Exigen sexual harassment suit heads to arbitration

A sexual harassment lawsuit against Exigen Capital and Greg Shenkman, founder and managing partner of the firm, is headed for arbitration after a key ruling last week from the California Court of Appeal.

The suit was filed in March in San Francisco by Iryna Kharchenko, 30, a former executive assistant who came to the U.S. from the Ukraine on an H1B visa after she applied for a job with Exigen in Moscow.

She claims sexual harassment, sexual battery, wrongful termination, failure to pay overtime and several other problems stemming from her employment with Exigen in San Francisco. Her time at the firm lasted from early 2004 until December 2008, when, she alleges, she was fired, after she filed a complaint asking for a right-to-sue with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Exigen has not responded to her charges. The firm’s attorneys—Wilson Sonsini and Quinn Emanuel—won a motion to compel arbitration in the case, and the appeals court upheld the motion last week. The law firms did not return a call for comment. Exigen’s public relations firm declined to comment.

Kharchenko’s case seems unusual even in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley, according to Wendy Beecham, CEO of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives.

“I’ve never heard of a case like this, but it’s also something people might not talk about,” Beecham said. “I hear more about women who don’t get promoted, and the corporate culture of firms.”

However, Heather Broome, president of BlueExecutiveSearch, a high-tech recruiting firm, said that sexual harassment “is prevalent” in the local tech communtiy.

“I’ve talked to several others who had cases that were never formally identified or pursued,” Broome said. “You get partners who make a lot of money and have huge egos, and their assistants are younger women trying to prove themselves in the firm.”

Kharchenko’s 44-page complaint is graphic in parts, detailing long hours and a variety of alleged sexual indignities, mostly from Shenkman, but also from others at the firm. She said she was housed by Exigen with another young woman in an apartment in Daly City, Calif., located just south of San Francisco, and routinely fended off Shenkman’s sexual advances.

“Defendants Shenkman and Exigen appeared to be abusing the immigration visa system in order to procure a steady stream of young, eastern European women to satisfy Defendant Shenkman’s sexual desires,” the complaint said. “Once in the United States, these young women would find themselves tied to Exigen by their H-1B visas, trapped thousands of miles from home without families or friends, and at the mercy of a wealthy and influential sexual predator who does not know how to take ‘no’ for an answer. This environment at Exigen continues to the present day.”

Her attorney, Scott Bonagofsky, said her choices were limited.

“It’s extremely difficult to find another H1B visa job here. If you’re not on a green card, H1B ties you to that employer,” he said. “You have to ask permission from the government to switch to a new company, and they may not grant it.”

Kharchenko grew up in the Ukraine and was an outstanding student, according to her complaint, earning a degree in business administration there before transferring on an academic scholarship to Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., where she earned a bachelor’s degree. She returned to the Ukraine, but dreamed of returning to the United States and eventually becoming a citizen.

Kharchenko is now living with friends in the San Francisco Bay Area and looking for a job, according to Bonagofsky, but she’ll be forced to return home to the Ukraine next September unless she either finds another sponsor for her H1B visa or obtains a green card that would permit her to work at a job.

Shenkman is a Russian immigrant who reportedly came to the United States as a teenager with his parents and worked as a dishwasher. He previously co-founded software company Genesys that he took public and sold to Alcatel for $1.9 billion. He then launched Exigen Group, Exigen Services and Exigen Capital.

Exigen Group, a 10-year-old company that provides business process solutions for companies worldwide, has raised $63 million in venture capital, most of it ($62 million) in July 2002 from Focus Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners and an undisclosed venture firm, according to Thomson Reuters (publisher of PE Week). Shenkman is listed as founder, CEO and chairman.

He appears to be well connected in Russia. In 2002, Exigen participated in a Russian-American IT roundtable as part of a summit between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush, according to InformationWeek, and there were plans for Exigen to create an IT research and development center at Moscow State University.

Shenkman is known for working so hard that he was one of a several people profiled three years ago by the TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” for a story on Americans who work 24/7. He was interviewed by reporter Lesley Stahl at his house, shown standing in his shower, which is wired so that if the phone rings, the water turns off and Shenkman doesn’t miss a call.