Social Media Was a C.E.O.’s Bullhorn, and How He Lured Women
Illustration by The New York Times; Photograph by Ruth Fremson/The New York TImes
“Lifting someone out of poverty is the most effective anti-depressant in the world.”
“Social allows him to control the narrative.”
— A former employee
“In the unlikely event that you are falsely accused, remember that it will be much easier for you to overcome false allegations than it will be for actual victims to overcome the trauma of harassment or assault.”
— Dan Price, posting on LinkedIn
“I am tired of being the head of the harem.”
— A former girlfriend
Social Media Was a C.E.O.’s Bullhorn, and How He Lured Women
Dan Price was applauded for paying a minimum salary of $70,000 at his Seattle company and criticizing corporate greed. The adulation helped to hide and enable his behavior.
By Karen Weise
Aug. 18, 2022
SEATTLE — Kacie Margis, a model and artist, first learned about Dan Price in 2020 the way many people do: through social media posts that celebrated his progressive politics.
Five years earlier, Mr. Price had propelled himself to an unlikely position for the head of a 110-person payment processing company when he told his employees that he was raising their minimum pay to $70,000. His announcement was covered by The New York Times and NBC News. Esquire did a photo shoot. He made appearances on “The Daily Show” and at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
By the time Ms. Margis discovered him, his reputation and following online had grown even more. His self-styled role as a C.E.O. speaking truth about corporate greed resonated with a wide audience. His posts on social media had been liked tens of millions of times. He joked with Kelly Clarkson on her daytime talk show, with Lionel Richie looking on. He introduced Andrew Yang to a Seattle crowd during Mr. Yang’s presidential campaign. He video chatted with former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who called him “the one moral CEO in America.”
Mr. Price was a young, handsome executive whose worldview spoke to her; a real live influencer on social media who criticized the excesses and arrogance of other business leaders. He posted a seemingly endless stream on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, saying the right things about inequality. About mental health. About women.
After Ms. Margis liked one of his Instagram posts in 2020, Mr. Price, who was 35, messaged her: “Happy Valentine’s Day beautiful!”
Ms. Margis, who was 27, ignored the message initially but replied back early last year, after friends in a group chat once again shared one of his tweets.
“You’re wonderful,” she wrote.
Kacie Margis, a model and artist, met Dan Price, the chief executive of Gravity Payments, through social media.Credit…Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times
Soon, they were talking regularly. Mr. Price visited her near San Diego and flew her to Seattle. But what started as a whirlwind courtship ended three months later with an accusation of rape.
On Monday, the police in Palm Springs, Calif., said they had referred Ms. Margis’s case to local prosecutors, recommending a charge of rape of a drugged victim. Prosecutors in Seattle earlier this year charged Mr. Price with assault in another incident.
After responding to questions earlier in the day from The New York Times, Mr. Price tweeted that he had resigned on Wednesday evening as chief executive of his company, Gravity Payments. He wrote that he had become a “distraction” and needed to “focus full time on fighting false allegations made about me.”
There were warning signs about Mr. Price, but Ms. Margis did not see them. When she did a Google search, many of the top results for “Dan Price” were his own social media accounts, along with flattering stories. Buried was the reason he had, for a time several years ago, nearly vanished from public attention: An article I wrote in 2015 for Bloomberg Businessweek revealed that his story about the pay raise had notable holes, and that his former wife had accused him of domestic violence.
Overnight, the attention largely dried up.
But Mr. Price found an antidote to obscurity: Social media. Tweet by tweet, his online persona grew back. The bad news faded into the background. It was the opposite of being canceled. Just as social media can ruin someone, so too can it — through time, persistence and audacity — bury a troubled past.
Mr. Price’s internet fame has enabled a pattern of abuse in his personal life and hostile behavior at his company, interviews with more than 50 people, documents and police reports show. He has used his celebrity to pursue women online who say he hurt them, both physically and emotionally. Ms. Margis is one of more than a dozen women who spoke to The New York Times about predatory encounters with Mr. Price.
“Social allows him to control the narrative,” said Ryan Pirkle, who spent almost seven years running marketing for Mr. Price’s company.
In his statement to The Times, Mr. Price said he had “never physically or sexually abused anyone,” and that “the other accusations of inappropriate behavior towards women in this story are simply false.”
Mr. Price added that descriptions of him as a toxic boss were inaccurate. “Making Gravity an outstanding place to work is my top priority,” he said, “and I believe I’m achieving that goal.”
“Is This The Best Boss in America?”
Inc. Magazine, November 2015.
I first met Mr. Price in the fall of 2015, after he and his wage-raising story were seemingly everywhere. Though his business was obscure — Gravity made a few million dollars a year in profits processing credit card payments — job applications and customers flooded in.
Mr. Price was a charismatic messenger in a moment of growing inequality, but the story he was telling in public didn’t add up. Mr. Price told the media that his brother, who co-owned Gravity, sued him after the wage increase and implied it was retribution for reducing their profits. Court documents show that Mr. Price’s splashy $70,000 wage announcement took place after the lawsuit was initiated.
Mr. Price told media outlets that his divorce several years earlier was amicable. But his former wife, Kristie Colón, had given a TEDx talk in October 2015 in which she described their relationship as abusive.
“He got mad at me for ignoring him and grabbed me and shook me again,” Ms. Colón read from her old journal. “He started punching me in the stomach and slapped me across the face.” She recalled once locking herself in a car, “afraid he was going to body-slam me into the ground again or waterboard me in our upstairs bathroom like he had done before.”
An excerpt from Ms. Colón’s TEDx talk, which was hosted by the University of Kentucky. The video was ultimately not broadcast.
Mr. Price said those incidents “never happened.”
The video was never made public. Mr. Pirkle said that at Mr. Price’s direction, he contacted the University of Kentucky, which hosted the TEDx talk, saying the presentation could be defamatory. The university said it “simply decided not to post” the video. Mr. Price denied that he directed Mr. Pirkle to contact the university. Mr. Pirkle said he deeply regretted his role in preventing the video from becoming public.
When the Bloomberg Businessweek article ran in December 2015, the reaction was swift. Mr. Price lost a $500,000 book contract and the Hollywood talent agency WME dropped him.
Just as fast as he had risen, he was gone.
Shortly after the article published, Mr. Price pulled his staff into a conference room and told them that he had protected Ms. Colón. He said she was young and emotional. “There was a period of time where she just had a lot of trouble and she was acting crazy,” he said, according to an audio recording of the meeting. “I would restrain her, which is not right.”
He had his staff compile a long dossier on perceived threats, including his former wife, brother and me, according to Mr. Pirkle and three others. (Mr. Price said the dossier was not his idea.) He ultimately won the court fight with his brother, and a judge found that he did not pay himself more than their shareholder contracts allowed.
Mr. Price briefly returned to the spotlight in 2016, when his employees appeared to surprise him with a royal blue Tesla. He teared up and said, “Are you kidding me?!”
“That was his idea completely,” said Mr. Pirkle and confirmed by Matt Dho, who worked in the marketing department for four years. Mr. Price said that was not true, and “the idea that some people are trying to soil this cherished memory is deeply hurtful.”
But Alyssa O’Neal, the then 21-year-old employee who people thought had suggested the Tesla gift at the time, said in an interview that one of Mr. Price’s senior lieutenants actually made the suggestion in a small meeting and told her to take credit.
The stunt got attention from the mainstream press, but it quickly faded.
Mr. Price later that year summoned a handful of employees to his home so they could watch a documentary about the attempted comeback of Anthony Weiner, the New York politician caught messaging sexually explicit photos to young female supporters. Mr. Price reclined in bed, healing from knee surgery, as his staff sat on the bedroom floor, according to several people present. He asked what they learned about drowning out negative news.
“He is definitely obsessed with how seemingly you can just become famous,” said Mr. Dho, who was there.
Mr. Price turned to social media, where he could control his message. With each post about out-of-control C.E.O. pay and stagnant wages, his following grew.
By 2019, America’s best boss was on his way back. The Wall Street Journal included him in a group of “luminaries,” and Nick Kristof profiled him in The New York Times Opinion section.
Mr. Price didn’t write most of his posts himself. He hired a ghostwriter: Mike Rosenberg, a former reporter who resigned from The Seattle Times after sending sexually explicit messages to a female reporter in Brooklyn.
“We had employees that were livid” about his hiring, said Bobby Powers, Gravity’s former head of human resources. Mr. Rosenberg declined to comment.
Mr. Price said he used social media to help Gravity attract customers and employees, saying that “I get over 100 direct messages daily,” and that he shared the company’s story to inspire others.
In a morning show spot in 2021 revisiting the wage increase, Mr. Price told CBS that he was “way happier now.” At Gravity, the CBS correspondent added, “it seems like there’s a lot of that going around.”
“Wow! I’ll work for you!”
— Kelly Clarkson, December 2019.
Dan Price, the good boss, went viral. But more than two dozen former employees say the image fueling his clout, and that attracted his female followers, was a mirage.
“You never knew which Dan you were going to get,” said Stefan Bennett, who worked at Gravity for almost 13 years. He and others said Mr. Price was an unpredictable leader. Small incidents made him snap.
Jen Peck, who held a top role at Gravity, found it so troubling, her doctor eventually wrote a note to Gravity recommending she quit “for her own physical and mental well-being,” calling the environment “hostile.” Ms. Peck is now a director of engineering at the real estate site Redfin.
But Mr. Price’s profile made leaving the company difficult.
Korinne Ward, who spent almost five years in company leadership, said “it felt like a part of you was giving up on this thing you had been promoting.”
Before he announced his resignation, Mr. Price suggested nine Gravity employees I should speak with. Most said they didn’t know him well, enjoyed their work at the company and described him as a boss who had taken feedback that he could be too forceful.
“Lifting someone out of poverty is the most effective anti-depressant in the world.”
Liked 185,000 times.
In April 2021, three months into their relationship, Ms. Margis met Mr. Price in Palm Springs. Along the calming rush of Tahquitz Creek, Mr. Price hiked barefoot, often whipping out his phone to check his Twitter. His message celebrating the sixth anniversary of the wage increase got 180,000 likes, and other media, including a piece in People, shared his story.
The next morning, Mr. Price had to make a call and demanded that Ms. Margis leave their room, she said. Wearing just a bikini and cover up, she protested, but he insisted. For hours, she was locked out, killing time by messaging friends.
“Drop hiiiimmm,” one friend wrote back.
“It’s a no from me dawg,” another agreed.
Mr. Price found her by the pool and leaned in for a kiss, she recalled. She rebuffed him. He snapped that she was not a good listener and didn’t understand him. “He said it is so hard being him in the world because of his intelligence,” she later recalled.
This account of what happened next was detailed in interviews with Ms. Margis, a police report, contemporaneous messages with friends and interviews with three people she spoke with soon after.
Ms. Margis returned to Room 423, where she took a cannabis edible to counter insomnia, something she’s regularly done since being at the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival. Mr. Price returned and tried to initiate sex.
“No, I just took an edible and I’m going to bed,” she would tell the police she said. “We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
As she drifted to sleep, she felt him penetrate her, she told the police. She pretended to be asleep, worried he would kill her if she tried to stop him.
After he finished, she waited a few minutes then walked to the bathroom before confronting him.
“Did you just rape me?” she told the police she said. He flatly denied it, she said.
She was “shaking so bad and could hardly speak,” she would text a friend a few hours later, adding that “he looked me dead in the eyes and said what I know happened didn’t happen.”
She told Mr. Price she felt pain, and had semen inside her. He began offering excuses, that he was just using his fingers, then he said just the tip of his penis.
“I know what you did,” she responded.
According to the police report, Mr. Price boasted that no one had believed Ms. Colón’s allegations of abuse “because of who he is and that no one would believe her either.”
Mr. Price retreated to the front desk, demanded a new room and provided what the manager told the police amounted to a “back story”: that his girlfriend “felt uncomfortable about falling asleep” during sex, the manager recalled, so he “opted to leave her alone in the hotel room.”
Once the cannabis wore off, Ms. Margis fled home. The next morning, her instinct was to fight.
She texted her friends that she might need them as witnesses. She saved her underwear, and filed the police report. Then she called her mother, who waited in the hospital parking lot while Ms. Margis submitted to a rape kit. Ms. Margis returned to the car, and gave her mother one of the small comfort gifts the hospital gives survivors, a heart-shaped stone, with one word etched: “HOPE.”
“Always invest in people.”
Liked 179,000 times.
Two days later, Ms. Colón, Mr. Price’s former wife, was checking Instagram when she got a message. “I am reaching out and hope this is not triggering in any way,” Ms. Margis wrote.
Ms. Margis went on to say that Mr. Price had raped her and that she believed Ms. Colón’s “every allegation.”
It wasn’t the first time that Ms. Colón had heard from women about bad encounters with Mr. Price.
Ms. Colón had relocated across the country and tried to move on. But escaping Mr. Price’spresence was impossible — even her own therapist had told her she had seen friends share his posts on LinkedIn.
Ms. Margis said she had considered telling her story publicly. “I want to do all I can to make sure he never harms another woman again in his life,” she wrote, but feared he would “come after me.”
Eventually, Ms. Colón connected Ms. Margis to a man named Doug Forbes, who had been blogging about Mr. Price for years. Mr. Forbes had wanted to make an uplifting documentary about Mr. Price but fixated instead on what he alleged to be fraud. Gravity defended its practices in a Facebook post.
Mr. Forbes published posts, often running thousands of words long, about Mr. Price, and had tried without success to get more than 30 news organizations, including The Times, to run them.
But if someone Googled the right terms, his blog would show up. He heard from Ms. Margis, and posted an anonymized version of her account last August.
Mr. Price said on Wednesday that he believed that Mr. Forbes was funded by a competitor, whom he declined to name. Mr. Forbes called the claim “irrefutably false.”
Other women found the post based on Ms. Margis’s experience and contacted Mr. Forbes, who published additional anonymous accounts and introduced several women to each other. That informal community of women that Mr. Forbes had helped forge also contacted me. But there were even more women. In all, more than a dozen described predatory behavior.
Mr. Price messaged Serena Jowers, a fitness coach near Seattle, in December 2020, after she liked some of his posts on Instagram. On their third date, Ms. Jowers said, he pulled up videos on Pornhub, to show her what he liked. After she resisted watching pornography, he pressured her into having sex, she said. She realized he was touching her with only one hand, then saw him holding his phone. He was recording them.
Ms. Jowers jumped up and grabbed the nearest blanket, yelled at him, and fled, she said. The next morning she texted him, saying the filming made her feel like she was not in control of her own body. “I want you to delete any video/pics you took,” she wrote.
“I’ll do that,” he immediately texted back. Three other women, two of whom he also first messaged on social media, also told me that they learned Mr. Price secretly filmed them.
One girlfriend, who asked that I not use her name, said Mr. Price would invite beautiful young women he met on Instagram to join them on his yacht, where she felt expected to entertain them.
“I am tired of being the head of the harem,” she wrote in her journal.
Three times he had sex with her in the middle of the night without her consent, she wrote in the journal.
When they argued, she said Mr. Price would grab her hand and put a pulse monitor on her finger tip. His heart rate never was elevated, so he could make good decisions, he would say. Her pulse would race, so he said she was irrational.
The day after she confided in a friend, whom I spoke with, the friend was on a plane to help her grab things from Mr. Price’s house and yacht, and leave.
“There’s no labor shortage. There’s a shortage of jobs treating people with basic respect.”
Liked 122,000 times.
Mr. Forbes shared information about the Palm Springs incident with employees at Gravity. The news roiled the office.
“This is supposed to be a company that holds itself to a higher standard,” said Dan Ludwig, who worked there for a year and a half, “but it kinda reeked.”
Mr. Price took a leave of absence in the fall of 2021. But at a company meeting last November, Mr. Price, who was the company’s sole owner and board member, said he was ready to return.
Late this January, Mr. Price met Shelby Alexandra Hayne, an artist with whom he first messaged in 2019 on Instagram.
“I greatly admire your adventurous spirit!” he wrote to her. “And you’re super hot LOLzzz.” They exchanged messages. Ms. Hayne, then 24, shared that she had recently graduated from college. He shared a clip of himself on Fox Business, saying, “Here’s my morning so far.”
Mr. Price proposed times to meet, but Ms. Hayne brushed him off. A few months later, he tried again.
People she admired regularly reposted items from Mr. Price, and when she ran across Mr. Forbes’s blog, she wondered, “Is this just some person with a vendetta?”
She said she hoped that Mr. Price could provide advice and connections to integrate activism into her art. She and her boyfriend decided it was worth meeting him, even if he might expect a date.
“You’re doing the most impressive things,” Ms. Hayne wrote Mr. Price in December.
In January, they had dinner at a restaurant in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where she said they discussed politics. What happened next was detailed in interviews, a police report and text messages.
As the restaurant closed, her Uber app wasn’t working, and Mr. Price suggested they stay warm in his Tesla as she downloaded it again.
Sitting in the front seats, he tried to kiss her and grabbed her throat, she told the police.
“He did not let go of my throat right away,” she recalled.
“After I rejected him,” she said, “he transformed.”
Ms. Hayne called her boyfriend, pretending he was her brother, and asked him to rush and get her. Mr. Price sped north, driving her to a Park N Ride.
She was scared because he was “very drunk,” the police report said.
“Hurryyyyyyy,” she texted her boyfriend.
Mr. Price raced up to the top floor of the parking lot, drove the car in doughnut circles and pulled into a spot, she told the police. He reached over to kiss her and grabbed her throat again, his hand pulsing in and out “for minutes,” the police report said.
“SQUEEZING HARD,” she would text a friend the next morning.
And then, he let go. “I’m too drunk,” Ms. Hayne recalled him saying, as he went into the back seat to pass out.
As her boyfriend, Jesse Snowden, pulled up next to them, “she jumped in and pointed her fingers forward and was like GO NOW,” Mr. Snowden recalled.
When she described what just happened, Mr. Snowden remembered Mr. Forbes’s blog. Ms. Hayne wrote him to share her story. Mr. Forbes connected her to Ms. Margis, Ms. Colón and several other women.
“I told her she should call the police and file a police report,” her father, Steve Hayne, a criminal defense attorney, told me.
Ms. Hayne is not the only woman who described Mr. Price’s hands on her neck.Danni Askini,an activist for transgender rights, remembered her first date with Mr. Price a decade ago, when they met on OkCupid. After a pleasant time at a bar, he walked her back to her apartment building, which they entered through the garage. When she would not invite him upstairs, he snapped, she said, and pushed her against a wall.
“He gripped my neck and kinda choked me,” she said. He put his hands down the back of her skirt and assaulted her, she said, before she could shove him away.
She said he tried to laugh it off. “‘I just thought this is what girls like,’” she recalled him saying.
It is painful, she said, that he “is the poster child for this politics that I really care about.”
August 2022: 775,000 followers on Twitter.
Mr. Price has gained hundreds of thousands of followers online since Ms. Margis fled Palm Springs last April.
On Monday, the Palm Springs police department submitted its investigation to the Riverside County district attorney, recommending a charge of rape of a drugged victim, according to Lt. Gustavo Araiza. The prosecutors must now decide whether to file charges.
Ms. Margis said she feared a backlash online if she accused him publicly. She had received threats after appearing in a Buzzfeed video about the Las Vegas shooting. And because she modeled swimsuits, she worried people might say she had asked for what she had not asked for.
But in February, something changed that made her think she could be believed: prosecutors in Seattle charged Mr. Price in Ms. Hayne’s case.
The city brought three charges against him: reckless driving, assault and assault with sexual motivation. The Seattle Times reported on the case in April, and Mr. Price went from posting multiple times a day to going totally dark on social media.
Later that month, Ms. Hayne said the prosecutor told her that the city might drop the charges after seeing that some of the earlier Instagram messages she exchanged with Mr. Price were flirtatious. Her father, a lawyer, wrote a stern letter, and Mr. Forbes, the blogger, emailed several women, urging them to share their stories and Instagram screenshots with the prosecutor. The prosecutor’s office declined to comment.
On May 31, Mr. Price appeared stone-faced, his long hair looking slightly damp, on a court video conference. The prosecutor had dropped the charge for assault with sexual motivation, but proceeded with the case for reckless driving and assault.
Mr. Price’s lawyer entered “not guilty” pleas on his behalf, and the judge issued a non-harassment order until a trial scheduled for October.
“I trust the legal process, and I am looking forward to presenting my defense and proving my innocence,” Mr. Price said in his statement to The Times.
He began tweeting again in mid-July. He got half a million likes in his first week back.