Can silicon valley foundation ceo survive scandal over ‘toxic’ workplace

In many ways, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which grew in little over a decade into the biggest philanthropy of its kind managing assets of more than $13.5 billion for some of the biggest names in technology, is inseparable from its founding president and chief executive.

Now Emmett D. Carson, described in the industry as the foundation’s “indefatigable institution builder,” is at the center of a crisis over pervasive sexual harassment accusations against his top deputy, Mari Ellen Reynolds Loijens, that is raising questions if Carson himself can survive.

On Friday — a day after accepting Loijens’ resignation — Carson sent a two-page letter to the Mountain View foundation’s donors apologizing “for this situation” and assuring them that “we are focused on addressing it comprehensively and improving.”


“If you’re found to have known and looked the other way, that person usually has to go in order to separate the organization from the scandal,” said Eden Gillott Bowe, president of crisis and reputation management firm Gillott Communications in New York and Los Angeles. “I think that the board of directors is going to have to take a very hard look at how much this is going to damage their reputation.”

Carson and the foundation’s board did not respond to questions through the nonprofit’s spokesperson. Loijens has declined to comment. The board’s vice chairman, Dan’l Lewin, president and chief executive of the Computer History Museum, refused to comment. Rose Jacobs Gibson, a former San Mateo County Supervisor who also sits on the foundation’s 18-member board, which also includes Carson, did not respond to a reporter’s phone call.

The scandal evokes the sexual harassment complaints at San Francisco ride-hailing giant Uber that ultimately forced last year’s ouster of its brash founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick. Like Carson, Kalanick was seen as key to the organization’s success but also was seen as allowing a “bro culture” demeaning to women employees to fester.

Gillott Bowe said the nature of a philanthropy whose business is helping wealthy donors burnish their reputations with charitable giving makes it even harder to retain management tied to a scandal over alleged mistreatment of its workers. She likened it to a case where the head of a crisis center for abused women was accused of domestic violence.

Mari Ellen Loijens resigned Thursday, April 19, 2018 from Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a day after a scathing report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy accused the non-profit’s chief business, development and brand officer of routinely bullying her staff and making sexually inappropriate remarks. (Courtesy Silicon Valley Community Foundation)

The scandal had been building quietly since the foundation’s founding in 2007 from the merger of two smaller community foundations but erupted publicly earlier this week after Carson posted a statement acknowledging the sexual harassment allegations and an internal investigation.

His statement followed a report last week in a trade publication, Inside Philanthropy, that noted anonymous criticism in the online workplace rating website Glassdoor of Carson and Loijens for a “toxic” work culture. And it came after another trade publication, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, asked Carson pointed questions about those complaints and others about chronic sexually inappropriate remarks by Loijens, which it detailed in a long Wednesday article.

Former foundation employees have affirmed the accounts in the article and shared several others on social media and in interviews with this and other news organizations. They insist Carson was well aware of concerns about Loijens but refused to temper his star fundraiser, credited with helping raise more than $8.3 billion.

Rebecca Dupras, a former vice president for development who joined the foundation in 2014 and left after three years, said their accounts echoed her experience. She recalled an incident after a meeting with associates in which she said Loijens remarked in front of a male colleague that the men they had met with were ogling her, then asked her colleague why men “objectify Rebecca so much?”

“Even if you just started to talk to him about it, he did not want to hear it,” Dupras said. “I heard her make lots of sexual and racist comments, sexually inappropriate remarks to me personally, alone and also in front of other people. It wasn’t unknown. She would say inappropriate things, and HR people would sit there and look horrified, but no one would say anything. That’s how they operated. She would demean staff, and he’d be sitting there.”

Dupras said she considered a lawsuit over the objectify remark but was advised by a private lawyer it would be hard to build a case around one incident. But Los Angeles employment lawyer Genie Harrison said the remark was “unquestionably severe” enough to warrant a case.

Former employees described a process where complaints to human resources about Loijens or Carson ended with the employee forced to discuss their concerns directly with Carson. Harrison said that practice and HR officials tolerating abusive remarks would be “a huge problem for the foundation” and could lead to punitive damages if there were a lawsuit that went to trial.

“I’ve known Emmett Carson a long time, and everything I’ve seen, he’s a guy with high integrity,” said Muhammed Chaudhry, former president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. “If there’s any wrongdoing, Emmett will do the right thing.”