Venture Capital

Lawsuits, Mudslinging, and a Broken Friendship: Venture Capital’s Most Contentious Breakup Just Added a Messy New Chapter

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Hugo Van Vuuren was in the midst of a messy, high-profile falling out with his business partner when he landed at New York’s JFK Airport in September 2016. Van Vuuren, a South African citizen, said he didn’t think twice about crossing the border; he had held some sort of visa since he first entered the U.S. more than a decade prior as a Harvard undergraduate. He always kept his paperwork in order. When the border patrol agent told him to step into another room for something called a secondary inspection, he was perplexed. The agent told him his visa was no longer valid and said he had to return to South Africa on the next available flight. Two armed guards escorted him to the gate. He chatted with them about the upcoming election. He bought a smoothie. It wasn’t until he was back in South Africa that it hit him: He had been cast out of the country. 

It wasn’t clear to Van Vuuren how he should proceed. His visa had been dependent on his job status as a partner at the $100-million venture capital firm Xfund, along with his cofounder Patrick Chung. But, according to legal papers filed by Van Vuuren, a legal team hired by Chung claimed to immigration authorities that Van Vuuren no longer had a position there. Van Vuuren said he eventually found another path to a visa, but shortly after he went to the U.S. Consulate as part of the application process, he was told that he was permanently barred from reentering the U.S. It began to seem to Van Vuuren that part of Chung’s strategy to bar him from the company involved blocking his ability to enter the country to make his case. Last week, Van Vuuren filed a complaint alleging that Chung had weaponized his immigration status to push him out of the company. 

The blowup between Van Vuuren and Chung is at this point the stuff of legend, with each side so adamant that the other is acting despicably that it’s virtually impossible to get them to agree on a set of facts. The two helped start the fund together to bankroll entrepreneurs at Harvard and MIT; it grew out of a previous, smaller venture called Experiment Fund that launched in 2012 with $6 million. Chung came to the Xfund with experience as a partner at New Enterprise Associates, and the younger Van Vuuren had connections on campus thanks to his time there as an undergraduate and master’s student.

Soon after Xfund was established, however, the two disagreed about who wielded control over the company; Van Vuuren signed over a degree of control in 2014 without, he previously told Wired, sufficiently vetting the paperwork. As the two founders clashed, the fund suffered, and only about 10% of its initial $100 million in capital had been invested by mid-2016, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time. Eventually, Van Vuuren filed a lawsuit against Chung alleging that the veteran investor had deceptively changed contracts and bullied staff. The case, which was settled privately, included examples of messages sent by Chung allegedly calling Van Vuuren a “moron.” The fund’s capital was cut to $50 million, though Chung raised additional funds. Last year, Xfund launched a third offering and raised $120 million.

Van Vuuren’s new complaint, this time against a law firm involved in the allegations, is the latest chapter of the saga.  The suit alleges that the firm, called Lowenstein Sandler, helped Chung conspire to block Van Vuuren from returning to the U.S. in order to quash the case against him. Chung, who continues to head up Xfund, is not named as a defendant in the case, but the complaint cites his intervention in Van Vuuren’s visa applications. As part of the complaint, Van Vuuren points to a letter written by Chung to the consular chief in South Africa, dated just 10 days after Van Vuuren was rebuffed at JFK, saying that he wanted to alert the chief to Van Vuuren’s “malfeasance.” According to Van Vuuren’s complaint, Chung and his lawyers reported to U.S. immigration services that Van Vuuren had falsified documents by signing them on Chung’s behalf. (Van Vuuren’s complaint includes a log of messages in which Chung asked him to sign for him, “with my full blessing.”)

At the time of publication, Lowenstein Sandler had not responded to a request for comment. A P.R. person named Paul Kranhold responded on Chung’s behalf, saying that Van Vuuren’s claims “are and continue to be baseless.” He pointed to legal documents filed from 2016 in which Chung said he reported the forgery of his signature on Van Vuuren’s immigration documents and that he “never gave Plaintiff or anyone acting on his behalf permission to sign my name.”

It’s a messy story that has engendered deep resentment on both sides. “Patrick is vicious and will stop at nothing to try to get what he wants,” a mutual acquaintance of Chung and Van Vuuren in the venture capital space told me. “Hugo was in the way of him, and he’s a bulldog. That’s what made him a great venture capitalist—he bulldogs his way into every deal and was very successful at it.” Robyn Scott, a friend of Van Vuuren’s who spent time with him in London while he challenged the ban, said he never wavered in trying to appeal the decision. “It’s pretty unusual to be accused of something that you are quite certain you’re not guilty of and to have that false accusation turn your life on its head,” she said.

Van Vuuren now lives in New York; he successfully overturned the ban in 2019 and acquired a green card. But he said the imbroglio left a mark on his reputation. He had been on the brink of funding two companies when, he said, he found himself frozen out of Xfund with his personal bank accounts temporarily locked. He also suspects that being deported has a chilling effect, whether the grounds were fair or not. “Your currency as a V.C. is to be in the flow of information, to be trusted as a good fiduciary, and to be a secure, calm sounding board for your founders,” he told me. “Your founders go through this crazy life, and you’re supposed to balance them. When you go through the crazy life—from losing money, to being defamed, to having your character called into question—it’s very hard to be an investor again.”

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