New Allegations Against Ousted RadiumOne CEO Chahal

Sometimes I think about writing fiction. Then I read the news and realize I could never make this stuff up.

Last year Gurbaksh Chahal, founding CEO of ad-tech startup RadiumOne, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of battery and domestic violence battery against his girlfriend.

That may sound damning, but Chahal managed to avoid the original charge of 45 felony counts when a judge threw out a key piece of evidence – a 30-minute security video of the incident that was obtained without a warrant.

That led to a social media firestorm calling for Chahal’s ouster, but instead of being smart and laying low, the impetuous young entrepreneur lashed out at his detractors with a series of defensive online rants that made matters far worse. So the RadiumOne board fired him, and with good reason.

Chahal has since founded a new ad-tech startup, Gravity4, and true to form, he’s back in the news. The mini-drama of domestic violence and board betrayal that so captured the media’s attention last year has resurfaced with exciting new plot twists and colorful characters, including:

Venture capitalist, RadiumOne director and former California state controller, Steve Westly, who used his considerable political clout to try to keep the domestic violence scandal from derailing RadiumOne’s planned IPO, as reported last week by the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Elder. That effort was unsuccessful; the company remains private.

Chahal payed former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown a $250,000 retainer, saying in an email obtained by the Journal that Brown “Wants $1 million if he can make this go away,” referring of course to the charges against him. Efforts to sway district attorney George Gascon failed and Brown returned $198,400 of the retainer.

A fresh assault arrest against a different girlfriend in October. The police report includes a statement by a former Gravity4 employee who once lived with Chahal that the entrepreneur “takes 50-60 pills of various prescription medications a day,” according to the San Francisco Business Times. A Superior Court hearing to consider revoking Chahal’s probation was scheduled for Friday, September 11. 

A lawsuit claiming age and gender discrimination, harassment, retaliation and unlawful electronic eavesdropping was brought against Chahal and the company by Gravity4’s former senior vice president of global marketing, Erika Alonso. According to the suit, filed in May, Chahal secretly watched a live video feed of Alonso’s initial interview and texted the interviewer to ask whether she believed he was guilty in the domestic violence case, according to Forbes’ Ellen Huet. How creepy can you get?

Like I said, you just can’t make this stuff up.

I’m often asked why so many successful executives self-destruct. My answer’s always the same, because they’re human. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one to make excuses for executives who behave badly. It’s just a simple fact that CEOs are people. There are good ones, lousy ones, and everything in between.

Chahal dropped out of high school at the impressionable age of 16 to found an advertising network startup that he sold less than two years later at the height of the dot-com bubble for $22 million. He leveraged that windfall to form BlueLithium, which Yahoo later acquired for $300 million.

That’s when Chahal began what I can only describe as an unabashed display of blatant narcissism and self-promotion, including an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show billed as one of the world’s youngest and wealthiest entrepreneurs, as I explain in my upcoming book, Real Leaders Don’t Follow (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015).

Clearly, fame and fortune went to the guy’s head. And while we are seeing more and more of this kind of bad behavior since the advent of social media and the coming of age of Generation Me, not everyone succumbs to the dark side as Chahal has.

You couldn’t find a better counterexample than Evan Spiegel, founder and CEO of Snapchat. When news broke that he’d turned down a $3 billion all-cash buyout offer from Facebook, many in the media thought he was crazy, but Spiegel kept his head down and focused on the business.

Then when a string of embarrassing emails surfaced, he gave a heartfelt apology, telling Business Insider, "I'm obviously mortified and embarrassed that my idiotic emails during my fraternity days were made public. I have no excuse. I'm sorry I wrote them at the time and I was jerk to have written them. They in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women."

Unlike Chahal, not only did Spiegel get to keep his job, but he has since raised more than $1 billion and Snapchat is now valued at $16 billion. Nearly a decade Chahal’s junior, Spiegel shows as much poise, savvy, and maturity under pressure as his far more experienced counterpart lacks.

If it were your company, which one would you want running the show?