The Ouster Of A Fintech CEO Over Sexual Impropriety Shows Rare Action In Nigerian Tech

By  |  October 6, 2022

Eke Urum, co-founder of Risevest; the Nigerian fintech startup whose app is a portal to retail investment opportunities in global stocks, real estate, and more, has faced a series of controversial allegations in the past year. The latest issue has led to his removal from the CEO role, as first reported by TechCabal.

It’s a rare moment of definitive punitive action against a tech CEO over sexual misconduct allegations in a Nigerian startup scene that has been rocked by such incidents in the past but has remained largely unmoved for reasons that have been linked to a lack of resolve and a tendency to heed the status quo.

This lack of resolve is believed to have been demonstrated perhaps most blatantly in a publicized case in 2020 when Kelechi Udoagwu, a communications consultant for tech startups, alleged in a series of tweets that she was sexually harassed by Kendall Ananyi, Chief Executive at Tizeti, an internet service provider. She revealed somewhat graphic details in which Ananyi allegedly solicited sexual acts after exposing his private parts.

Although Ananyi was asked to step aside, the company reinstated him a month later stating that after an investigation by a Special Independent Investigation Committee led by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Olumide Sofowora “a case of sexual harassment had not been established” following the review of information that was gathered from sources in Nigeria and Ghana and interviews conducted with Udoagwu and Ananyi separately. Udoagwu disputed the findings and maintained the investigation was rigged.

In another incident showing the extent of the established impunity, a former employee at one of Nigeria’s biggest fintech startups, who spoke to Quartz Africa in 2020 on the condition of anonymity, told the story of a male co-worker who was initially fired for sexual misconduct after forcibly kissing her, but was secretly kept on by the company as a contractor. Earlier this year, rumours of sexual impropriety around the leadership at Africa’s highest valued startup, Flutterwave, entered the public domain but it was quickly swatted away.

Some might have expected a similar outcome when Risevest co-founder, Urum, became the subject of a sexual misconduct investigation in August, but things appear to have turned out differently as Urum now seems to have caught a charge after finding himself at the centre of a number of controversies in the past year.

In February 2021, a former employee who was Head of Marketing at the startup put up a post on Medium accusing him of creating a stifling work environment where criticism was unwelcome and breaching the terms of her engagement. Urum initially described the employee’s claims as “blatant half-truths” but eventually accepted responsibility and apologised.

A fresh concern arose for Urum earlier this year when the Nigerian startup ecosystem had a reckoning over workplace mistreatment, sparked by worrying employee accounts of employer abuse at Bento. In the ensuing outpouring of outrage and speak-outs, Urum was accused of sexual harassment by a person whose identity is unknown. Urum firmly denied it with explanations that suggested nothing of the sort had happened and the possible accuser was not an employee at Risevest.

A third bout of controversy came to light in August this year when investors at Risevest recommended that the company’s founder and CEO, Urum, step down from his role due to ongoing investigations into allegations of sexual and non-sexual impropriety. After an investigation that lasted six weeks, Urum is now reported to have been found guilty of sexual impropriety and abuse of power.

Following the findings, Urum will now vacate the CEO role permanently, with co-founder and Head of Operations, Tony Odiba, who took over as acting CEO in August remaining in the role until the company’s newly constituted board appoints a substantive CEO. However, Urum is expected to play a role at the board level and on the Risevest investment strategy setup.

The panel of investigation, made up of Odun Longe and Toni Tunde-Anjous, and chaired by Tomi Davies, says it spoke with almost 60 current and former employees. The investigation established that while Urum cannot be tied to any form of sexual assault, the now-erstwhile CEO was found to have engaged in sexual impropriety including admitted sexual relations with an employee, and unwanted and inappropriate jokes and conversations, per reporting citing a statement from the panel.

In response to the reports, Urum has faulted the representation and framing of details while reiterating that he had no sexual relations with an employee and never engaged in sexual harassment or assault of any kind. He however took some responsibility for the incidents of workplace bullying and accepted recommendations to improve culture at the startup.

Urum, who appeared to have been quite cooperative throughout the process, says he regrets the distraction he has caused and will be seeking professional help to aid self-improvement. He also pledged support for the company’s new leadership.

The ouster of Risevest’s CEO sets a precedent in a local tech scene that may not be quite as riddled with incidents of sexual misconduct as more established industries and corporates but has become increasingly fraught with unbridled inappropriate behaviour, serving a sort of disappointment that stems from expectations that a new generation of young, polished leaders in tech would do better than the old guard.  

The extent of the problem and the dearth of preventive, corrective, or punitive action, however, remains deeply troubling. A 2020 survey revealed that the vast majority of boards (77 percent) had not discussed accusations of sexually inappropriate behaviour or sexism in the workplace. For nearly all of them, scandals around sexual harassment didn’t trigger the creation of a plan of action (88 percent) or any actualisation of the risk assessment regarding these issues (83 percent).

In a male-dominated industry, more female victims have raised complaints on this issue, 56 percent of female founders and C-suite executives in Nigeria’s tech industry have reportedly said that they faced “gender-based challenges” in the course of their work.

UPDATE: This article was updated at 14:00 WAT with the tweeted statement from Eke Urum.

Featured Image Credits: Risevest

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