1 Year Update 10/2023
It’s been a long journey of healing. It took about 7 months for me to be ready to interview again without feeling like I had to hold back tears. I would also struggle with random moments of anger about the injustice of it all. As an empath, I forgive by trying to understand. But I found it impossibly hard to understand the actions of my cofounder and CEO, which seemed devoid of basic human empathy.
I also worked through the pain of feeling backstabbed by not just my cofounder, but by my engineering team and my venture studio. Every single one of my engineers expressed how sorry they were to me in private. But that’s all. Their public silence was heavy and felt like betrayal, especially coming from previously outspoken engineers who would voice concerns about the CEO.
My venture studio Fractal Software barely tried to help, throwing me to the curb as their form of damage control. It was like I didn’t exist anymore. But I did get a Tinder like from one of the partners after I got kicked out. Typical. And googling Fractal Software brings up articles about predatory behavior in the pursuit of pumping out startups.
At least in my darkest moments, I still found a reason to live, to appreciate life. That was unfortunately not the case for everyone involved with Nectar Vet. There was at least one suicide attempt since I departed the company.
Founder disputes, investor greed, condoning problematic founders/leaders, and sexual harassment is not a new story in startup world. But when it came to actual lives, I hoped that people would draw a line. Unfortunately the pursuit of power and money continues to triumph above morals and basic human kindness.
To my food readers, this is not my usual post. It is rather heavy and about my recent work situation. I wanted to document my thoughts in a public space I owned. More food content coming soon.
Injustice has been particularly hard for me to heal from. I’ve been telling my founder story privately to my circle, to people finding me on LinkedIn, and even candidates interviewing for my former role. Being able to give advice and tell my story has been cathartic. But recounting this experience often, and sometimes to multiple people a day, is also challenging for me to continuously relive.
So while I intend to continue being an advocate for startup transparency and awareness, I ask that if you are seeking advice from me to please read this first. Then we can focus productively on lessons learned.
I was recruited by the venture studio Fractal Software to be the cofounder/CTO of a veterinary SaaS startup Nectar Vet. As the sole technical founder, I hired the team of five senior engineers, architected the software, and coded the majority of the backend myself. In 10 months, I did the heavy lifting as the CTO. This was due to the stage of the company, and I was enjoying the challenge and working with the team I built.
Unfortunately, I was fired in August by my cofounder/CEO without warning, days after we gave logins to our first public test users, and two months shy of my equity cliff.
It was late Friday, and I was helping my team debug a new environment deployment that we were troubleshooting all day. I hopped on a one-off call my cofounder scheduled.
On the call, she wanted to transition my role and asked me to help find a replacement CTO. I said I did not want to discuss now, as I was actively debugging with my team during a critical pre-launch week. I set my boundary, and I signed off the call.
Her response to my boundary was to terminate my Google workspace access. My cofounder could not even fire me directly. She refused to give me any equity, and I did not take her final severance offer of two months base pay and no healthcare. I walked away with nothing. Thank goodness I have no family to provide for.
I have experienced hardship before, but this was the hardest and most cruel. It felt like losing my baby. It has been painful, humbling, and enlightening.
I started seeing a therapist, and we did an exercise where I envisioned writing my “resignation letter” and releasing it into the world. Two months after my firing, I felt ready to put my thoughts down and get some closure.
Dear Joanna Chung,
I am resigning as CTO of NectarVet. While I care so much about this company that I have put my heart into for almost a year, I cannot continue to work with you as my partner. I waited too long to leave, but the incredible joy of working with my engineering team and the personal responsibility I feel for convincing such a strong group of individuals to join has kept me here.
In the past months, I’ve felt increasingly disillusioned with the culture I thought we aligned on.
Instead of supporting openness, collaboration, and mutual growth, I have observed that you choose secrecy, control, and power.
Take our first review cycle. In 1:1s, my engineers gave feedback that they wanted to preserve the flat company structure. They were concerned that setting levels and titles this early may impact the healthy team dynamics.
I held a company-wide meeting to align as a group. The meeting did not reflect well on your leadership. It got heated between you and one outspoken engineer, to the point where he said that at the end of the day it comes down to what “Joanna wants.”
Rather than reflect on how your communication could be improved, you blamed this on me holding a team discussion in the first place. From then on, I noticed your increased attempts to discredit me.
It has been hard on me to be questioned so often about my technical abilities, my leadership, my mental health, and even my empathy.
I told you repeatedly that I feel like I’m walking on eggshells, and that I need you to back off and let me do my job as the technical founder in our relationship and as the direct manager of the rest of the company.
I feel torn.
On one hand, I’m fostering this healthy engineering culture, but I also have you, the CEO, bringing my morale down. And I’ve been shielding your management style from my team, because my most important job is to enable them to do good work.
This dynamic created physical stress, and I found myself in the ER for severe stomach pain. After many tests, a CT scan, and a $4200 bill after insurance, the doctors found nothing. It was work stress.
I had to take a few days off to rest. Shortly after that, I had my cell phone stolen out of my hand while walking down the street. The physical nature of that incident felt very violating. I again took a few days off, mostly during the weekend. You took my time off as reasons to question my abilities and mental health even more.
I was still putting in my usual 12+ hour days, guiding the team, pushing out code, and making deadlines after returning. It is also illegal in California to discriminate against taking time off for mental health or as a victim of a crime.
Taking time off because I’m self aware of what I need is not a weakness. Showing emotions professionally is not a weakness. Being authentic and having courage to speak up is not a weakness. These are some of my greatest strengths.
It is not appropriate in a professional setting to tell me that I am “not allowed to cry” or that I “should get a therapist.” When these words came from a fellow Asian-American female, I let them slide. That was my mistake. Harassment is harassment.
I have been open with you about my past therapy, the reasons I sought out therapy, and how I have graduated from each. I am confident in the foundation I have.
I have given you a lot of grace with your own therapy and your struggles with authenticity and relationships. I thought nothing of using company funds to pay additional for your treatment. I wanted to believe that you would give me the same grace when times were tough.
I am choosing to not be so giving with my empathy anymore.
I am setting a firm boundary and choosing to no longer be in an environment where I am gaslit. I am sorry for leaving my team, but they are strong adults. And I hope you can find the healing you need. I am now your second CTO to resign. Please take a look at yourself first before hurting more people.