- A former female employee of high-flying startup Ripcord said she was fired after reporting harassment and a toxic environment at the company.
- The former employee charged that Ripcord CEO discussed pornography in front of her and made a lewd comment about her.
- Ripcord said it is investigating the allegations.
Last August, 19-year-old Perry Coneybeer faced a tough choice – go back to Northeastern University for her sophomore year or accept a full-time job with Ripcord, the San Francisco Bay Area startup where she had just completed a summer internship.
Though concerned about leaving school, she decided to take the job, thrilled about the opportunity to work with a high-flying robotics company and earn some cash for college to boot. But her excitement soon turned to disillusionment, because instead of being a great place to work, she felt subjected to a hostile workplace culture that she said embraced lewd behaviour, and, at the extreme, graphically sexual conversations about pornography and prostitution.
And after she officially complained about the culture, she was fired – along with the Ripcord cofounder who had stood up for her.
“In spite of my initial excitement, my experiences [at Ripcord] left me severely discouraged,” Coneybeer said in a blog post she wrote about her time at the company. “The objectification, marginalization, and outright harassment I observed and experienced in my eight months there have made me realise that this is a story that needs to be shared.”
In a statement Ripcord said its board of directors is investigating the allegations and is “committed to taking appropriate action, if any, based on the results of the review.”
“Ripcord cares deeply about fostering a positive workplace culture. Respect and integrity are absolutely integral to our ability to succeed,” the company said in the statement.
Coneybeer’s story comes amid a larger conversation about workplace culture in Silicon Valley and corporate America in general. Last year, a memo written by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler alleged sexual harassment and a hostile working culture at the $US68 billion startup. Fowler’s memo not only led to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s resignation, it helped spark a movement that has exposed sexism and sexual harassment within the tech industry and elsewhere.
What makes Coneybeer’s charges – the latest in a long line against tech companies – particularly notable is that Ripcord is a high-profile startup with big-name backers.
Founded in 2015 as a spinoff from NASA and recently named by Business Insider as one of the “51 enterprise startups to bet your career on in 2018,” the 80-person company builds robots designed to help companies digitize their paper records. It’s led by Alex Fielding – an ex-Apple engineer who was personally mentored by Steve Wozniak, Apple’s cofounder.
Last year, Ripcord raised $US85 million in four separate funding events from investors including Kleiner Perkins, Lenovo-affiliated firm Legend Star, Telstra Ventures, and GV (formerly Google Ventures). At the time of the GV-led investment in December, Ripcord was valued at about $US250 million, Business Insider has learned.
Coneybeer told Business Insider she declined to sign the nondisparagement agreement offered to her as a condition of severance. Although she said she was approached by a lawyer about possible legal action against Ripcord, she decided against it.
“For me, the ability to speak out and not be silenced is more important than the money I would get from legal action,” Coneybeer said. Business Insider has corroborated Coneybeer’s story wherever possible with people close to Ripcord’s operations.
Things went wrong very quickly, Coneybeer said
The first real problem came right at the end of her internship, Coneybeer said. She and another intern, who had also been offered a full-time position at the company, had questions about their respective job offers. So they went through the office in search of their boss, Kim Lembo, she said. Lembo, Ripcord’s cofounder and its vice president of marketing at the time, was a longtime family friend of Coneybeer and had helped her get the internship at the company.
They found Lembo in an open-door meeting with Fielding, the CEO, and Chris Chib, Ripcord’s vice president of sales, she said. Fielding invited the then-interns into the meeting to chat. After only a few minutes, Lembo excused herself to take a phone call and attend to some urgent business, shutting the door behind her.
Right after that, Fielding began to make peculiar, sexually-charged boasts, Coneybeer said. Fielding told the interns a Ripcord employee had sent him a pornographic video during a meeting with financial auditors, she said. He said he watched the entire video with the sound on mute while still in the meeting, she said.
Fielding then told another lewd story about the same employee, Coneybeer said. When that employee was at a previous company, he took a group of engineers to Las Vegas for a weekend trip, Fielding told the interns, according to Coneybeer. During that trip, two of the engineers who went shared a prostitute in an awkward incident that “ruined the company culture,” Fielding said, according to Coneybeer.
The interns’ meeting with Fielding and Chib lasted about two hours. Business Insider confirmed Coneybeer’s account with two other sources who were familiar with what happened at the meeting.
Coneybeer was shocked at what was discussed in the meeting, but it didn’t occur to her to speak up.
“As a 19-year-old intern, I thought it would be seen as out of line,” she said.
It’s possible Fielding made up the stories, Coneybeer said. But they made her uncomfortable nonetheless.
“It’s either a weird thing to make up, or a weird thing to actually do,” she said.
Fielding did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent via direct messages over Twitter and LinkedIn.
Things got worse after she decided to stay at the company, she said
Coneybeer reported the incident to Lembo, who apologised to Coneybeer for what she experienced. Lembo said the company was in the process of building its human-resources department to deal with similar situations, according to Coneybeer. Relieved, Coneybeer decided to accept the company’s offer of a full-time job, as did the other intern who attended the meeting.
But Coneybeer’s relief soon gave way to disenchantment, because the company seemed to encourage behaviour similar to Fielding’s, she said. Employees frequently made sexual comments and inappropriate jokes in their workplace conversations, she said. The company’s senior management was responsible for “creating this culture,” she said.
At one point, Coneybeer overheard Fielding talking with several employees about one of their colleague’s sexual proclivities, she wrote in her blog post. When they noticed Coneybeer walking by, Fielding shouted, “and you, too, Perry. That shit you’re into is weird,” according to the blog post.
Fielding is known at Ripcord for being an intimidating figure. He has an actual bazooka prominently displayed next to his desk and his nephew worked as a security guard at Ripcord, carrying a gun around the office, according to former employees. And recreations of street artist Banksy’s murals of a panda holding two guns and of the Mona Lisa with a bazooka decorate the company’s executive offices, Coneybeer said.
Another trademark of Fielding, according to former employees, is parking his Hummer and Ferrari on the floor of Ripcord’s warehouse office space. The Ferrari sports a vanity licence plate, according to those former employees: “Ripcord.”
When one of Ripcord’s only female engineers complained about its culture, management essentially “ostracized” her by not inviting her to critical product meetings, Coneybeer said in her post. The company placed the female engineer on an insignificant side project and ultimately fired her, according to the post. Another male employee who complained about the culture was also fired, Coneybeer said in her post.
The male employee declined to comment and the female engineer did not respond to a request for comment. But a person familiar with Ripcord’s personnel moves confirmed Coneybeer’s account of what happened to the female engineer and the male employee. And Business Insider has confirmed that the two employees are no longer with Ripcord.
For Coneybeer, the last straw came when she brought her boyfriend as a guest to Ripcord’s holiday party in December. One of her colleagues at the company whom she barely knew approached and asked Coneybeer’s boyfriend if she was his “booty call,” she said in her blog post. Her boyfriend responded that Coneybeer was his girlfriend. But that didn’t stop the employee.
“When you take her home after this party, remember: ‘stop’ means ‘go deeper,” the employee said, Coneybeer wrote in her blog post. The employee added: “‘Stop’ means ‘go deeper,’ and ‘no’ never means ‘no.’ I mean it, man.”
On the Monday after the party, Coneybeer felt uncomfortable around that employee, even feeling the need to apologise to him. She soon had a change of mind, though.
“Why should I be the one to feel uncomfortable?” she said.
The pivotal moment – and getting fired
This incident left Coneybeer with a dilemma. She wanted to come forward and speak out about her experiences and the company’s culture but was concerned that doing so could derail her career. She was concerned that Ripcord’s management would retaliate against her, whether by excluding her from meetings, blocking her from promotions, or even firing her.
“I thought there could be other repercussions,” Coneybeer said.
Ultimately, she told her boss – which other sources identified as Lembo – about the holiday party and her broader concerns. She was gratified Lembo took her concerns seriously.
Lembo took the matter to Ripcord’s recently created human resources department and to its executive team. The company soon fired the employee who accosted her boyfriend at the holiday party, Coneybeer said. And she went into the Christmas holiday feeling positive about the situation.
“I really thought my voice had been heard,” Coneybeer said.
When she came back to work in January, however, she was called into a meeting with an executive – which Business Insider has identified as Fielding – along with Lembo and her fellow former intern who had sat with her in the awkward meeting with Fielding back in August. She wasn’t sure what to expect.
Fielding fired the three of them on the spot, catching Coneybeer completely by surprise. He praised their individual performances in their roles, but told them Ripcord had decided to go in a different direction, citing a “reorganization in sales and marketing,” Coneybeer said.
Business Insider has confirmed that both Lembo and the former intern are no longer employed by Ripcord.
To Coneybeer, Fielding’s explanation didn’t make sense. None of the three people he fired worked in sales and Coneybeer didn’t know of anyone else in Ripcord’s sales and marketing department that was laid off at the same time. Coneybeer believes she and Lembo were fired for speaking up and the other former intern was fired to cover up that motive.
Because Coneybeer didn’t sign any kind of separation agreement, she’s free to tell her story. Now unemployed, and unable to return to her university studies until the fall, she’s searching for a new job in tech – ideally, somewhere with a female CEO. It’s not that she wouldn’t work at a male-led company; she just wants to minimise the chances of working somewhere with a culture like that of Ripcord, she said.
“I do think there are good male founders out there,” Coneybeer said.
And if telling her story means that some tech companies won’t want to hire her, well, “I think it’s a big loss for tech,” she said.