Women in tech

Charity startup GiveTree apologises for founder’s misogyny on LinkedIn

- November 7, 2023 5 MIN READ
elaine stead
VC investor Elaine Stead
Venture capital investor Elaine Stead is among several women in the startup sector subjected to “a barrage of abusive, sexually harassing and vile comments” on LinkedIn by the founder of charitable startup GiveTree, with the company involved issuing an apology.

Sam Joel, founder of the cryptocurrency and NFT-focused GiveTree subsequently had his comments, made on Saturday, deleted, along with his LinkedIn account.

UPDATE: On Tuesday evening, GiveTree posted a statement from Joel saying he’s stepping down as CEO.

Startup Daily saw screenshots of Joel asking a woman who’d praised Stead if she was single before discussing “our baby” and whether he’d “bang” her, before writing “you look. (sic) Fat.”

He said diversity “might be the dumbest shit of the entire century” and claimed women have “majority employment in most verticals now”, adding that they’re “still complaining” and it’s “classic women”.

Joel then tracked down one of the women involved, Hannah Moreno from PR firm Third Hemisphere, via her website and personal email and continued to abuse, referencing where she lived.

Equally concerning for some was LinkedIn’s response after several people reported Joel, with the social media platform ruling that comments such as “”‘bang you then abortion” did not contravene its ‘Professional Community Policies’.

It led Stead to observe that “If LinkedIn doesn’t see that as sexual harassment… is it any wonder that our physical workplaces don’t respond adequately?”

Moreno said LinkedIn is an extension of the workplace, yet women are regularly subject to sexual harassment and bullying that’s difficult to address.

“We do not currently have a clear path to reporting this mistreatment or holding perpetrators to account,” she said.

“In the absence of this clear pathway towards redressing these wrongs, women will increasingly speak out publicly about the abuse they receive, allowing other victims to come forward, and forcing stakeholders of perpetrators to make decisions about where their own values like on situations like these ones.”

A spokesperson for LinkedIn said in response to their concerns that: “When we see content or behaviour that violates our Professional Community Policies, we take action, including the removal of content or the permanent restriction of an account for repeated abusive behaviour.”

UPDATE: Four days after the initial complaints, LinkedIn emailed Stead to “extend our sincere apologies for any negative experience you may have had on our platform”, adding that after an internal investigation, the company had “taken appropriate action”, to ensure the comments were no longer visible and Joel’s account was “no longer available”.

“Harassment, abuse, or any form of inappropriate behaviour is not tolerated,” the email from LinkedIn said.

The trigger for Joel’s rants was an interview Stead gave to The Capital Brief about supporting and backing women, as well as “the Heisenberg principle in action — that the observing of events changes the behaviour of events — meaning the media is an active and influential participant”.

A false narrative

Female Startup Club podcast founder and Australian Young Achiever of the Year Doone Roisin told Startup Daily that aside from the abuse, Joel’s initial comments perpetuated a false narrative of reaching gender equality.

“One in 3 single women retire into poverty. Women get paid 87c vs the $1 that men make. These stats aren’t just making themselves up. They reflect the truth of a systemically broken system skewed against women,” she said.

“And then there’s the threat of sexual assault and violence. 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault. There is no excuse and this behaviour needs to be called out over and over again.”

Joel founded GiveTree as “the future of donations” in 2018. Its MVP is currently in a closed beta for cryptocurrency donations to charity. The startup is currently hoping to raise US$1.5 million at a US$15 million valuation.

As part of his founder story, Joel has detailed how he started GiveTree as a simple charity directory while homeless and living in an internet cafe because he wanted to help the charities helping him at the time.  It’s since moved into the crypto and metaverse space.

Stead had posted a interview in which she advocated for championing women in startups. Joel first took her to task, and when another woman congratulated her, replied:

“If any woman dared replied to him to tell him his comments were out of line, he would condescendingly suggested she was being irrational and perhaps it was because ‘you are on your period’,” Stead explained, noting that men who intervened were also abused “with ad hominem attacks” but those comments were mean, while  “he saved the repulsive sexual threats for the women”.

Apology and therapy

On Monday, GiveTree posted an apology on its LinkedIn account saying Joel’s comments were “very inappropriate and hurtful” and “form part of a larger and ongoing pattern of behaviour”  and has “pledged to take concrete steps towards correcting his behaviour, communication, and attitudes”.

That includes therapy “to address his sexist and, at times, misogynistic” as well as “to address underlying issues stemming from PTSD due to a period of homelessness and loss of family members”.

The company included an apology from Joel as well, saying he vowed to “never hurt anyone in this way again”.

“Sexism and bullying is never ok in any situation, and no one should be subject to harassment in any setting,” he wrote.

“I understand the hurt and damage caused by my actions and words, and I intend to take concrete steps to do better and adjust my character.

“I am committing to therapy to address my underlying issues with sexism, and will issue a personal apology to anyone I have hurt in the past.”

Elaine Stead welcomed the apology from Joel saying: “Admitting when you have made a mistake shows courage and doing so publicly in this way is the right thing to do”.

However, she told Startup Daily, it’s not an isolated case.

“We need to recognise that behaviour like this isn’t rare, it’s commonplace for women online and is symptomatic for how workplaces are often hostile to women,” she said.

“It means when we perform well in the workplace it’s achieved while also fighting off this kind of gendered abuse at the same time, and it’s exhausting.”

Many women responding on LinkedIn expressed their doubts about the authenticity of the apologies.

Hannah Moreno, who spent Sunday in correspondence with Joel, and ultimately convinced him that an apology was appropriate, can understand how they feel, but says it should be acknowledged if things are to change.

“Many victims will not be ready to offer absolution or forgiveness just because a perpetrator has taken the step of making a public apology. This is absolutely their prerogative,” she said.

“In fact, no victim owes a perpetrator forgiveness or absolution at any point, ever. However, I believe it would be remiss of us as a society to discount the importance of a public confession and apology as a critical first step following abuse.

“This is what we want perpetrators to do, so long as it is followed up by concrete action, and I say this as a victim of Sam’s abuse myself. Now that this apology is out in the public realm, we as an ecosystem should be holding Sam to account for his commitment to doing better, consistently, and over the long term.”

  • Editor’s note: The initial version of this story emphasised that LinkedIn did not censure the comments, but the social media platform subsequently said it did take action in response to multiple reports. Startup Daily understands that 3 or more complaints can lead to an automatic suspension of a user.