Gretchen Howard was sitting outside the Ferry Building in San Francisco when she got a piece of unexpected career advice that would eventually change her whole life. It came from Paul Daversa, CEO of the executive recruiting firm Daversa Partners. “Are you actually good, or are you just lucky?” he asked her. The question sounded like a neg, but it eventually spurred enough introspection to prompt her to leave her stable job at Google and take a chance on a new career path.
As an executive recruiter, Paul Daversa is masterful at nudging people toward fast-paced startups. Recounting the story on a podcast, he pulled up an email he’d sent Howard in 2010, asking her to take an interview at Zendesk. When she said she couldn’t quite handle the risk, he suggested she take a jumbo mortgage. She didn’t bite, but his words left a lasting impact. In 2019, Howard became the COO of Robinhood — one of many buzzy companies Paul Daversa advises.
Daversa Partners is far from a household name outside the tech industry. But for companies looking to grow from collegial side hustle to venture-backed verb, it’s the go-to firm. In tech, many startups are run by ambitious but inexperienced entrepreneurs. Daversa helps bring in executives with industry experience. In short, it puts adults in the room, adding a layer of professionalism and oversight that’s sorely needed in Silicon Valley. To that end, the firm has recruited the chief financial officer of Uber, the chief accounting officer of Instacart, and seemingly the entire engineering leadership team at WeWork.
Behind the scenes, however, Daversa has been struggling with its own alleged lack of oversight. The firm is the subject of a recent lawsuit, brought by a former employee named Vaughn Feighan who says he was repeatedly harassed and assaulted by a man who, at the time, was one of the organization’s most powerful partners. Feighan says the partner drew him in by talking about the opportunity — he, too, could make partner if he just took the older man’s advice. It almost felt like he was one of Daversa’s recruiting targets.
The complaint alleges that the partner, who was in his fifties, told Feighan about his specific sexual desires: that he liked having fingers in his ass when he was having sex and that he’d always dreamed of “going both ways,” but it hadn’t been acceptable when he was growing up.
On three separate occasions, Feighan alleges the partner physically assaulted him. Once, after giving Feighan a ride home, he restrained the younger man in the car and stuck his hands down his pants. “I always imagined you had a massive dick,” he said, according to Feighan’s recollection. The other two alleged assaults occurred on company trips.
All the while, the partner was dangling prestigious career opportunities in front of Feighan, telling him he could get a promotion if he just stuck it out a little longer. He said he was mentoring the younger man — teaching him the subtle art of nudging executives to take a chance on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Feighan’s complaint is not the first time Daversa has faced internal tension. The firm hires many people just out of college, making it difficult for some to gauge whether the behavior they’re witnessing falls within the bounds of normal corporate culture. A former employee says that, despite being more than 60 percent women, Daversa felt like a boys’ club. One partner, who has helped build the executive teams at Google, PayPal, Twitter, and Postmates, allegedly made references to sucking dick and getting fucked in front of colleagues at the offices. During a company offsite in 2019, this same partner apparently got so drunk that he accidentally kneed a female consultant in the head. He currently co-runs Daversa’s San Francisco office.
In response to these allegations, a spokesperson for Daversa said that the firm’s leadership team is majority women, and suggesting that it was a boys’ club “defies logic.” They also said that during a team outing in Napa Valley wine country, “an unfortunate accident occurred” but vehemently denied allegations that this partner made references to “sucking dick” or “getting fucked” in front of colleagues. The spokesperson also sent prepared statements from multiple women who have had overwhelmingly positive experiences at the company.
Feighan suspected the alleged behavior was abnormal. It might have been his first job out of college, but he felt like the excessive drinking and sexual references had to breach some code of conduct. Still, he felt he had no one to turn to. According to the complaint, Daversa did not have an internal human resources department, despite being a nearly 30-year-old company. (The firm did have an outside consultant whom Feighan was aware of.) He tried to tell the other partners about the late-night texts and phone calls he was receiving, but, according to the lawsuit, the firm did nothing to protect him. (Daversa denies that any of the other partners knew about the allegations of harassment or assault or were ever told about the late-night phone calls.)
Over time, Feighan began to see himself as part of a group of people, many of them women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, who’ve been targeted by powerful men in the tech industry while their companies turned a blind eye. “It was so alarming to me that the people I was supposed to turn to through all of this just kept turning their heads, and that’s exactly what Silicon Valley has continued to do,” he says.
When it mattered most to Feighan, the firm tasked with getting adults in the room at some of the most prestigious startups in Silicon Valley had no adults in the room.
From the beginning, the partner in the DC office took a keen interest in Vaughn Feighan. A recent college grad, Feighan originally wanted to interview for the Los Angeles office but says he was told that the partner had heard about him and wanted him to interview for a position in DC.
Feighan’s uncle had worked at Daversa years before, so the comment didn’t stand out to him. The firm was known for the long tenure of many of its senior staff — perhaps legacy meant something to them.
He showed up for the interview wearing a suit. “You look so stuck-up right now,” the partner said, according to Feighan’s recollection. He instructed the younger man to take off his jacket. Then the partner asked him if he was a “crier.” Feighan thought he’d misheard. “Do you mean, do I cry?” he asked. “Yeah,” he says the partner responded. “Because we don’t really have time for people in the Washington, DC office who are sensitive and cry a lot.”
The partner ran the show in the DC office. He’d been at the company for 20 years and had deep relationships with VC firms like Sequoia Capital. According to Daversa’s website, he’d helped build the “senior most leadership teams” at companies like Spotify and Survey Monkey.
Feighan could see why the partner was so successful. “He could basically get anyone to take a meeting with anyone, regardless of what role it was for,” Feighan says. “His style is very relaxed and very, very effective. He didn’t even talk about roles necessarily. He would just talk.” The partner’s confidence was intimidating — and it worked. His favorite thing to tell candidates was “just follow my lead on this.”
This confidence, in many ways, is what executive recruiting is all about. Tech companies that need to expand their boards or leadership teams will often hire outside firms to woo qualified candidates on their behalf and convince them to take a leap of faith. Jana Rich, an executive recruiter who’s worked with Dropbox, Square, and Peloton, says the work is “touchy-feely,” less about finding people with technical expertise than identifying “public-facing leaders in the C-suite,” according to USA Today. It’s behind-the-scenes work that helps shape the culture of Silicon Valley and reverberates through offices around the world.
Two days after Feighan started, he was sitting in a training session when he got a text from the partner telling him to go to a bar near the office “ASAP.” Feighan responded that he was in a meeting. “Come anyway,” the partner said.
“When I got down there, he was saying, ‘Oh well, you know what? You passed the test, perfect,’” Feighan recalls.
The off-campus meeting became a pattern. The partner would tell Feighan to leave work, at times even instructing him to lie about his whereabouts to colleagues. He called Feighan late at night and on weekends, often to talk about projects, but at times asking Feighan about his personal life or sharing details of his own. The partner was married but talked about cheating on his wife, according to the lawsuit. He mentioned a desire to sleep with men and speculated about Feighan’s sexual preferences — including fantasizing about whether the younger man was a top or a bottom.
A month after he started, the partner asked to meet for lunch to go over an assignment. When they sat down, the partner ordered whiskey and told Feighan that drinking wasn’t optional, according to the lawsuit. “Mr. Feighan felt he had no choice other than comply, or else risk angering [the partner] and jeopardizing his job,” the complaint alleges.
After lunch, the partner texted him: “Great hustle this weekend. Overall B+ and the whiskey/lunch/vision board review puts you @ an A-.” To Feighan, the message was clear: push through your discomfort, and you’ll be professionally rewarded.
In September, the partner told Feighan that he was taking the young associate on a business trip to California — an unusual perk for an employee of Feighan’s tenure.
“Should I act surprised that I am going to SF/should I tell the others or are you going to?” Feighan asked him over text. “Yes act surprised…” the partner said. “I will make the announcement later…for now keep your head down.”
After Feighan arrived in San Francisco, the partner told him to meet him at a hotel. Feighan assumed the partner had gotten him a room, and he had — but it was a room the two men were meant to share. Feighan felt it was inappropriate. He hadn’t been told ahead of time about the arrangement. “I called my dad and I was like, ‘Dad, I’m staying in the same room as my boss. He’s 55 years old.’” His father confirmed this conversation in an interview with The Verge.
On two subsequent trips, the partner booked a single room with just one king bed for the two of them, according to the complaint.
In response to these allegations, a spokesperson for Daversa said, “It is absolutely not typical for any manager and subordinate to share a hotel room and any suggestion to the contrary would be false.” In the firm’s answer to the complaint, however, it wrote that “employees of the same gender who travel together sometimes share a hotel room as a cost-saving measure for the company.”
Later on during the San Francisco trip, a drunk woman began hitting on Feighan at a restaurant in San Jose, even buying him and the partner a bottle of champagne. After the restaurant staff asked her to leave, the partner said that they had just “lived the beginning of a small dream of his” and that he would “love to take that woman in the bathroom, fuck her and pull her hair while she screamed and [Mr. Feighan] watched…if [Mr. Feighan] did not want to join,” according to the complaint.
After the trip, the texts became even more frequent. The partner would mix work questions with jokes, movie suggestions, and heaps of praise. “I can say this w/o being a flag,” he told Feighan once. (According to the complaint, he’d started using the term “flag” ahead of inappropriate comments after going through a sexual harassment training.) “I actually love you and think you’re the next combo of myself and Bryce!!!” He was referring to another high-powered executive recruiter.
In November, the partner took Feighan to dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant, saying he had feedback to give him directly from Paul Daversa. Feighan, hoping to keep things professional, suggested bringing along another of the firm’s directors.
“This is btw you and I,” the partner responded. “Stop being so political…I want to hang with you solo!!! And don’t share.”
According to text messages reviewed by The Verge, the partner picked him up from his house. When they got to the restaurant, the older man ordered a drink and started asking Feighan about his sexuality. He inquired about whether the younger man loved him and found him attractive, according to the lawsuit. Feighan tried to fend off the comments but was feeling pressured to drink as well. Eventually, when the partner got up to use the bathroom, Feighan told the bartender to substitute lime juice and seltzer the next time he ordered a cocktail.
After dinner, the two men took an elevator down to the parking garage where the partner’s car was parked. According to the complaint, the partner began tickling him. “I don’t think I’ve ever even tickled a significant other,” Feighan says. Then, the partner grabbed his crotch.
Feighan pulled out his phone. “I’m going to take an Uber home,” he remembers saying. “I still have your backpack,” the partner responded. Feighan had left it in the car earlier that night. The partner allegedly told Feighan he wouldn’t give it back unless he got in the car.
On the ride home, the partner remarked on the size of Feighan’s dick, according to the complaint. When they got to Feighan’s apartment, the younger man went to unbuckle his seatbelt, only to have the partner throw his arm across his chest to hold him down. “[The partner] unbuckled his seat belt as Mr. Feighan struggled under him, and forced his other hand down Mr. Feighan’s pants, placing several fingers inside Mr. Feighan’s underwear,” the complaint says.
Around 10PM, after a short exchange about Feighan’s growth at Daversa, the partner wrote: “Come on…you and I have taken it to the next level…there’s no turning back…it’s either you, Reece, or Ava” in reference to a director and senior associate at the firm.
Research suggests that more than 24 percent of men in the United States have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, yet these incidents are vastly under-reported. According to a criminal victimization report from the Department of Justice, roughly 66 percent of sexual assaults aren’t reported to police — and the numbers are likely far higher when talking about male-on-male violence.
In Silicon Valley, an inclusive ethos collides with a bro-centric culture. While companies say employees will not be retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment or assault, the reality is that many go to great lengths to protect high-powered men at their organizations. The situation can be even more complicated for young gay men who are navigating an environment where they’re expected to be “one of the guys.”
Up until the alleged assault, Feighan wasn’t even sure what he was experiencing. He knew he was overwhelmed by the number of texts and calls he received from the partner, but when Feighan tried to bring it up to another member of the leadership team, he says he was told, “Look, we know he’s very intense, but this is how you become the number one partner in the firm.”
(In response to this allegation, a spokesperson for Daversa said, “The employee involved in this fictional conversation categorically denies that it ever occurred, and we believe this individual.”)
The partner was also masterful at making Feighan feel like he was perpetually on the verge of a bonus or promotion. “I have your back and will do what it takes to ensure that u crush it!!!” he texted him once. “Close [a candidate] I’m personally buying you 2 pairs of Chelsea boots,” he said on another occasion.
After the alleged assault, any confusion about what the attention meant evaporated. When his best friend from college got to town shortly after the incident, he told her what had happened. “He explicitly said that he was sexually assaulted by [the partner] the night before,” she says in an interview with The Verge. “I remember being in his little bedroom and he was in the bathroom and he started crying as he said it.”
Feighan didn’t know what to do. When he talked to his father about some of the behavior — omitting the details of the assault — he was told to keep his distance from the partner. But how could he? Oftentimes, when he started to pull back, he’d get a notification on his phone that the partner had Venmoed him random sums of money — at times, upwards of $250.
“I felt broken by the end, completely broken,” Feighan says. He started having panic attacks and suffering from crippling anxiety — symptoms he says he’d never experienced before the job.
Over time, Feighan had begun to mirror the partner’s casual and inappropriate language. He joked with the older man about doing drugs, called him a bitch, and talked shit on the other partners. “They really turned me into someone that I was not,” he says. “That’s been one of the biggest struggles. My demeanor, my attitude toward work and people, and the language I used totally changed.”
For victims of sexual assault, this behavior is hardly unusual. “Victims sometimes cope by focusing on their perpetrator’s loving side and shutting out the abuse, maintaining contact to elicit such affirmative behavior from the abuser,” wrote the Times Up Foundation in 2020. “Often, victims may blame themselves for the encounter and convince themselves — or be convinced by the abuser — that an assault was not what they thought it was.”
Feighan resigned in July 2020, just over a year after he’d started. He knew he’d likely never go back to executive recruiting. When he told the partner he was leaving, the older man at first offered to match the base salary he was getting at his new job. Then he changed his tune and said that Feighan couldn’t stay two weeks — the resignation was going to be effective immediately. “Thank you so much for all your great work, but things have gotten kind of out of control at the firm,” the partner said, according to a recording of the call reviewed by The Verge.
When Feighan started opening up to his queer male friends about what had happened, he was shocked at how many gay men said they’d experienced similar kinds of behavior but hadn’t felt able to report it. Feighan realized that he had an obligation to come forward. He was queer, yes, but also white and well-off. He felt he could handle the fight. He decided to file a lawsuit, naming both the partner and Daversa as defendants.
When the firm received the complaint, it placed the partner on unpaid leave and began to investigate the allegations. Shortly afterward, the partner resigned. He’s now started his own firm, building off of his success at Daversa. “Leveraging his two decades of successfully recruiting top talent around the world, [the partner] is excited to now offer a boutique search experience — taking a hands-on approach from start to finish,” his website reads.
To Feighan, the move is just further proof of why he needed to come forward. “I’m not the first person this has happened to, but hopefully I can be the last,” he says. “Paul Daversa has had 20 years to fix the culture, and nothing’s happened, until now.”
Daversa, for its part, categorically denies that there are widespread issues with the company culture. “Daversa Partners has always had strict policies and procedures designed to ensure a harassment free workplace,” a spokesperson said. “In the very small number of instances in which there were complaints about inappropriate behavior, they were immediately investigated, and if warranted by the facts, appropriate action was taken.”
The company has denied all allegations in the lawsuit as well as any liability with respect to the claims.
The spokesperson also said, “Our firm is committed to providing a workplace that is free of all forms of harassment and has strict policies in place to that effect – we expect everyone at the firm to operate with the same high ethical standards and integrity that we demand of ourselves and that we look for in the c-suite executives, board members and others the firm has recruited for some of the most high-profile and successful businesses in the country.” They called the lawsuit an attempted shakedown with no basis in reality.