Mahesh Murthy: A #MeToo moment too many?
Mahesh Murthy, Co-founder, Seedfund

Amid a global movement to expose abuse by men in power, the scrutiny over angel investor Mahesh Murthy is set to intensify after he was booked earlier this week in connection with a sexual harassment case.

A college dropout who went on to become an influential figure in India's startup ecosystem, Murthy is now facing a string of sexual harassment allegations in recent months that threaten to derail his career.

On Wednesday, the National Commission for Women said the Maharashtra Police had registered a case against Murthy following a complaint by a woman. She claimed that the investor had stalked her, apart from making objectionable, derogatory and sexual remarks and obscene signs. Her identity remains undisclosed.

Murthy, who also runs digital agency Pinstorm, will now face legal proceedings amid his efforts to set up a new venture capital fund.

An email sent by VCCircle to Murthy seeking comment did not elicit a response at the time of publishing this story. We will publish an update if and when Murthy responds.

This week's development follows accounts from digital media platform YourStory and women-focussed portal SheThePeople last year, where women from various walks of life claimed that Murthy had made inappropriate sexual advances.

In addition, author Rashmi Bansal told tech news website FactorDaily last April that Murthy had made sexual advances towards her 13 years ago.

Murthy had denied these allegations, calling them "absolute and complete lies".

FactorDaily subsequently reported that three other women had alleged similar behaviour on Murthy's part. These included a government officer, a foreign national and a Reuters reporter.

Controversy's child

Now 52, Murthy has come a long way since dropping out of a chemical engineering course in his teens. As a 17-year-old, he reportedly sold vacuum cleaners for Eureka Forbes.

His formal career began in copywriting. Murthy moved on to marketing before eventually rising to the post of country head at Channel V in 1999.

An exit from a tech company he co-founded earned him handsome returns, thereby triggering his career as a startup investor. Over time, he earned heft in India's fledgling startup ecosystem in the mid-2000s.

In 2006, Murthy co-founded early-stage investment firm Seedfund along with Bharati Jacob and Pravin Gandhi.

Seedfund raised two funds and invested in more than 30 startups. Seedfund is now defunct, but was at one stage the most active startup investor in the country. It made its mark as an early stage investor with big exits from RedBus and CarWale, with Afaqs and Chumbak among its other investments.

Murthy was arguably Seedfund's most recognisable face as he often frequented public platforms offering perspective on India's growing internet economy.

But his comments have also attracted controversy on a regular basis. Murthy doesn't mince words on social media, where he describes himself as "unapologetically opinionated".

For instance, he once tweeted that messenger app Hike's “numbers are fraud” and had called e-commerce firm Flipkart’s executives “overpaid underperforming crybabies.”

In addition, he has called leading consumer internet startups in India “copycats” without sound business models.

Murthy's rhetoric is not limited to startups, with the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also finding themselves on the receiving end.

All this has earned him a sizeable social media following. Nearly 1.5 lakh people follow him on Twitter and he is popular on LinkedIn as well.

But while having an acid tongue is one thing, sexual misconduct is a different kettle of fish.

A male entrepreneur, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “He [Murthy] has had a number of allegations against him. He has courted controversies multiple times. But where it crosses the line, is when a person in the public domain starts abusing and misbehaving with women.”

There have been similar allegations of sexual misconduct against other prominent startup figures in recent times. The year gone by saw allegations of sexual harassment against Arunabh Kumar, the founder of media production firm The Viral Fever Media Labs, and Suparn Pandey, co-founder of news website ScoopWhoop.

In the US, Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick had to step down as the CEO last year due partly to allegations of sexual harassment against the ride-hailing firm. In July, well-known Silicon Valley investor Dave McClure was demoted within the firm he co-founded, 500 Startups, after revelations he mistreated women. Outside the startup world, the #MeToo social media campaign took the centre stage last year as hundreds of women came forward to tell their stories of sexual abuse.

While these cases are in the public domain, sexual harassment and sexism behind closed doors at startups remain a cause for concern.

“I am not afraid to admit that I have had instances where I had to step back and say 'don’t talk to me like this'," said Nidhi Agarwal, founder of now-defunct women's fashion brand KAARYAH. "People have commented on my appearance, particularly my body and at my marital status.”

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