Hacker Dojo, Mountain View's one-of-a-kind workshop for start-ups and makers, could be facing the biggest challenge to its survival to date. Just weeks before it must relocate to a new space, the scrappy hacker club is dealing with a leadership crisis amid allegations of misuse of funds by a staffer.
Feuds and clashing personalities are nothing new at Hacker Dojo, which has long attracted a membership that's both smart and headstrong. But in recent weeks, the internal controversy has reached a boiling point, following news that a Hacker Dojo staffer had racked up what could be tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses on the nonprofit's credit card.
While the Dojo's directors and its hundreds of members roundly condemned the theft, critics are saying that the board members have become secretive and dragged their heels on implementing proposals to prevent future problems.
Vegas trips, gym memberships
The chief critic calling for greater board transparency and reform until recently was a sitting director herself. Sudarshana "Sophie" Banerjee, 38, who joined the five-member board in January and just announced her resignation this week, would seem a model member of Hacker Dojo. A former journalist from India who joined the group two years ago, she credits the close-knit community with kindling her love for coding and robotics. She still brims with enthusiasm when she describes the spirit of the group.
"When you're in this environment, it just makes you want to build stuff," she said. "The Dojo is a place that embraces geeks and founders. You can be homeless, live out of your car and start your company out of the Dojo."
One of Banerjee's first actions on the board was to request bank records to see how the nonprofit was spending its money. It turns out that she was first director to ask for these records in years, and up until that point, the board treasurer had essentially been an honorary title, she said.
As she thumbed through the records, a pattern of suspicious expenses emerged. The nonprofit's credit card appeared to have been used to pay for Las Vegas trips, hotels and gym memberships, among other things. The board agreed to perform an audit and on March 1, one day after the board gained full access to the nonprofit's bank accounts, Marie Knox, Hacker Dojo's longtime office coordinator, came forward and admitted to misusing the credit card for personal use, Banerjee told the Voice.
Knox, who was promptly suspended, reportedly said the charges were unintentional mistakes, and she pledged to reimburse Hacker Dojo. The exact amount allegedly stolen remains unclear, and board members say that so far they have examined only the last two years of credit card statements.
Knox did not return calls from the Voice seeking comment on the allegations.
At worst, the total amount stolen could be $30,000, said Ghufran Syed, who was appointed as the new board treasurer about two weeks ago, in an online message-board post to Hacker Dojo members. But he noted that some portion of that sum was likely justifiable business expenses, so he expected the total amount to shrink. It's hard to say, since the board is still trying to track down older financial records.
Nevertheless, the scale of the potential theft is astounding -- it could comprise Hacker Dojo's second-largest expense after rent. After a visit to the bank, the board members were assured that Hacker Dojo's main savings -- about $300,000 -- was secure and still available as a down payment for a future move.
A few days later, Banerjee sent out a group email describing the theft to Hacker Dojo's full membership, effectively opening up the Dojo to the question: how could one staff member do something like this for years without being caught?
Banerjee said she finds it hard to believe this theft was an isolated case. So far, she says Hacker Dojo staff has been able to locate only a fraction of the receipts and cashier's checks written over the last years. She has also come to believe that the nonprofit's bookkeeping is untrustworthy, saying it often includes inexact approximations or in some cases what she believes could be outright falsified numbers.
"There's no way this can be an unintentional case if there's a pattern of abuse and accounts have been fudged," Banerjee said.
When the Voice asked for comment, the Hacker Dojo board of directors this week acknowledged the theft in a prepared statement. It noted the board is still working on a plan for Knox to provide restitution for the stolen funds and that, so far, the board has held off on filing criminal charges against Knox. In the same message, Hacker Dojo directors noted that since the discovery, one long-serving board member and the former treasurer had resigned, and two new directors have been appointed to replace them.
Dojo seeks new home
The revelations are coming at a bad time for Hacker Dojo, just two months before its current lease for its building at 599 Fairchild Drive will expire. Since last year, Hacker Dojo leaders have been looking to secure a new home, which is expected to be an expensive endeavor.
Hacker Dojo's board and staff did not respond to Voice's request for a status update on the imminent move, leaving it unclear where the nonprofit plans to resettle.
But sources say Hacker Dojo's problems have been mounting for just about as long as the search for a new home. Brian Klug, one of Hacker Dojo's founders, says 2015 was a particularly troublesome year, with several incidents requiring police calls, including what he said were sexual and physical assaults on the premises. Asked about this, Mountain View Police officials said they could find records for only three incidents at Hacker Dojo in 2015: an auto burglary, a missing person, and an unspecified service call. Nevertheless, Klug said security was a major problem at the time.
Open 24 hours, seven days a week, pretty much anyone could walk in the Dojo's doors, and the skeleton crew of staff members often weren't around to stop those causing problems, Klug said.
"This building had become the wild west of Silicon Valley with a lot of weird characters and management not doing anything," he said.
An open-door policy and loose rules bordering on anarchy is part of the appeal of hacker spaces like Hacker Dojo. Rich Bodo, a Hacker Dojo member who took a recent driving tour of similar facilities, said about a dozen hacker spaces exist in the South Bay, even though they sometimes are little more than a garage with Wi-Fi. Large hackerspaces, like Hacker Dojo or Noisebridge in San Francisco, tend to have a perpetual challenge with managing finances as well as the strong personalities who flock to them, he said.
"It's like a community center for high-functioning oddball people," he said. "You have Internet access, coffee and water, and you get some people who are homeless and half-crazy, but you've got to love them."
In 2015, executive director Brian Rouch eventually stepped in and began imposing stricter rules. About a dozen members were banned, including Klug, which he attributes to a dispute with one of the staff members.
Many members say the culture at Hacker Dojo began to change, and Rouch began running the place more like a for-profit company. Wi-Fi access, the Dojo's lifeblood, became available only for paying members. Meanwhile membership fees, the Dojo's main revenue source, went up sharply -- the regular package jumped from $100 to $195 a month.
Rouch already stood out at the casual hackerspace as the "Wall Street-looking" guy dressed in a formal suit and dress shirt, Banderjee said. After his changes to Hacker Dojo, he soon found himself hurting for supporters. Members put forward a petition to the board demanding that Rouch be removed. At that point, "the writing was on the wall" and Rouch resigned late last year, Bodo said. The executive director position was given to Jun Wong. With the departure of Rouch and Knox in March, Wong is now Hacker Dojo's only remaining staff member.
As these transitions were happening late last year, Klug, still banned, was firing off a string of warning letters to Hacker Dojo leaders. He pointed out that management had evidently neglected to file basic paperwork, including its tax records, and as a result Hacker Dojo had lost its nonprofit status. After about six months with no action, Klug said he told the board that they could now be liable for about $20,000 in property taxes.
Seizing the opportunity, Klug told the Voice he drove out to Sacramento and registered a new company called "Hacker Dojo" since no active business entity existed with that name. That meant even though the Mountain View's Hacker Dojo had the building, membership and piles of gear, Klug's newly created Hacker Dojo was technically the only one recognized as a legally sanctioned company. He said he decided to use this as leverage, giving back the Hacker Dojo name only if the board members agreed to some changes.
His biggest demand was for the board of directors to hold its first-ever election among the membership to fill an open board seat. It was held in January and Banerjee emerged as the winner with with about six times more votes than any other candidate, Klug said.
Bad blood on the board
A little more than a month after Banerjee joined the board, Hacker Dojo's already tense leadership situation became more toxic after evidence emerged of the credit card misuse. Early on, Banerjee said everyone at Hacker Dojo lauded her efforts, but the disposition of others on the board soon became "vicious" toward her, especially as she asserted her belief that there could be larger problems.
She said Hacker Dojo staff blocked her from sending out invitations for a town hall meeting with the members to discuss the problems. Closed-door board meetings often turned into shouting matches, and she recalls one instance when Syed, the current treasurer, snatched the nonprofit's bank records out of her hands.
"A board member said, 'You've dug us into a fine hole on this," she told the Voice. "I feel either the board members don't understand what's happening, or they don't care."
Banerjee said resentment toward her deepened after she aired her complaints publicly on the Dojo's message board. About two weeks ago, she alleged the board wasn't following its legal duty to make its meeting minutes available and needed to improve its transparency. In response, another board member accused her of angling to be hired as the new executive director.
The tension among Hacker Dojo members was on full display at a town hall meeting on Friday, March 25. About two dozen members packed a meeting room to discuss a slate of new rules they were demanding be added to the Dojo's bylaws. These demands included that all board members be elected by the members and that expenditures be publicized within seven days. Multiple members made clear they felt an adversarial relationship (one member said they were "at war") with the board. One speaker threatened to abandon his membership if the board didn't sign off on the new bylaws.
To hear Banerjee describe it, the last month has been a wall of stress each day. As one of a small number of women who frequent the Dojo, it always been difficult working in a male-dominated culture at Hacker Dojo, she said. But in the last week, she said she's felt extremely isolated as she began to wonder about the integrity of her colleagues.
Earlier in March, the board secretary notified the rest of the directors that they would be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Banerjee refused. Around this time, another board member began questioning her mental fitness to serve on the board, she said.
In the last few days, Banerjee told the Voice that she's concerned about the veracity of the Dojo's membership rolls and network security, as well as her own safety. Scrolling through her email while on the phone with the Voice, she was startled to see her email messages start disappearing one by one, and said she feared that someone had hacked into her account. Earlier this week, she noticed about 20 attempts someone had made to send out a mass message through her email to all the members, but luckily it got blocked. Needless to say, it all felt scary, she said.
Bodo, a longtime Hacker Dojo member, said it was entirely possible Banerjee's email was hacked -- for those hanging out at a hacker space, it's a safe assumption others are testing your computer's vulnerabilities.
"At a hacker space, when you walk in, you've got to assume people are trying to crack (your computer). They can't help it," he said. "If you're at Hacker Dojo and you're not using encryption, your email probably isn't that secure."
On Tuesday, Banerjee sent an email out to all the members announcing that she was resigning from the board. She was weary of the pressure from all sides on whether she should file police charges or stay silent. She said she stuck around, thinking her vote could make a difference, but it was starting to feel pointless.
"I now find that the culture of our Board no longer allows a decent, ethical and well-meaning professional to serve," she wrote.
For many members, the recent organizational chaos begs the question of what kind of future Hacker Dojo will have. When it moved from its original South Whisman Road location in 2012, the nonprofit heavily relied on its base of members and volunteers to transition into a new space. Some members interviewed for this story expressed concern that the support in the Hacker Dojo community might not be there this time around.
"People are up in arms and they've lost their patience," said one member, who declined to be named. "If we can't move, then maybe we have to start over and pick up the pieces. Maybe that's the best outcome."
Bodo isn't worried; the community would just regroup to a new meeting space if Hacker Dojo died, he said.
"If Hacker Dojo disappeared, two days from now, we'd be meeting somewhere else on a regular basis, and six months from now we'd be in a new space," he said. "The people who are (at Hacker Dojo) get things done; they're bad-ass -- but they just don't want to manage things."