Three women allege harassment at tech startup Synapse Financial Technologies

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Asya Bradley stayed late for a meeting at the office of the startup where she worked last year, when her boss became so angry that he threw a notebook and a phone across the table, according a lawsuit she filed this month. In another meeting, the suit says, he physically blocked her from leaving a conference room and yelled profanities. Bradley was far from the only woman at the company who was subject to verbal abuse, according to the complaint.

Today, Bradley, 44, is one of three women suing Synapse Financial Technologies Inc. and its chief executive officer, Sankaet Pathak, for what they allege was a pattern of harassment and discrimination by Pathak at the financial technology company. According to the women’s complaint, which they filed together earlier this month, the CEO targeted employees for mistreatment based on their age, gender and, in Bradley’s case, pregnancy.

The lawsuit paints a portrait of a cultural breakdown at a Silicon Valley startup, starting from the top. According to the complaint, Pathak told an older woman “there’s a reason” the company hired mostly young people. In uncomfortable late-night car rides, the suit said he asked his assistant personal questions and sang along to love songs. And the complaint alleges the CEO “unrelentingly gaslighted, undermined, intimidated and toyed with the female employees,” and was prone to outbursts of rage.

A spokeswoman for Synapse said the claims misrepresent the culture at the company. “These spurious allegations do not reflect our workplace or values and we will vigorously defend against them,” the company said in a statement. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for any form of discrimination.”

Through the spokeswoman, Pathak declined to comment. But earlier this year after negative reviews started surfacing on employee-review site Glassdoor, Synapse and Pathak said those reviewers’ claims-including that Pathak was unduly harsh toward women-were untrue and amounted to defamation. The company and Pathak subpoenaed Glassdoor to release the reviewers’ identities, and sued the anonymous posters for what they said in the complaint were false claims, “published by the defendants with malice, personal animosity, hatred and/or ill will toward plaintiffs.”

Currently, Glassdoor is fighting the subpoena, arguing that the company had not adequately disproved the allegations.

Synapse was founded in 2014 and gained favor in the startup world, where difficult founders with big ideas are a regular occurrence. The company has raised $50 million to date from high-profile investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Core Innovation Capital and Trinity Ventures. Synapse’s technology provides the infrastructure for companies to launch financial products, like a checking account or a debit card, through a partnership with an existing bank. Angela Strange, an investor at Andreessen Horowitz, compared it to the financial world’s version of Amazon Web Services-which gives companies building blocks to create online businesses-a massively profitable division of Amazon.com Inc.

Pathak also made a compelling founder: “Sankaet is one of the best product minds in financial services,” Strange wrote in a blog post in June.

In 2016, Asya Bradley and her husband Matt had been planning to put down roots in Lakeland, Tennessee. The couple was moving from Chicago that spring to be closer to Matt’s family. Asya, pregnant with their second child, had previously held a job as a regional sales manager. Her husband was working remotely for Synapse, which was co-founded by his University of Memphis classmate, Pathak. The two were longtime friends, Asya said.

Pathak had floated the idea of also hiring Asya as well. The pitch was appealing, she said in an interview. The pay was generous, and she was intrigued by the idea of building something from the ground up. The CEO also told her she could work from home, Asya would later say in the suit.

She took the job at Synapse, and the family soon put their new house back on the market and moved to the Bay Area. Asya was by then many months pregnant. It was the first of three pregnancies and two children she would have while working at the company. In July of 2016, shortly after she arrived in the office, Asya went into early labor and had to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency cesarean section, she said in an interview. After giving birth, Asya was not paid for the time she spent on maternity leave, according to the suit. The lack of pay, as well as pressure from the CEO, prompted her to come back to work just weeks after delivering, the complaint said.

Once she returned, Pathak would call her “at all hours of the night,” she said in the suit, using the time to complete her training when the baby woke her to breastfeed. Asya said it was uncomfortable, but the couple had known Pathak for years, and she was still getting up to speed at Synapse. “We kept feeling like we just needed to talk it through,” she said.

The following year, Asya was promoted to a larger role leading fintech sales for the company, and again became pregnant. Throughout 2017, tensions at the office escalated, the suit said. In the summer, following a disagreement about conference rooms, Pathak told Matt to stay home and that he needed Asya to stay late for a meeting, the complaint alleges. During the late meeting, Pathak became angry, throwing a phone and a notebook across the table, and saying he was there to show Asya “how s—ty she was,” according to the suit. After she took the following day off, Pathak sent both her and her husband a formal notice of poor work performance, expressing concerns that the complaint alleges were new. Later, in a message to Matt reproduced in the lawsuit, Pathak wrote, “Every time I have gotten frustrated in a meeting, that has come with a great personal cost to me. It is not fun, I feel bad about it afterwards.”

Asya delivered her baby on Christmas Day, and came back to work in early 2018, several months before Synapse would raise its first large investment, a $17 million funding round led by Trinity Ventures and Core Innovation Capital. But inside the company, the environment was often tense, according to the complaint and the accounts of two other former employees not involved in the lawsuit, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. The complaint alleges Pathak had a tendency to berate and intimidate employees, and was particularly focused on “breaking” female staffers, in order to build them back up into more ideal workers.

The complaint also said he held meetings late at night intentionally, so that people would be off their guard. In a Slack message with Asya included in the suit, Pathak said he wanted to institute daily sales meetings late in the evenings, writing, “I need it late, when people are tired.”

A spokeswoman for the company pushed back on allegations of harassment. “We’re concerned for the well-being of others and strive to build a diverse and inclusive environment for everyone,” she said in a statement. “We take our business and culture seriously, and they go hand-in-hand in building a successful company.”

In late summer 2018, tensions between Asya and Pathak came to a head, according to the suit. During one gathering, Pathak became irate and “yelled and screamed at [her] throughout the meeting,” the complaint said. She tried to leave the room, it said, but he stood in front of the door, blocking her path to the exit and “continued to yell profanities.” In an interview, Asya said that the incident resurfaced childhood trauma and that she mostly blacked out.

A few months later, near the end of an anxious year, Asya had a miscarriage, the suit said. At her doctor’s recommendation, she took several weeks’ medical leave. While she was gone, the complaint said, she was demoted from the head of sales to a junior position, and given impossible-to-meet sales goals. On the day she returned to work after taking medical leave, according to the suit, she found someone else sitting at what had been her desk. She said everything she kept at work had been thrown away.

Asya left the company in February of this year. In September, Synapse made news. It had raised $33 million in a funding round led by prominent venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, which declined to comment for this story. Its general partner, Angela Strange, was aware of some concerns surrounding the CEO, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing private information. But Strange-who focuses on “increasing inclusivity” as part of her mandate at the firm according to its website-thought she would be able to help improve the culture at the company, one of the people said. She decided to invest anyway.

The other women bringing the suit, Taylor Sims, 28, and Mhaire Fraser, 56, also say in the suit that Pathak made harassing comments to them both in public and private. Sims, who worked with Pathak directly as his chief of staff, alleged in the complaint the he frequently made inappropriate or offensive statements, such as suggesting the women performed sexual favors to solve pr like, “How many dicks did you suck to solve that problem?”, “How painful was it to get that answer?” and when speaking about diversity at the company, “Now we have women and gays and a black man.”

The suit also said that Pathak made Sims uncomfortable in other ways. He would bring up awkward personal topics, the complaint alleges, including mentioning how much he still loved a former employee, and would ask Sims questions about her private life.

Sims used to ride with Pathak in the car while he ran errands, and if and if they worked late he often drove her home, according to the suit, which said he would sometimes sing along to love songs while driving, acting out the lyrics with hand gestures.

Mhaire Fraser, the other plaintiff, was over 50 when she joined Synapse. According to the complaint, Pathak told Fraser to watch out for one male employee she had lunch with on her first day, and that the man was into “mom types.” Asked what he meant by that, the suit alleges Pathak replied, “Well there aren’t a lot of older people here for a reason. We need fresh perspectives to do this job right.”

Fraser also objected to Pathak’s management guidance focused on breaking down team members, according to the complaint. In a conversation about one of Fraser’s reports, Pathak said, “We need to break her down to the bottom and then reshape her to what we want and need,” the complaint alleges. Pathak also told Fraser that she, too, needed to be broken and that he “was the man to do it,” according to the lawsuit. He said he “had done this before,” the complaint said. In the spring of 2018 he fired Fraser, according to the suit.

Today Fraser has a new job as a researcher at another tech company. Matt Bradley is a co-founder at Bond Financial Technologies Inc., which is developing a service to link companies to banks that could eventually compete with Synapse. Asya and Sims, who both left Synapse in the first few months of 2019, have co-founded a nonprofit together. The organization, called #HowSheWorks, is designed as a space for women and minorities to go for career coaching, mentorship and help dealing with workplace harassment.

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