Aaron Clark, rising star in Colorado startup scene, failed to pay employees and contractors, ex-workers say

Jolene Montoya thought her life had taken a turn for the better.

It was early last year and she had just been laid off. A friend suggested she apply for a position with Justice Reskill, a budding Denver nonprofit working to teach those involved with the criminal justice system coding skills to earn high-paying jobs in the booming tech space.

Montoya herself had a felony criminal record, and she couldn’t wait to start as the new student experience manager.

“I had just had the worst last three years of my life,” Montoya said. “It was a break, and I really needed it.”

But in late May, Montoya and the rest of the Justice Reskill staff didn’t see a paycheck. June rolled around. No paycheck.

Montoya was getting desperate. Her bank account was in the negative. She couldn’t pay her phone bill and other expenses were stacking up. She borrowed money from her children and started delivering food as a DoorDash driver.

Without paychecks coming in, Montoya had to plead nearly every day with the nonprofit’s CEO, Aaron Clark, to help her keep the lights on and food on the table. Instead of receiving money on the first and 15th of the month, Clark would send Montoya cash via the Venmo app on an ad hoc basis after she messaged him. Montoya has since quit — and says her former boss owes her $23,000 in unpaid wages, severance and paid time off.

“It was a complete cluster(expletive),” Montoya said. “A complete nightmare.”

Montoya’s experience at Justice Reskill, however, is hardly the exception.

Across at least three companies and two states, Clark repeatedly has failed to pay his employees, contractors and vendors, according to interviews with 18 former workers, three outside clients and a Denver Post review of court records and internal company communications. The burgeoning entrepreneur, who last year won the Boulder Chamber of Commerce’s Startup of the Year award, launches nonprofits and startups with lofty missions, garnering well-known funders and positive publicity in major tech outlets.

But as the money flows in, employees and others who have worked with Clark wonder where it all goes, with at least one company alleging fraud. The workers would go weeks or months without seeing paychecks — if they got paid at all. More than a dozen Justice Reskill employees have sent wage demand letters to Clark or hired attorneys to recoup more than $150,000 in unpaid wages. Workers at Clark’s previous venture in California say they never saw a dime for their work.

Meanwhile, a Denver employment agency sued Clark in February over nonpayment. Another nonprofit that provides meals for needy children alleges Clark and Justice Reskill never fulfilled a six-figure contract.

Throughout it all, current and former workers say Clark has been secretive about financial information, giving a variety of excuses as to why people weren’t getting paid, blaming the firm’s payroll platform or the state or the IRS. It’s always someone else’s fault, these employees told The Post.

“He’s hurting people,” Montoya said.

Attempts to interview Clark for this story were unsuccessful. He responded to an initial email from The Post, but didn’t reply to multiple follow-up requests, including a detailed list of questions about the allegations made by his former employees.

Making a name in tech

Clark burst onto Colorado’s tech scene in 2020 with a flurry of activity, making his name as a disruptor fighting to make tech more equitable and diverse.

He quickly joined a host of organizations and initiatives, including Energize Colorado, a small business organization, and the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute. He also contributed to Denver and Boulder Startup Weeks, among other Colorado ventures.

That year, he made Colorado’s Inno on Fire list, a collection of the “most impressive innovators” in the state.

“Aaron Clark has shined in 2020,” one tech writer gushed.

The entrepreneur, who is Black, said in media interviews that his passion comes at the intersection of tech equity and justice reform. Clark made it his mission to help more people who look like him thrive in the tech world.

“Being in tech is a privilege,” he said in one Q&A. “At some point in every person’s tech career, you begin to look around you and seek a way to make an impact on society, instead of just taking from it.”

As racial justice protesters filled streets across the nation following the murder of George Floyd, Clark launched Equity Consultants of Colorado. The organization brought together a team of diversity, equity and inclusion specialists to work with businesses and clients looking to add these trainings.

“The fact that he was pulling the cream of the crop of DEI consultants in Denver really called to me,” said Brenda Herrera Moreno, who runs a Denver anti-oppression organization.

The company made waves, earning Clark and Equity Consultants the 2021 Boulder Chamber of Commerce Startup of the Year award.

Clark promised the consultants serious cash for their work: $250 an hour, a number that dwarfed the rates for most people in that field, Herrera Moreno said.

“He said, ‘You all deserve to get this much,’” Herrera Moreno said. “We were all like, ‘Hell yeah, we do!’ To have someone say that, it’s so encouraging.”

That encouragement, however, didn’t last long. The DEI experts said Clark was secretive about the contracts and didn’t allow anyone else to see the books. Some invoices would sit for a month, two months — even six months without being paid.

“We didn’t know what his compensation was,” said Regan Byrd, an anti-oppression consultant who was a part of the venture. “We asked, ‘What money are you taking from these contracts?’ We couldn’t get clear answers.”

Six months later, Herrera Moreno said she found out Clark had been quoting one price to clients and another to the consultants.

The company email sometimes went offline, multiple members said. Clark couldn’t be reached for days at a time. Slack messages, emails and phone calls would go unanswered.

In December, nine members of Equity Consultants signed a letter outlining a host of concerns regarding Clark’s behavior and the direction of the company. These included “sexism and communication expectations” — “Reflect on how you expect certain communication styles from women/femmes,” they wrote — as well as Clark’s defensiveness and a plea for financial transparency, the letter said, a copy of which was reviewed by The Post.

“We are neck-deep in white supremacy culture in our operations,” the members wrote.

Three months later, Clark abruptly decided to “scale down” Equity Consultants, he told the team in an email. Its status on the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office business page says “noncompliant.”

“I never thought I’d have to make difficult decisions and negotiations about well-being, integrity, transparency and mental health in a platform as powerful as ECC claimed to be,” Herrera Moreno said.

The rise of Justice Reskill

While Equity Consultants of Colorado was unraveling, Clark in early 2021 was ramping up efforts with Justice Reskill.

The nascent nonprofit had received early funding from Brad Feld, a prominent Boulder venture capitalist. The Colorado Trust gave a sizable grant. The Techstars Foundation, which helps early-stage nonprofits get going, selected Justice Reskill for its Accelerate Equity Program.

Feld’s name, in particular, carries substantial weight in Colorado funding circles. The venture capitalist threw his support behind Clark’s venture, and Clark used Feld’s name to solicit more funders. (Feld did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

Clark even appeared with Gov. Jared Polis in April as the Democrat signed a bill into law aimed at helping former inmates get firefighting jobs after they leave prison.

Rebecca Engel came to Justice Reskill as the first full-time hire. After a stint working for climbing gyms, she realized how much she missed direct service impact work.

“It felt like it really aligned with my passions and I truly believed in the mission Aaron was creating,” Engel said.

A month in, she started to have some doubts about Clark’s operation. Startups are often operating under financial constraints and frequently raising money. But as she was building a budget for her department, Engel said she could never see how much cash there was to spend on students or programs.

“There’s no reason I’ve experienced that finances of a startup would be hidden from a leadership team,” Engel said.

Clark first alerted his staff to missed payroll on May 28. On a June 7 call with leadership, Clark said he was pushing the IRS and Gusto, the company’s payroll service, to allow him to process payments, but that he was being blocked from doing so.

“One, I don’t want to be doing payroll anymore,” Clark told the team with a chuckle, according to audio reviewed by The Post. “I hate it.”

While the staff worked without pay, one employee told The Post that Clark asked them if they could loan another worker money who was struggling to pay bills. Clark promised he’d pay them back.

Montoya’s financial situation, in particular, deteriorated rapidly during this stretch.

“…I don’t know how long I can manage with no money,” Montoya told Clark in a June 10 Slack message. She had incurred $340 in overdraft fees, drawing her bank account into the negative to buy food and other essentials. Clark said he could cover that.

“Add a line item to the spreadsheet,” the CEO responded.

On June 24, Clark told leadership in an email that he was finishing the payroll fix to ensure that Justice Reskill “is never in a position to miss payroll again. Full stop.” But he wouldn’t pay his employees for another month after that.

Leadership had enough. They wanted to give Clark the benefit of the doubt. After all, their organization was all about giving people second chances. But staffers said they stopped believing that this was all out of Clark’s hands.

“We asked over and over, ‘Show us something,’ ” said Jess Hedden, Justice Reskill’s former director of communications. ” ‘Pick one person you trust. Show us money you have in the bank.’ He refused to do that.”

Hedden quit later that month. By the July 4th holiday, Engel and the rest of Justice Reskill’s leadership team had also resigned. Clark owed them nearly $92,000 combined, some of which dated back to work done in March. Clark only paid most of them in mid-July — some eight weeks after missing the first pay date — after the group sent a demand for payment of wage letter through the state’s Division of Labor Standards and Statistics.

Clark, in identical emails to two employees that were reviewed by The Post, said he thought it was unfortunate that they left in this manner, adding that “I invited you into my home and exposed you to my family.”

Megan Ives, who had joined Justice Reskill as one of its first full-time employees, felt emotionally spent. The ability to build her own policy department had once been a dream. She opened a Roth IRA for the first time and moved into her own apartment, thinking she finally had stability. Months later it was over.

“I felt really manipulated and betrayed,” Ives said. “It was a really dark time for my mental health.”

Less than two weeks after leadership departed — and before his former employees were even paid in full — Clark signed an agreement with a Denver recruiting agency to fill the vacant positions. In October, Diverse Talent, which focuses on finding companies diverse candidates, successfully placed three executive officers within Justice Reskill.

But after paying Diverse Talent a $10,000 retainer in July and $5,000 in December, Clark never paid the remaining $54,225 on his bill, the recruiting agency alleged in a February lawsuit. Clark allegedly told Diverse Talent on Dec. 6 that “neither he nor his company had access to $10,000 in credit,” according to the complaint.

“Defendant has used the corporate structure of Justice Reskill in a manner that has enabled him to perpetrate this breach of contract as a vehicle for fraud,” Diverse Talent’s attorney wrote in the suit, which was filed in Denver District Court.

Problems in California

Clark’s payment concerns, however, began even before he came to Colorado, ex-workers say.

In 2018, he started Represent Development Agency in Berkeley, California — a company billed as a “diverse and inclusive team of software engineers and designers building tech solutions that impact society.”

Corina Andariese, like much of Clark’s team of contractors, came straight to the company after graduating from the Galvanize software engineering boot camp in San Francisco.

“One of the things that was super exciting was that the work was for underrepresented folks having access to the same technological services,” she said. “That sounds great. I’d love to be a part of that.”

The workflow behind Represent Development Agency was simple. Clark would send out projects — such as building an app or website for a client — to the team of contractors, and they could choose which ones they wanted to work on. Right next to the project would be a dollar figure, according to emails reviewed by The Post. Employees believed they would get paid that amount after they completed a project.

The work was demanding. Andariese and two other coding newbies worked from morning through dinner in her kitchen, but she was just happy to be have a job in the crowded Bay Area tech scene.

Andariese eventually realized, though, that the $3,000 she was owed was never coming.

“The biggest thing I can compare it to is child labor,” she said, noting that the workers were adults, but as recent boot camp grads, they were new to the tech world. “We were just happy to be getting work. We were overworked on things we had no business doing — all for no money.”

Andariese worked for Clark for six months and says she never saw a dime. Two other former contractors told The Post that Clark didn’t pay them for work with Represent Development Agency either. One individual said he was owed $5,000 or $6,000, and that Clark canceled meetings and stopped responding to his messages when asked about payment.

After her experience, Andariese asked Galvanize to stop sending graduates to the company.

“I never thought I’d be in a situation where I was getting the wool pulled over my eyes,” she said. “I can’t believe I worked that long without getting paid, but that’s what he does. He smooth-talks a lot of crap.”

“It’s unconscionable”

Despite Clark’s promises that payroll would never be an issue again, Justice Reskill employees once again were left in the lurch at the end of 2021.

In November, Clark wanted the entire company to gather in Denver to discuss the exciting possibilities for 2022. That included one employee working remotely for Justice Reskill out of state. Clark said not to worry — expense the flight, the hotel and everything else for the trip, according to that employee.

This individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his employment at a second job, spent more than six years in prison himself, learning to code while serving his time. He flew to Denver for three days to meet the rest of the Justice Reskill team.

A few days after hyping up employees for the next year, Clark missed payroll. The employee who flew in for the meeting said Clark never even reimbursed him for the mandatory travel. Clark still owes him $20,000 dating back to November, he said, but he didn’t want to leave and let his students down, folks like him trying to better their lives by learning new skills.

A day after The Post contacted Clark for this story, the employee was laid off. The nonprofit, which once pledged to teach coding skills to 1,000 justice-involved students every year, now has no instructors.

“I was already traumatized by broken promises and people telling me they’d be there and look out for me,” the employee said, speaking about his upbringing and experience with the justice system. “For him to do that as an employer, as someone I trust, it added more fuel to the fire and more distrust. I really am disappointed.”

Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 17, Justice Reskill employees only saw one paycheck. In lieu of regular pay, Clark offered to loan money to needy staffers that they’d have to pay back later.

“I felt like I had no other choice,” said Sam Conner, a former employee. “It’s not like I want to take a loan from him. It’s more like, ‘Hey, I want to do my work, but you’re not sending us payroll.’ So what’s your alternative?”

With money tight again, Montoya said Clark asked if she could borrow money from anyone.

“I was appalled,” she said. “I told Aaron, ‘I don’t have anyone to borrow money from. I give my parents half my paycheck to cover my court costs.’”

Montoya and four other staffers — several of whom had been hired through Diverse Talent — were forced to pay for an attorney to reach a settlement with Clark. He was late on the first two installments, they say, and is now four weeks late on the third payment.

Conner’s still waiting on more than $6,500. Montoya says she’s owed $23,000.

“I really feel like what he’s doing is an intentional scam,” said Jamie Jackson, Justice Reskill’s former director of operations, who was part of the settlement agreement.

Jackson had to file for unemployment and Medicaid as she waited for $17,000 in wages over the winter, and said Clark still owes her $9,000. She looked at her credit and mortgage, wondering what the damage might be to both.

“He’s intentionally preying on people’s good nature and desire to want to give back to the community,” she said.

Stephen Miller, the director of venture development at the University of Colorado Boulder, said there’s long been a rule of thumb in entrepreneurship: The boss gets paid last. Miller, when he led previous ventures, didn’t take a salary for months at a time to make sure his employees were taken care of.

It’s one thing if people know what they’re getting into from the get-go, he said. If a founder says there may be 18 months of runway, then prospective employees can make an informed decision. But once you hire people, Miller said, you have to pay them.

“I can’t even conceive of hiring people without the ability to pay them, at least for some defined amount of time,” he said. “To me it’s unconscionable.”

If people are working and not getting paid, “that sounds like a bit of shell-game to me,” Miller said.

Doing it once might be a mistake, said Steve Blank, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford University. Money might not come through as expected. It happens in the startup world.

“If you do that multiple times,” he said, “well, that might be a different pattern of behavior.”

There are very few defenses for employers who do not pay their workers on time, said Scott Moss, the director of Colorado’s Division of Labor Standards and Statistics. He encouraged anyone with wage complaints to file a claim to coloradolaborlaw.gov. If investigators find claims to be valid, employers are compelled to pay all wages due and penalties if the payment isn’t prompt.

“If an employer has difficulty with a payment system, they can’t shift that burden onto a worker by not paying,” Moss said. “If they need to give them a stack of nickels, that’s what they have to do.”

Paying employees through Venmo and giving them loans when they’re not receiving their paychecks is certainly a red flag, accounting and employment experts said, and could be seen as illegally circumventing payroll taxes.

“If you start missing payroll and entering into all these shady agreements, what are the odds you’re completely on top of your tax situation?” said James Olsen, a workers’ compensation attorney in Denver. “Probably somewhat low.”

Some of Clark’s funders, board members and other associates are now backtracking.

Alaina Beaver, who’s listed as one of Justice Reskill’s “governing persons,” said in a email she’s no longer affiliated with the nonprofit. Former employees said the other person billed to be on the board, Jaclyn Hester of Boulder’s Foundry Group, has long since left. (Hester did not respond when asked about her tenure at Justice Reskill.)

The Colorado Trust, which provided a $250,000 grant last year, said it was “disappointed” to hear about the financial issues at Justice Reskill and has “no plans for further funding at this time,” a trust spokesman told The Post in an email.

Matchstick Ventures, a technology investor, excitedly introduced Clark in April 2021 for a “crucial advisory role” to help the company identify more non-white founders. But Clark’s welcome page has since disappeared from Matchstick’s website and Natty Zola, a company partner, said in an email that Clark is “no longer involved with Matchstick in any capacity.”

“He lied to our faces”

For many people of color who worked for, or with, Clark, his troublesome behavior goes beyond unpaid wages.

Black former employees and other community members said they know how this goes: Bias in the system means the business owners who worked hard to build their companies from the ground up will get lumped in with people like Clark.

That could mean a lost investment, a lost business opportunity or a lost client. They’re scared that Clark’s story could temper momentum from 2020, when Black businesses — including Justice Reskill — saw an influx in investment following the racial justice protests.

“We’ve made so many strides,” said Jackson, who is Black. “Now here we are set back because some fool is a greedy narcissist. That’s not fair to the rest of us who are genuinely doing the right thing.”

Black leaders from Denver’s private sector stressed that Clark doesn’t represent them. While he may have posed as a member of their community, they said, he doesn’t have a seat at their table.

Burnout and mistrust from people of color comes from a place of safety and wellness, said Herrera Moreno, a woman of color. She started to change her tune on Clark after she watched other minority members leave Equity Consultants.

“It’s the canary in the coal mine,” she said.

Montoya, as a woman of color with a criminal record, helped write Justice Reskill’s mission, vision and student handbook, keeping her own backstory in mind.

“One thing people lose when they get locked up is their dignity,” she said. “You don’t have self-esteem. Aaron just put us back all these steps after we experienced that through the court system.

“He lied to our faces,” Montoya said. “We’re a community, we’re a family, and he stole from us.”

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