February 20, 2018
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Maine startup adviser admits ‘inappropriate behavior’ toward women

Maine Women's Network | BDN
Maine Women's Network | BDN
Jess Knox, president of Venture Hall, a Portland-based nonprofit company focused on growing new businesses, admitted Tuesday to inappropriate conduct toward two female colleagues.
By Lori Valigra
Updated:

The co-founder of a prominent Portland nonprofit that helped startup companies grow acknowledged Tuesday that he behaved inappropriately toward at least two female colleagues.

Jess Knox of Venture Hall, which announced Monday that it had ceased operations after one of its founding members resigned for “personal reasons,” wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News that the women were right to call out his behavior.

“Two women that I am aware of have stepped forward and accused me of inappropriate behavior. They are correct. I put them both in uncomfortable situations that I deeply regret,” he wrote.

“About a year ago, I exchanged inappropriate text messages with a colleague at Venture Hall and was reprimanded at the time. On another occasion, I also made a colleague uncomfortable during a business trip. None of this should have happened, and none of this type of behavior should ever happen.”

Knox wrote that he recognized he could no longer continue to serve in his role at Venture Hall, where he served on the board, or as a volunteer with Maine Startup and Create Week, an annual meeting of the entrepreneurial community that he founded. He said he resigned from both positions last week.

His contract with the Maine Technology Institute and Maine Accelerates Growth also was not renewed, Knox wrote.

“My behavior has hurt friends, co-workers and my family, and I’m deeply sorry,​” he wrote.

Earlier Tuesday, a woman he worked with accused him of “repeated, documented innuendo and attempted physical contact,” saying other women may have had similar experiences.

“It’s a consistent pattern of behavior with him,” Stephanie Brock, general manager of Red Thread, a Portland company that helps create office space, told the Bangor Daily News in an interview.

Brock said she met Knox while her company served as the registration site for Maine Startup and Create Week.

“I’ve been in corporate America more than 20 years and stuff like this happens repeatedly, from off-hand comments to solicitation. You become numb to it,” she said. “What prompted me to step out [this time] is I heard it was happening to other women.”

Brock said she emailed the Venture Hall board members with her complaint a week ago.

“They acted very swiftly,” she said.

The board of Venture Hall released a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“Given that the events in question raise important issues of privacy and fairness for all those involved, Venture Hall is not going to comment on facts relating to the allegations.

“What we will say is that the Venture Hall Board is unanimous that the behavior brought to its attention raised serious concerns and that there is no place in our organization for unhealthy or uninvited behavior that disrespects women.”

Brock is the only woman so far to speak publicly about Knox’s behavior.

On Tuesday morning, she published comments about Knox in a private Facebook post that she gave the Bangor Daily News permission to quote.

Brock said she struggled with making the Facebook statement, because she has been a friend and supporter of Knox, his family and his projects for the past three years.

“The fact remains that I am one of several women that have had to maneuver and manage our way through our relationship with Jess because of the position he’s taken in Maine’s small business ecosystem. This pattern of behavior needed to be addressed regardless of the reasons, flaws or even successes. This is simply not tolerable, not acceptable and can’t be what we envision for the leadership of our community,” she wrote in the post.

Alex Steed, a partner at Knack Factory, a Portland-based content production company who knows Knox well, told the Bangor Daily News Tuesday morning that, “Women are coming out about his behavior who work in Venture Hall and who volunteered at Maine Startup and Create Week about ‘MeToo-style’ [sexual harassment] behavior.”

In a public Facebook post early Tuesday afternoon, Steed said Knox has been a friend and mentor, but decried his behavior.

“When a member of the community — a friend and woman who has long supported his work — reached out to say she needed to tell me about how his behavior had affected her and was creating a toxic environment within the ‘ecosystem’ that he purportedly holds so dear, I immediately believed her,” he wrote about Brock. “There are women who say [they] need a buddy system protocol in order to feel comfortable being alone with him.”

He continued, “And this isn’t about one person; this is about a much larger trend that needs to be untangled, examined and discussed.”

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