National Post

Monday, February 01, 1999

Net firm 'for real women' purged its male executives, lawsuit says
Former VP charges sexism as iVillage readies its initial public offering

Sandra Rubin
National Post

An Internet firm whose slogan is "Real Solutions for Real Women'' is being sued by a former vice-president who says he was fired in a wholesale purge of men from the executive suite in preparation for a U.S. stock market listing.

iVillage Inc. is expected to start trading on the Nasdaq exchange in the next two weeks in one of the most closely watched initial public offerings in New York's new media community.

Faced with what's shaping up as a sticky sexism charge, the women's on-line network may now wish it didn't have quite so high a profile in a market sector suddenly sizzling with investors.

Former iVillage executive Todd Kenner will be before a judge tomorrow trying for an injunction to block the entire $46-million offering (all figures in U.S. dollars), which is backed by Wall Street's Goldman Sachs & Co., until he gets his due.

Mr. Kenner says in a suit filed in Tennessee state court he was wooed to New York from his Nashville home last year by iVillage chief executive Candice Carpenter.

The complaint says Ms. Carpenter promised him a "senior executive'' position that included a low six-figure base salary plus bonuses and, most importantly, options on 100,000 iVillage shares once the company went public.

She allegedly told him the options would be worth between $1-million and $2-million, and the total package would make him the third highest paid executive in the organization.

Mr. Kenner, who had a competing offer at the time, took the job in July as iVillage's vice-president of business development. But a few weeks later, the suit says, he still "had not yet been given responsibilities at iVillage commensurate with that of a senior executive.''

He says he spoke to Ms. Carpenter about it a few weeks later and she "assured'' him he would be promoted in a planned corporate reorganization.

Instead he was fired, "abruptly terminated without cause by the company in October, 1998, as part of the very reorganization in which he was to be appointed the general counsel.''

The company's public filings indicate that a woman, Caterina Conti, was made general counsel instead.

The suit says Mr. Kenner was not the only male at iVillage to become a casualty of corporate optics.

"In the same reorganization, effected just weeks before the announcement of iVillage's initial public offering, other male executives were demoted in standing in the company or responsibilities, or both.''

iVillage dismissed Mr. Kenner's lawsuit and his allegation men were being demoted for window dressing.

"The claim is absurd and frivolous and has nothing to do with gender discrimination,'' vice-president Jason Stell said late Friday. "We're confident it will be found to have no merit.

"It's been brought by a disgruntled ex-employee.''

Mr. Kenner, who was not available to be interviewed, is former general counsel for the communications group of Gaylord Entertainment Co., overseeing the legal work for 17 subsidiaries, including TNN: The Nashville Network and Country Music Television, as well as Gaylord's interactive media group.

iVillage declined to discuss his allegations that at least a half dozen male executives have recently been demoted or left. But it is known that co-founder Robert Levitan left the company a week after the public offering was announced to start a new venture.

iVillage and its coveted target audience of women has been one of the most visible firms in New York's so-called Silicon Alley, raising $70-million in venture capital over the last three years, but burning through money at an even more furious pace.

Founded in 1995 with money from America Online Inc., it claims to be the "number one women's network online'' with 740,000 members and 2.7 million site visits a month.

Mr. Kenner is asking for his stock options plus promised relocation expenses and other costs he incurred as a result of switching jobs.

Copyright Southam Inc.