Penny Kim moved to Silicon Valley with a backseat full of boxes and dreams of making a life for herself there. She had gotten job at a startup that came with the promise of a six-figure salary and relocation stipend.
But she never unpacked.
The 37-year-old Dallas resident said she instead found herself in a nightmarish scenario of working for weeks without pay. She recounted her experience in August in a Medium post titled “I Got Scammed By A Silicon Valley Startup.” The story went viral and got more than 660,000 views. It got picked up by major news outlets, including the New York Times and Inc., Quartz.
Kim has returned to home of Dallas — but she hasn’t given up on startups. She accepted a job as vice president of marketing at ParkHub, a startup that makes hardware and software intended to simplify parking at large sports arenas and concert venues. The startup’s technology is used by major stadiums and concert venues, including AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Kim, a marketing professional, said she never expected her story would capture the public’s attention. She said she wrote it down as a form of therapy, to help her process a traumatic time.
But she’s glad it shined a light on the less glamorous side of startups, the ones that struggle, fail or lie. She received dozens of emails and LinkedIn requests from people who had similar work experiences, but signed non-disclosure agreements or felt embarrassed. “People have said ‘You have been my voice when I couldn’t tell my story,'” Kim said.
In the Medium post, she did not name the startup and changed the name of employees. But the popularity of the post led to a frenzy of guessing among Bay Area entrepreneurs and startup employees, who eventually guessed it. Kim later confirmed she wrote about Santa Clara-based WrkRiot.
It’s unclear if WrkRiot is still in operation or not. The company took down its website and social media accounts after the Medium post. Its CEO Isaac Choi could not be reached for comment. His credentials have also been called into question by a report in The New York Times, which found no records of him attending Stern School of Business at New York University or working for J.P. Morgan.
Getting the offer
Kim grew up in Wichita Falls and studied sociology at Midwestern State University. She worked for marketing agencies and large companies marketing in Dallas before accepting a job at a startup that was building an encrypted messaging app. She said she fell in love with the creative freedom of startups.
After spending most of her life in North Texas, Kim wanted to live and work somewhere else. She applied for jobs in Silicon Valley and got an offer from a WrkRiot, a startup building a job search and recruiting platform.
But at WrkRiot, she discovered that much of what she’d been told was an illusion. In her Medium post, she said the company had 20 employees, but no product or revenue. The startup changed names three times in four months. She was promised a $4 million marketing budget, but didn’t receiveit. She was paid late — and then not at all.
At one point, Kim and her colleagues got wire transfer documents that made it look like late payments were on the way — only to realize they’d been forged.
Finding the right place
Kim was dismissed from the company after she raised concerns about the missing pay and filed a wage claim. She said her last contact with Choi was an email he sent her that threatened a lawsuit, if she didn’t take the Medium post down.
Kim received the rest of her pay from WrkRiot, but never received a relocation stipend. Her wage claim is still open.
Dave Livingston, chief technology officer for Dallas-based ParkHub, saw the Medium post when his friends shared it on Facebook. When he read the story, it resonated. He saw that Kim was from Dallas, so he decided to email her and meet up for coffee to show support. “My heart really went out to her,” he said.
What happened next was serendipitous, he said. She seemed like a good fit for ParkHub and at his colleagues’ urging, ParkHub hired her last month. They, too, had read the Medium post and were impressed by how Kim shared her story.
“A lot of people in the startup world have been through a journey similar to that,” he said. “But I think a lot of the news cycle and the things people read about startups tend to glorify startups and they don’t talk about the struggles and the hardships.”
At ParkHub, Kim said she’s found the kind of startup environment she expected: a collaborative workplace with friendly coworkers and a boss that pays on time. Now, she said she passes on advice to others who work for startups. She tells them to do careful research, background founders and ask around before accepting a job.
Kim said she’s ready to move out of the spotlight, but before that she has one more event — a speaking engagement in February at Startup Grind’s global conference in Silicon Valley.
And she hasn’t ruled out a move back to California someday. This time, she said, she’ll get the relocation money upfront.