For students in the “Managerial Finance” class, last Thursday’s meeting featured something more interesting than typical lectures—a talk from venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck, Trinity ‘99 and a former walk-on for the men's basketball team.
Edwyn Tiryakian, lecturing fellow of Markets and Management, hosted Caldbeck to speak about the male-dominated environment in the world of finance. In June, Caldbeck resigned from his role leading venture capital firm Binary Capital amid allegations of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances, setting off a wave of harassment claims from women in Silicon Valley.
“If we’re going to make change, men need to behave better,” Caldbeck said in an interview with The Chronicle. “Part of what needs to happen is more education around these issues.”
He explained that his presentation to the class focused on the “bro culture” that can begin in college and continue into the professional world.
“The talk was exactly what I wanted,” Tiryakian said. “It was a guy who had that male culture that dominates finance. It cost him everything, so I think that resonated with both the male and female students.”
Representatives from We Are Here Duke, which advocates against sexual assault and gender violence, said they were disappointed that Duke chose to give Caldbeck a platform to speak on campus.
“A person accused of sexual assault—no matter how successful—should not be speaking to students about how to reform ‘bro culture,’ especially when he does so in an effort to absolve himself from his own problematic behavior,” said senior Samantha Meyers, the group’s president.
This summer, tech news site The Information first stories from six women who described how Caldbeck had groped them under the table during meetings or tried to have sexual relations with them. Some of these incidents occurred during meetings in which the women were seeking funding from Caldbeck’s firm.
The women alleged that these incidents happened throughout Caldbeck’s time at three different venture firms throughout the past seven years.
Entrepreneur Lindsay Meyer told the that Caldbeck groped her and kissed her after investing $25,000 in her fitness startup in 2015. In June, a former employee sued Binary Capital for harassing and defaming her after she resigned in wake of the allegations against Caldbeck, saying that he and his partner had created a “sexist and sexual environment.”
Both Caldbeck and Binary Capital apologized for his actions, as did venture capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners. Lightspeed, which previously employed Caldbeck, had received complaints about him, but said they “should have done more.”
Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, noted that faculty have complete freedom to teach and bring speakers to their classrooms without review from the administration.
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“In any case, speaking to a class at Duke does not at all convey the University’s endorsement of any individual or point of view,” he wrote in an email.
The Duke Women’s Center declined to comment on Caldbeck’s visit.
Bringing Caldbeck to campus
Tiryakian, who has taught “Managerial Finance” for seven years, explained that he likes to bring in lots of guest speakers who have experience in finance and can speak on relevant news topics.
“It’s incredible the environment out there in terms of what these women have to go through,” Tiryakian said. “When story hit, I thought it would be a good learning lesson to see how he was reacting.”
Caldbeck said he told the class that he takes full responsibility for his actions, noting that he had lacked self-awareness and did not have enough knowledge about the challenges women in tech experience.
Men frequently become first immersed in a culture that sexualizes and objectifies women in college, which is especially common in fraternities and athletic teams, he explained.
“If you do it in the workplace, you have massive damage that you’re causing to women,” Caldbeck said. “And it can cost you your job and career.”
Tiryakian said that Caldbeck told students he got what he deserved, but that if you’re part of the problem, you need to become part of the solution. Caldbeck also issued a “warning to both sides” about the importance of speaking out against sexual harassment.
“He highlighted not just the women who called him out but others. He said there are these women who were brave in what they did, and it’s unfortunate they had to do those things,” Tiryakian said.
As for why he participated in Silicon Valley’s “bro culture,” Caldbeck said it related to the atmosphere he was used to at Duke. It wasn’t until a couple months after the first article about him came out that he realized what he had done.
“When the article came out, I was shocked by some of the names in there, and that shows me how incredibly un-self aware I was,” Caldbeck said.
Tiryakian noted that Caldbeck didn’t propose many solutions for dismantling the problem, as Caldbeck said that he didn’t have the answer. But bringing the issue out into the open and realizing the behavior starts early is the first and most important step, Caldbeck noted.
Reactions to the talk
In his seven years teaching the class, Tiryakian said he has never seen his students so transfixed by a speaker, noting that their eyes never left Caldbeck.
“I think we are very fortunate that someone who did some pretty bad things and lost a lot of money because of it can share his story at a time when it’s very impressionable for Duke kids,” he said.
Caldbeck said that after the talk, he had several male and female students thank him and tell him that his message was very powerful.
However, some people on campus have raised concerns about how the talk may have affected female students in the class who had been victims of sexual assault.
“With 40 percent of women at Duke experiencing sexual assault before they graduate, it's likely that some of the students in that lecture were victim-survivors themselves, and thus Justin Caldbeck's visit to the class could have been triggering for them,” Meyers from We Are Here Duke said.
Senior Jacqueline Monetta, director of gender equity on the Duke Student Government cabinet, agreed that the talk could be triggering.
“Power dynamics and sexually coded interactions happen everywhere, and while they’re pervasive in the workplace, it cannot be emphasized at the expense of every other realm of life in which sexual harassment assault occurs,” she said.
Tiryakian explained that he did warn female students who might be impacted by the topic of sexual assault that Caldbeck would be speaking and that they didn’t have to attend. However, he said that the class was very full that day.
“Just to see their attention focused on this Shakespearean character, I just loved it,” Tiryakian said.
Caldbeck said that he welcomes any feedback about his talk, noting that the last thing he wants to do is make women uncomfortable.
“I expect a negative reaction with everything I do right now, and I deserve it,” he said. “I made mistakes, I hurt people. I didn’t mean to, but that doesn't make it any better.”
Future efforts to make amends
Caldbeck explained that he hopes to take his message to other universities and is in the process of creating a website that is consistent with the themes in his talk.
The site will feature educational tools for men such as guidelines about good and bad behavior and how to hold each other accountable. There will also be resources for women who have been victimized by sexual harassment.
He noted that he has sought advice from his female friends and family members and has reached out to “women that have made it public this is an issue they care a lot about.”
“I understand why a number of women don't work with me and may doubt my sincerity,” Caldbeck said. “But I would love the opportunity to work with women who care about this issue. Change certainly isn't going to come just from me and other men who have behaved badly.”
Reaching out to the women he has hurt is another priority, he said. He has sent apology letters to women who spoke publicly about his mistreatment of them as well as others who didn’t come forward but who he believes he has wronged.
As for his next career move, Caldbeck said that’s not a priority for him at the moment.
“I want to make amends, and aIl want is to make change and that’s all I’m focused on right now,” he said.