Exclusive: Former Outcast Foods CEO Darren Burke Named In Wrongful Termination Lawsuit Alleging Discrimination On The Basis Of Sex
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Canadian foodtech entrepreneur Marissa Bronfman says that after being recruited as co-founder for a new biotech mycelium fermentation company, she was subjected to a sexist work environment and was terminated by former Outcast Foods CEO Darren Burke for requesting that he hire a female scientist.
Earlier this week, Green Queen received a PDF copy of court filings detailing that on March 13, 2023, Marissa Bronfman filed a complaint case in the Ontario Superior Court Of Justice naming Darren Burke, of The Different Food Co Inc. as the sole defendant.
Ms. Bronfman’s complaint alleges that Mr. Burke misrepresented himself, his intentions and his company, terminated her in bad faith, defamed her, discriminated against her on the basis of sex and misled her.
The filings cite further complaints against Mr. Burke including Breach of Contract, Breach of the Duty of Honesty in Contractual Performance, Bad Faith Manner of Dismissal and Breach of the Human Rights Code, among others.
According to the case documents, Ms. Bronfman says that she entered into an employment contract with Mr. Burke as part of a new mycelium fermentation-related biotech company he was starting after he recruited her for many months. She says the agreement meant she was entitled to CA$150,000 in annual base salary and ‘generous benefits’, as well as equity in the company and co-founder status. Although Ms. Bronfman was originally going to consult with the company, she says Mr.Burke changed his mind and would only work with her if she didn’t work anywhere else.
In November 2022, Ms. Bronfman publicly announced that she was joining the company and then leveraged her personal network and social media presence to promote the company. She says she introduced Mr. Burke to potential investors, represented the company at an industry event in Toronto and offered him “significant” professional advice that “led to Mr. Burke changing his business model”.
She says that things started to go awry when she suggested to Mr. Burke that the company hire a female scientist towards the end of November. According to the court documents, “These comments upset Mr. Burke and he expressed his disagreement with them.”
By early December, Ms. Bronfman was told she was being laid off as the company needed to raise more funds and that she would be reinstated once the company had done so. However, Ms. Bronfman was actually wrongfully terminated after Mr. Burke said he did not wish to work with her any longer, and that “her opinions had been too ‘strong’ (emphasis in original).
In January of this year, Ms. Bronfman says Mr. Burke published a defamatory post about her on his personal Linkedin profile which has over 11,000 followers. The filings state that “This post was clearly designed to intimidate the Plaintiff, and harm her reputation within the foodtech industry.”
After her attorney sent Mr. Burke a cease and desist letter, he removed the post from his profile, though Ms. Bronfman says that by then it had caused “significant embarrassment and reputational damage”.
Ms. Bronfman says that she has suffered reputational harm, a limiting of employment opportunities in Canada, and mental and physical distress as a result of Mr. Burke’s actions.
Ms. Bronfman is asking for a range of damages in the amount of CA$1,000,000 as well as CA$150,000 in lost earnings, CA$500,000 for breach of contract and moral damages for bad faith dismissal, CA$250,000 in punitive damages, CA$75,000 for injuries to dignity, feelings, and self-respect as well as any legal costs incurred.
Further, she is requesting the 25% of company equity she was promised (in the court filings the latest valuation is listed at CAD$3,000,000, which Green Queen confirmed from the company’s most recent investment deck) and asking for a declaration that he breached their contractual duty of good faith and that he discriminated against her.
According to the filings, The Different Food Co Inc is a food-tech company incorporated in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. The company’s mission involved ‘Harnessing mycelium fermentation to reengineer almonds using 90% less water’ according to a presentation deck. While Ms. Bronfman lists herself as a co-founder of the company on her Linkedin profile, there is no mention of it on Mr. Burke’s Linkedin profile. Green Queen has seen proof that the company is still in operation and that Mr. Burke is listed as a Director.
On his profile, Mr Burke is described as a “celebrated science-based entrepreneur focused on plant-based and alternative protein nutrition and social impact ideas to save the planet” as well as a “Former tenured university professor who commercialized scientific research into a new category of sports nutrition products.”
Accordion to the page, Mr Burke spent 10 years as a professor at St. Francis Xavier University, in Halifax, Canada and then founded Rivalus, a nutritional supplements company that he says he grew to $20 million in revenue before a “successful exit.” He then, along with fellow entrepreneur and former professional NHL hockey player TJ Galiardi, co-founded Outcast Foods, a Canadian sustainable food waste company that transformed old and ugly produce into powdered nutrition supplements. The company raised CA$10 million led by District Ventures which counts well-known South African-Canadian investor Arlene Dickinson as a General Partner. In a 2021 article from this publication, Mr. Burke said that the company had experienced YoY online retail sales growth of close to 4,000%. He is currently an Entrepreneur in Residence at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which Green Queen confirmed via phone. Mr Burke also features on the institution’s website as Dr Darren Burke.
We have reached out to Mr. Burke for comment and we will update the story once we hear back.
In an exclusive interview and over multiple conversations by phone, Ms Bronfman told me that the past few months leading up to the filing of the suit have been taxing: “Things have been very difficult, and the public nature of it has been challenging, but I am fortunate to have lots of support. Many people in the industry, especially women, have reached out to me.”
In addition, she said that fighting back is not easy but she believes it is necessary: ”I feel emboldened and empowered by the support I’ve received from people in the industry, and by the laws we have in Canada to protect people. I am looking forward to my day in court and pursuing justice.”
She also told me she believes that this kind of behavior by male executives is more prevalent in the industry than people realize: “Unfortunately, this is a very common story in tech and foodtech, though we rarely hear about it. All too often women are threatened, shamed and silenced into not talking about or seeking legal justice for unethical and illegal treatment in the workplace, whether from co-founders, investors and/or colleagues.”
She said that one of the reasons she is speaking out is to “help end an entrenched culture of mistreating, intimidating, shaming and silencing women, and inspire positive change and greater equality” in foodtech, where female founders and co-founders are a small minority yet suffer the majority of predatory, unethical and illegal behavior in the workplace.
“I will not be intimidated, I am not afraid and I will always fight for women’s rights,” she added.
She said that while she hopes the suit will result in “a fair and just resolution”, she wants her story to help make a difference to other women in the food tech space. “I hope that my story will empower others. It’s inspired me to launch my website, to expand my work with purpose-driven founders and investors, women in particular, and I look forward to continuing to speak on women in business and the future of food.”
Ms. Bronfman is being represented by Esq. Kathryn Marshall, attorney and partner at Levitt Sheik LLP, a leading labour and employment law firm in Toronto.
Asked why she chose to take up Ms. Bronfman’s case, Ms. Marshall told Green Queen: “I frequently act for women in the tech and start-up industry and have observed a disturbing trend of women being mistreated, silenced and taken advantage of. This is an important case that will hopefully result in changes in the industry and help to empower female founders. Marissa is strong and brave and has fought for women her entire career. I am honoured to be her advocate.”
For her part, Ms. Bronfman said: “I am grateful to be represented by such a passionate lawyer who has fought for women her entire career.
This is a developing story.