My Friend Was Caught Up In A Toxic Work Culture, And I Didn’t Know

Photographed by Ingalls Photography.

This is an open letter to my friend, Ann Lai, who filed a lawsuit against her former employers, Justin Caldbeck and Jonathan Teo of Binary Capital. Due to ongoing litigation, Ann is unable to make any public statements until the case is resolved.

I have been with Ann from the beginning, and I watched how a toxic work environment took its toll emotionally, mentally, and physically. The signs were all there, and I should’ve done more. I am writing in hopes of inspiring others to stand up not only for your friends, but on behalf of the tech community.

Dear Ann,

Words cannot describe the rage and horror reading the 22-page complaint on file at the Superior Court of San Mateo. I painstakingly combed through each visceral detail in the document. Your cryptic messages, spontaneous outbursts, and emotional breakdowns over the past 14 months all started to make sense.

I had to wonder: How much fear and anxiety did you internalize and keep out of public view due to the non-disclosure and non-disparagement provisions of your previous employment contract? All this time, you told me everything was okay. But something was off; something wasn’t right.

Let’s rewind back to September 2015, when we first met at an eSports viewing party. From our first conversations on untapped market opportunities and business models in eSports, I knew that you were (and still are) an incredibly intelligent and accomplished individual. When we discussed how to better support eSports athletes after competitive play, I respected your strong moral compass and willingness to help those in need. When you suggested we meet up in Berlin for 36 hours to attend an eSports championship, I became inspired by your adventurous spirit and infectious energy.

Since then, we’ve spent quite a bit of time with each other. As a fellow woman in tech, I was impressed when you explained the data-driven sourcing strategy behind your firm’s investments and the key performance metrics and frameworks in which you evaluated these companies. (After all, you finished your bachelor's degree in chemistry and physics, masters in applied mathematics and doctorate degree in engineering sciences from Harvard in seven years.) And, you’re not afraid to get shit done: You told me about countless moments where you worked with your portfolio companies to get them to their next growth milestone.

During 2016, we both faced hardships with our respective companies as the year progressed. I made the decision to resign in April 2016. During the transition, I agreed to represent the company officially at an event in Croatia. When you told me that your managers rewarded you with an all-expenses paid vacation and you decided to join me, I was grateful and relieved that I wouldn’t be alone.

At the beginning of the trip, we had a blast. We explored the Croatian coast and islands. We walked around abandoned hotels where they filmed Game of Thrones. We consumed copious amounts of grilled fish and seafood pasta, and your managers, Justin Caldbeck and Jonathan Teo, even gifted us spa packages at the hotel we were staying at.

A beach selfie of Ann Lai (left) and the author Koh Kim (right) in Croatia.

Even though you were on vacation, you still checked emails in case something urgent came up from work. Each time you checked your email, I noticed your shoulders sunk a little bit as your face tightened with worry. As the days passed in Croatia, you spent more time on your phone with increased apprehension. I asked if everything was okay, but you always said “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” Every time I asked, I noticed it took a second longer for a response. Nonetheless, you always smiled back or try to soften the mood with a joke or two.

Since that trip, I knew something wasn’t right. A week later, you told me that your “all-expenses paid” vacation suddenly wasn’t going to happen, so I sent some money to share the burden. You even asked about my summer travel plans and invited me to stay with you in Taiwan the following month. But I wondered: Why would you go on another vacation so soon?

Shortly after, you resigned from Binary Capital. You came to visit me in LA. When we were catching up in my room, I turned my back on you for a minute only to discover you suddenly crying in the corner behind my bed. I asked you, “What happened between you and your employer?” You only could stare back at me with anguish, and your tears continued to fall. All I could do was sit silently next to you. Then, you carried on if nothing happened. I was hurt because I thought that our friendship meant that you would be comfortable to tell me what troubled you.

In June of 2016, you set off on your backpacking adventure. We met up briefly in Taipei for an afternoon, but we lost contact for most of the summer outside of occasional Facebook or Snapchat messages. When you finally came back to San Francisco, you announced your imminent move to New York City in October.

Although I knew that you had a penchant for spontaneous adventures, you were always more calculated and cautious with your career. You rationalized how the fast-growing company you were joining may IPO in the near future, but I knew you were running away from something. What was causing you to suddenly pack up and leave the life you built in San Francisco?

In December 2016, you decided to come back to the West coast and work for Facebook. It surprised me. Facebook? You thrived on architecting growth for early-stage high-growth companies, and you treated these early-stage companies you worked with like family. Choosing a larger, slower-paced behemoth like Facebook seemed a little odd, but I supported your decision anyway.

Everything on your former boss, Justin Caldbeck, and Binary Capital broke two weeks ago when you filed your lawsuit. Your withdrawals, breakdowns, and mood swings all made sense once I read your complaint, detailing in light of the harassment, toxic work environment, and continuous threats on your reputation combined with the gag order from your employment contract. The power imbalance between you and your former employer placed you in a position where you had nowhere to go. I was horrified when reading the messages from Justin you included in the complaint, like the one below.

The Silicon Valley hubris is real. Despite the cease-and-desist letter sent all those months back, the messages you quoted in the complaint showed that Binary relentlessly continued to threaten and blackmail you long after you resigned. On top of that, it didn’t stop Binary from intervening and shutting down prospective employment leads. They really thought they could sweep this under the rug and get away with it.

Reading the complaint, I could only imagine the desperation, loneliness and anguish you felt when your job leads dried up and “friends” started to abandon you. There was no place you could turn except to the few who stood by your side. Even through all this personal turmoil, you still remained as positive as you can be and went out of your way to help people you care about succeed.

All I did was stand silently by your side as you suffered alone. I didn’t push further because I was afraid. Reflecting back, this was wrong on my part, and I should have done more. In the last year, you have always been supportive of pursuing my dreams when I doubted myself and generously offered your time and resources during my journey of self-discovery and entrepreneurship. You’re one of the strongest and most courageous women I know. But being virtually by your side and supporting you via text is not enough: This is why I came back to San Francisco — not only launch my new company, but to also become your voice and light in times of darkness.

My friend, you have escaped the cage. Your wings are stretched out. Now fly. I got your back — here, and wherever it is you want to go.

This essay originally appeared on the writer's personal blog. It was also published on Medium.