Davinia Chew was sitting across from her former boss at a Fran’s restaurant in downtown Toronto on Valentine’s Day 2019. The then-24-year-old listened as Eric Arnold, a tech entrepreneur, told her there are two types of people who go public with their stories of sexual harassment.
Tucked in a booth, Arnold explained his position.
“There are people who want to be an agent of change, who want to make a company a better place, who want to make an environment a better place for women … and there are people who are out for blood, who are vindictive, who are just trying to hurt people,” Arnold said.
“I don’t know which kind you are.”
Chew recorded their conversation, and Global News has obtained a copy of the recording.
The restaurant meeting was a far cry from when Chew was hired at Planswell in fall 2017. Then, Chew had seen Arnold as a leader who would help her learn and grow her career. Now, that man seemed to have morphed into someone else entirely.
You likely haven’t heard Chew’s name, but if you follow Canada’s tech scene, you’ll know her as the anonymous tweeter — Jane Doe — and author of the viral Medium post eviscerating what she saw as Planswell’s poor management while alleging sexual harassment at the hands of the company’s chief marketing officer, Michael Wickware. Arnold linked her allegations to the company’s closure last fall, laying off 57 employees.
Chew’s allegations indicate all the ways in which some startups, from Uber to WeWork, struggle to deal with allegations of sexual harassment. Startups often grow fast, focus on products — not policies — take in millions of dollars in funding and promote a type of culture that breaks down traditional workplace professionalism. Chew’s allegations tell a story of how tech startups’ desire to have employees view one another as friends or family might lead to blurred lines and let bad behaviour go unchecked.
But so much of this was unknown to Chew when she met Arnold at the restaurant on that cold winter day. When she left him, she says she was angry, confused and scared. She says she walked out feeling like she now had to protect herself not just from Wickware but from Arnold, too.
In a statement to Global News, Arnold said Chew’s “concerns were treated appropriately, with legitimacy, resulted in real changes in the organization and have been dealt with in detail,” and he claims most of the new allegations are false or complete mischaracterizations.
Arnold did not provide specific answers to the detailed list of allegations sent to him.
“After the allegations were raised, I resigned from the company out of respect for all parties involved,” he said. “Without digging into the intimate facts of the situation, I would like to apologize to everyone who has been negatively affected.”
Davinia Chew. Photo by Laura Whelan.
Arnold hired Chew to do administrative work at Planswell in fall 2017 at a yearly salary of $35,000. Then 22 years old, Chew says she was eager to learn and felt lucky to be part of the Planswell community. The company was growing, and Arnold often told the press it was going to continue to expand.
Chew believed in the work Planswell was doing. Making financial-planning services accessible to everyone seemed like a noble endeavour. The company, founded by Arnold and Scott Wetton in 2015, helped clients manage their money through an online platform, removing the need to hire a financial adviser.
On her second day, Chew says she was asked out for coffee by Wickware, who was not her direct boss. She says that over two or so hours, he asked her about her family, previous experience and goals at the company.
She was keen to learn about video and told the marketing officer her ambitions. In her first few months, she remembers Wickware being very supportive. She respected his opinion and valued his years of work experience. She also wanted to move up in Planswell and eventually be part of his marketing team.
To show her enthusiasm, Chew says she sent Wickware drafts of videos she was crafting for Planswell in November, and he offered her guidance. She says he showed her how to use his DSLR camera. She says she even had a nickname for him: “senpai,” a Japanese word that means teacher or mentor.
READ MORE: She reported her boss had sexually harassed her — then she was fired
But after working closely with Wickware on some video projects throughout the fall, Chew says his behaviour changed. While filming one day in December, she says he touched the small of her back while she showed him some footage on a camera screen. She says she brushed this incident aside; Wickware was married, twice her age and had a senior role in the company. She was probably overreacting.
Shortly after that incident, Chew says Wickware prodded about her sexual orientation while out scouting filming locations. Chew says he asked if she was a lesbian because she had a rainbow keychain attached to her wallet — a marker of the LGBTQ2 community.
The former employee says staff experienced racism and sexism in addition to bad management. As the company’s executives were all white men, the employee says that “bro” culture, including talking about sleeping with women and making inappropriate jokes, was pervasive.
Several other former Planswell employees, who spoke to Global News on condition of anonymity, say they also found Planswell’s “bro” culture to be exclusive, meaning women and people of colour were often treated as outsiders or not taken as seriously.
Eric Arnold speaking at a tech event in 2017. Source: YouTube/TechToronto
One former employee of colour says they did not witness or experience any racism during their time at Planswell. Another employee says they didn’t experience racism themselves but heard others say they had experienced racist incidents.
This is often attractive to young employees who may have little life and work experience, says Jane Watson, an HR professional and leader of the Aperta Project. Watson studies workplace harassment and is currently conducting a Toronto tech survey on the topic.
“There’s this sort of overidentification with the mission of the company combined with the glamour … that exists with being part of a tech startup in a city like Toronto, where that’s a real burgeoning area of the economy,” Watson says.
“There’s a lot that contributes to the idea that if something were to happen, that [people] might ignore it or sweep it under the rug.”
Multiple former Planswell employees recall a particular incident at a company retreat in Ontario cottage country in fall 2016, where one senior Planswell employee looked into hiring “prostitutes” for entertainment. Employees say it was near the end of the offsite and the female employees had gone home, leaving a smaller team of men.
The senior employee confirmed that they researched hiring “an erotic dancer” after they felt pressured to do so. This senior employee says they eventually objected to hiring said dancer and “got others to also stop any further effort to hire one.”
One former worker also told Global News that the same senior employee who researched “prostitutes” once brought a blow-up sex doll to the office and put a branded Planswell T-shirt on it. The senior employee confirmed this incident and said they regretted their behaviour and were reprimanded for the sex doll incident, indicating the company made some effort to combat inappropriate conduct.
Another time, former employees say Arnold attempted to bring members of the team to a strip club.
Company culture isn’t just about behaviours that are rewarded or encouraged, Watson says, but also ones that are tolerated or ignored. Actions that might not seem like a big deal at the time can “sow the se” of other types of much more serious future behaviour, she says.
“It was a combination of finance dudes and tech dudes, which really doesn’t make a great fit for me and, I think, the most marginalized people,” she says.
Chew knew tech was a male-dominated industry.
Only five per cent of Canadian tech startups have a solo female CEO, according to a recent PwC and MaRS report. When companies have male and female co-CEOs, the number only increases to six per cent. More than half of tech companies have no female executives at all.
Davinia Chew. Photo by Laura Whelan.
Throughout December 2017, as they worked more closely together, Wickware and Chew talked during and outside of office hours on Slack — the company’s main means of online communication — and Facebook Messenger. Chew says they developed an emotional bond.
During one of their late-night conversations in late December, Wickware confessed to Chew over Facebook Messenger that he thought she was beautiful and did a “triple take” when he first saw her at the office.
He also admitted he noticed “little details” about her when they worked together, like the colour of her skin and the placement of the bobby pins in her hair. Chew told Wickware she, too, had feelings for him.
Global News has reviewed copies of these Facebook conversations.
Around this time, Chew says Wickware made sexual comments toward her at the Planswell office. While putting on their winter boots to leave the building one day, Wickware allegedly asked Chew if she would have his children because their “half-Asian, half-white” babies would be cute.
Chew says she was completely caught off guard, blushed and said no.
“The red flags kept popping up, and I just squashed them every single time,” she says. “‘We trust Michael. Michael’s a good person.’ That was the thought process that kept popping up.”
HR expert Watson says it’s never appropriate for an executive to pursue an entry-level employee. There is a clear power difference, she says, that “will always muddy the waters” when it comes to consent in sexual or romantic interactions.
“There is no way to remove that power difference from their interactions, whether they take place at work or outside of work, even if they want to,” she says.
In January 2018, Chew was getting equipment in a Planswell boardroom with Wickware when she says he grazed her butt — something she initially believed was an accident — then tried to lean in for either a hug or a kiss. She says she pushed him away and ran out of the room because she was in shock. Apart from a hug at a Christmas party, Chew says their relationship hadn’t been physical up until this point and she was thrown off by him crossing this boundary at work.
Still, their online conversations continued throughout work hours into evenings and weekends. Chew says a romantic and sexual relationship began. She had developed strong feelings for Wickware and trusted him.
Chew says Wickware’s behaviour soon became unpredictable: one minute he was telling her how much he liked her and how “hot” she looked, and the other he was sharing intimate details about his marriage then ignoring her. In early February, Chew tried to extract herself from the situation and told Wickware he needed to stop contacting her unless it was work-related and to cease making inappropriate comments. Wickware agreed and admitted he needed to leave her alone.
“I don’t disagree,” he replied, before discussing his marital issues.
Chew says this cycle repeated for months. Their relationship would end, he would continue to reach out and make sexual advances, she would engage, then she would push him away again. She says the volatile nature of his behaviour took a serious toll on her mental well-being.
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There was also the fear of losing her job.
“A lot of the time at the office, if he was in a bad mood, he would take it out on me,” Chew says. “He would privately just be mean to me and he’d say snarky comments. … I felt like I was his pin cushion anytime he was pissed off.”
Chew says Wickware also hurt her ability to grow in the company. She says she told Wickware she wanted to move into a marketing role, but he told her it wouldn’t be a good idea for them to work together.
In mid-July 2018, Chew says she explicitly told Wickware in person to leave her alone and no longer send her sexual messages or tell her “she looks hot” at the office. She didn’t want to be involved in the problems of his marriage, and she didn’t want issues at work, either. She says she even physically moved desks to be further away from him.
Still, she says he persisted and would try to corner her in the office.
In August, Chew says she again told Wickware multiple times only to communicate with her about work-related things. She says she also told colleagues about his behaviour and even asked a co-worker to talk to Wickware on her behalf. Chew says Wickware continued to pursue her.
Watson points to research on individuals who experienced workplace harassment and their coping strategies. Among the options of avoiding the harasser, trying to renegotiate the relationship with them, seeking external support and internally reporting the harassment, the research found reporting was often the last resort.
“People look at the organization, and they weigh the costs and benefits,” Watson explains.
“How likely is it that the organization is going to act in a way that’s going to resolve this situation for me favourably? And how much stress and angst is that going to cause?”
If your startup has a small staff or doesn’t have an HR department, chances are the person you’d be complaining to is your boss or the company’s CEO, Watson says. This can be especially hard for people who fear job security or are early in their careers.
“You’re going to have to relate probably a very embarrassing and difficult experience for you, so there’s a lot of barriers to reporting that exist,” Watson says.
“And then layer power dynamics on top of that.”
Research shows that power imbalances are a risk factor for sexual harassment, which can also affect one’s ability to report it. Employees in lower-paying positions or less formal work environments may be particularly vulnerable — especially women.
Chew says she felt trapped. She says she didn’t feel like she could talk to Arnold about the harassment because Wickware had previously told her that he and Arnold shared “a golden bond.” She also worried Arnold and other Planswell execs wouldn’t believe her or would brush her allegations aside.
“There was nowhere for me to go. There was no way Michael was going to work with me. … He was playing puppet master, manoeuvring the strings all over the place. Because he was in such a big position of power, I didn’t even know where the strings went.”
In a statement to Global News, Arnold said that months before Chew’s allegations, the company “held employee consultation meetings to craft, as a team, a robust code of conduct, anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies.”
Chew says she and the HR manager went for a walk outside the office, and Chew asked what she could do if she was experiencing harassment at the company. According to Chew, the HR manager said she could file a complaint.
Chew says she did, however, tell the HR manager that she had a relationship with someone in the company who Chew claimed had gone on to harass her. Chew also says she told them that she asked a colleague to intervene to stop the harassment.
She says she asked the HR manager to leave a note in her employee file or document their conversation somewhere. According to Chew, they agreed.
On a Tuesday in mid-September 2018, just weeks after her walk with the HR person, Chew lost her job at Planswell. According to Chew, Arnold said he didn’t think she was needed at the company anymore and wasn’t sure if she fit into her role. Just moments before she was let go, she says she saw Wickware and Arnold go for a walk together.
She can only speculate why she was let go but says the timing of her termination was coincidentally close to when she tried to report sexual harassment at the company. Arnold did not respond to why Chew was fired when asked by Global News.
“I had a gut feeling I was going to get fired that day,” Chew says. “I just knew.”
After she was fired, Chew had on-and-off contact with Wickware until December, something experts say is not unusual for people who have been harassed. There are reasons why people maintain relationships with harassers, including feelings of shame and confusion — emotions perpetrators often exploit. It can also take time for people to comprehend what has happened to them or report altogether, according to experts.
“It felt like [Michael] thrived off of feeling wanted and enjoyed having the attention of someone who was dependent on him,” she says.
“He would make it seem like a lot of what is happening is my fault and when I would bring up how something makes me feel, he would counter that he feels worse.”
Davinia Chew. Photo by Laura Whelan.
Around five months after Chew was terminated, she saw Planswell tweet that it was hiring for Wickware’s marketing team. Enraged by the idea that another person — possibly a young woman — may find themselves under his leadership, she created an anonymous Twitter account and tweeted a response.
Within minutes of the Twitter post, Chew says Arnold reached out and asked if they could meet. This signalled to Chew that he knew more than he had led on during her time at the company, as she did not admit she was the one behind the tweets.
As she sipped tea, Chew told her former boss about her relationship with Wickware and the subsequent harassment. Arnold admitted he suspected Wickware and Chew had a relationship of some kind, as he noticed they were often together.
Chew recorded their conversation, and Global News has obtained a copy of the recording.
In the recording, Arnold can be heard laughing while he muses over whether he should have asked about their relationship.
“You have a weirdly close relationship. Is it sex?” he said, imitating the way he could have pressed on the topic.
“[He’d] run off his RRSPs for a little while, then end up in a government-sponsored senior centre,” Arnold said.
“You’ll never be able to work again if you’re a public victim — not a victim, but like a target of a public attack about a MeToo movement-type thing.”
Chew says she left upset and feeling incredibly pressured to stay silent. She didn’t have the financial resources Arnold did or the professional connections and feared retaliation, something research shows is not uncommon in sexual harassment cases.
Chew says two days later, on Feb. 14, she and Arnold met again at a Fran’s in Toronto. In this conversation, which Chew also recorded, Arnold admitted he learned of the “relationship” between Chew and Wickware in June.
“Reading about what harassment is and sexual harassment is, like I’m not a lawyer, not law enforcement, but like I don’t — I’m not hearing the same things that would typically describe that,” Arnold said.
“I’m hearing inappropriate comments, I’m hearing strange ways of communicating and I’m hearing like you proactively saying, ‘I don’t want you to speak to me that way.’”
Arnold’s remarks could be indicative of the problem in tech culture. The majority of Canadian business leaders don’t believe sexual harassment is a problem at their own companies, a recent report found, despite knowing of specific incidents.
But this mentality doesn’t square with the stats. According to First Round’s 2019 State of Startups report, nearly one in two workers said that either they or someone they personally know has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
After their meetings, Arnold called Chew and again discussed their options on how to proceed.
Arnold said it looked like Chew had two options. One was to agree that this was a personal relationship issue that had nothing to do with Planswell so it can “go away” and Arnold could help Chew find a resolution with Wickware as a friend, possibly through therapy. The other was to formalize her allegations in an official complaint. With the second option, Wickware could lose his job, Arnold said.
“The timing of his departure, no matter how it happened, … we would have to tell some kind of story,” Arnold said in a February phone call with Chew of which Global News has heard a recording.
“And we can’t yet figure out a story that would work where someone would still want to invest $20 million in us in a couple of months.”
Chew told Arnold she felt pressured to stay silent in another phone call she says happened on Feb. 19, 2019, and Arnold apologized to her. A few days later, Chew told Arnold she wanted a third party to conduct a formal investigation into her sexual harassment allegations. Arnold agreed in late February and hired an investigator.
“When Ms. Chew came forward with her concerns, we immediately involved our board and major investors in hiring Jennifer Wooten Workplace Investigation Law, a leading independent investigator, to conduct a thorough and lengthy investigation,” Arnold said in a statement to Global News.
“All of the recommendations that we received were fully implemented.”
Wickware did not return to Planswell after the investigation concluded in late April. Arnold sent Chew an apology email in early May for what she experienced and said that type of behaviour is not “in line” with what he expects from his team. He also offered to cover the costs of the therapy bills Chew says she incurred dealing with the harassment.
Arnold let Chew know that Planswell had since introduced a new code of conduct and would soon be hiring an outside consultant to provide training for the leadership team “on how to better spot harassment and how to encourage complainants to step forward.”
Davinia Chew. Photo by Laura Whelan.
“A top producer kissed an admin at our office party. She looked sad and ashamed but didn’t react,” Arnold wrote on the platform, recalling an alleged incident that happened when he was 23 years old and new to a job.
“I asked her if she was going to report it, she said, ‘That’s just how it is.’ … It’s easier to value the top sales guy than the cost of bad culture, turnover and reputation.”
“Eric, what you have done is NOT okay,” she wrote in her Sept. 26, 2019 Medium essay as Jane Doe, a pseudonym intended to protect her identity.
“Feminism is not making self-aggrandizing posts on LinkedIn declaring your support for women and disdain for sexual harassment in the workplace while having done exactly the opposite behind closed doors.”
Chew’s essay gained traction and sparked debate in the tech community. It became the subject of articles in BetaKit and multiple think pieces. Arnold quickly responded to her allegations on Twitter, saying he “believed her” and the entire Planswell team is “devastated” by the situation.
Arnold alleged revenue was up, and there were “a ton of investors ready to put together a $20M round.” Investors pulled financing, however, in October after the publicity around the sexual harassment allegations, Arnold said.
On Nov. 6, Chew identified herself, shedding her Jane Doe moniker. She says some former coworkers — people she once considered friends — turned against her. Chew says she also received tweets questioning her credibility.
Arnold told investors in June 2018 that the company “essentially ran out of money” in December 2017, according to internal documents viewed by the Logic. The CEO revealed that the company was barely able to pay employees, and investors had “bailed the company out each time,” according to the Logic.
However, things had turned around in the first half of 2018, Arnold wrote to investors, thanks to $4 million in investment from two mutual funds and a pilot project with Sun Life, which generated another $4.3 million. Arnold told investors the Sun Life partnership could “fund the entire company going forward,” according to the Logic.
In a statement to Global News, a Sun Life spokesperson said the company saw “the potential for an innovative approach to engage clients” through a Planswell partnership but decided to not work with the startup.
While Arnold once attributed Planswell’s closure to the fallout from the sexual harassment allegations, in a statement to Global News, Arnold said: “The issues related to Ms. Chew’s allegation are completely unrelated to the financial challenges Planswell faced prior to our shutdown.”
Since coming forward with her allegations, Chew pivots from feeling responsible for what happened to angry about what she says Wickware and Arnold did. She has continued to see a therapist and has started a new job at a property rental company. Chew says she is trying to heal from what happened at Planswell, but her brain sometimes goes into overdrive and she wishes she could just disappear.
“But then there’s this other side of me that’s always been people like this shouldn’t get away with this sort of behaviour,” she says.
Chew says she wants people and organizations to learn from her experience — especially startups. She thinks the way Arnold characterized women who speak out about sexual harassment — as either being an agent of change or out for blood — is wrong and minimizes the issue.
“I’m just a person who wants and deserves justice. I just want to be seen as a human being,” she says.
“It takes people standing up and speaking up because if you don’t, this keeps happening and the cycle doesn’t break.”