Yulia Zamora hoped for a career in consumer lending in 2015 when she went to work in the Healdsburg offices of the online startup, Social Finance.
What the Santa Rosa Junior College graduate got at the novel consumer finance firm, also known as SoFi, was something different.
Managers during her 3 p.m.-to-midnight shift encouraged employees to drink from a margarita cart or grab beer from an on-site Kegerator. Talk from the bosses quickly became sexual, with supervisors engaging in bathroom and parking lot trysts with female employees, Zamora said, and at an office Christmas party a director approached the 28-year-old underwriter saying he wanted to do “sexy things” to her.
She quit and later contacted a lawyer, joining a growing number of former SoFi employees complaining about the work environment at the San Francisco-based company that’s been valued at more than $4 billion.
They came forward after a lawsuit filed last month by Brandon Charles, a senior operations manager at the Healdsburg office who was hired March 1. The lawsuit claims he witnessed managers improperly record loans in order to boost their pay, and cancel some loan applications rather than report errors that could impact their quarterly performance bonuses, which could range as high as $15,000.
Charles, 33, claims he was fired after calling attention to the sexually charged atmosphere in which supervisors talked about sex in front of women subordinates, made unwelcome sexual comments and sexually harassed female employees.
“It was being run as a frat house,” Zamora said in an interview Wednesday. “Managers, directors ... it didn’t matter who it was. Everyone was having sex with anyone.”
San Francisco attorney Robert Ottinger said Charles’ lawsuit unleashed a flood of reports suggesting the behavior extended to the main office and was fostered by CEO Mike Cagney, 46. The married father of two, one of the startup’s co-founders in 2011, had a reputation for pursuing sex with women employees and is alleged to have surrounded himself with lieutenants who shared his zeal. Among the allegations are that his former chief financial officer promised breast enlargement surgery to employees who achieved sales goals and offered women incentives for losing weight, Ottinger said.
“That’s why the people in Healdsburg were acting the way they were,” said Ottinger, who also launched a class-action suit against SoFi over unfair pay claims, in which Zamora is a plaintiff. “You take your cues from the leaders of the company.”
Amid a growing public relations crisis, the startup announced Monday that Cagney would step down immediately as chairman and as CEO by the end of the year.
However, a company spokesman said in an email Wednesday that Charles’ claims were investigated in-depth by the startup and found to have no merit. He reserved comment about the wage dispute.
It was just the latest scandal to rock Bay Area startups, which have been the focus of recent sexual harassment complaints. The topic was a factor in a recent internal investigation at Uber and the ouster of its founder, Travis Kalanick, who was accused of allowing inappropriate behavior.
SoFi, co-founded by Cagney in 2011, began refinancing student loans for people from top universities in a growing segment called financial technology or fintech. It targeted high earners with the possibility of becoming rich. The firm has since expanded to home mortgages and general consumer loans and is known for creative marketing, including Super Bowl ads.