Protocol | Workplace

CEO warned founder that people might see her as 'a bitch,' new lawsuit alleges

Knoq founder Kendall Hope Tucker is suing the company that acquired her startup for discrimination, retaliation and fraud.

Kendall Hope Tucker

Kendall Hope Tucker, founder of Knoq, is suing Ad Practitioners, which acquired her company last year.

Photo: Kendall Hope Tucker

Kendall Hope Tucker felt excited when she sold her startup last December. Tucker, the founder of Knoq, was sad to "give up control of a company [she] had poured five years of [her] heart, soul and energy into building," she told Protocol, but ultimately felt hopeful that selling it to digital media company Ad Practitioners was the best financial outcome for her, her team and her investors. Now, seven months later, Tucker is suing Ad Practitioners alleging discrimination, retaliation and fraud.

Knoq found success selling its door-to-door sales and analytics services to companies such as Google Fiber, Inspire Energy, Fluent Home and others. Knoq representatives would walk around neighborhoods, knocking on doors to market its customers' products and services. The pandemic, however, threw a wrench in its business. Prior to the acquisition, Knoq says it raised $6.5 million from Initialized Capital, Haystack.vc, Techstars and others.

During the contract negotiations process, Tucker alleges Ad Practitioners willfully misled her about certain financial terms. While employed at the company, Tucker says members of Ad Practitioners' executive team discriminated against her due to her gender and retaliated against her after she came forward with claims of discrimination.

Protocol reached out to Ad Practitioners for comment but the company has not yet responded.

As part of the acquisition, Tucker and the rest of the Knoq team moved from Boston to Puerto Rico, where Ad Practitioners is headquartered. But Tucker said she and her team received very little help during their transition. That's what prompted Tucker and the rest of the Knoq team to draft a guide on moving to Puerto Rico to help future employees. Tucker eventually met with Ad Practitioners CEO Greg Powel about the proposed onboarding guide, but he was not receptive, according to the lawsuit.

Powel said, according to the lawsuit, that the onboarding guide was not "culturally sensitive" and that Tucker "didn't want to be known around the office as 'a bitch.'" The part he took issue with, according to Tucker, pertained to the document's use of "island time" to signal that people in Puerto Rico are a bit more lax about time. The lawsuit alleges Powel told Tucker that she didn't want to "have [her] colleagues thinking, 'Fuck you' every time" they saw her.

The lawsuit points to a handful of other instances to support Tucker's claims of gender discrimination. For example, Tucker alleges Powel told her he disliked her "voice on social media" because she "talked too much about being a 'female founder' and what [she] learned throughout her startup journey."

Tucker also alleges Powel made disparaging remarks about the head of human resources, head of social media and office manager — all three of whom are Puerto Rican women. According to the lawsuit, Powel said, for example, the head of social media was "too difficult" and the office manager needed to be "kept in her place."

On April 6, 2021, Tucker reported Powel to Ian Robertson, the company's head of finance and operations. Robertson, however, allegedly told Tucker that Powel would not behave that way, and dismissed her claims of gender discrimination at the company.

Three days later, Tucker directly confronted Powel, who allegedly denied he treated her differently as a result of her gender. He did, however, commit to improving their relationship, according to the lawsuit. On April 12, Tucker emailed the HR department to express how she had struggled with anxiety since coming on board to Ad Practitioners.

Then, three days after her email to HR, Robertson, Powel and the head of HR fired her, the lawsuit states. In the meeting, Powel allegedly said, "We've listened to your feedback over the last few weeks and clearly this isn't working out. You aren't happy here and we don't feel like this business unit is going to be successful with you leading it."

Tucker felt surprised, she told Protocol, because she thought the conversation with Powel went well and that it seemed they "were all aligned on striving to hit our goals," she said.

After receiving the news, Tucker's Knoq team walked her out of the office, and that's when she said the surprise began to wear off. That surprise turned into anger.

"I just felt so angry that after five years of huge amounts of work, these guys thought they could take my company and not pay me what they owed me," she said.

Upon her termination, Ad Practitioners offered her $75,000 as long as Tucker agreed to state the company fired her with just cause, and that she would not file any claims against the company. The terms of the agreement would also require Tucker to forgo her annual salary of $110,000, Class B shares distributions ($150,000 untaxed), Class A shares, $15,000 signing bonus and her portion of the promised $18 million earn-out, which she estimates to be worth at least $6.4 million.

Tucker did not accept the agreement, despite Robertson allegedly threatening her that the company would disparage her reputation and damage her ability "to actively fundraise in the future," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in Puerto Rico, seeks at least $6.4 million in damages as well as other forms of relief. You can read the full complaint below.

Tucker v Ad Practitioners.pdf

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