Upload, the virtual reality #startup at the center of a sexual harassment and wrongful termination lawsuit filed earlier this year, has settled the case with its former employee and is aiming to put the ensuing damage behind it.
The lawsuit, filed against the startup and its co-founders by former director of digital and social media Elizabeth Scott, alleged that the company had sought to create a “boy’s club” environment and described “rampant” sexual behavior in the office, allegations that co-founders Will Mason and Taylor Freeman denied as “entirely without merit.”
The lawsuit is now over, according to people familiar with the matter, and though the terms of the agreement were undisclosed, some in the virtual reality community feel that the company has dodged a bullet in reaching some conclusion over the litigation.
“The matter has been concluded,” was Upload’s official statement. Neither Scott, nor her legal counsel, responded to a request for comment for this story. The company declined to comment further.
The Upload allegations came at the beginning of a tumultuous summer for technology companies as women (inspired, perhaps, by Susan Fowler’s courageous exposure of harassment at Uber) came forward with stories of inappropriate behavior from venture investors and executives.
In Upload’s case, some former employees wonder whether the company has failed to show real changes have been made in the aftermath of the suit.
“From the other cases that happened along the same lines, either with Uber or 500 Startups, something happened with the people that did those things. They stepped down or publicly apologized or they put processes in place or they got HR or they did something,” one former employee told us. “[Upload’s co-founders] said one little quote and then they dragged a settlement case out for long enough that it wasn’t even news anymore.”
When news of the sexual harassment lawsuit broke in early May, Upload employees were waiting to see what the response of the startup’s co-founders would be to some of their former co-worker’s allegations. When Taylor Freeman and Will Mason denied the merit of all of Scott’s allegations in their official statement, four full-time Upload staffers — the entire SF office — immediately quit.
What followed were days of “radio silence” from the company’s leadership regarding the scandal, former employees told us, and then suddenly an email asking team members not to talk to the press while they “resolve outstanding issues.”
“When we reflect back on our short history, like any startup, there are things we should have done differently,” Freeman wrote to the startup’s members in an email, obtained by TechCrunch. “But we are also very proud of what we have accomplished, and remain tremendously excited about our future.”
Freeman and Mason faced internal calls to step down following the controversy, sources tell us.
In the weeks following the scandal, key investors distanced themselves from the company and its initial plans to raise a VR/AR-focused venture fund. SEC documents and a since-deleted company web page confirm the startup was looking to raise a $12 million early stage fund for launch in Q3 of this year.
“The decision to put Upload Ventures, which was in its infancy, on hold was a mutual one reached with our partners in order for us to focus more on our core business units in the short term,” an Upload company spokesperson wrote in a statement.
In the months since, the company has looked to move on from the harassment scandal that has engulfed it by hiring new leadership to tackle education and community-building efforts at the company’s SF and LA offices.
Anne Ahola Ward, the chief executive of Circle Click, has stepped in as the company’s new chief operating officer. The company has also brought in Jacquelyn Morie to head up the company’s education efforts.
We received a copy of a blog post that Ward, the company’s incoming COO, posted to the internal Upload site, which attempts to address the aftermath of the lawsuit.
I wholeheartedly support and believe in the company’s mission: to educate and accelerate the mixed reality ecosystem. Being a member of this community has been amazing, it has meant so much to me and I look forward to getting to know even more amazing people!
In the near term, I will be focusing on the following initiatives:
- Building out our infrastructure to support the meteoric growth of the organization
- Give back to the community who has been so good to us by performing outreach and a scholarship program for education
- Work together with the mixed reality community to foster stronger communication and growth of the startups that work with us
Above all else I want to make it clear that Upload is a place where everyone is welcome. Everyone. We will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of age, race, color, religion, gender, gender expression, disability or sexual orientation. Now is the perfect time to come together and find a way to help each other grow the AR/VR/XR ecosystems.
Meanwhile, the company also hired Morie, a former Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Creative Technologies, who has been working in and around virtual worlds almost since the industry’s inception. She spent 13 years at ICT before launching her own company, All These Worlds, to commercialize her work in virtual and augmented reality.
Morie is aware of the company’s recent history and troubles, but insists that Upload is ready, willing and able to move on.
“You can’t judge an entire company on one incident. Whatever that happens to be… unless it is so egregious that the company can’t get beyond it. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here,” Morie told TechCrunch. “I believe that this is a learning opportunity. They will take something that wasn’t working and would try to make it right. If I thought they were not going to address it or deal with and were trying to sweep it under the rug, I wouldn’t be there.”
Not everyone in the industry is convinced that the company has done enough to address the allegations surrounding it or create a safe space for female entrepreneurs in the VR industry.
“I do think they are good guys at heart, but I think they were immature and they… fucked up,” one former employee said of the company’s founders.
With Scott’s lawsuit finished, Upload does still have a community to reassure.
One female founder, who had previously worked with Upload, hopes that women in the VR industry can move to create systems that enable women to talk about their experiences with sexual harassment.
“There’s no safety network for women to speak up,” she said. Asked if Upload should be the one tackling that problem, the founder said that there would likely be “severe trust issues” with such an initiative. “Maybe Upload’s culture changed, but they didn’t even apologize or give an explanation on what they stand for, and that’s a problem because you don’t want to be associated with people who are in a scandal like this without an explanation,” she said.