HomeAsian AmericansFormer CEO files racial discrimination lawsuit over termination

Former CEO files racial discrimination lawsuit over termination

By Ferry Baylon, AsAmNews Intern

Marketing startup co-founder and former chief executive officer Justin Zhu is suing his former company, Iterable Inc., for discrimination.

This lawsuit sheds light on the anti-Asian discrimination that has become even more prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Zhu said that investors cited Asian stereotypes such as not being forceful enough or being conflict-averse as the reasons why he should no longer be his company’s CEO.

“What became apparent is that I didn’t have the right face to be CEO. I got the message that as an Asian American, I should be working on the technology of the product, but not be the CEO of my company,” Zhu said. 

In April 2021, Zhu was removed from his CEO position over violations of company policy.

According to Zhu’s complaint filed in the Superior Court of California in the City and County of San Francisco on Nov. 15, Iterable co-founder Andrew Boni and the board of directors cited his use of LSD, an illegal drug in the United States, before a meeting in 2019 as the reason for his termination.

“I’ve been facing this push from the investors to remove me for almost two years. It really started picking up after we got to a half-a-billion-dollar valuation and getting to a more successful place,” Zhu said. 

Zhu admitted that he was microdosing LSD to boost his focus at work. According to the court documents, Zhu experienced mental health strains such as depression and anxiety due to stress, but says he did so only once.

“Stress and trauma from the aggressive push of my investors to try to convince me that I shouldn’t be CEO really added to those challenges. That kind of psychological trauma was a big part of it,” Zhu said.

The court documents cited that “the microdosing had not adversely affected his ability to perform his duties.”

Zhu called his termination “pretextual and a subterfuge.”

Raising racial discrimination issues in the workplace is vital, said Zhu, Asian Americans have long been seen as “model minorities” whose struggles often get overlooked.

“The fact that it’s happening to me, as a co-founder and CEO of a billion-dollar company, paints a picture of how bad it is for Asian Americans,” Zhu said.

Charles Jung, a partner at Nassiri & Jung LLP representing Zhu said that the racism that Asian Americans experienced over the past two years of the pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Statistics show that across industries, Asian Americans have the same experience where they’re not seen as the faces of leadership,” Jung said.

“I think Asian Americans have had it with being treated as second-class citizens, being called a model minority or the microaggressions that come with the bamboo ceiling concept,” Jung added.

Jung hopes that Zhu’s story would show that racial discrimination toward Asian Americans is pervasive.

“People should not minimize the struggles many Asian Americans face and really, give credence to our lived experiences,” Jung said.

Zhu emphasizes that just because many Asian Americans have not spoken up about the discrimination they face in their workplace, it does not mean it does not exist.

“It’s very difficult, even for someone in my position to speak up, but I feel that I have a duty to do so, given that I have resources,” Zhu said.

Zhu is the co-organizer of Stand With Asian Americans, founded after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021.

Their open letter calling out the racism and the violence against Asian Americans has been signed by thousands of Asian Americans, including business leaders of Zoom, DoorDash, Alphabet, Youtube, and so many more.

“As part of Stand with Asian Americans, we’ve introduced a platform to report discrimination and get good resources. We have support groups and connections to lawyers to help others tell their stories,” Zhu said.

Zhu said that through the lawsuit against his $2 billion company and some members of Iterable’s board of directors – such as venture capitalists Murat Bicer of Charles River Ventures and Lee Wittlinger of Silver Lake – he hopes to encourage those facing discrimination in the workplace and on the streets to fight back and dispel the myths of model minority.

As of writing, Iterable has yet to respond to AsAmNews’ request for comment.

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