Justin Zhu, co-founder and former CEO of cross-channel marketing platform Iterable, has filed a federal lawsuit against the company, citing anti-Asian discrimination.
Zhu is credited for spearheading the startup toward a $2 billion valuation last year. But just as he was taking the company to new heights, he was abruptly fired for a 2019 incident in which he allegedly took LSD ahead of an important meeting with investors.
Iterable cited violations in company policy as grounds for terminating Zhu, who then confirmed with Bloomberg that he had used LSD to “heal the trauma and stress associated with this [CEO] role.” For some time, microdosing has been a trend among Silicon Valley professionals as a means of improving creativity and work performance, according to multiple reports.
However, Zhu claims in his federal lawsuit filed this month that the true reason behind his termination was his East Asian background.
“Asian Americans aren’t just workers, we’re leaders,” Zhu said in a news release. “If I faced this kind of discrimination after starting and building a successful company, think about how pervasive anti-Asian racism is across the workplace.”
Zhu’s firing came on the heels of the Atlanta spa shootings, which intensified discussions on anti-Asian hate. “They stated that if he cared about Asian causes, he could invest in them, not serve the goal by being a role model as CEO,” the suit notes.
Zhu says he was told for nearly two years that he did not look like a CEO, all while hearing that his Caucasian COO did. In board meetings, he allegedly heard comments about how he was “not passionate enough,” “not forceful enough,” “conflict averse” and needed “more presence,” which all “fell along the lines of common stereotypes about Asian Americans.”
At one point, a leading investor allegedly suggested that he should instead be Iterable’s chief technology officer, a role that would make him responsible for the company’s product and not its face.
“This has been a journey of awareness for me. Like so many other Asian Americans over the last couple years, I’ve been reckoning with my experiences of racism and the surprising psychological pain. It took time for me to recognize the unbelievable amounts of racism entrenched in seemingly polite offices and board rooms,” said Zhu, who co-founded Stand with Asian Americans, a national advocacy group that tackles workplace justice issues for Asian Americans.
“But I feel responsible to my community to put the truth on the record,” he added. “The more we all confront the reality of workplace discrimination, the better equipped we are to overcome it.”
Today, Stand with Asian Americans provides a space for members of the community to report workplace discrimination and seek support.
“The core truth of Justin’s story is that he is far from alone. We know his experience represents and resonates with many others who have experienced a kind of racism that is pervasive and runs rampant in the workplace,” said Charles Jung, a partner at Nassiri & Jung LLP representing Zhu. “But Asian Americans are increasingly speaking about the racism they face—and challenging it. We hope Justin’s case continues this positive trend and encourages others to come forward with their stories.”