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Chaos after allegations.
HOMEGROWN CONTROVERSY

How Indian media company Homegrown imploded in the wake of #MeToo

Aria Thaker
By Aria Thaker

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As a wave of protest against sexual harassment swept across India last October, a youth-culture website called Homegrown published an essay titled “Women Turning On Women Cripples Everything The #MeToo Movement Is Fighting For In India.” The piece criticized the opposition to #MeToo being voiced by a handful of women commentators. It was also, it turns out, a subtle jab at Varsha Patra, Homegrown’s CEO.

Homegrown is an Indian media company with a culture website, an events vertical, and a creative agency that has partnered with major brands such as Nike, Absolut, Budweiser, and Adidas. Not unlike Vice Media, Homegrown is especially known for covering social topics considered taboo or unimportant by mainstream outlets, such as LGBTQ identity, female sexuality, and body image.

The author of the #MeToo piece said she was driven to write it partly out of frustration over sexism at her own workplace, which she found at odds with the company’s progressive focus. A line in the piece about “women who present a shaky understanding of feminism” and call #MeToo a “one-sided movement” was, she said, a veiled reference to Patra.

What the author could not have known at the time was that the essay, and its presence on the Homegrown website, would take on pointed new meaning just a few months later.

In early January, a woman who did not work at Homegrown accused one of the company’s co-founders, Varun Patra, of sexually assaulting her and secretly making an audio recording of the encounter. Varun, Varsha’s younger brother, released a statement acknowledging that he had recorded the woman. He said he apologized to her “immediately and without pre-meditated thinking.” He also stepped down from his position as head of marketing, though as a co-founder, retained equity in the company.

Homegrown descended into chaos soon after. The company, which had at least 15 employees and interns at the time, lost eight of them, all women. Quartz India confirmed the nature of each departure directly with each individual. Seven left in the weeks after the allegations surfaced. One had already handed in her resignation but was serving a notice period that she cut short. In late January, former editor in chief Mandovi Menon, a Homegrown co-founder, resigned as well.

Varun Patra says two of the employees were asked to leave and three were already on their way out. The people he says were fired claim to have resigned first.

Controversy over what happened at Homegrown reignited on May 3, when the former employees who had left after the allegations released a statement describing a “deeply toxic and unprofessional work environment” at Homegrown. Two more statements have followed—a rebuttal from Varsha Patra, and a counter-rebuttal from the ex-employees.

Quartz India spoke with 12 former Homegrown employees and interns, as well as seven current ones. The divergent perspectives between the two groups illustrate deep fissures drawn out by #MeToo, in a workplace ill-equipped to deal with them.

The former employees claim Homegrown didn’t have an adequate human-resources setup, nor anti-harassment policies in place at the time of the allegations; that managers bullied people, often in sexist ways; that Varsha Patra read employees’ private communications and withdrew employees’ bylines as punishment; and that the company allowed Varun Patra to continue working even after he had stepped down from his role.

The Patras dispute many of the characterizations. And current employees, just like Homegrown’s leadership, maintain that their former colleagues were motivated by personal agendas.

The allegations

On Jan. 3, Priyanka Paul, a Mumbai-based artist, posted a detailed statement on behalf of an anonymous woman who claimed that on Nov. 11, 2018, Varun Patra had sexually assaulted her by anally penetrating her with his fingers. “I told him not to do it, and he did it anyway,” her statement read.

The woman—who was not a Homegrown employee—said that after she and Varun had sex in her home, she discovered that he had surreptitiously made an audio recording of the act on his phone. The woman says that when she called him out, he admitted to having done so with other women as well. She told Quartz that after she caught Varun recording her, she made him leave immediately.

Varun released a statement to Rolling Stone in India, in which he admitted to making the audio recording, saying he “was extremely anxious and fearful that any sexual activity, irrespective of consent, could be used against me.” The statement did not address the allegation that he had penetrated the woman without her consent.

A more detailed statement Varun published on Medium on May 21 includes screenshots of his conversation with the woman, showing his acknowledgement that he penetrated her at least three times, first when she “didn’t realise and I thought you liked it,” and two times where “you asked me to stop.”

The Medium post from Varun includes this screenshot, as well as ones of other sex-related conversations between him and the woman, with a caption stating that “previous overt sexual conversations even before we first met were indicative of her sexual threshold and interests.”

Varun Patra

“It was hard for me to admit what happened was rape,” the woman told Quartz, which is not revealing her identity. “I think people assume rape is a woman running from a man or being forced, rather violently to have sex. No. Rape is any and every form of non-consensual penetration.”

Varun tells Quartz in response, “It was always consensual.” He says his first statement, the one he made in January, directly addressed the recording but not the allegation that he had penetrated the woman with his fingers because he “didn’t have to give the justification for an action where I know it wasn’t ill-intentioned, and I didn’t make a mistake.”

The lengthier statement he made on Medium in May, titled “MeToo—My story with all facts presented,” covers many points, including Varun’s view of the manner in which Paul disclosed the allegations, how he apologized to the woman, and what kinds of Instagram comments people were posting about the story. “I was called a rapist, sodomiser, predator and so much more, none of which I am,” Varun wrote. “Words have great power and there is a spectrum of actions that should be considered from a perspective that is objective and unbiased.”

The Medium post also calls into question whether the woman felt truly violated by the incident. It includes screenshots from conversations between her and a former Homegrown editor, showing that on the day after the sexual incident, the woman had volunteered to participate in a semi-nude Homegrown photo shoot about embracing stretch marks. “I would assume that if a person felt violated by me, any association with me would be a trigger,” Varun wrote. 

The woman who made the allegations said Varsha Patra became aware of the Nov. 11 incident shortly after it occurred and had repeatedly messaged her about meeting to discuss it. Screenshots she shared with Quartz show Varsha attempting to initiate a meeting, telling the woman that “Varun is better than this.” No meeting between the two women ever materialized.

Varsha, the woman said, was mainly focused during their conversations on the effect the allegations would have on her and her company. “She said, ‘This is a very difficult time for us.’ What about me? I still go to therapy, I still can’t sleep at night, I still haven’t been able to have sex after that,” the woman said. “It was all about her, about her struggle, about how it’s a difficult time for Homegrown.”

The fallout

Employees at Homegrown found out about the allegations against Varun Patra when the rest of the public did, with the posts by Paul. Immediately after, several ex-employees told Quartz, the Patras and Menon called a staff meeting where Varsha and Menon promised that structural changes were imminent. Varun also spoke at the meeting, according to people who were there, discussing the incident and offering to answer questions (reportedly no one took him up on the offer).

Two days after the allegations surfaced, Homegrown announced that Varun had “stepped down” from his operational role in the company. “Varun’s alleged actions were in his individual capacity and do not in any way reflect the values and ideals our company is built on,” Homegrown said in a statement.

There was no communication internally about any further structural changes, former employees said.

Some employees were frustrated with the slow pace of procedural action taken to deal with any future sexual-harassment cases, says Hadia, a former employee. (Hadia, like all names used to refer to current and former employees or interns in this story, is a pseudonym, as all spoke to Quartz on the condition of anonymity.)

“Seemingly simple changes, like forming an ICC (internal complaints committee), asking employees to come and speak to them if they faced anything like that in the workplace, sending out an email saying this was what we’ve decided and we don’t tolerate something like that in the workplace—none of those things that seemed basic to me were done,” Hadia said. “So I kind of lost faith in the process, and I put in my resignation.”

Homegrown eventually did get an ICC, four months after the allegations against Varun Patra surfaced.

Other employees were frustrated to see that in the weeks after the allegations, Varun was still taking meetings with Homegrown employees—not on the office premises, but at places like a nearby tea stand and a Starbucks directly below the office. “Watching Varun Patra show up to work sometimes was just a reminder of the fact that if something like this happened to me, they wouldn’t care,” said Gargi, another former employee.

Varsha told Quartz that Varun had “stepped down from an operations role, however, when the team has required a handover he has been available.” Varun echoed this, specifying that he had met with members of the team twice for handovers, and “again for lunch a few times because they wanted to meet.” There “was never an issue of them being uncomfortable around me because they know about the incident and also respect all sides and they are also made up of 80% women,” Varun told Quartz.

In the weeks after the allegations were made public in early January, all five of Homegrown’s writers left the company. A factor in some of their departures might have been the resignation, in late January, of Menon, who had co-founded the company in 2013, and who had led the editorial team for most of the company’s existence.

“Unfortunately, there are irreconcilable differences between me and the other two members of Homegrown’s leadership regarding our continued handling of the recent accusations of sexual misconduct against a partner,” Menon wrote in an emotional statement posted to Instagram in mid-February.

Varun said Menon’s resignation was another reason for his continued meetings with the team. “The third partner also left, which creates more pressure when two-thirds of your bosses are not available,” he told Quartz. “I always believe it’s team first. It’s simple: At the time of crisis, you don’t jump ship.”

Another consequence of the allegations, Varsha said, was the cancelation of a Homegrown-run music festival, Mumbai Music Week, that was scheduled for mid-January and sponsored by British Council India. Varsha said that while British Council India had been willing to go ahead with its sponsorship, the vitriol Homegrown was attracting on social media led her “to say, ‘okay, we don’t want [the sponsor] in a spot any more than it is, because it was just getting very murky online.” In the end, Homegrown “came off losing crores,” she said.

In a Jan. 8 article in local media about the cancelation of the festival, Jim Booth, acting director of British Council India, said, “In light of the recent allegations made public about Varun Patra, we have taken the decision to terminate our association with them,” referring to Homegrown.

The process

The May 3 statement by ex-staffers claims to be a “collective account of many former Homegrown employees’ experiences” of “months of frustration and helplessness at the troubling power dynamics and practices we were forced to navigate.”

Among the many grievances raised in their statement: More than five years after its founding and even in the wake of the allegations against Varun, Homegrown leaders “did not establish an ICC or any anti-harassment policies, nor did they hire a qualified HR representative.”

Shreya, a current employee with deep knowledge of the company’s HR matters, said in early May that an ICC had been formed “two or three weeks ago.” A current Homegrown intern said that an announcement about the body was made to staff on May 6, three days after the ex-employees’ statement was published.

Shreya also told Quartz in early May that an employee handbook, which details rules for workplace conduct, was being written.

When asked about the ICC, Varsha told Quartz India that it was “never a conversation” topic at Homegrown earlier, and that “it was only when Varun’s incident happened did I realize the importance of something like this.”

Every Indian workplace with more than 10 employees has been legally required to have an ICC since 2013.

Varsha told Quartz that an HR person has worked at Homegrown for three years. While several ex-employees said one person performed some basic HR duties, such as sending employee offer letters, they maintained that this individual mainly managed accounts and was not tasked with handling complex issues such as sexual harassment or other misconduct.

The culture

Many former employees emphasized that the roots of Homegrown’s problems stretched back beyond January. An already toxic work environment, the former employees said, became even more so after the company came under #MeToo scrutiny.

Three former employees said that in 2016, when Homegrown was looking to hire young, unpaid interns from nearby colleges, Varsha said she didn’t want to hire any whose eyebrows were not groomed. “I clearly remember her saying, ‘Can you send me photos of the kids? Of their faces, of their hands, nails, and toes,” Jaya, a former employee, told Quartz.

Another former employee, Barnita, said: “After the whole body-hair positivity schtick”—Homegrown has published many pieces on the topic—“she went after those girls and said, ‘You better have your eyebrows groomed, you better go to a salon, and you shouldn’t wear the things that you’re wearing.’”

Jaya also said that Varsha would tell employees things like, “Why don’t you wear dresses, why are you always in T-shirts?” or “You would look nicer if you’re thin.”

Varsha, when asked about both claims, told Quartz they were “absolutely false.”

Some of the former employees said Varun contributed to a hostile climate. Two mentioned an instance where he had referred to Tanushree Dutta, the Bollywood actress who kicked off India’s last #MeToo wave by speaking publicly about how she was allegedly sexually harassed by an actor, and suggested she was speaking out “for publicity.” Varun called this claim “completely false.”

“He got angry at her, and said, ‘If you want to cover up so much, look at what you’re wearing, why don’t you cover up?’”

Three former employees said that once, when Varsha and Varun were arguing in front of employees, Varun reacted with anger when Varsha used the term “cover-up” in a business context. “He got angry at her, and said, ‘If you want to cover up so much, look at what you’re wearing, why don’t you cover up?’” Hadia recalled. “And then he said she was behaving like a ‘bitch,’ in front of everybody in the office, and he walked off.”

Asked about this incident, Varun said, “Varsha and I argue at times like any other siblings. The rest is false.”

Several former employees described these “sibling” fights as a core element of what they called a toxic work climate. “There was this huge blurring of lines between professional and personal,” Hadia said. “Sure, you can fight with your sibling like that, and we can make our own judgments about whether that’s right or wrong. But to bring that into a workplace with people who are not family, and subjecting them to that kind of dynamic, was kind of a justification that ‘We all behave like family here, and the things we do are all normal and it all goes totally fine.’”

Another former employee, Payal, said, “The attitude towards Varun in the office was, ‘That’s just Varun, he doesn’t mean it, that’s just how he is. It was a very dismissive mentality.”

Varun vehemently denies the former employees’ claims. “I have never made a single derogatory remark to an employee let aside a sexist comment nor have I bullied anyone,” he told Quartz. “Have there been days I have been aggressive for deliveries: Yes. Have there been days I could have gone overboard: Yes, but I have also apologized to them post on email and message. The nature of a startup or agency requires work and delivery at very high levels and people working in the creative/other industries understand that.”

“I run it like a family business, which is I’m sure probably why the ICC and all of these things were not talked about,” Varsha said. “But now I realize we need to corporatize.”

The response

On May 7, Varsha posted a response to the statement the ex-employees had circulated four days earlier. It specifically tried to discredit two former employees. The centerpiece of this claim was a set of screenshots from a private Instagram group chat in which, Varsha claimed, the former employees were “conspiring to bring down the company.”

In the screenshots of the chat, which involves as many as eight former employees, the participants can be seen calling Varsha a “meninist bitch” and “classist,” saying they want Vice India to hire them, and that they are “up for destroying capitalism…starting with HGStreet,” a reference to a Homegrown-run sneaker festival. The messages also contain remarks by former employees, seemingly facetious ones, about conducting “sting operations” to collect “proof” about the company.

Varsha’s May 7 rebuttal also states that one of the two former employees was fired after she found the Instagram chat, though both of them told Quartz they had resigned prior to this.

The screenshots are referenced briefly in the ex-employees’ May 3 statement—as the subject of a meeting Varsha called in January in which she “used them to single out, humiliate and threaten some of us with dire consequences,” the former employees wrote.

In the meeting, which took place in mid-January, about two weeks after the #MeToo allegations against Varun had surfaced, Varsha “went on this uninterrupted tirade, where she was just like, ‘how have your parents raised you? Is this what your families are like?’” said the author of the #MeToo essay that ran on Homegrown’s site. “She just casually was like, ‘If you ever do anything, I’ll reach out to anyone who knows you work for Homegrown, I’ll reach out to them and make sure you’re not hired.’”

“In retrospect, should I have probably taken them aside and had this conversation? Maybe,” Varsha told Quartz. “But you also need to understand, I was emotionally distraught.” When asked if she had ever threatened to jeopardize the former employees’ future careers, Varsha said this was “completely false.”

Varsha’s May 7 statement did not detail how she became privy to these private chats. But Deepa, a former employee who used to manage Homegrown’s social media accounts, told Quartz that right after that meeting, Varsha called her into her office and explained that she had obtained the screenshots from Deepa’s Instagram account after an instant-login link mistakenly led her to the employee’s personal account instead of the company’s official one.

Deepa noted that, while she may have given Varsha accidental access to her account through the link, the CEO had chosen to stay logged in and read months back into the archive of the private group chat. “I felt violated and uncomfortable that she invaded my privacy,” she said. Screenshots Deepa shared with Quartz India show Varsha told her she had access to the employee’s personal Instagram account.

Asked about how she saw the chats, Varsha initially told Quartz, via email, that “an employee provided the access” to them. But days later, when Varsha spoke with us in person, she told a story nearly identical to Deepa’s, saying she had accidentally gained access to the employee’s account and read messages from there.

The current Homegrown employees Quartz spoke with all supported Varsha’s publishing of the screenshots, although not unequivocally. “Ethically, it is not right,” Aditi, a current employee, said. “But in this entire process that’s gone on, ethics have been thrown out of the window anyway, because of the super-exaggerated statements that they [the former employees] made as well.”

Varsha’s May 7 statement acknowledges that after she discovered the screenshots, she rescinded the bylines of some employees who she thought were conspiring against the company. Dozens of articles the employees had written were re-labelled “Homegrown Staff”—including the article that had been posted about women who oppose #MeToo.

“Now we don’t really have a writing portfolio, and we can’t really direct anyone to an author page,” said the woman who wrote the essay. “She didn’t pull the articles down, which I honestly would have preferred.”

Varsha told Quartz that she had made clear to the former employees that anyone who asked her who had written the relevant articles would be told the specific name of the writer. “If they reach out to us and ask, it’s your byline,” she claims to have said. “But it is Homegrown’s property.”

Varsha also said that she filed a police application after one of the former employees’ departures (the former employee says she resigned; the CEO maintains she was fired). This is because she says, she had heard others say that the former employee was making threatening claims about the company, and Varsha felt “very uncomfortable and scared.”

The day after Varsha posted her statement, the former employees posted a counter statement, answering her point by point. “Varsha’s response,” the counter-statement reads, “was an unfortunate example of the gaslighting and unprofessionalism we have endured for several months.”

The impact

Employees who left Homegrown before the #MeToo allegations are commending the company alumni who are now raising questions about the workplace’s culture. “I felt like I should have spoken to somebody about this,” said Jaya, the former employee who spoke of Varsha’s comments on employees’ weight and attire, and who said she faced bullying by Homegrown leadership when she worked there years ago. “Maybe I shouldn’t have been quiet about what happened to me.”

The woman who accused Varun Patra of sexual assault said she’s contemplating formal action against him. “I thought about going to the police. I still think about it almost every day,” she said, adding that her initial reservation was that her identity would be revealed. “I’m not scared that they will fight back and countersue me because they have no grounds to do that. I have security footage of me kicking him out of the house, and I have the text messages where he admits to it.”

In recent months, she has also started thinking differently about what happened to her. “In March, I started admitting that what happened was rape,” she said. “I couldn’t even say it, earlier. I just wanted to forget it.”

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