An Indian Shark tank judge’s brash behavior makes for great TV but poor leadership

BharatPe’s Ashneer Grover is taking a break.
BharatPe’s Ashneer Grover is taking a break.
Image: YouTube/BharatPe
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BharatPe’s co-founder and managing director Ashneer Grover, who is a judge on the Indian version of Shark Tank, is taking a voluntary leave of absence starting today (Jan. 20), after an audio clip of him allegedly abusing a bank employee went viral.

In Grover’s statement, the boss of the $2.9 billion fintech company said he would use the break to “rejuvenate and refresh” himself, and think about BharatPe’s future in terms of product development, profitability, and its path to an IPO. But his note did not address the Kotak Bank controversy.

“For now, the Board has accepted Ashneer’s decision which we agree is in the best interests of the company, our employees and investors, and the millions of merchants we support each day,” said the company. BharatPe’s board members reportedly wanted Grover to leave for some time, but they did not directly comment on the Kotak fracas either.

What happened between Ashneer Grover and Kotak?

On Jan. 5, an anonymous Twitter handle posted a four-minute audio clip, apparently of a phone call between Grover, his wife Madhuri, and a Kotak employee. The entrepreneur is heard ranting and hurling expletives, and even threatening to get the employee killed in a “police encounter.”

In a now-deleted tweet Grover wrote, “Folks. Chill. It’s a fake audio by some scamster trying to extort funds (USD 240,000 bitcoins). I refused to buckle. I’ve got more character. And, internet has got enough scamsters.”

Later, it emerged that Grover had sent a legal notice to Uday Kotak, the bank’s MD and CEO, and its senior management at the end of October. The couple was seeking damages for the money they had lost—an estimated 438 crore rupees ($59 million)—because Kotak failed to provide them with financing for beauty firm Nykaa’s IPO earlier that month.

The bank denies any breach of contract in the Nykaa case. And while it is still not clear if the audio clip is real or not, Kotak has said it is taking legal action against the “inappropriate language” used by Grover.

Ashneer Grover on Shark Tank

On Shark Tank, Grover has the reputation of being the curt and crusty one. While audiences like his straightforwardness, most find him unnecessarily harsh to budding entrepreneurs.

Of the seven sharks, he has been the most disparaging to contestants. To one, he said “kuch nahi hai bhai tu” (you are nobody, brother). He told another their designer bags look like they’re from Sarojini Nagar—a famous New Delhi market of cheap vendors.

He does make great TV, and is also fodder for memes. But his manner may have caused a serious problem in real life.

Ashneer Grover’s bad behavior 🤝  Indian startups’ bad governance

This isn’t the first time Grover has apparently gone rogue.

In August 2020, he allegedly subjected Harshjit Sethi, the managing director at Sequoia India—one of BharatPe’s early backers—to aggressive messages and threats because of a delay in funding. Neither Sequoia nor BharatPe have publicly addressed these issues.

Scores of people—current and former employees, angel investors, board members, investors who backed away from investing, and Grover’s batchmates from college—can attest to his pugnacious nature, Economic Times reported. “Are you really surprised? He’s always been like this. The only difference is, this time, it’s out in public,” a mid-level executive, who recently left BharatPe, told the newspaper.

The company has seen several top-level departures, likely because of Grover’s heavy-handed approach to management. Plus, he reportedly oversaw a toxic work environment, again according to the Economic Times. Grover will be back at work by April 1.

“Grover has been allowed to get away with this so far,” a venture capital who considered backing BharatPe, but didn’t, told ET. “As long as he was getting new investors at a higher valuation, the board ignored everything else. It all boils down to money.”