Venture Hall, the Portland-based nonprofit that supported Maine entrepreneurs and ran a summer startup accelerator program, has ceased operations after one of its co-founders resigned after facing allegations of sexual misconduct.
The Bangor Daily News broke the story Monday evening that Venture Hall had ceased operations after reporter Lori Valigra spotted a notice on the organization’s website announcing the decision. The organization’s website was subsequently taken down and there was no further explanation given until Tuesday morning.
Venture Hall on Tuesday morning issued a formal statement announcing that its board had decided to dissolve the organization after one of its “founding members” had “resigned for personal reasons.”
“We are confident that our ecosystem is deep and robust enough that another organization will emerge to continue this important work with a clear vision and a new brand,” the statement said.
The founding member who resigned, though he was not named in the statement, was Jess Knox, who with Mike Sobol had founded Venture Hall in 2016. Knox is also one of the founders of Maine Startup and Create Week and was statewide coordinator of Maine Accelerates Growth, a statewide program aimed at spurring entrepreneurial activity. Knox also resigned from the MSCW board and the Maine Technology Institute, which managed the Maine Accelerates Growth program, announced on Monday that it was cutting ties with Knox.
Venture Hall’s statement did not provide any further explanation for Knox’s resignation, nor for why his resignation led the board to dissolve the entire organization, which only a few weeks before had announced that it was receiving a $475,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to foster more dialogue in Augusta about the need to create innovation-friendly policies in the state. As a result of the Venture Hall board’s decision, a representative of the Kauffman foundation told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday that it had cancelled the grant.
Knox’s reasons for resigning were revealed later that day after Stephanie Brock, general manager at Red Thread in Portland and a volunteer organizer of Maine Startup and Create Week, shared in a Facebook post that the week before she had approached the boards of Venture Hall and Maine Startup and Create Week to alert them that she “had been on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior (repeated, documented innuendo and attempted physical contact) by Jess Knox.”
She said she struggled with making the public statement because she had been a friend of Knox’s and supporter of his project for the past several 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,” she wrote. “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.”
Brock subsequently spoke to the Bangor Daily News.
“It’s a consistent pattern of behavior with him,” Brock told the BDN. “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.”
Brock told the BDN that what prompted her to speak publicly about Knox’s inappropriate behavior was that she had heard other women had the same experiences.
Tuesday afternoon, after Brock published her Facebook post, Knox sent a statement to the BDN and the Press Herald in which he admitted to the inappropriate behavior and offered an apology.
“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,” wrote Knox, according to both news outlets. “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.”
Though Knox references two women, Brock is, so far, the only woman to publicly speak about Knox’s behavior.
“My behavior has hurt friends, co-workers and my family, and I’m deeply sorry,” Knox wrote, according to the news outlets.
Katie Shorey, fundraising chair for Maine Startup and Create Week, told the Press Herald that she and the MSCW board were “deeply troubled” by the news, but she expressed confidence that his departure would not impact the event.
“There is an amazing group of people who are committed to this event,” she said.