Murmurs of a toxic work culture at BharatPe grew louder in the wake of its co-founder's personal behaviour.
Deepsekhar Choudhury reports.
“Yeh sab doglapan hai.” With these words, Ashneer Grover not only called out an entrepreneur being hypocritical, but also shot to fame as a reality television star.
It happened in the first few days of January, when the funded part of the start-up world needed some warm-up to get back to work, and inevitably Grover’s antics on the show became a talking point.
The Twitterati also debated whether it was unbecoming of a founder to diss a peer’s business model with such abrasion.
And hundreds of memes, with the dialogue set in various circumstances, flooded social media.
But little did the co-founder and managing director of financial technology unicorn BharatPe know that the newfound popularity was just the beginning.
In the next few days, an audio clip surfaced where Grover was allegedly heard abusing and threatening a bank employee.
And thereafter, the skeletons started tumbling out of the closet.
Murmurs of a toxic work culture at BharatPe grew louder.
Reports emerged that Grover was not getting along with the company’s investors, particularly Sequoia, which is the single biggest shareholder with 19.6 per cent stake in the company.
Soon after, on January 20, he announced he was going on voluntary leave until the end of March.
“I will return on or before April 1. I’ll be utilising this period to rejuvenate and refresh myself for the next sprint of value creation,” he had said.
But it was not to be such a smooth sail as he had envisioned.
Just over a week later, the company’s board reportedly asked Madhuri Jain, the head of controls at BharatPe and Grover’s wife, to go on leave as well.
Around the same time, on January 29, it appointed risk advisory firm Alvarez & Marsal to conduct an ‘independent audit of the company’s internal processes and systems’.
It was only a matter of days before things turned grim for the husband-wife duo.
A document, purportedly an interim report of the audit, was leaked on social media that alleged various financial irregularities had happened on the couple’s watch.
As questions started emerging about the contents of the leak, the company announced it had appointed PwC - one of the Big Four auditors - to conduct an investigation.
This irked Grover.
He came out in the media saying the company’s board was arm-twisting him.
He also alleged that BharatPe's chief executive officer (CEO) Suhail Sameer, who was his nomination to the board, had manipulated him into taking leave.
He said if the board wanted him out, it would need to buy out his stake of 9.5 per cent, while valuing BharatPe at $6 billion.
That would amount to a Rs 4,000-crore payday.
Next, he rescinded his nomination of CEO Suhail Sameer to the board.
More confusion ensued – would this lead to the CEO’s ouster?
But that is when the battle lines became clear.
Co-founder Shashvat Nakrani issued a statement saying Sameer enjoyed a joint nomination status from him and Grover, and continues to enjoy his confidence.
Grover realised he was on his own and that the noose was only getting tighter around his neck.
While he and the company’s investors started background negotiations for an exit, the events rattled him so much that he appointed three legal consultants simultaneously to preserve his stake.
Taking their advice, the embattled founder reportedly filed a plea at the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, seeking indemnity against future action and claiming the company’s internal investigation is invalid.
Recently, he shot a letter to the board raising questions about the neutrality of Rajnish Kumar, a board member and former State Bank of India chairman, and alleging that a phone call made to him by Kumar and co-founder Bhavik Koladiya showed the biased nature of the investigation.
Meanwhile, his wife was also sacked by the company.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Jain posted audio clips of the alleged chat with Kumar and Koladiya that also contained verbal expletives.
She said the company had treated her like an object and shared videos of office parties where employees were seen drinking, dancing, and smoking.
She also questioned Kumar’s role in the media leaks.
“Ashneer is being immature. There will be no impact of this on the company or myself. Everyone knows my credibility and these comments won't change that,” Kumar told ET in response.