More sexual misconduct allegations emerge against Mahesh Murthy, one as late as 2016

Pankaj Mishra April 28, 2017 17 min

Story Highlights

  • More women are coming out in the public about their experiences of being at the receiving end of verbal and physical impropriety by Mahesh Murthy
  • The three in this report are: a woman government officer; a Reuters journalist who says she was molested by Murthy when she 19 years old; and an American who details verbal and physical advances by him
  • While Murthy has denied sexual harassment and impropriety allegations in the past, he has not responded to FactorDaily’s questions on these three instances

Less than a week after FactorDaily ran its story on sexual misconduct allegations against Mahesh Murthy, partner at venture capital firm Seedfund, dating back to 2003, several other women have come up with their horrifying experiences that show he continued with inappropriate conduct until at least last year.

Author and speaker Rashmi Bansal and Anamika, a human resource (HR) director at Bangalore, had told FactorDaily in a story published April 21 that Murthy had behaved inappropriately both verbally and physically in incidents dating back to 2004 and 2003 respectively in a Mumbai coffee shop.

Several instances have come up before FactorDaily directly or via social media since April 21. Some of the women with experiences with Murthy — ranging from inappropriate electronic messages to verbal advances to physical grabbing — reached out to Bansal.

Investor and advisor Mahesh Murthy. Image: Twitter (@maheshmurthy)

What we have so far suggests a pattern: an influential person in the startup ecosystem using his profile to meet women (one as young as 19 years) on professional pretexts and sexually harassing them. We present three instances — two on the record and one anonymous who has recorded her disgust elsewhere on social media — that we have evidence for and corroboration of what transpired between the women and Murthy.

Murthy was emailed detailed questions (the e-mail, along with the questions, is furnished at the end of this report) by FactorDaily Wednesday evening with a request for reply by 10am Thursday. He hadn’t responded to the questions until the time of publishing this report. In response to questions sent for the FactorDaily report that ran on April 21, Murthy had denied any misconduct towards Bansal and Anamika, calling their allegations “not only false, but also very old”. He had said that he has filed a case of defamation in the Delhi High Court against “specific defendants” related to other allegations made in February.

A government officer, circa 2016

Sometime last year, a woman government officer, posted at one of India’s state capitals, received a Whatsapp message from Murthy around Diwali, the festival of lights, last year.

“Hey babe, one’s supposed to celebrate Diwali by blowing a pataka. So can I go down on you please. :-)” Pataka (patakha) is Hindi for firecracker.

A few months prior to that, the officer told author Bansal on phone that Murthy had connected with her on Facebook. FactorDaily has reviewed this conversation and has independently spoken with the officer. Her experience has been put up by a friend on Facebook, where she has commented on it, too. But she requested her name be not used in this report.

“Hey babe, one’s supposed to celebrate Diwali by blowing a pataka. So can I go down on you please. :-)” — Mahesh Murthy’s WhatsApp message to the woman government officer  

“I have a problem related to (her area of work), can we talk?” was one of Murthy’s early requests, said the officer.

“Are you married?”

And then the officer recalls Murthy saying that he was a divorcee.

It was a simple, straightforward conversation that you might have had with a new friend made on Facebook, according to her.

A day before Diwali, the officer says, Murthy sent a message in the evening. She was still in her office.

“Suddenly a message came from his number on my Whatsapp. It read, on the eve of Diwali, you’re a patakha (cracker) or something like that. I asked him who the bloody hell is this? I asked him who are you? And then he said he’s the devil or something like that,” she said.

“You tell me, how will you feel? Wouldn’t you get shocked,” the officer asked Bansal. “In my life, I am telling you…being a (government) officer I have gone out with tens of male (officers) all by myself. I am so very comfortable with men around me… people around me are very respectful, my entire life. Wherever I go, I command respect, I don’t even demand,” she said.

In a Facebook comment, she explains why she didn’t know who had sent the message. “I talked to him once on phone. 2 times in Whatsapp in general and later I deleted his number because I found him irritating. that’s the reason I asked him what he is,” reads her comment.

The officer said it was at her 17-year-old daughter’s prompting that she came out publicly on Facebook with the messages Murthy sent her soon after Wamika Iyer, among the early women entrepreneurs who called out his lewd messages with screenshots as proof in February.

The officer said it was at her 17-year-old daughter’s prompting that she came out publicly on Facebook with the messages Murthy sent her soon after Wamika Iyer, among the early women entrepreneurs who called out his lewd messages with screenshots as proof in February  

More than two months have gone by since Iyer’s posts — and nearly six months since she herself was at the receiving end of Murthy’s messages — but the officer continues to be incredulous. “I sit with inspectors the whole day. I have gone out for investigations at midnight with colleagues… never faced anything like this my entire life. I felt violated and I simply put it on Facebook.”

For some inexplicable reason, she got banned from Facebook. “I don’t know what happened, maybe someone complained but after I posted, I got banned from Facebook for two days. A friend of mine also wrote on my (Facebook) wall that (I have) been banned by Facebook,” she said.

“Then he (Murthy) messaged me that it’s meant to be a joke. I blocked him on Whatsapp and Messenger also. I didn’t want his apologies. How can you take anything like that as a joke? Someone saying I will go down on you… can you take it as a joke,” she asked Bansal.

The officer then referred to Murthy’s post of Medium, The confessions of a serial offender. “If you see, he has written about some 5-6 people, but never mentioned me, or replied anything related to me. In that article “Serial Offender…” he’s mentioned everyone. Me and my friends were searching for my name. What does he have to say regarding me because he’s been saying that everyone had come onto him. Not a single mention of me anywhere.”

After Iyer’s post on Murthy’s messages went public this February, the officer made a comment on it on social media. Murthy again reached out to her on Messenger. “Hi (name redacted), I understand you’re upset and commenting on my post. May I understand a little on why, and may we talk?” The officer declined to do so. (See screenshots of the conversation attached with the all names blurred.)

“Actually Mahesh Murthy never thought this will become such a scam,” the officer concluded.

Swati Pandey, 19 years old, circa 2003

“You didn’t tell me what size you were…”

Sometime towards the end of 2003, Swati Pandey, then a 19-year-old girl studying at Mumbai’s SIES College, looked at Yahoo! Messenger on her computer screen in disgust and horror. After going through perhaps the toughest day of her life, Pandey, today a Reuters economics and markets reporter of nearly 10 years and posted in Sydney, couldn’t believe her eyes.

The message on her Yahoo! Messenger was from Murthy and he was referring to an upcoming Europe trip during which he wanted to shop lingerie for her.

“Next, he started touching my legs with one hand and planted a big wet kiss on my lips. I noticed one of the waiters ogling at us with lot of interest. My eyes cried for help but my tongue was tied” — Swati Pandey, who was molested by Murthy when she was 19 years old  

“I wanted to wipe out one day from that year forever, but it is so etched in my memory that it is impossible to erase no matter how hard I try. Today I will relive that horrid day once again in the hope that my story will help expose a serial molester and bring me some closure,” she tells FactorDaily in a phone interview.

Pandey, who was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mass media at SIES (Nerul) College of Arts, Science and Commerce, was also freelancing for a Times of India supplement called New Bombay Plus back in 2003.

“I first met venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy at an event organised by the management school of SIES. I was covering that event for New Bombay Plus’s ‘Nosy Parker’ column. Murthy was one of the guest speakers there, I was personally introduced to him after the event,” she recalls.

They exchanged business cards and left the event.

Later that day, Murthy added Pandey on Yahoo! Messenger, according to her.

Around that time, Pandey was also busy preparing for her college film festival. She was looking for sponsorships, chief guests and a panel of judges for selecting the best films. Murthy, with his background in media and entertainment, seemed a good fit to be a member of the jury.

She fixed up a meeting with Murthy, who asked her to meet at the Taj Lands End hotel in Bandra, an upmarket Mumbai suburb overlooking the Arabian sea. She says she remembers she was dressed in a peacock blue churidar and kurta, her favourite (that was the last time she wore it). She had taken a train from Panvel, where she lived, got down at Bandra station and hired an auto rickshaw to the meeting venue.

“When I reached home that evening and logged onto the Internet there was a message from Murthy on my Yahoo! Messenger — ‘You didn’t tell me what size you were'” — Pandey  

Murthy was waiting in the coffee shop.

“You shouldn’t be hiding those sexy legs behind the churidar,” he started off in greeting, she says.

“If someone said that to me today he would get nothing less than a tight slap on the face. But then, I offered an uncomfortable smile,” she says.

“Next, he started touching my legs with one hand and planted a big wet kiss on my lips. I noticed one of the waiters ogling at us with lot of interest. My eyes cried for help but my tongue was tied.”

Feeling helpless, Pandey hoped for Murthy or even the waiter to see the discomfort and displeasure in her eyes and in her entire body language, according to her.

“I was so naive and foolish that it makes me angry just thinking about it. I want to go back in time and react more appropriately! Unfortunately, I can’t, for time and tide wait for none,” she says.

(Dear reader, it is important to reiterate at this stage of this report that we don’t have Murthy’s version of this incident since he has not responded to FactorDaily’s questions.)

One of the questions that comes to mind is that why would Murthy pick a public place for such meetings? Bansal and Anamika in the April 21 report said they were subject to Murthy’s verbal and physical advances at a coffee shop, Mocha, in Bandra. (While denying the allegations of the two in the report published April 21, Murthy agrees he met Bansal but said he has no recollection of meeting Anamika.)

“There is a reason Murthy chooses public places for his lecherous activities,” says Pandey. “He is pretty confident that these women won’t raise a voice. Imagine what had happened if I had risen from my chair then, hit him on his face and created a scene when Murthy tried to outrage my modesty? Would that have helped Murthy keep it in his pants? Perhaps, but his courage comes from our fear,” she says.

Her ordeal for the day was far from over at Taj Lands End, Pandey recalls.

“The only thing I remember him saying was about his Europe trip the following week and that he would like to bring me some lingerie. He asked my size. I didn’t reply, instead told him I needed to rush off to meet a friend.”

“There is a reason Murthy chooses public places for his lecherous activities… He is pretty confident that these women won’t raise a voice” — Pandey  

Murthy offered to drop Pandey to the Bandra station.

“I foolishly said, ‘OK.’ OK?! Was I out of my mind? Perhaps. I was frozen, my senses were not working, I couldn’t immediately comprehend what was going on. It wasn’t what I had thought, it wasn’t what I had expected it to be…,” she says.

Over the approximately four km ride from Taj Lands End towards the Bandra station, Murthy molested her, Pandey says.

“…he would try and touch me lustfully and his amorous advances never stopped in that stifling four-km ride. I did utter ‘no’ and ‘don’t’ sheepishly every time he came close. I recoiled into a smaller being of myself, I was disgusted and shocked — all of which Murthy casually overlooked,” she recalls.

“As soon as we came closer to Bandra railway station and the car stopped at another long red signal, I jumped out and ran as fast as I could. When I reached home that evening and logged onto the Internet there was a message from Murthy on my Yahoo! Messenger — ‘You didn’t tell me what size you were.’”

Caitlin Marinelli, US citizen, circa 2013

Caitlin Marinelli, an US citizen and a Columbia University masters in social enterprise administration, had launched Badal Ja!, a community platform for creating awareness about gender equality in Mumbai. It was March 2013.

Being an active community member, she also connected with the founders of an annual conference in Goa that brings together doers and thinkers from across the fields of cinema, startups, technology, entertainment and so on. (The name of the conference is being withheld keeping with an email reply of Marinelli on the episode.)

“In 2013, I was living in Bandra, planning an event in Goa, for which a mutual contact put me in touch with Mahesh, because the event targeted entrepreneurs, and Mahesh is extremely knowledgeable and well-networked in the space,” Marinelli says on email, after an initial conversation with FactorDaily on phone.

“When I met Mahesh for coffee at Theobromas, he tried to touch my hand several times throughout our conversation, and would often bring up sex in our discussion. When I tried to probe him further about the entrepreneurs and topics we should include at our event, he kept saying I would have to come home to his house so we could have the discussion over a drink.”

Marinelli says she related the experience to a mutual contact, who acknowledged that it was not the first time he had heard a story like this about Murthy.

“When I met Mahesh for coffee at Theobromas, he tried to touch my hand several times throughout our conversation, and would often bring up sex in our discussion. When I tried to probe him further about the entrepreneurs and topics we should include at our event, he kept saying I would have to come home to his house so we could have the discussion over a drink” — Caitlin Marinelli, an US citizen and a Columbia University masters in social enterprise administration  

“Part of me thought I should make a stink about it, but I chose not to, as Mahesh was one of many men who had said inappropriate things to me in a professional context during my time in India. And you have to choose your battles. I felt I would be able to keep my distance from him, and I knew he was a friend of many people I knew, so I opted out of this battle.”

She adds that sexual harassment is not unique to India and is prevalent all over the world, including the US. “My fiance is an Indian man and most of my Indian friends would come to my defence if I asked them to in a situation like that with Mahesh.”

Marinelli stopped contact with Murthy but ran into him at the Goa event a few months later. “He came over to me and said, ‘Hi Caitlin…good to see you again.’ He was holding a beer in his hand at the level of my chest, and leaned forward when his hand touched my chest. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘strong winds here on the beach.’ I quickly made my exit,” she says.

(This story will be updated with Murthy’s version of this, if it comes in, dear reader.)

Murthy’s indiscretions with Marinelli continued into 2014. “About a year later, I went to a conference in South Mumbai, in which he was speaking in a panel. He saw me in the audience, and while the panel was going on, he started messaging me ‘Why should I pay attention to this stupid conversation when I can just stare at you?’ I jetted from the conference quickly after the panel ended so I wouldn’t have to talk to him face to face.”

“When I look back, I feel somewhat ashamed that I didn’t do more to stand up to his creepiness… But as I said, you choose your battles” — Marinelli  

Marinelli says Murthy messaged her a few times on Facebook after that, but she has never responded.

She says she feels contrite about not calling out Murthy’s behaviour then. “When I look back, I feel somewhat ashamed that I didn’t do more to stand up to his creepiness.”

“But as I said, you choose your battles. And despite his creepy side, I actually admired a lot of the work Mahesh was doing and his political opinions. Plus, it felt like many other people were willing to brush his behaviour under the rug as long as he didn’t cross a certain line, so I too accommodated that threshold,” she says.

“It’s frustrating and exhausting to have to relive the experience again and again, so I preferred to forget in and focus on all the good in my life instead.”

Questions emailed to Mahesh Murthy Wednesday evening that remain unanswered:

Dear Mr. Murthy,

We’re doing a follow up story and would be grateful if you could help with your answers to the questions below. The deadline for this story is 10am tomorrow morning and we hope you can help bring clarity to our story with your answers by then.

We’ve interviewed three more people and seek your comments on the following:

A central government officer from (location redacted)

  1. A central government lady officer posted in (location redacted) has said that you reached out to her for some professional advice last year and then around Diwali last year sent her inappropriate electronic messages. Is this true?
  2. Is it true you tried to call her later and message her later to apologise to her?
  3. Is it also true that on February 20 this year, you reached out to her asking if you could speak with her?

Swati Pandey

  1. Do you know a person by the name Swati Pandey? She was a student of SIES College in 2003 and now works as a economics and markets correspondent with Reuters in Sydney.
  2. Ms Pandey has said that you behaved with her inappropriately verbally and physically in 2003 at a meeting in Taj Lands End hotel in Bandra, Mumbai, and after the meeting. Is this true?

Caitlin Marinelli

(Editor’s note: The questions below have the name of the conference in Goa redacted. Murthy was sent questions with the name of the conference.)

  1. Do you know a person by the name Caitlin Marinelli from 2012-13? She’s an American citizen who was one of the people who organised (redacted) conference 2013.
  2. Is it true that when you met Ms Marinelli over coffee to discuss your participation at (redacted) conference, you behaved verbally and physically inappropriately with her?
  3. Is it true that you behaved inappropriately with her at (redacted) conference both physically and via electronic messages? (Editor’s note: After we sent Murthy these questions, it came to our notice that the electronic message was sent at a Mumbai event in 2014, not at the Goa conference.)

Also, Mr Murthy, you had mentioned in your last reply that you would check for emails from 2003 and 2004 on a hard drive in Mumbai. Let us know if you have been able to do so and whether you have found anything that you can add to your answers sent to us earlier.

Thanks again for helping us bring clarity.

Also read:

Why don’t our CEOs stand up against our ‘bro culture’?

Is your startup sexist? Signs to watch out for

The Outliers 3: Ashwini Asokan gets vocal about sexism in the tech ecosystem

Other stories on sexism 

 


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.