May 19, 2024

Former Uber Engineer Yukti Abrol Sues Travis Kalanick About Unicorn Incident

A New York City software engineer is suing former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick over claims he publicly humiliated her at a company-wide party to celebrate the firm’s much-anticipated IPO, resulting in deaths in front of a room full of colleagues and top executives.

Yukti Abrol says she wore a unicorn costume until May 9, 2019, in an Irish pub in Manhattan as a fun way to celebrate Uber’s status as a so-called “unicorn” worth $1 billion or more. Abrol says the festival was in full swing when she walked in and Kalanick, who was already there forced out of Uber after a spate of sexual harassment allegations against numerous corporate staffers, cause his suit.

“To [Abrol’s] horror, as she was entering the bar… Kalanick approached her and, without warning, grabbed the horn on her dress, made a flirtatious offer, smiled at her, and then she walked away,” according to a lawsuit obtained by The Daily Beast. “[Abrol] felt humiliated and disgusted. As she looked around, she saw the team members looking at her with shock and concern. Several of her colleagues approached her to ask if she was okay and to express their distress to… Kalanick.”

An attorney for Kalanick vehemently denied the allegation in an email Monday, telling the Daily Beast, “The alleged incident did not occur. Mr. Kalanick was accompanied by several friends and family who were with him throughout the entire event and will testify that this alleged incident was fabricated and did not happen.” (The attorney did not immediately respond to a request to speak with those friends and family members.)

Yukti Abrol was photographed wearing her unicorn costume outside the New York Stock Exchange the day Uber went public.

Courtesy of Goddard Law

Abrol, now 30, says in her complaint that she “felt deeply hurt that Uber continued to engage in blatant discrimination and sexual harassment because of the dishonest, male-dominated culture of… even while suing the company in a class action for gender discrimination.”

Attorney Megan Goddard filed the $12.5 million suit last month in New York State Supreme Court for Abrol. It names Uber, Kalanick, and two Uber supervisors as defendants. On Monday, the defendants take the case to federal court.

Abrol, an Indian American, accuses two of her former bosses, who are also of Indian origin, of discriminating against her “on the basis of her ethnicity as a Punjabi from northern India”.

Director of Engineering and NYC Site Leader Arun Nagarajan and Engineering Leader Ajeet Ganga “belong to a different ethnic group, from South India and speak a different local language,” the complaint says. “There are certain prejudices between and among the 705 recognized ethnicities in India. Some are remnants of the former caste system; others are based on skin color. Another thing is the general animus between the peoples of south India and north India, who consider the south Indians as conquerors of their land. On intelligence and belief, these ethnic prejudices informed, in part, the… Nagarajan and… Ganga [Abrol].”

The complaint alleges that Abrol failed the two and tried to “gaslight [Abrol] to make her think she was incompetent, and to make her incompetent.” Abrol says she was suffering from PTSD symptoms so severe that her therapist advised her to take medical leave.

Goddard, his stronghold, Goddard’s Lawa three-minute walk from the New York Stock Exchange, said she can hardly believe that such things are allegedly still happening in modern corporate America.

“Although it happens with infuriating frequency, I am always surprised – and always disgusted – by employers who openly and repeatedly violate the law by protecting abusers and punishing employees trying to be free from discrimination ,” Goddard told The Daily Beast. “Often, companies that act with such disregard for discrimination laws force arbitration agreements that protect them from the courts.” (Criticized Uber in the past to enforce arbitration in discrimination suits.)

This isn’t the first time Uber has found itself on the wrong side of a law, and even past litigation doesn’t seem to have changed things at the ride-sharing service. In 2019, Uber paid $4.4 million to settle charges stemming from an investigation by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which found that the company had allowed a culture of sexual harassment to proliferate, and retaliated against those who were supposed to speak out.

On Monday, an Uber spokesperson told The Daily Beast of Abrol’s lawsuit, “These allegations are baseless and we will vigorously defend against them.”

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and his father at the NYSE during the company's 2019 IPO.

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and his father (right) at the NYSE during the company’s IPO in 2019.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Kalanick left Uber in 2019 after a series of scandals. During his tenure, the company was accused of deliberately violating horse riding laws around the world hidden its activity from regulators. The company’s culture had caught fire two years earlier after a former employee named Susan Fowler published a blog post“Reflecting on one very strange Year at Uber,” describing its failure to address sexual harassment cases.

Kalanick, who is now running his own food venture, has been personally involved in some of the controversies, including assault an Uber driver who expressed frustration with the company’s pay practices, and a horror incident in India, involving the company alleged access medical records of a woman who claimed she was raped by her driver. (The driver was later sentenced to life in prison, and Uber settled a legal filed by the woman.) In late 2019, Uber was ordered to pay $4.4 million to resolve sexual harassment and retaliation charges filed two years earlier with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

After Abrol earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Stony Brook University and a master’s in engineering from Cornell, she co-founded a technology startup to created a wearable wristband to help prevent children from getting lost on field trips. After a two-year stint at Intel, Abrol began interviewing a handful of other companies for a senior engineer position.

Abrol says in her complaint that she was concerned about working at Uber, based on reports of a toxic corporate culture there, but still went through the extensive interview process. Abrol claims she raised her concerns with Uber’s head of human resources, specifically inquiring about the infamous sexual harassment blog post, which revealed what Maureen Dowd from The New York Times described as Uber’s “culture of hipness, sexiness and snaky competition”. The publications “promoted the world’s most valuable startup, challenging the mantra that big disruptors are above the law,” Dowd wrote.

The HR boss—who would resign a year later after making allegations against her ignoring employee complaints of racial discrimination—Abrol asserted that the “misogyny” referenced in the piece was isolated to one team, according to the complaint. Abrol took the job in April 2017, but he was soon despised. She was making less than promised, in a position usually filled by recent college graduates, her complaint says.

Six weeks into the job, Abrol says she was sexually harassed by a drunk Nagarajan during a company retreat in New York. The harassment and discrimination continued even after Abrol got a new supervisor, Ganga, the complaint says. (Nagarajan, who is represented by Uber lawyers, and Ganga, who has since returned to India, did not respond to individual requests for comment on Monday.)

As things continued to deteriorate in the office, the stress worsened Abrol’s health issues, and Abrol “struggled to concentrate, was overwhelmed by intense feelings of anxiety and panic, and was constantly crying ,” the complaint says. Her therapist told her she was suffering from PTSD symptoms and advised her to take medical leave to heal.

Excerpt from Yukti Abrol's lawsuit against Uber and Travis Kalanick.

Supreme Court of the State of New York

Abrol left in May 2020, returning to Uber in September. Two weeks later, she was “constructively terminated,” according to her complaint. In simple terms, constructive termination refers to a work situation that is intentionally made so unacceptable, that an employee has no other viable option but to leave.

“My client alleges that she was forced to resign because Uber refused to protect her from further discrimination and retaliation, which seriously affected her health and well-being,” Goddard told The Daily Beast.

Abrol’s lawsuit alleges that Uber, Kalanick, Nagarajan, and Ganga violated various aspects of New York City and New York State human rights laws, that Uber violated the New York State Equal Pay Act, and that it was subject to retaliation after to report. She is seeking $2.5 million on each of the five causes of action.

In addition to a total of $12.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, Abrol is asking a judge to order Uber to pay her court costs and attorneys’ fees.

After leaving the firm as a multi-billionaire, Kalanick reported Pouring $300 million into CloudKitchens, a “ghost” food delivery startup. The company, which also received a huge investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, has been acquired negative reviews from some of its restaurant partners but it continues to increase.

In late 2021, the company raised money at a valuation of $15 billion, according to Inside.

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