ajit Nazre, receiving a book of erotic poetry and images from a senior named Mr Randy Komisar, and being left out of important meetings.

She complained of not getting invited to parties, noting that one senior partner said women "kill the buzz".

Kleiner Perkins has denied the allegations and instead sought to portray Ms Pao as entitled, difficult to work with and a cunning operator who engineered the lawsuit to extract a profit, given her family's current dip in fortunes.

Ms Pao's second husband, Mr Alphonse Fletcher, whom she married in 2007, was once one of the richest black Americans. But his primary hedge fund went bankrupt, and the couple reportedly had to sell their luxury apartment in San Francisco.

For now, a judge has denied the firm's requests to introduce the finer details of the couple's finances into the proceedings.

Whichever way the trial ultimately goes, Ms Pao has already come to embody a lot of the frustrations of women in a sector where some 96 per cent of senior partners are men.

Though armed with a rock-solid resume and three Ivy League degrees, Ms Pao could not make it work at Kleiner Perkins. In fact, her boss had hired a speech coach for her so that she could "own the room" when making presentations. That same executive, Mr John Doerr, had said all successful male tech entrepreneurs seem to be "white male nerds who have dropped out of Harvard or Stanford".

That Ms Pao would find herself at the centre of such a controversy is a surprise to those who knew her. By all accounts, she was a quiet person, a bright student who steered away from trouble.

A former law school classmate, Ms Rebecca Eisenberg, told Fortune magazine: "She is one of the least objectionable people on earth. She doesn't stand out. She's the type of person who just goes about her business."

Indeed, there is little in Ms Pao's past that could foretell her current predicament.

Like many other children of Asian immigrants, she and her sisters were pushed to excel in their studies. They went to Princeton University, where she graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. She went on to Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.

That combination made her an ideal fit for business development in tech firms, and she worked in a succession of information technology firms including Microsoft. She joined Kleiner Perkins in 2005 as chief of staff to its most famous investor, Mr John Doerr.

It is not clear at what point things started to sour for Ms Pao, but it certainly brought out the combative streak in her.

An e-mail exchange produced in court showed her complaining to senior partner Matt Murphy about being left out of a meeting.

"I should have been informed of and probably invited to Friday's meeting. It's not only polite, it creates a better process," she wrote.

He replied: "Seems like you are telling me what I need to do and that is not resonating with me."

Though he suggested discussing the issue in person, she kept up her complaints via e-mail.

Even after she filed the suit that rocked Kleiner Perkins, Ms Pao continued to turn up for work every day for another five months until she was fired.

"Why should I leave?" she reportedly said. "I haven't done anything wrong."

This article was first published on March 16, 2015.
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