Multimillionaire tech entrepreneur Zia Chishti has stepped down from his roles in the AI software firm Afiniti, following accusations of sexually assault revealed by a former employee at a U.S. congressional hearing on Nov. 16.
In a harrowing testimony, Columbia law student Tatiana Spottiswoode accused the influential businessman of sexually abusing, harassing, and physically beating her during a business trip.
Pakistani-American Chishti is the founder of the billion-dollar artificial intelligence unicorn Afiniti and business process outsourcing company TRG. He also founded the company behind Invisalign dental braces, which is now valued at $47 billion.
The allegations were heard at a House Judiciary committee meeting investigating the impacts of forced arbitration clauses against victims of sexual harassment and assault. Spottiswoode, who began working at Afiniti in 2016, said that Chishti sexually assaulted and beat her on a business trip to Brazil in 2017.
“I went to his room where he beat me while having sex with me. I told him he was hurting me. He said: ‘Good.’ He told me he should have had sex with me when we first met when I was 13 years old,” Spottiswoode said in her testimony. Chishti was friends with her father.
“My body was covered with scratches, cuts and contusions,” Spottiswoode added. “I had bruises around my neck that looked like I had been strangled, a large bump on my head, a black eye.”
Spottiswoode shared that a nurse who had examined her after the alleged incident said that she had displayed signs of a concussion. Photographs of Spottiswoode’s injuries on her head and neck were presented in the hearing.
According to Spottiswoode, after she accused her former employer of the assault, he initiated arbitration against her in an attempt to silence her. She had signed an arbitration agreement with a confidentiality clause when she first joined the company. “He knew that the secrecy of arbitration would protect him,” Spottiswoode said. She further stated that Chishti had sued her father to punish and scare her.
Spottiswoode also said that another employee was assaulted by Chishti on a trip to Dubai in 2016. The woman allegedly reached a settlement with Afiniti that prevented her from speaking out about the incident. This was confirmed by two former Afiniti employees to Bloomberg on the condition of anonymity.
Three days after the allegations surfaced, Afiniti announced Chishti’s departure as chairman, CEO and executive director at Afiniti. Chishti has denied all accusations against him.
In a press release issued on Nov. 22, the company also stated that it will be forming a “special committee of the board to investigate issues surrounding the conduct of its former CEO and chair,” which will be led by Leslie Caldwell, former assistant attorney general of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who served as the chair of Afiniti’s advisory board, also resigned from his position. According to The Telegraph, Britain’s Princess Beatrice, who currently serves as the company’s vice president of partnerships and strategy, has been urged to resign from her post. However, the board still continues to retain other influential members including former U.S. Treasury secretary John Snow, Pakistan’s former finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, and tSpain’s former president Jose Maria Aznar.
On Nov. 28, TRG released a statement that Chishti resigned from all his roles at TRG and its affiliates. After the announcement, TRG Pakistan stocks further dipped by 3.4 percent after falling by almost 30 percent since the scandal broke.
The allegations against Chishti have fuelled diverse reactions in Pakistan and its diasporic communities around the world. Some have expressed shock and disbelief due to the illustrious reputation and political sway the entrepreneur has forged for himself over the decades. In 2017, Chishti signed an agreement with the provincial Pakistani government to establish a tech city in the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to accommodate 50,000 jobs in the region. In March of 2018, Chishti was granted the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, the “Star of Excellence,” one of Pakistan’s highest civilian honors.
“Naturally, it was as shocking to me as it would have been to anyone else,” Aamir Atta, CEO of tech news outlet ProPakistani told VICE World News. “It was also hard for me to accept how a person of Zia's stature and talent could be capable of doing what he’s been accused of. Overall, it’s quite unbecoming to a person like Zia and we’ll see how things turn out for him.”.
In Pakistani-American tech circles, reactions to the allegations against Chishti have been largely met with disappointment.
“Chishti was well-known and well-regarded for being the quintessential, charismatic innovator who could walk on water,” San Francisco-based entrepreneur Asher Hasan told VICE World News.
Some, however, have found it difficult to reconcile the business tycoon’s formerly prestigious image with the current allegations against him.
“A minority group of conspiracy theorists claim that Chishti was framed because of the work that Afiniti was doing in the field of AI. Apparently, some of Afiniti's work was a little too audacious and threatened the ‘powers that be’,” said Hasan.
In Pakistan, more polarized reactions to the allegations have emerged on social media. While many have condemned Chishti’s alleged actions online, the majority of Chishti’s supporters hail from the country's business and technological sectors.
“Instead of admitting that their idol turned out to be an asshole, the response has been that because this man is Pakistani, his reputation has been tarnished,” business journalist Abdullah Niazi told VICE World News.
“For a lot of these finance dudebros whose whole lives are crypto and investment banking, Zia Chishti has been this hero for them. Zia Chishti is young, high-rolling, has private jets and a flashy lifestyle. He's famous. People look up to that and think that this is what they want to be.”
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