The allegations are brought against Waqar “Vic” Ahmed, founder of business
incubator Innovation Pavilion
The founder of a one of the Denver area’s oldest coworking spaces has been accused of being a “serial predator” who subjected his female employees to sexual harassment and assault, according to a Denver district court lawsuit filed last week.
The allegations were brought against Waqar “Vic” Ahmed, founder of business incubator Innovation Pavilion, by former employee Suzy Gutierrez.
According to the lawsuit, which also names Innovation Pavilion as a defendant, Ahmed created such a sexually hostile work environment and allegedly sexually assaulted Gutierrez on a business trip. She immediately resigned in 2017 after nearly five years with the company.
Ahmed declined to comment.
In an interview Wednesday, Gutierrez said she was so traumatized after Ahmed allegedly sexually assaulted her while in Atlanta last June, she couldn’t think straight. She did not file a police report because she felt like such cases “are so difficult” to prove and rarely favor the victim.
“The assaults happened in multiple jurisdictions during a five-day business trip,” she said. “I was completely blindsided. I wasn’t talking to anybody about it. I didn’t know who to go to for help.”
She quit her job when she returned to Colorado. But she realized should could not stay silent.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that silence is an insidious parasite that is keeping women marginalized,” Gutierrez said. “I need to use my story to educate others and speak out so that others can know how to look for early warning signs and things that could be problematic.”
Inappropriate behavior had been going on long before the trip. In the lawsuit, Gutierrez joined the Centennial-based organization as an intern in 2012 and was hired as a full-time employee in 2015. As her role began to expand and out-of-state business trips became necessary, the lawsuit said Ahmed insisted on accompanying Gutierrez on business trips in which he would allegedly touch her inappropriately on the plane, ask for kisses and reach down her dress to touch her in a secluded hotel bar.
“Ms. Gutierrez did not reciprocate Defendant Ahmed’s advances in any way during this assault,” the lawsuit read. “She did not even make eye contact or give any other signal that she consented or thought his actions were welcome in any way.”
Despite the alleged sexual assaults, the lawsuit, first reported by BusinessDen, said Gutierrez understood her professional future was in the hands of Ahmed. She verbally rebuffed Ahmed’s further inappropriate actions, telling him she was celebrating her 22nd wedding anniversary and uninterested in relations with anyone else.
“It takes a lot of courage to come forward and be the first person to speak out against the predatory behavior of a powerful man,” said Mari Newman, part of Gutierrez’s legal counsel. “She’s the first woman coming forward, but I’m virtually certain she won’t be the last.”
After a long day of meetings during the business trip in Atlanta, the two went to see the movie “Wonder Woman” because she wanted to be in a public place. However, the suit alleged, Gutierrez drank some wine and began to feel woozy, sweaty and faded in and out of consciousness. Ahmed allegedly sexually assaulted Gutierrez at the movies and then took her back to their hotel because she felt ill, according to the lawsuit.
“The next morning, Ms.Gutierrez woke up alone in her hotel room, completely naked (though she normally sleeps in a nightgown),” the lawsuit read.
Gutierrez felt “raw” and “sore” and questioned Ahmed about what had happened the night before.
“When asked if he had seen her naked, Defendant Ahmed replied that he had, and claimed that the two had ‘made out’ but had not ‘done it.’…The only thing she knew for sure was that her boss had taken physical advantage of her while she was unconscious,” according to the lawsuit.
Ahmed opened Innovation Pavilion in 2011 as a new type of business incubator to house entrepreneurs and startups. The 80,000-square-foot suburban coworking space was later joined by similar startups like Galvanize and WeWork, which opened in downtown Denver.
Innovation Pavilion created a variety of entrepreneurial communities including TechrIoT, which focused on the trendy internet of things technology. Launched in June 2015, TechrIoT, led by Gutierrez, held regular meetings, teamed up with nearby Arrow Electronics and hosted a 6-month-long incubator that graduated companies including LockState, a Denver company that makes Wi-Fi door locks.
On Wednesday morning, Innovation Pavilion offices were quiet. Some people who rent office space there said they had not heard about the charges against Ahmed and were in disbelief.
Former employee Philip Hsiao, who left his job at Innovation Pavilion a few months ago, said he had wondered what happened to Gutierrez.“They went on a business trip and she never returned. Everyone was like, ‘What happened?’ They never explained anything,” said Hsiao on Wednesday. “She’s one of the most important members of the company and she just disappeared.”
Ahmed has long been a member of the Denver-area business community. He helped start the Rockies chapter of TiE, an entrepreneurial organization for business people with roots in India and the Indus region.
“From my perspective, he’s been an outstanding member of the organization,” said Patrice Barber, TiE Rockies president. “Being a female who has worked with him, but never in the same way (as a staff member), I’ve never experienced that sort of thing. There are always two sides of the story and those women need to be heard. But in terms of my experience, he’s been very strong and supportive of females around him. … He’s a strong and upstanding person in our community, very well liked and well regarded.”
Gutierrez’s lawsuit also called Ahmed a “serial predator who subjected other female employees to the same treatment as Ms. Gutierrez, clearly establishing a pattern and practice of sexually harassing and assaulting female employees, and creating a sexually hostile work environment.”
The lawsuit mentions at least two other women — only by their initials — who alleged they too were targets of Ahmed’s unwanted advances. A 22-year-old employee and recent college graduate alleged Ahmed showed her explicit photos of her female boss and then grabbed, kissed and groped the young woman in a hallway at the Inverness Hotel.
When the young woman confided in a female colleague, the colleague said Ahmed had done the same thing to her on several occasions, according to the lawsuit.
Gutierrez is claiming assault, battery, false imprisonment and outrageous conduct against Ahmed and negligent supervision and retention against Innovation Pavilion. Gutierrez is seeking financial compensation and appropriate equitable relief.
“One of the important messages of a case like this is so men see they cannot simply abuse their power and hope it stays in the shadows,” said Darold Killmer, part of Gutierrez’s legal counsel. “The more women who speak out about this, the more men will be forced, if nothing else, to behave. Everybody benefits.”