It’s been three weeks since the Portland Press Herald published an article about the sexual harassment allegations against Jess Knox, the loss of the $475,000 Kauffman Foundation grant and the shuttering of Venture Hall. A short-lived backlash ranged from #NotShocked to genuine disbelief, but most people have remained quiet. Some have offered whispered support from a distance, while many are still waiting for someone else to speak up.

This isn’t a story about Jess Knox. It’s also not a story about Stephanie Brock, the woman who disclosed her harassment. She raised her hand hoping to be the first of many to bring a conversation that was happening in the shadows out into the light.

The problem is that no one else stood up. Our silence is itself the story.

In order to understand the context for this disaster, it’s important to understand the backwards philosophy that drives entrepreneurship communities.

Startups are known for their “move fast and break things” mentality. The illusion of a meritocracy and entrepreneur-worship has created a breeding ground for people in power to break the rules in the name of disruption and growth.

But at what expense? Actually, whose expense? It’s almost always a person or a group of people that are steamrolled in the process.

I know this from experience. At 25 I was working at a startup in Sunnyvale, California, at the height of the Silicon Valley boom. I was one of the first hires at a supercool company with a culture that mirrored the founders’ frat house. It wasn’t the sexual innuendos or lewd jokes that made me uncomfortable, it was that decisions were made during their private ski trips and over late-night drinks. Although I was technically a “director,” I had no voice; no seat at the table. So when my boss took one of those sexual innuendos too far and I needed to tell someone what had happened, I realized there was no one to tell. There was nothing I could do.

Startups have no HR department; the legal team has been set up to protect intellectual property, not employees. The board of directors want to help, but one bad PR story can sink a company. It’s in their best interest to protect their assets.

I knew it was in my best interest to stay silent. Women who come forward are considered toxic. They end up jobless and ostracized.

I packed a suitcase, quit my job and returned to Maine. Explaining the gap in my resume and losing my boss as a reference (yes, that was my biggest concern) was a small price to pay compared to being blacklisted by an entire industry.

I regret my silence, but I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing again.

Our collective inaction after the Venture Hall disaster says to women like me that they probably shouldn’t come forward. That there is no safety net for victims of harassment. That leaders in our community will wait for those affected to provide a solution. And that the voices who advocate for our ecosystem will stay silent in order to protect their relationships.

There is still an opportunity to do something. If you want to join the conversation and make an impact – start with asking these important questions:

“Are you OK?”

It’s shocking how few people have shown concern for the women whose lives were turned upside down by his actions. More people have lamented the loss of Jess Knox as a resource for the community than the slow drain we’ve likely experienced over the years as women have quietly stepped aside from organizations to avoid harassment or bullying. Others have been forced to leave their jobs or were pushed out of the inner circle he kept around Maine Startup and Create Week. Those are enormous losses to our ecosystem that we’ll never recover.

If you’re looking for the women affected by this situation, you won’t find any angry, mascara-streaked faces. Women are resilient. Just because their lives haven’t fallen apart doesn’t mean they don’t need your empathy, compassion and support. It simply means they’re strong-ass women who’ve chosen not to let the actions of weak men tear them down.

“Why did Venture Hall shut down?”

Have you asked yourself why Venture Hall closed its doors so quickly after the allegations were made public? If you haven’t, you should. No other organization has closed when an employee has been accused of misdeeds. Even the Weinstein Co. is still open after the largest sexual harassment disaster in modern history (at least for now). Jess Knox was a key employee of the organization, but not the only employee – and not responsible for doing all of the work.

Rumors have set a confusing narrative for what happened in the aftermath of the allegations against Knox. None of these stories is consistent, which makes me wonder if any of them are true.

Many people have asked the survivors of the harassment to come forward to set the record straight, but it shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the survivors to tell the stories.

This is an opportunity for the board of directors at Venture Hall to bring the truth of the situation to light. They must have learned incredible lessons over the last few weeks about how to handle allegations in a small startup organization. That knowledge could be invaluable to other small businesses who are considering what they would do if faced with a similar situation.

Maybe it’s too soon, but the door is closing quickly. That will be an uncomfortable conversation; I realize that. But we as a community need to decide whether we prioritize change or comfort.

“Who are we really building this ecosystem to benefit?”

Like other young startup communities that struggle with access to capital, relationships have become the de facto currency for Maine’s startup community. We’ve elevated leaders with deep Rolodexes over those who offer real value. This has enabled gatekeepers and created a closed community where those who aren’t already in the ecosystem are forced to stay on the periphery.

While we desperately need women and people of color to create a more diverse and rich ecosystem, people in these communities don’t feel welcome in Maine’s startup world.

Instead, entrepreneurs in these diverse communities have organically developed their own networks adjacent to the larger startup community that are more supportive and connective, but lack essential elements like access to capital and mentorship that would help them grow.

As we build a new ecosystem, we need to relentlessly invest in entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and prioritize these voices that have been on the periphery. Not just by inviting them to events and conversations, but investing in them with capital, training, and mentorship.

Looking forward

The truth is, sexual harassment in the workplace is a conversation 51 percent of the population has been having for decades. The pervasive culture of gatekeepers and toxic masculinity has existed in startups since before the dot-com era. For many women, this is a battle they’ve been fighting their entire careers.

For people of color and many of those in the LGBTQ community, harassment and discrimination are a constant, and something I will never fully understand as a white, straight-appearing woman. It’s a daily battle that they don’t have the luxury of opting in and out of. While the conversation about Venture Hall and the startup ecosystem may not appear to be about race and sexual orientation, it has to be. We can’t create a diverse and equitable community for some women without providing equitable opportunities for all.

I am passionate but skeptical about the growth of our startup community. I’ve worked with startups as long as I’ve been on a payroll. But we are at a crossroads. The next steps we take will show our true colors as a community. We are deciding now whether we are building a Maine that is polite and comfortable for some, or whether Maine is a place where entrepreneurship and opportunity are open to all.