Maine entrepreneurism advocate accused of sexual misconduct

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Jess Knox, left, founder of Maine Startup and Create Week, and partner Mike Sobol show off the space for Venture Hall in 2016 before it opened. (Jill Brady/Portland Press Herald)

Two organizations have severed ties with Jess Knox, one of Maine’s most prominent advocates for startups and entrepreneurism, amid allegations that Knox behaved inappropriately toward female associates.

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

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

Additionally, 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 on Tuesday, Stephanie Brock, general manager of Portland-based Red Thread, posted a statement on her Facebook page alleging inappropriate conduct by Knox.

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“I came forward just shy of a week ago to alert the boards and direct supporters of Venture Hall and Maine Startup and 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.”

Knox did not respond Tuesday morning to two requests for comment sent to both his personal and work email addresses. Brock did not immediately return a call to her office.

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,” Venture Hall said in a written statement. “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 organization based in Kansas City, Missouri, that promotes entrepreneurism.

However, the grant has been terminated, according to a Kauffman representative.

“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.

But 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,” said the institute’s director of innovation infrastructure, Martha Bentley, 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 immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

This story will be updated.

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