Inside Risevest's sexual impropriety storm
Scrutiny at wealth tech startup leaves more questions than answers
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A few weeks ago, one of the most prominent wealth tech startups in Nigeria, RiseVest a.k.a Rise, announced an investigation into the company’s founder and CEO, Eke Urum. The independent panel set up by the company was looking into an anonymous report that centred on three claims. Those claims border workplace bullying and sexually inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
Two current employees and two ex-employees at Rise who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals described a workplace where it was commonplace to get yelled at. They also spoke extensively about persistent rumours at the company of sexually inappropriate behaviour—-all the sources who spoke to me for this story say they did not experience this first-hand.
TechCabal reported on Thursday that the panel submitted its findings. An excerpt of the panel report reads, “The evidence presented to the panel could not prove sexual assault by Eke Urum. However, the evidence presented to the panel including admitted sexual relations with an employee and unwanted, inappropriate jokes and conversations revealed sexual impropriety. It also showed a pattern of abuse of power, intimidation, retaliation and workplace bullying by him.”
While Eke took to social media to contest TechCabal’s reporting with a statement, he admits that on the allegation of bullying, he could have been “kinder in his approach to issues,” and accepted that “he had not always acted in line with the core values of the company.”
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A culture of bullying
Eke’s statement, devoid of specifics, makes it unclear what constitutes an unkind approach to issues. One current employee told me, “There’s no other way to put it, Eke was a bully. Threats of getting fired were common and there were other things like using expletives and messages that talked down on you whether in person or on Slack.”
Another current employee told me, “Eke is the kind of guy to shout at you and tell you to shut up at work. He’s also used to saying things like, I can fire you, or I will fire you because of trivial things. I’ve seen him say he’s going to fire people because they were a few minutes late to work on Slack.” Two other former employees confirmed this version of events.
Claims that Eke created an unhealthy work environment at Rise are not new; in February 2021, a former marketing lead at the startup said she was forced out after a difficult couple of months. The former employee said in a blog post that she was asked to resign if she couldn’t work from the office daily despite a contract allowing her to work remotely. Eke initially called the blogpost “blatant half-truths,” before turning around later to admit that he had made a “terrible call.”
Eke spoke to me on Thursday and flatly denied the new claims of bullying. “I don't think I'm a bully. I'm sure the people who say I am have credible reasons for saying so. I can admit I can be demanding, but I don't agree that I'm a bully. I make general statements like ‘if you can't meet performance expectations we'll ask you to leave or ‘if you aren't performing at the top level you don't belong here.’ And I make [these comments] to the whole team, not specific individuals.”
Another point of contention is the allegation of sexual impropriety. At the centre of this is a romantic relationship that reportedly developed within the workplace.
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An inside affair?
The Panel said it received evidence “including admitting sexual relations with an employee, and unwanted, inappropriate jokes and conversations revealed sexual impropriety.” Eke, in his own statement, denied having sexual relations with any employees. “I want to reiterate that I never had any sexual relations with an employee and I did not sexually assault or harass anyone.”
Despite Eke’s rebuttal, current and former Rise staff say that Eke was involved in a romantic relationship with a member of staff who worked on the customer success team. Several people with knowledge of the matter say that the relationship began and continued while she was a member of staff until she resigned.
One source told me that the romantic relationship was in breach of the company’s policy on dating and relationships. “There’s always been this policy, at least since I joined that states that you can’t date anyone you’re supervising. As the CEO, he leads the entire team so my understanding was that he’s not supposed to be romantically involved with members of staff.”
Eke insists that the romantic relationship in question did not become formal until the employee–with whom he still has a relationship–left the company. In his version of events, once it was clear that he wanted to pursue the relationship, he insisted on the employee’s resignation, a position he says can be verified. He admits that despite her resignation, the employee remained close to the company, and he says this could have contributed to the notion that she stayed on at the company.
Several sources who had knowledge of the situation dispute Eke’s version of events. Instead, they paint a picture of a CEO that did not disclose the relationship until rumours began at the office. They also claim that after it was recommended that the employee should leave the company, he only grudgingly accepted.
Another element of the sexual impropriety allegation centres on a comment made by Eke to a C-suite-level staff. The incident, according to one source, happened when Eke travelled for a sales conference with the staff. The plan was to stay at a hotel for the duration of the conference and at the hotel check-in, the receptionist asked if Eke and his colleague were getting separate rooms. Eke tells me that he then made a joke that they should get the same room, but different beds, and that his colleague, who’s a woman, should be given a “kiddy bed.” He insists his comments were made in jest and that the colleague in question laughed at the joke at the time.
One current employee told me, “While Eke said it was a harmless joke that she found funny at the time, the person in question said there was never a time she found it funny.” The C-suite staff at the heart of the allegation did not respond to a request for comments at the time of this report. Without her comments, Eke’s comments imply that the person who made the allegation was motivated to do so and at some point in our conversation, he used the word vendetta.
Despite all of the media attention, one source tells me that the mood at Rise remains upbeat. “Everybody at work is moving on as usual, nothing major–we’ve been at this since August. So I think people are learning to move on without him.”
What I’ve been reading
Fu’ad does a brilliant job in this story of a missing penis–yep, you read that right
The true genius of tech leaders is one of those stories that will get shared a million times even though you suspect that there are some holes in the author’s analysis
There are a lot of stats that show that masculinity is having a crisis, but this opinion article makes the argument very well
Amazon’s studio head breaks down the $700m million gamble on the TV show, “Rings of Power”
This brilliant analysis of SoftBank’s Vision 2 Fund and Masayoshi Son
If you can make it past the paywall, this interesting newsletter about Elon Musk’s Twitter-buying shenanigans
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