Male tech CEO pretended to be female sexual harassment victim, suit claims

An anonymous blogpost accusing a Silicon Valley venture capitalist of sexual misconduct was written by a male executive who pretended to be a female victim of harassment in order to damage the reputation of a competitor, according to a lawsuit.

The complaint filed by Anis Uzzaman, a prominent tech investor and CEO of Fenox Venture Capital, alleged that a male rival CEO published a fake online account purporting to be an unnamed woman who was “sexually taken advantage of” by Uzzaman. The blogpost, which said Uzzaman pressured the author to go to his hotel room after a business meeting, was written by Brandon Katayama Hill, founder and CEO of a San Francisco branding and marketing agency called Btrax that competes with Fenox, according to the suit.

Uzzaman’s attorneys said the blogpost was traced to the IP address of Hill’s home. Reached for comment on Thursday, Hill denied that he was the author of the post, claiming that other people had access to his wifi and that he did not know who wrote it.

The lawsuit comes at a time when women across Silicon Valley have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment following a viral account of misconduct and discrimination at Uber. Over the past month, there has been increasing scrutiny of venture capitalists following a series of stories alleging that powerful male investors have repeatedly harassed women seeking startup funding, who are particularly vulnerable and have few recourses to raise concerns when they are mistreated or assaulted by VCs.

Uzzaman’s lawyers have alleged that Hill took advantage of the discussion about discrimination in the industry to target a rival.

“To have these false accusations come particularly in this climate when there’s this growing awareness of a problem that does exist, it’s damaging,” Katrina Saleen, Uzzaman’s attorney, told the Guardian. “It’s also an insult to true victims of sexual harassment … It makes people question the veracity of true victims, which is harmful.”

According to the complaint, the blogpost, titled “I was sexually taken advantage of by a Silicon Valley VC”, was published in March on a popular Japanese blog site, Hatena. The post said the author met the “very famous” VC at a local startup event and that he asked her to meet and talk about business. The VC invited the woman to go on a trip with her and stay at a five-star hotel, and when she refused, he said: “You are going to lose the biggest opportunity if you do not come,” according to the post.

The VC said he might invest in her and pressured her to go to his hotel that night, but she refused, the post said. Later, he stopped communicating with her, saying: “I’m busy, don’t contact me.”

“A lot of people from Japan, including students, and many very cute girls come to him, and he takes advantage of them,” said the blogpost, which was written in Japanese and translated to English in the complaint.

The blog did not name Uzzaman but he was easily identifiable, according to the complaint. There are only a few Silicon Valley companies that do venture capital services for Japan, and Fenox is the only firm which has a non-Japanese leader with “dark skin” who is fluent in Japanese, as the blog outlined, the suit said. The comments section referenced Fenox and Uzzaman, according to the complaint.

A Japanese court eventually ordered Hatena to produce the IP address traced to the article, and attorneys confirmed through Comcast that the post, published on a Saturday morning, was linked to the home address of Hill, the suit said. Hill’s company has offices in California and Japan and operates in the “same general domain” as Uzzaman’s firm, working with startups funded by Japanese corporations, the complaint said.

Hill also used to run a San Francisco startup competition called Japan Night, and Fenox Venture Capital last year launched a similar event called Startup World Cup. The blogpost was published weeks before the event.

“This event is very important to them. For this to have come out just before … is damaging,” said Saleen.

In a short phone interview, Hill said he had not yet seen the complaint, which was filed last week in San Mateo superior court, adding: “I didn’t write the article. I’m not responsible for it. This is a false allegation.”

Hill further claimed that more than 50 people had access to his wifi, though he declined to identify them. He also declined to comment on whether he had suspicions on who may have authored the blogpost.

He further claimed that his firm did not compete with Fenox: “We are in totally different businesses.”

Asked about Hill’s denial, Saleen said: “Comcast has confirmed that the IP address that the blog was posted from is from Brandon Hill’s home … We’ve also confirmed that he has password-protected wifi.”

Through his attorney, Uzzaman declined to comment.


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