Editor's Note: This story has been updated following the announcement from Innovation Pavilion that the CEO is stepping down and a 9NEWS interview with the alleged victims.
A woman accusing the founder and CEO of a Denver-area technology company of sexual assault said he used business trips to lure her into situations where he could take advantage of her.
“We’d be out at business meetings or dinner or something and drinking alcohol, and he would watch how much it would take for me to lower my inhibitions, and then he would take those opportunities to touch me,” said Suzy Gutierrez, a former employee of Innovation Pavilion, in an interview with 9NEWS.
Gutierrez is one of three women accusing Waqar ‘Vic’ Ahmed, CEO of Innovation Pavilion, of sexual harassment and sexual assault in a lawsuit filed May 24, 2018.
In an interview with 9NEWS, Gutierrez described a pattern of predatory, sexual behavior from Ahmed.
“I literally just disassociated from it…I was mortified,” she said. “I was shocked...I was traumatized.”
Watch 9NEWS tonight for an extended interview with Gutierrez and another former employee.
Gutierrez filed the civil lawsuit against Ahmed and the company last week.
On Thursday, Innovation Pavilion released a statement announcing that Ahmed is stepping down as CEO to focus on the lawsuit.
"Vic is stepping down as CEO, to ensure that he can focus on this important matter completely, without creating a distraction for the company," said Innovation Pavilion interim CEO, Kitty Kolding, in an email to 9NEWS. Kolding also sent a recorded statement from Ahmed.
"I, Vic Ahmed, am writing this announcement as a response to the recently brought up accusations against me," he said in the statement. "I had consensual relationships with coworkers. This, I know now, can in no circumstances be considered appropriate. Even though it does not cross any legal boundaries, I regret it."
In the lawsuit, Gutierrez alleges that Ahmed sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions while the two were traveling for work.
Another former employee, Nicole Regalado, alleges in the lawsuit that Ahmed sent her sexually explicit text messages, groped and kissed her without her consent during what she believed was a work-related meeting at a hotel.
She is not named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit but has agreed to serve as a witness in the case. The third woman is not named in the lawsuit but is referred to by her initials, M.J.
According to court records, Gutierrez also filed a charge of discrimination with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which has not yet concluded it’s review of the case. Gutierrez and her attorney said they made multiple attempts to work with Innovation Pavilion and Ahmed to find a solution out of court, but he declined.
“Mr. Ahmed was given an opportunity to resolve this, long before now,” Gutierrez said. “He refuses to take accountability for his actions.”
Ahmed founded Innovation Pavilion, registered with the Colorado Secretary of State as Startup Pavilion, Inc., in 2011. The company offers shared workspace, or a “coworking campus” in the Denver Tech Center, according to its website.
These spaces include private offices available for $850-$2,000 per month, the website shows. The company also offers programs that are meant to connect startups to funding and help improve the ideas.
Ahmed also listed a number of technology and innovation-related roles he held on the company’s website, which included his role as chair of STEM Academy, the non-profit foundation that raises funds for STEM Schools Highland Ranch.
Penny Eucker, the executive director at STEM School Highlands Ranch, said STEM has received no complaints about Ahmed. She also said his role as chair of the foundation is a volunteer position and that he does not draw funds from the school.
The Innovation Pavilion webpage about Vic Ahmed is no longer active.
Gutierrez started working at Innovation Pavilion in 2012 as an intern, while getting her MBA, according to court records.
Gutierrez told 9NEWS that after working at the company for a few years, she asked to have a meeting with Ahmed to address concerns that she was being passed over for leadership opportunities.
According to the lawsuit, he asked her to meet at the Inverness Hotel after work hours.
“[He] told me he was very happy with all of [my] efforts, and I was going to become the leader of the city sales initiative and that he was going to work more closely with me,” Gutierrez said.
The lawsuit alleges that the sexual assaults began in May 2017, when Ahmed and Gutierrez began traveling together.
“I did ask him twice, I told him twice, that I was not interested in him, that was not something I was going to do, and I think that just fueled his fury and he was not going to take ‘no’ for an answer and he was relentless in his pursuit to have his way,” Gutierrez said.
The lawsuit complaint outlines multiple occasions where Gutierrez was allegedly groped by Ahmed and one instance where Gutierrez believes she was sexually assaulted while unconscious.
According to the lawsuit, Gutierrez and Ahmed were at a movie while on a work trip, because “she desperately wanted to avoid being alone with Defendant Ahmed, for fear that he would again isolate her in a less public place or secluded area.” The theater was in a mall near an Atlanta hotel.
The lawsuit further alleges that she had a glass of wine in the theater and he began to grope her, so she left the theater alone but became disoriented. The lawsuit states that “she did not recognize where she was or know how to get back to the hotel.”
According to the lawsuit, Gutierrez asked Ahmed for help and “the last thing Ms. Gutierrez can recall is walking through a breezeway between the mall and the hotel.”
“The next morning, Ms. Gutierrez woke up alone in her hotel room, completely naked (though she normally sleeps in a nightgown),” the lawsuit states. “Her pelvic area felt raw and sore when she awoke in a groggy state. Ms. Gutierrez knew that something was very wrong.”
Gutierrez told 9NEWS she asked Ahmed about the incident.
“I talked to him later in the day, and I wanted him to tell me what happened in the movie theater, and he told me we were making out in the room, and it just completely mortified me,” she said.
Gutierrez also said she told Ahmed she was concerned his advances would affect her family. She has been married to her husband for 23 years.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘You’re going to…I’m going to lose my marriage and I’m going to lose my family and you can’t do this to me…. You can’t …you can’t touch me anymore,’” she said.
She said later, on the plane, Ahmed started touching her again.
“I got him off, and then I turned my body around, and I put my face again the window, and I started crying,” she said.
Gutierrez resigned from her job that same week.
“It just became unbearable and I told my husband, I told him what happened, and I was afraid that he would not believe me,” Gutierrez said. “I was afraid he was going to turn his back on me, and he didn’t do that.”
Regalado, another former employee who is named as a witness in the lawsuit, also described her experiences with Ahmed to 9NEWS.
According to the lawsuit, Regalado said the CEO invited her to the Inverness Hotel to “discuss her future in the company.” It was Regalado’s first job out of college.
The lawsuit describes Ahmed inviting her to a bar downstairs in that hotel. They did not go to a bar and instead they went to a “remote” hallway where he allegedly groped and forcibly kissed her. Regalado said she told him she had to go, and “was eventually able to convince Defendant Ahmed to allow her to leave,” according to the lawsuit.
Mr. Ahmed said in his written and recorded statement: "The civil charges that have been brought against me that imply coercion, harassment, particularly sexual, however, are categorically false."
Innovation Pavilion said that the team "stands squarely behind Vic."
"I speak for the IP team when I say that together, we remain focused on the inspiring vision that Vic has always had for Innovation Pavilion, and will proudly move that vision forward," the interim CEO, Kolding, said in an email.
9NEWS has asked to interview Mr. Ahmed. He submitted the following statement; here it is, in its entirety:
May 31, 2018
I, Vic Ahmed, am writing this announcement as a response to the recently brought up accusations against me.
Firstly, with deep humility and gratitude, I thank all the family, friends, colleagues, coworkers and community members who have responded with support and concern. In these trying times there is no bigger gift. I thank you all from the depth of my heart.
I had consensual relationships with coworkers. This, I know now, can in no circumstances be considered appropriate. Even though it does not cross any legal boundaries, I regret it. I should know better and more importantly, I should act better. I have disappointed, myself and those associated with me personally and professionally. I am deeply sorry and I apologize. My marriage of 20 plus years that fell apart some years ago, whereas may well be part of the mix but I accept it does not justify my moral choices.
The civil charges that have been brought against me that imply coercion, harassment, particularly sexual, however, are categorically false. Since this matter has gone public, I have to respond. I will limit my current statement to Mrs Gutierrez, who was my coworker, as she is the one who has filed the case. Relevant to suggested timeline, Mrs Gutierrez told me many times she loved me. At that time, I thought I did also. My intent is not to litigate the merits and the merits of the civil case in public today but in the proper courts of law that have the jurisdiction. I will respond in detail and with evidence. Neither will my case depend upon 'he said, she said," but on hard evidence of texts, emails and eye witness accounts. A relationship between two people that care for each other and their communication with each other is indicative of the underlying relationship. I will let the courts and legal process decide what is the truth behind all these accusations.
I accept that some people have a right to be angry with me and want to hurt me. The top of this list is Mr Gutierrez, who is a top litigator in this very area of HR and sexual harassment. I do owe him an apology for this behavior despite it being consensual. He certainly has put a legal team in place that is relentless and aggressive in the pursuit of the interests of their clients. This has certainly been my experience in dealing with them on the opposing side.
I also reaffirm the statement that Mrs Gutierrez has already made in the media that her legal team gave me the opportunity to settle for a certain amount.
In the weeks to come, I will now make it my primary focus of life to bring to the courts the hard evidence to support my position.
Considering the above, for my life passion that Innovation Pavilion represents, I will need to play a different role than I have played since its inception. Whereas, I am deeply saddened for not being able to give it a 110% of my time but at the same time, I am so proud and honored that the team that will pick up the mantle includes such incredible people, despite the trying times. I will be stepping down as CEO with immediate effect and the reorganized team that will take over include these outstanding people
Foremost Kerianne Leffew, who has been with IP from the start will take over as President and will retain the Chief Millennial title.
Kitty Kolding, a seasoned CEO will become the interim CEO. She has been working with IP as a partner.
Mark Pomeroy, former VP of R&D from Johnson & Johnson, will join as the COO
Jameel Barkat will remain as the EVP of Real Estate and Corporate Development
Jennifer Bustamante will become VP of Strategic Expansion
The other most valuable team members, Nacy Buttron, Priyanka Mangaonkar, Ike Gant and Yawar Noon will have new redefined roles as well.
I am most grateful to these people and so many partners and community members that have taken IP to where it is today. This team, I have no doubt will continue taking it to next levels.
Our new CEO will separately communicate the next steps with all the stakeholders.
As I said already, I do not intend to fight this court in the domain of public opinion and as my lawyer has suggested will have no comments publicly from this point forward but you can count on a vigorous defense in the weeks and months to come on the legal front.
This 'Phoenix will rise from the ashes'.