Two organizations have severed ties with one of Maine’s most prominent advocates for startups and entrepreneurism amid his admission that he behaved inappropriately toward two female associates.

Portland-based business accelerator Venture Hall announced late Monday that it is ceasing operations, citing the resignation of Jess Knox, its co-founder and president. Knox also founded the annual Maine Startup & Create Week event and is president of the business consulting firm Olympico Strategies.

The closure of Venture Hall led to the cancellation of a $475,000 entrepreneurship grant it was awarded this month.

Also, a statewide entrepreneurship initiative led by the Maine Technology Institute announced Monday that it no longer will work with Knox or his consulting firm.

Neither Venture Hall nor MTI cited a reason, but Stephanie Brock, general manager of Portland-based Red Thread, posted a statement on her Facebook page Tuesday alleging inappropriate conduct by Knox.

“I came forward just shy of a week ago to alert the boards and direct supporters of Venture Hall and Maine Startup & Create Week that I had been on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior (repeated, documented innuendo and attempted physical contact) by Jess Knox,” Brock wrote in a post viewable only by Facebook friends. “I did so after hearing that there were other women with similar experiences.”

Brock wrote that while she has been a friend and supporter of Knox and his family over the past few years, she felt compelled to speak out. Red Thread, an office furniture supplier, has been a major sponsor of Maine Startup & Create Week.

“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.”

ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY

Knox responded Tuesday via email to a request for comment, admitting that he engaged in inappropriate behavior toward two female colleagues. He did not name the women.

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

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

“They were right to call out my behavior, and I recognized that I could no longer continue to serve in my role at Venture Hall or Startup & Create Week,” he said. “My behavior has hurt friends, co-workers and my family, and I’m deeply sorry.”

Late Monday, a representative of Venture Hall emailed a statement to the Portland Press Herald about Knox’s departure.

“One of our founding members has resigned for personal reasons,” the statement said. “Venture Hall was largely driven by the spirit and drive of the two founders, but the CEO, Mike Sobol, and the board made the difficult decision to cease operations.”

Knox and Sobol launched Venture Hall in the summer of 2016. This month, the accelerator announced that it had been awarded a $475,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a large nonprofit based in Kansas City, Missouri, that promotes entrepreneurism.

However, the grant has been terminated, a Kauffman representative said.

“Venture Hall was scheduled to receive its grant payment this week,” Kauffman spokeswoman Cori Cagide said in an email. “However, Kauffman canceled that planned payment based on this news.”

Knox also has served as the statewide coordinator for the Maine Accelerates Growth Initiative, launched in September 2015 by the Maine Technology Institute, a publicly funded nonprofit corporation established by the Maine Legislature in 1999.

On Monday, the institute sent an email to its partners informing them that it was severing ties with Knox.

“MTI will no longer be using an external contractor, Olympico Strategies, to support the work,” Martha Bentley, the institute’s director of innovation infrastructure, said in the email. “For now, the work will be managed within MTI’s current staffing structure.”

The email does not explain why MTI terminated its relationship with Knox. Bentley did not respond to an email seeking comment.

#METOO: STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

The revelations about Knox’s misconduct come at a time when women across the country have begun speaking out in large numbers about sexual assault, harassment and other inappropriate behavior perpetrated against them in a variety of industries.

The #MeToo movement, as it has become known, may have helped inspire Knox’s accusers to come forward, said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Maine Women’s Fund, a philanthropic organization that helps support women-oriented nonprofits.

“I think it’s great,” Hannan said about the #MeToo movement. “I think it is helping women to find strength in numbers.”

But she cautioned that not all types of misconduct should be treated the same way, and that employers should take care not to be too overzealous in their punishment of the accused.

” ‘Fire everybody’ isn’t always necessary,” Hannan said.

Executive leadership and human resources managers have a responsibility to ensure they aren’t perpetuating a work environment that is conducive to sexual harassment, she said, noting that in Maine, an organization in which employee misconduct occurs can be held liable if leadership knew – or should have known – what was happening.

Hannan said she wasn’t aware of Knox’s misconduct until the Press Herald contacted her for this story.

“He was a panelist at an event we held,” she said. “It feels kind of ooky, too, now that this has happened.”

Venture Hall issued a follow-up statement after the Press Herald asked for more details about what the organization’s board of directors did to reprimand Knox following the 2017 incident he described, in which he admitted to sending an associate inappropriate text messages.

“Jess Knox has made public statements about the circumstances of his recent departure. 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,” the statement said. “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.”

‘DEEPLY TROUBLED BY THE NEWS’

Alex Steed, a Portland-based entrepreneur who said Knox had been a friend and mentor to him, posted on his Facebook page that he is now aware of a half-dozen women who say Knox behaved inappropriately toward them. Steed said the women described having to develop “a buddy system protocol in order to feel comfortable being alone with him.”

“I remain curious to know how many accusations his Venture Hall board and organizational personnel heard before it decided to act, and if the decision to fold comes in the stead of an acceptance of responsibility/accountability or if it is the first stage of doing so,” said Steed, partner at production studio Knack Factory. “I hope and trust they will be forthcoming with this information as this unfolds.”

Katie Shorey, organizer and fundraising chair for Maine Startup & Create Week, said the revelations about Knox have created uncertainty about the event’s future.

“We are deeply troubled by the news,” she said. “We are meeting within the week to have an all-hands discussion about what to do.”

Shorey said Knox played a key role as the face of the annual event, but that he was not the only one who worked to make it happen.

“There is an amazing group of people who are committed to this event,” she said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jcraiganderson

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