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Stackery CEO Nate Taggart pitches at Techstars Seattle Demo Night in 2017. (GeekWire File Photo)

As most people in Portland were getting ready for New Year’s Eve in late 2017, PDX Women in Tech was scrambling to decline a $500 sponsorship from a local startup.

It was one of the Pacific Northwest’s rising tech companies, Portland-based Stackery Inc., a Techstars Seattle graduate led by co-founder and CEO Nate Taggart. Founded in 2016, Stackery has raised more than $7 million to build a platform for serverless computing applications, targeting one of the hottest areas of cloud technology. Stackery’s sponsorship was far from the largest contribution ever promised to PDX Women in Tech, but it had been enough to prompt Megan Bigelow, the group’s president, to let others in the organization know.

That’s when she learned about a series of tweets that had been posted that month by then-Portland-based engineering manager Kate Taggart, the Stackery CEO’s ex-spouse, alleging a pattern of psychological abuse and intimidation by Nate Taggart, without mentioning him by name.

Ultimately, the group turned down the sponsorship.

But the allegations — reiterated by Kate Taggart and disputed by Nate Taggart in separate interviews — have resulted in a rift between the community organization and the tech startup that persists to this day, preventing Stackery from engaging as a company with one of the groups at the center of the Portland tech community’s quest for diversity and inclusion.

Following inquiries from GeekWire, Stackery said its board worked with law firm Davis Wright Tremaine to retain a third-party firm, MFR Law Group, to audit the company’s workplace and culture. The preliminary findings do not reference the allegations against Nate Taggart by his former spouse, and there is no sign that the audit specifically explored this issue. The firm says it found “no indication of inappropriate communication or conduct, including discrimination or harassment, by management or others” in general at the company.

But the dilemma faced by PDX Women in Tech illustrates the pressures that community organizations can face when trying to raise small amounts of money in an industry awash in venture capital. And the company’s efforts to bridge its divide with PDX Women in Tech show the growing importance of diversity and inclusion, not just as a corporate value but also as a marketing and recruiting strategy for technology startups, especially in progressive communities such as Portland.

The result is a case study in the gray areas of the larger #MeToo movement, as institutions large and small grapple with allegations against men in positions of power, often without the ability to rely on formal charges or investigations to inform their decisions.

“This was the first time as an organization we were presented with something like this,” said Bigelow, the PDX Women in Tech president, in an interview. “This was new on so many levels, and I think it was new for our society to be tackling this.”

Brief courtship, tumultuous marriage

Nate and Kate met in 2014, when they both worked for downtown Portland tech stalwart New Relic. They didn’t work closely together at New Relic, but they reconnected later on Twitter as two Portland-area geeks into technology and music.

After dating for a matter of weeks, they married on Oct. 10, 2016.

According to Kate and people who knew the couple during their marriage, the situation deteriorated quickly, as disagreements over issues such as where to put the mail blew up into heated disputes during which Kate felt bullied and intimidated by Nate’s anger.

“It’s not like we got married and found out we weren’t compatible; we got married and he immediately turned into someone else who was extremely abusive and controlling,” said Kate, who prefers “they/them” pronouns, in an interview with GeekWire.

Kate referenced some of these alleged incidents of abuse in a series of 18 tweets on the evening of Dec. 14, 2017, thanking friends for their help in a year Kate described as “fucking brutal” but also “filled with love.” Although they didn’t reference Nate by name, Kate’s tweets provided a timeframe and details that made it clear to people who knew them.

In one of the tweets, for example, Kate described going for a walk “in the middle of a seemingly uncontrolled rage from my partner,” saying that he retaliated by throwing “all my stuff into boxes and outside,” and then texted Kate, “your shit is on the porch, come get it.”

Kate alleged in another tweet that Nate had pulled out a loaded handgun over incidents “as innocuous as a time I went to our front door to break up a random late-night scuffle between strangers.” In another tweet, Kate said he had threatened “to decapitate me over how long we should spend on a particular grocery store trip.”

In an interview with GeekWire, Nate acknowledged that his brief marriage to Kate was difficult and that there were many situations he wishes he had handled better. Addressing the allegations overall, he said, “They are not accurate as a whole. They are broadly mischaracterized. Some of them are frankly unrecognizable to me.”

He said, “One thing I want to make clear is none of this is really designed to defend the fact that Kate and I had a lousy relationship. We had a bad marriage. We had a rough breakup. Plenty of times throughout it, I was a jerk. I was not a good husband to Kate.”

However, he added, “I categorically and emphatically deny any allegation of abuse.”

No police reports were ever filed during their marriage, both Nate and Kate confirmed.

When first contacted by GeekWire in the summer of 2018, Kate was originally hesitant to discuss the situation, but agreed to talk because of frustration over the credit Stackery was receiving for its diversity and inclusion message in the tech community. In multiple interviews, Kate stood by the statements in the tweets, and recounted additional incidents.

Some of the allegations revolve around claims that Nate kicked Kate out of the house repeatedly after arguments. This was corroborated by emails and texts between the couple, and by friends who gave Kate a place to stay for the night or a few days after those incidents.

“These were never two-way disagreements,” Kate said. “These were always Nate being extremely belligerent and me just trying to de-escalate.”

Following one of the first such incidents, according to Kate and several friends, Nate packed up all of Kate’s possessions and left them on the front stoop of their shared townhouse in North Portland late at night. Kate had little choice but to scramble to retrieve everything to make sure the belongings didn’t disappear overnight, and following subsequent expulsions Nate would often threaten to do the same thing, forcing Kate to call his bluff.

“I never kicked Kate out,” Nate said. “I asked Kate to leave, and Kate left.”

Five people who knew the couple said Nate would inundate Kate’s phone with texts when they were apart, demanding to know where Kate was and who they were with, threatening divorce if the replies were tardy. He made oblique references to violence, and on multiple occasions took advantage of Kate’s phobias to trigger specific reactions during disputes, Kate said.

(Photo courtesy Kate Taggart)

“Part of the reason why I liked Nate was because he’s a very effective salesperson and it’s fun to watch him go,” Kate said in an interview. “But then I saw all of the ways in which he doesn’t care about playing a fair game, he will manipulate people no-holds-barred just to get what he wants.”

Nate said Kate has “a very, very large number” of phobias. He said he “stumbled over all of them, one at a time, unintentionally, and each one was a massive verbal argument.”

He added, “Sometimes, that would last for days, and it was exhausting, frankly. It was frustrating, because it didn’t match my intention, and I think it was also understandable. We hadn’t built a history of trust together. We didn’t get to know each other.”

According to Kate, during one of their arguments, as Kate was cooking a special vegetable broth soup intended to alleviate stress-related stomach problems, Nate calmly poured the soup down the drain, after declaring amidst Kate’s pleas to be left alone, “I can make you listen to me.”

Nate described this as “not factual,” but declined to elaborate.

Regarding the tweet about the loaded handgun, Nate confirmed that he owns a gun but said, “I’ve never used it in any way that was violent or threatening to anybody. I mean, frankly, it’s in a locked box unloaded in a cabinet, and that’s where it’s been for several years.”

Nate provided GeekWire with a copy of text messages with Kate from June 2017, during the final weeks of their marriage, in which he questioned Kate’s characterization of his actions as abusive and controlling. Kate responded, in part, “I am no longer standing by the statement of ‘you do controlling, abusive things.’ I think you need to learn to be kind more consistently, and patient. And we both need to work on trusting each other more. But I’m not going to demonize you for mistakes you might make along the way anymore.”

Kate did not recall sending that exact text, but didn’t dispute the characterization of it, saying that toward the end of the relationship their primary mindset was, “I just want him off my back right now.”

Nate referred GeekWire to a variety of people who know him, including his current girlfriend, who vouched for his character and the veracity of his statements.

Jim and Vanessa Cahill, Nate’s friends from prior to his marriage to Kate, acknowledged that they were aware of strains on Kate and Nate’s relationship during the marriage, and said that they hosted Kate several times at their nearby home after disagreements resulted in Kate leaving the house. However, they said they didn’t see any signs that Kate was fearful of Nate.

“To me, it was two very smart, strong people who were having to work through some things,” Jim Cahill said.

Stackery’s rise and growth

During their marriage, Nate spent a significant amount of his time in Seattle in the Techstars program, returning to Portland on a regular basis while refining the ideas that would become Stackery.

Stackery’s offices in Downtown Portland. (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

Stackery builds tools for developers working on applications built on top of serverless computing services, a growing practice that allows software developers to create applications without knowing anything about the complexity of the underlying hardware that runs those applications. This concept is widely considered an important part of the future of software development, and last year at re:Invent 2018, Stackery struck a partnership agreement with cloud industry giant Amazon Web Services around tools for serverless users.

Stackery graduated from TechStars in April 2017, having already landed a $1.75 million seed funding round from Voyager Capital to get the company off the ground. Stackery would go on to raise a $5.5 million round led by HWVP in early 2018, and Stackery co-founder and chief technology officer Chase Douglas presented at the 2018 GeekWire Cloud Tech Summit.

The company issued this statement in response to GeekWire’s inquiries about the allegations against the CEO.

While we remain disappointed in PDXWiT’s decision and process, our founders and board members take any allegation of abuse or harassment seriously. Despite a belief the accusations leveled against our founder are in no way reflected in the culture of the company or his behavior, we recently engaged a third party to conduct a culture audit of our workplace. This audit did not identify any reflection of the behavior alluded to in the accusations. Furthermore, the audit validated the investments Stackery has made in holding diversity and inclusion as a founding value. Our recent internal audit along with our hiring record, advancement, and alternative community investments reflect an ongoing commitment to providing a safe, inclusive, and open workplace at every level.

“We believe and trust that Nate is doing a good job running the company,” said Steve Kishi of HWVP, lead investor in that last funding round and member of the company’s board of directors, adding that he was unified in that view with Voyager’s Diane Fraiman, another board member.

Of the 18 people who work at Stackery, eight are women, and there is diversity across the company in race, age, gender identity and sexual orientation, Nate Taggart said. “We did that clearly without being members of PDX Women in Tech. I think the results are telling.”

Kate said these types of feminist ally comments by Nate carried a lot of weight early in their relationship. One of the reasons Kate had felt comfortable getting married to Nate so quickly was because “he already seemed like a trusted figure to me based on all of the talking about feminism that he does,” Kate said.

‘A duty to the community’

Nate and Kate separated for good in May of 2017, and filed for divorce in July. Their divorce became official in September 2017, less than a year after they were married.

Several months after the end of the relationship, with time to reflect, Kate posted the series of tweets containing the allegations in mid-December. The tweets made their way through the close-knit Portland community of engineers who identify as women or non-binary, as Kate does.

Stackery continued to look for new engineers with its initial funding round. One desired partner was PDX Women in Tech, where the company wanted to place job ads and recruit from within the community. After reaching out to Stackery, Bigelow reached an agreement with Nate and the company on a standard sponsorship deal at the organization’s bronze level, a $500-a-year commitment to place Stackery’s logo on its website. The deal was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2018, and as she usually did, Bigelow announced on the PDX Women in Tech Slack channel that a new sponsor was coming on board.

Megan Bigelow, board president and founder, PDX Women in Tech (PDX Women in Tech Photo)

Shortly thereafter, Bigelow said, a community member alerted her to Kate Taggart’s tweets, urging her to think twice about accepting a sponsorship from a company led by someone facing such allegations, especially given the group’s mission of boosting the inclusion of women and non-binary individuals in technology leadership and entrepreneurial circles.

She reviewed the thread in question as well as several other tweets posted on Kate’s timeline, and quickly realized that she had a problem.

“It was scary, in the sense that I want to do the right thing. I have a duty to the community, a fiduciary duty to the organization, and I care about people who report such things,” Bigelow said.

After hearing from a different person the next day, she spent that New Year’s Eve weekend that year discussing the situation with the PDX Women in Tech board of directors, ultimately deciding to cancel the contract before it took effect as to avoid the awkward process of having to return the money.

In an email to Nate at the time, Bigelow wrote, “We appreciate your offer of help, but would like to decline at this time.”

Nate expressed confusion about the decision and asked for more context, according to emails between the two, but on the advice of board members and an attorney, Bigelow did not further explain the decision to him.

Bigelow told GeekWire that the growing #MeToo movement guided the board’s decision-making process, after a series of reports about sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of powerful men rocked the entertainment, business, and technology communities in late 2017.

“At least the way I was interpreting what was going on, there was a radical shift in believing people,” she said. “It was, ‘believe people when they report these things.’ ”

Bigelow added, “As the president of PDX Women in Tech, I’m here to make decisions about what’s in the best interest of our community, and we take that extremely seriously. We post all of our sponsor logos on our website, and there is an implicit endorsement of those companies, which is also an implicit endorsement of their leadership.”

The PDX Women in Tech organization gathers for a recent happy hour. (PDX Women in Tech Photo)

In March 2018, after Stackery received its latest round of funding, hiring managers for the company tried to post job ads on the group’s message boards that were rejected by PDX Women in Tech moderators. After that, Sam Goldstein, vice president of product and engineering at Stackery, requested a coffee meeting with Bigelow to clear the air.

They met in late March. It was a professional and friendly encounter, according to Bigelow, but tense given the circumstances. Unprompted, Goldstein brought up Kate’s tweets, asking if that was the basis for the group’s decision and vouching for Nate, but Bigelow told him she wasn’t interested in litigating Nate’s character, she said in an interview.

Nate said Goldstein had followed up with Bigelow independently, initially unaware of the previous rejection, and ultimately decided to respectfully drop the issue, as Nate had.

Stackery then attempted to post job ads more times, with the last attempt in August 2018 met by a response from PDX Women in Tech that there hadn’t been an adequate resolution to the situation.

“We know that we’re a tiny non-profit and we really need money and help and support, but the principle of not working with someone who has been accused of something like this was far more important to us than the money,” said Maureen Jemison, board vice president of PDX Women in Tech.

Stackery also embarked on a content-marketing push around diversity and inclusion last year, seeking to position the company and its diverse 18-person workforce as a model of modern thinking around one of the biggest problems in the tech industry. The company has referenced PDX Women in Tech in those postings without alluding to the group’s decision to turn down the company’s sponsorship over the alleged actions of the Stackery CEO.

“PDX Women in Tech has every right to decide who their membership is, but that has not changed our decision to be invested in (diversity and inclusion) as a company value and as an important goal for how we build our organization,” Nate said.

PDX Women in Tech now has a due diligence policy for incoming sponsors that involves a social media review and other procedures before sponsors are accepted, Bigelow said. Since that went into place earlier this year, the group has uncovered some issues with current or prospective sponsors that prompted questions, but that were adequately resolved, she said.

“None the things that we have found in any of those diligence processes has been as egregious as this,” she said, referencing the allegations against the Stackery CEO. If they did find something egregious with another company, she said, “we wouldn’t even ask for a resolution, we would say, ‘This is not a partnership that we feel aligns with our PDX Women in Tech mission.’”

In an email to GeekWire, Bigelow laid out how PDX Women in Tech would consider working with Stackery in the future. “Before we could work with any company that has such allegations levied against them, we’d want to be able to know that 1) the alleged abuse would not happen to anyone else and 2) it is clear to other would-be abusers that their actions have consequences.”

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