Pando

Who is Meera Kaul?

By Dan Raile , written on March 13, 2018

From The Disruption Desk

A few weeks ago, Pando wrote about the latest comeback attempt of disgraced venture capitalist and admitted sexual harasser Justin Caldbeck.

Caldbeck was scheduled to speak at a Women in STEM “Gender Summit,” at least until several prominent industry women -- including one of his victims -- emailed participants and sponsors to alert them to what was going on. After many of the keynote speakers pulled out, Caldbeck was finally pulled from the agenda.

Caldbeck’s name will be familiar to most Pando readers, given he set off the Valley’s own corner of the #metoo movement last year. But there’s another major character in the Women In STEM story about whom far less is known: Conference organizer, Meera Kaul. As we reported, Kaul seemed strangely determined to keep Caldbeck on her speaker list, even at one point emailing other speakers to smear Caldbeck’s accuser Niniane Wang.

So who is Meera Kaul, whose Twitter bio describes herself as a "Gender Rights Advocate" and who claims her work on encouraging women in STEM has been praised by President Obama... but who nonetheless went to bat for one of Silicon Valley's most notorious sexual harrassers?

One person who can help to answer that question is Susana Craig.

Craig says she first met Kaul in December of 2016, at a meeting of the Women in Action group. “The idea was to get together and plan and work on some activities involving setting up a website for women experiencing discrimination, where you could get advice and connect to a female founders group,” Craig said.

Craig was impressed by Kaul. She was looking for a new job and was excited when Kaul offered to hire her as the Chief Operating Officer of the Meera Kaul Foundation at a salary of $125,000 a year. The MKF and WiStem websites claim the organization has a variety of programs including science clubs, summer camps and hackathons for school-aged girls, “Break-in Workshops” for moms, and investments in women-led companies. For a professional mother of four like Craig, this seemed like a dream job.

Fast-forward to today. Craig has filed a lawsuit against Kaul alleging failure to pay and breach of contract, after she says she worked for months without being paid with excuses ranging from a frozen bank account to delayed board approval. At one point, Craig alleges, Kaul offered to pay her half her salary plus commissions on funds Craig was able to raise, before finally claiming there was no hire offer and Craig had been a volunteer all along. (Pando spoke with others who worked alongside Craig in putting last year’s WiSTEM conference together, but did not want to be named. They confirmed to Pando that Craig was described internally as an employee, not a volunteer.)

It wasn’t just the lack of a paycheck that bothered Craig: She was often asked to do work well below the COO level. She worked long days out of Kaul’s home office, regularly being asked to clean the house, walk the dog, and even do Kaul’s laundry. Aside from a personal assistant, she never met another actual employee of the foundation.

Other concerns started to set in as well. At one point Craig was provided with a slide deck and asked to present it on MKF’s behalf to potential sponsors and event participants. She says she was puzzled to see Amal Clooney listed as a speaker, since Clooney was at that time very publicly on the verge of having twins. Craig says she asked Kaul about it, and later Clooney’s name was removed from the slide deck.

Meera Kaul’s name doesn’t bring up a shrug of “Who?” for Craig, it brings up a painful and embarrassing chapter in her career that’s now mired in litigation.

“When you first meet and work with Meera, she is the best,” Craig says. “So attentive and understanding, seems to know everybody. But the moment you start questioning things she becomes defensive, saying you’re stupid, not qualified, making the wrong decisions. And this all started for me when I started asking to get paid.

“The uncomfortable irony is that this is a foundation that is designed to help women and protect them, yet it has taken advantage of them,” Craig says.

Despite months working for the Meera Kaul Foundation, Craig never knew who was on its board, where the funds she was raising were going, and what programs it offers, outside of its Women in Stem events.

Craig is not even sure what to call the organization. Craig filed her complaint against Meera Kaul, the Meera Kaul Foundation and Menina Kaj Femme because she believes these are all one and the same, the various entities the alter egos of one woman. 

“It’s humiliating, and looking back it’s like ‘how stupid can you be?’... like this gaslight feeling,” Craig says. “But honestly I don’t care right now, because I can’t allow this to go on. Someone has to stand up. You just never imagine that someone would do that...you take people for their word. I’m a lot more careful now.”

Of course, the mere filing of a lawsuit isn't proof of wrong doing. But Craig is not the only person in litigation with Kaul around unpaid funds, nor is she the only one raising questions about exactly what the Meera Kaul Foundation is and the motivations of the woman behind it.

Over a few weeks of reporting, Pando has also uncovered the following:

  • A man named Rajiv Dutta in the United Arab Emirates says that he met Meera Kaul through a mutual acquaintance and agreed to loan her $250,000 to help her out of some temporary banking trouble. Dutta says that Kaul portrayed herself as a technology business executive and was introduced by a friend he trusted, so he agreed to loan her money that he’d set aside for his daughters education and inheritance, under the impression it would be returned soon as per a loan contract that Dutta has shared with Pando. Dutta says Kaul’s repayment checks bounced and he hasn’t seen her since. “She has defaulted her commitment and never shown any intentions of returning my hard-earned money. I have worked very hard in Afghanistan for 13 years and slogged myself to earn and save this money for my old age and for my daughters education and marriage, but Meera has ruined my life,” Dutta told Pando, adding that he has been pursuing the case with the authorities in Dubai.
  • A Sunnyvale-based medical device startup called Vasper was in talks with Kaul last year to make her its full time CEO. In a complaint filed yesterday in Santa Clara Superior Court, Vasper’s executives claim that shortly after becoming a member of its board, Kaul began using the Vasper credit card and company account to make payments on MKF related expenses as well as personal car payments. They claim that after learning of this, they confronted Kaul, who resigned and then fired a retaliatory lawsuit.The suit also claims that Kaul falsely claimed to possess an MBA and that she was a “trained lawyer.”

The litigation is still pending, but the allegations paint a pattern of Kaul misrepresenting herself, her experience, and even her degrees.

Even a reading of Kaul’s LinkedIn page brings up red flags. Kaul says she is a Partner at Mighty Capital. However, Mighty Capital’s Managing Director MC Moatti has confirmed to Pando that Kaul is not and never has been a partner.

Kaul also frequently presents herself as holding an MBA from Stanford, in introductory bios and press materials. Pando has confirmed that The Stanford Graduate School of Business alumni portal shows no record of her receiving an MBA. (Kaul did not respond to a list of questions sent by Pando during the reporting of this story.)

Her Crunchbase investor profile lists among her current jobs that she is the Director of a company called Isthmus, and has been since 2012. The red “Isthmus” logo she uses belongs to a Madison, Wisconsin alt-weekly which confirmed to Pando that Meera Kaul holds no position at the publication and is using its logo, apparently without permission.

So if she’s not a Stanford-educated partner of Mighty Capital or a board director of an alt-weekly in Wisconsin, who is Meera Kaul?

According to her LinkedIn page, Kaul claims to have run three entities in the United States: Germanium Ventures, Optimus Ventures, and MKF. She cited these same companies in an interview with UAE DNA in which she also claimed...

[M]y biggest high has been meeting President Obama and his lucid appreciation for my achievements . He said "I’m so proud of you"

 After weeks of reporting, we’re still uncertain whether any of the companies are going concerns. Here’s what we have learned so far:

Germanium Ventures: Kaul claims to be the Managing Director of Germanium Ventures which her LinkedIn profile describes as “a technology investment vehicle with over a billion dollars under management.” (Kaul's LinkedIn profile now appears to have been made private.) Bios used for Kaul's speaking gigs describe Germanium has having variously "over $1B dollars under management" and "a portfolio of investments valued at half a billion dollars." The firm appears to have no webpage. Archived websites for Germanium show it was first created in 2014 and went dark sometime after last fall.

It’s unclear whether Germanium Ventures had (or has) other partners. Of the other people listed on the initial website, this seems to be the same Vincent Miceli, for example, though he doesn’t mention his time at Germanium on Linkedin. Nor does Arjun V. Kapur. Group Chief of Staff David Muramoto has no discernible web presence.

The strangest mention on Germanium’s 2014 staff roster is “Jennifer Bell… Founder and CEO of Bellwether, an international investment and lifestyle firm.” Bell has almost no online presence aside from news reports including this Forbes article from 2015. According to Forbes, someone using the name Jennifer Bell, who claimed to have founded an “investment and lifestyle firm” called Bellwether, defrauded a reality TV couple of $2M in a real estate scam and then left the country. This at the time she was supposedly working at Germanium.

Germanium Ventures lists portfolio companies on some of the archived versions of the site. Of 22 portfolio investments, ten are entities with names containing either “Optimus” or “Momenta,” two companies Kaul most often associates herself with in public as an executive.  

The others are a series of now-defunct consumer apps and startups which never made it past the seed round. One of them, Mapmygenome, lists Meera Kaul as an angel investor in its seed round of $1.1M on Crunchbase. At least it did until this weekend, when someone changed the name on Meera Kaul’s Crunchbase profile from ‘Meera Kaul’ to ‘Maha Bhan’. [Update: Mapmygenome's CEO contacted us after this story was published to say that, despite what Kaul's Crunchbase profile says, she is not an investor in the company.]

There are several venture capital firms with $1 billion under management, but most of them are well-known firms with strong brands, who employ several full time partners and associates, and have a track record of IPOs and acquisitions to their name. It’s not clear that Germanium has any of this right now, as it doesn’t even have a website anymore. It’s also unclear why a firm with a billion under management would offer almost no public information on investments, staff, and operations.

Optimus Ventures. Optimus Ventures is a Delaware-registered corporation whose stock is 100% owned by Kaul according to business records obtained by Pando. Optimus Ventures was registered with the California Secretary of State in 2013, but its registration has since been forfeited.

Optimus Ventures has very little online presence, nor do its many affiliated sister companies in the UAE. In a PR-sodden 2015 article on ArabianBusiness.com, the author claims that “Optimus has grown to incorporate local sales offices and/or representatives in five countries, five distribution centres region wide, and serve 1,000-plus resellers in more than 17 countries.”

It’s website is inscrutably vague about what it actually does. This is the entirety of the site’s “About Us” section:

“We are a global market enablement services company. We are better than the market enablement companies that only work in one market and we are better than the so called strategic investors who have no experience in growing technology business in global markets. We are a team of 60 professionals with global experience in taking new technologies to customers- big and small, all over the world."

The only stateside mention of Optimus Ventures I’ve been able to find is in a series of court cases in San Mateo county, all filed in the Spring of 2017. There are four different computer hardware suppliers suing Optimus for non-payment of contracts totaling just under $750,000. Each company says it contracted to sell Optimus a shipment of hard-drives and notebooks, delivered them, and was never paid. Optimus counters-sues in each saying that yes, the hard-drives were received, but they weren’t up to Optimus’ standards. And no, they won’t be returned. Also, Optimus expects to be paid for the damages, since it sold the hard-drives on and now it isn’t being paid.  

Shortly after these counter suits were filed, Optimus’ attorney Nick Heimlich asked the court that he be removed as council, citing that he could not “appropriately provide advice and counsel as [he deemed] fit for his ethical obligations and obligations to perform his duties adequately. Client has also breached an agreement with Attorney.” These suits are ongoing.

Then there is Safwat Said who worked as Optimus’ accountant for a year. And guess what? He wasn’t paid either. He filed a suit against “Optimus ℅ Meera Koul” (Kaul uses both spellings) in May of last year. In January he received a judgment ordering Optimus and Kaul to pay him $6,550. Reached by phone, he said he still has not been paid. Asked if Optimus is a legitimate business, he said: “I don’t know.”

The Meera Kaul Foundation.  Women in Stem is a conference program organized by the Meera Kaul Foundation, a registered charity. The Meera Kaul Foundation also goes by the names Menina Kaj Femme and MKF Impact, seemingly interchangeably. The conference currently carries the MKF Impact logo, but only Menina Kaj Femme is registered with the IRS as an entity eligible to receive charitable donations.

Last fall, MKF’s Gender Summit was headlined by prominent women in stem like... Vinod Khosla and Tom Steyer. And though it has attracted some degree of prominence to its cause, the nature of its programs and investments in women’s initiatives remains vague and sketchily defined.

So who is Meera Kaul?

That was the question we found ourselves asking that question several weeks ago when we first heard the Caldbeck/Women In STEM story. Why someone who had built her career on helping women in tech would be so insistent to give the microphone to a man who preyed on women trying to build careers in tech. It didn’t add up, and after weeks of frustrating investigation, neither does Meera Kaul’s public persona.

We reached out to Kaul late last week with a list of questions, including all of the issues raised in this story. Kaul didn’t reply directly but someone named Alex Pisetskaya did respond, apparently on her behalf, saying Kaul would be happy to participate but was unable to do so until after the deadline for this story. We’re currently scheduled to meet next week. We’ll update this story if Kaul decides to answer our questions before or during that meeting.

Meantime, even as we reported this story out, more women in tech were getting emails from prominent men in the tech ecosystem asking them to support Kaul’s Women in STEM event later this week. They aren’t alone in wanting to believe in Kaul. The people I spoke to who have worked for, contracted with or volunteered for the Meera Kaul Foundation/Menina Kaj Femme/MKF Impact are sincerely dedicated to the cause of achieving gender equity in the tech industry. They have tapped their own personal networks and put a lot of effort into making the events successful.

I’ve spoken with women who were formerly scheduled to speak or attend Friday’s event but have since dropped out over Caldbeck’s inclusion. Many were asked to speak or attend by male and female VC’s and others in their network, who believed in what MKF was doing, and moreover believed that MKF was actually doing it. Some of them even seem to have believed that Michelle Obama would be keynoting the event.

On Friday, the event’s web page was password protected. On Monday it was back up, but the speaker page was filled with placeholder text.

If there is a current speaker roster, they may have a hard time finding the conference. It was first going to be held at the Computer History Museum then the San Jose Woman’s Club and just yesterday was moved to a Milpitas incubator named Falcon X.