clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Sex, bots, and audiotape

At an AI startup with deep ties to the University of Michigan, employees allege a pattern of sexual harassment by the CEO

On June 5th, 2017, Ryan*, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, sent a desperate email to the head of the computer science department at the school. “Hello Professor, I have an urgent matter to discuss with you. When will you be back?” he wrote.

He was concerned about the behavior of his thesis adviser and boss, Jason Mars. Two days earlier, Mars had allegedly made inappropriate sexual comments about Ryan’s girlfriend at the Revel and Roll bowling alley in Ann Arbor, Michigan. According to Ryan’s detailed notes, Mars said she had a “nice ass” and asked if she “shaved.” He also said, “She can sit on my face.”

Ryan remembers feeling speechless and utterly powerless. “All those quirky behaviors that I didn’t know were abusive at the time fell into place,” he says. When he met with the head of the computer science department later that week, he showed the man his notes about what had happened and said he needed a new adviser.

Both Ryan and his girlfriend worked at Mars’ startup, a buzzy AI company called Clinc that he’d founded with his wife and fellow professor Lingjia Tang. Clinc’s platform helped companies build sophisticated chatbots tailored to their specific customers’ needs. In Ann Arbor’s burgeoning tech scene, the company was a rising star, with clients that included USAA, Ford, and Barclays.

Yet, Ryan found Mars and Tang to be difficult to work with. On campus, they were known to get in fights that were so loud that people in nearby labs would hear their shouts through the walls. At the company, where the atmosphere was looser, they would frequently scream and swear at employees.

Asked about Ryan’s claims, Mars and Tang directed questions to a crisis PR firm representing Clinc, which did not respond to them directly.

In the three years since Ryan voiced his concerns, Clinc has grown from around 20 to 120 people and raised $59.8 million in funding. It’s added high-profile clients, including Sprint and US Bank, and it’s continued to enjoy a close relationship with the University of Michigan.

Mars is now an associate professor at the University of Michigan, where he teaches a class on conversational AI that utilizes Clinc’s platform. But complaints about the CEO have mounted: Mars currently faces two legal claims from employees who say they feel traumatized and disrespected by his behavior. In the course of reporting this story, Clinc completed an investigation of Mars’ behavior, and he decided to step down as CEO.

The issues go far beyond lewd comments. Leaked emails, text messages, and financial documents, along with interviews The Verge conducted with 13 current and former workers, some of whom were once Mars’ students, reveal that the CEO has sexually harassed female employees and clients, verbally accosted workers and interns, and kept his nanny and brother on the company payroll. One of the legal claims also alleges that he hired a sex worker in front of an employee on a business trip and showed that same employee videos of him having sex with multiple women.

The behavior has continued in part because no one has been able to hold the CEO accountable. Until now, many employees felt it would be too professionally risky to report him. Students worried about retaliation since Mars controlled their jobs and income.

The situation has allowed Clinc to exist in an accountability vacuum, enjoying the benefits of its close association with the university without the constraints of having to comply with school rules. To date, Ryan is the only person The Verge knows of who has come forward with an official complaint to the school. Yet, he ultimately decided not to file for fear that Mars would learn he was involved. When asked for comment, the University of Michigan said school policy does not allow it to publicly discuss specific matters. But it added that if it does not know the identity of the person reporting such a claim, it is difficult for it to fully investigate.

Ultimately, Ryan decided to drop out of his PhD program.

The following year, Mars got tenure.

When Mars and Tang founded Clinc in 2015 with two of their former PhD students, they took years of research on computer architecture and language processing to create an intelligent chatbot.

At the time, these bots were widely seen as tech’s next major platform. Consumers ultimately shrugged at the technology, which was slow and confusing to use. But Clinc quietly carved out its niche of pitching its product as a customer experience tool.

“We’ve been kind of underground in the fintech scene,” Mars explained during a live demo at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2018. “If you’re a large financial institution, a large wealth management institution, you know about us. We’ve been around and we’ve been dominating the space.”

Clinc’s product allowed users to have realistic conversations with the bot, offering contextual answers to even the messiest and most ill-formed questions. During the TechCrunch demo, Mars’ co-founder showed what the experience would feel like in a car. “We’re thinking of going on a road trip. Do you think we have enough gas to make it to Sacramento?” he asked. “Ok, I’m starting the navigation to Exxon. It’s about 4.4 miles away,” the assistant answered. Clinc’s AI hadn’t answered the question, but Mars stood onstage smiling as though it was groundbreaking.

One of Clinc’s greatest advantages was its close association with a prominent university. As computer science programs exploded across the country, CS classes at the University of Michigan grew, and the school formalized its relationship with startups and venture capital.

Today, the University of Michigan has a venture center that pours money into emerging companies. While Clinc hasn’t received investments from this fund, the university has sponsored multiple grants from the National Science Foundation that feed into Mars’ research. One of Clinc’s investors, eLab Ventures, also has deep connections to the University of Michigan and frequently co-invests with the school.

The veneer of academic prestige has helped Mars and Tang institute unusual arrangements at Clinc. In years past, they’ve had their personal nanny on the company payroll, paying her roughly $40,000 a year. Mars’ brother, who once worked as Clinc’s data annotator, continued making $39,600 long after he stopped showing up to the office. A Clinc spokesperson did not respond directly to requests for comment about these arrangements.

If the walls between Mars’ home life and the office seemed thin, the walls between the university and the office were even thinner. Mars teaches a class on conversational AI that helps students understand Clinc’s platform, and he often has Clinc employees teach for him. He has also hosted office hours at Clinc’s headquarters, a situation that annoyed some employees.

Once, during an all-staff meeting, an employee said: “I find it disagreeable that we are devoting Clinc resources towards the UM class. Not only is our office space being used for the class (for hosting office hours), but we are using employee resources to help teach a class.”

But for Mars and the University of Michigan, the relationship appears symbiotic. The CEO receives a steady stream of engineering talent from the school, and the school can brag about its ties to a flashy AI startup to potential computer science students.

At Stanford, the institution that arguably pioneered this strategy, university-affiliated startups have raised ethical concerns. In a 2013 article in The New Yorker, writer Nicholas Thompson asked, “Do students get good grades if they start a company that their professors invest in? What happens to a student who wants to create a competitor to a company the chair of his department has already helped fund?” He added, “Professors have coercive power, which isn’t the best thing to pair with financial opportunity.”

The issue is compounded by the differing standards of behavior between academic institutions and startups. On campus, getting a drink with a superior is often reserved for special occasions. But at startups, all-staff happy hours are the norm. Even Clinc interns participated in the casual culture of drinking, where alcohol was often stacked on top of the fridge.

Mars and Tang also liked to invite small groups of employees over to their house after work for happy hours or nightcaps. At these events, Mars was known to ask employees probing and inappropriate questions about their sexual preferences, like what their favorite sex position was or if they had a “darkest fetish.”

A Clinc spokesperson did not respond directly to requests for comment about this behavior.

When Stella* interviewed at Clinc, she didn’t see any red flags. She primarily spoke with Tang who’d been friendly and professional during the process, even laughing a couple of times while the pair chatted in a glass conference room. (Tang’s laughter surprised nearby employees; they later told Stella they’d rarely seen the co-founder so carefree.)

Four months after she started, Stella went on a trip to San Francisco with Mars and some of the sales associates. One evening, at a cigar bar in SoMa, Mars came up behind Stella as she was sitting on a barstool and put his arms around her waist. He then snuck his fingers up the back of her shirt. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” she recalls. “I was so humiliated and trying not to cry.”

Then he told her he wanted her to sit on his face. “His big thing is telling people to sit on his face,” Stella remembers. “He said it to me. He was like, ‘I wish you would sit on my face.’ In my head I was like, ‘I wish you would get hit by a trolly.’” Mars did not respond to requests for comment about this allegation.

Stella decided not to report the incident. She didn’t know who she could trust, and she didn’t want to put her job at risk. The person she was reporting, after all, was the CEO; his wife was the COO. Who knew what would happen if she called him out?

A similar situation unfurled the year before on a business trip to San Antonio, Texas. Clinc was working on a big project with financial services firm USAA, which was one of the company’s largest clients. One evening, the Clinc and USAA teams went to a bar together. According to employees, Mars was drinking and began inappropriately touching a young USAA employee. As his employees watched in horror, he grabbed the woman’s butt, then slid his hands across her breasts.

At one point, according to the woman who was groped, Mars also whispered, “I want to do nasty things to you” in her ear. One of her male co-workers overheard Mars’ comment, and she thought he was about to step in to help. Instead, she remembers the co-worker saying, “Don’t worry — everyone wants to do nasty things to you.” Clinc eventually hired that employee who did not respond to a request for comment.

A Clinc spokesperson also did not directly respond to requests for comment about this allegation.

Ultimately, the woman decided not to report the incident to her bosses at USAA. “I just thought, like, I’m not affected to this day by it. It was gross but it wasn’t traumatizing,” she told The Verge. “If I were to tell someone it would become an HR investigation, and I didn’t want that on my record as an employee.”

It was a feeling echoed again and again by people who’d been hurt by Mars’ behavior. It seemed unfair, they said, that they were both his victims and the ones who were supposed to hold him accountable. “I feel like I’m part of the whole problem of women not reporting it when I explain it,” said the woman on the USAA team. But why should she have to put her career on the line to stop Mars’ wrongdoings?

There was one employee who did try to stop Mars by confronting him directly. The evening at the bowling alley when Mars allegedly made inappropriate comments about the PhD student’s girlfriend, the CEO also spoke to two other employees: Saijel Mokashi and Eric Uriostigue.

Mokashi and Uriostigue are a couple, software engineers who’d worked together at Qualcomm before joining Clinc in 2017. At the bowling alley, Mars decided to give them some advice about their partnership: namely, that they didn’t seem to love each other very much. Other couples seemed much happier, he added. Mokashi was crushed and confused. “It was like he was trying to destroy our relationship,” she said. Eventually, she walked out in tears, leaving the venue without her boyfriend.

When she got home, Mokashi wrote Mars an email. “What happened tonight was not okay in my mind in a few ways,” she began. “To compare a relationship of two people to another and say one is nothing like the other in a negative manner is not okay. To say one person does not care for the other person is not okay.”

Mars never responded to Mokashi’s note, but after that night, he more or less left her alone. Uriostigue was not quite so lucky. Once, when Mars and his employees were drinking after hours, he asked them about their favorite sex positions. When he got to Uriostigue, Mars allegedly asked whether he was still having sex with Mokashi. “I guess I always had the impression that nothing was off limits with Jason in terms of topics of that nature,” Uriostigue says.

A Clinc spokesperson did not directly respond to requests for comment about these alleged incidents.

In November 2019, Brian Rider, Clinc’s vice president of innovation and strategy, went on a business trip with Mars to San Francisco. Rider had been having a difficult time at the company and was looking forward to bonding with the CEO.

According to a letter Rider’s lawyer sent on December 10th, Mars showed Rider pornographic videos on the trip. The videos appeared to feature Mars having sex with multiple women. Mars also took Rider to a strip club, according to the letter, then asked him to come back to his hotel room with a sex worker they’d met outside the club.

The letter alleges that Mars received oral sex from the woman and asked Rider to watch. According to Rider’s memory, when Mars didn’t have the $1,000 needed to complete the transaction, he tried to use Apple Pay. When that didn’t work, he asked Rider to borrow $1,000. Rider did not loan him the money.

In a phone recording reviewed by The Verge, Rider confronted Mars about the encounter, saying, “I watched you have sex with a prostitute in San Francisco, like what the fuck.” In a follow-up call several minutes later, Mars continued the conversation: “What happens on that kind of trip stays on that kind of trip.” Later, he added, “Are you trying to make me concerned?” When Rider said no, Mars cut him off. “Don’t fucking fuck with me. Are you trying to make me concerned?”

Jason Mars’ resignation email to Clinc staff

When Rider filed an official complaint, he was placed on mandatory paid leave, as was the second employee who came forward with a legal claim.

When asked about these allegations, a Clinc spokesperson said the company conducted “a full investigation” with an “independent outside professional,” including multiple interviews and reviews of documents, emails, and expense reports. “The outside investigator concluded that certain events that were alleged did not happen as claimed,” the spokesperson said. But she conceded that the investigation had brought some incidents to light. “The investigation did highlight instances where behavior has been a distraction to the success of Clinc and also concluded that complaints concerning such behavior were promptly addressed by Clinc leadership,” she said.

Her comments were some of the few direct responses to The Verge’s questions. Early on, the company hired a crisis PR firm to handle inquiries. Aside from refuting Rider’s claim, they would not comment on any of the 17 other specific allegations we asked about.

Finally, after weeks of investigation, Mars stepped down. In an email to the company, he said the allegations against him were “rife with embellishments and fabrications.” Nonetheless, he said, “the truth is there were cases where I drank too much and partied with employees in a way that’s not becoming of a CEO. I’ve learned a hard lesson about seeing my employees as friends and the importance of setting proper boundaries when socializing outside the workplace.” He added that he’d stopped drinking and had “committed to sobriety.”

The University of Michigan would not comment on allegations against Mars. The school also denied a public records request for information about additional claims against Mars, stating that it would breach his privacy. When asked if the university planned to take disciplinary action against Mars in light of recent revelations, the school wrote:

Jason Mars is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering. His employment status has not changed.

Thanks.


* Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved

Apps

Duolingo interprets 2021, with TikTok and Squid Game inspiring users to learn new languages

Tech

A humanoid robot makes eerily lifelike facial expressions

Policy

Clearview AI is closer to getting a US patent for its facial recognition technology