SAN FRANCISCO (Diya TV) — On a special edition of Diya TV Dialogue, Ravi Kapur speaks exclusively with Dr. Sundar Iyer, the man most known for a caste discrimination case that he was involved in from his time at Cisco Systems.

Dr. Iyer is a tech executive based in Silicon Valley that was sued by the State of California for caste discrimination, charges that have been fully dropped against him now, but years of litigation has changed the trajectory of his life. He’s been an executive at four Silicon Valley companies worth billions of dollars, starting one of them while he was a graduate student at Stanford University.

The transcript below from their conversation has been generated through AI and lightly edited for clarity. 

Ravi Kapur: Dr. Iyer, first of all, give folks a sense of your background. How did you come to the United States? And how you ended up in this position where you go from being a grad student, as an immigrant from India, to becoming a successful startup CEO?

Dr. Iyer: Sure. Yeah. First of all, thanks Ravi for having me. Quick background. I spent the first 21 years of my life in India and did my undergraduate back there. I came to the US in 1998 and did four tech startups mostly in the networking semiconductor and then in the big data space. Been working with Cisco, and a number of startups that I did and that were acquired by Cisco. This whole saga started back in 2015 when I hired a classmate of mine whom we’ll call John Doe for the purpose of this conversation, who later on went to file a caste discrimination lawsuit. So that’s the quick and dirty background.  

Ravi Kapur: Yeah, this is what’s been interesting. I’ve done a little bit of cursory research in advance of this conversation, but you have the prototypical kind of immigrant success story coming here as a student. In the lead up, I understand you actually built a startup while you were a student at Stanford. You went to IIT Bombay, an elite school out of India. And then of course, getting to Stanford is a very difficult task for anyone. And, and you went on to get a master’s and a PhD from Stanford, but while you were there you were building a startup. Tell me about that process and then how that led to where we are today, where in a sense you got sued for helping to build a startup in recent years.

Dr. Iyer: Sure. Yeah. I was working on my undergraduate project, back in 1997, which was sort of in the internet security space. And networking was hot in the 1980s-2000 era. And that sort of resulted in me doing a startup along with senior founders in sort of the internet security and wireless filtering domain. At the same time, I was also studying at Stanford, so I ended up working and studying full-time, and that’s generally been a theme of what I was doing. I did my PhD and then built startups around my Ph.D. research, so it was sort of a natural evolution of ideas and working on academic research that had relevance to industry. 

Ravi Kapur: Tell me about the evolution of your relationship with Cisco and how things ended up where this latest startup got into a pickle.

Dr. Iyer: Sure thing. Yeah. My first interaction with Cisco was back in ‘99, when I was working on my first startup and Cisco. There was a company called Arrowpoint that used our technology in a big way that Cisco acquired. And so we were already working in discussing ideas and tech with Cisco. My second and third startups were sort of in the high performance networking space, and they were both acquired by Cisco. These were both venture funded companies in the Bay Area. When I sold my third startup, which is called Memoir Systems, to Cisco in 2014, I incubated a fourth idea in 2015, which was also funded by Cisco in what was called the Cisco Alpha Program. So this was more in the networking, big data space or software space. And that’s where this whole saga started because I hired a classmate of mine who later went on to sue me for past discrimination.  

Ravi Kapur: And the classmate was a colleague of yours at IIT Bombay, or was it at Stanford?  

Dr. Iyer: He was a colleague of mine at the IIT. Correct. Yeah, his name is kept anonymous, so I will keep information about him to what is in the public record.  

Ravi Kapur: That’s right. And, and I should mention, I mean, obviously there are sleuths out there on the internet. Some folks have kind of put two and two together and understandably so. I understand that again, this is still active litigation going on in this particular case. And just for those folks who are just catching up on the matter, the State of California pursued litigation against you and another colleague, Ramana Kompella, as well as Cisco Systems for caste discrimination. Just tell me about how this came about because it’s hard for me to process. And again, as a journalist, that’s one hat I wear, but I do run businesses as well, and I’m astonished that someone would sue you – someone that you had known for years. So what triggered this gentleman to sue you for discrimination? 

Dr. Iyer: To say the least, the charges and the internal complaints were an absolute shock to me and to Ramana Kompella later. According to the complaint, I was sued for both caste discrimination, retaliation, and harassment, and we (the top) were exonerated of all personal charges. The company, Cisco, is still being sued for discrimination and for me being an agent of Cisco. In terms of the specifics, John Doe alleged that he was not given the Head of Engineering position. He claimed that was because I discriminated against him based on this Dalit caste…Dalit being what he defines as the lowest untouchable caste. So that’s the quick background of the discrimination claim. He then later on went to file multiple other internal complaints that also alleged retaliation and also interestingly, alleged caste-based harassment.  Harassment, as he knows, is a serious charge. It includes conduct and comments that you may have made against an employer. 

Ravi Kapur: So how long were you working with him and did he file internal complaints because obviously there’s usually an HR process with any major corporation?  So tell me about the lead up before even the litigation started, before the state of California intervened. Tell me about that process as someone that recruited this gentleman to join your team and then obviously at some point, things unraveled.

Dr. Iyer: Right? Yes. I mean, this is a fairly public record, but he filed his first complaint in November of 2016. And I was of course not even privy to that because only once you file a complaint does Cisco HR come and then let you know later that a complaint has been filed and then you’re interviewed and so on. There was a litany of complaints that he did both internally at Cisco to other managers after I left the group, and at least four managers have been named in the complaint.  I think there were essentially a bevy of complaints over a two year period. He then went to the State of California’s what is now called the Civil Rights Department (CRD) to file his administrative complaint. And after two years of mediation, subpoenas, discoveries and in 2020, this California Civil Rights Department sued us in quote. 

Ravi Kapur: So during that process, 2016 to 2018, were you actively managing him? How does a company like Cisco, obviously most of us who deal with HR, usually try to mitigate risk to the company, and Cisco is a very large enterprise. So what did they do to handle the internal complaint? Were you isolated? How was this thing handled internally before the state intervened?  

Dr. Iyer: Yeah, to say the least, both Cisco, myself, we did everything possible in whatever we could to help mitigate circumstances. Recall that I was the CEO of my startup, and I had the goal of making sure that all of my employees were successful and we could sell the company back into Cisco as part of the Alpha program. We had technical and customer milestones to achieve. So it’s not something that I could just walk away from because somebody complained against me. So I did my best to both handle things, help John Doe, of course, in copious ways as you can see from public records. And there will be more that comes out.  Cisco of course, did everything in that capacity to look at every HR complaint. In fact, I faced a barrage of complaints and every time John Doe complained, I had to spend time with HR to go through his claims.  

Ravi Kapur: So he was not the only person that complained about this particular startup environment? Again, you don’t have to get very specific, but when you’re dealing with complaints internally and obviously we all have colleagues and people’s feathers get ruffled…What are you doing to try to assuage situations and why did this thing get so inflamed?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, how do I put this, Ravi? You can do pretty much, well, let me put this in different ways. Discretion is a better part of valor is a beautiful saying in the English language. I’ve always believed that…I’m never a person to want to fight with anybody. I’m never a person who wants to bicker over petty things. You can do pretty much everything possible to help assuage a situation, but you can still get sued. So there are situations where there’s nothing you can do.  

Ravi Kapur: When this litigation popped up, was it private litigation that he sued you, Cisco and your colleague, initially, or he went first to the state and made this complaint through their mechanisms?

Dr. Iyer: So in the state of California, every employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation complaint goes to the state body, which is now called the Civil Rights Department. So he went to the Civil Rights Department and they did an administrative investigation, and then the state sued on behalf of John Doe.

Ravi Kapur: When this came about, how was this handled internally? Were you isolated from the startup? Were you allowed to continue to lead? Also, I know you don’t wanna speak for Ramana Kompella, but he was also named.  Why was he named as well?  Was he a direct supervisor that ostensibly offended this gentleman? And just tell me about how this whole thing was handled in those early days. Obviously, we know you’ve been exonerated, but tell me about filing active litigation, especially something this serious in nature. What compelled the state to act on John Doe’s behalf?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, so I guess two questions, but to answer your first question, obviously Cisco did all of their investigations and found we obviously didn’t do anything wrong. So we continued in our positions to execute for what we had to do for the rest of the startup. In terms of why the CRD sued us, I cannot speculate on their intent, but if you look at the amount of data that we provided them, including exculpatory information and copious amounts of HR records for more than two years from multiple supervisors, managers, and other co-workers, to us, it is unfathomable that the state would want to sue. Just to start with one example, when they sued us for caste discrimination, we pointed out to them that John Doe had not even applied for the Head of Engineering position. In fact, open court records show that he had not even shown an interest in the position. We even pointed out to the State that if you are suing us because you believe that John Doe was a Dalit, then you should know that the position was first already offered to a different candidate who also had self-identified as Dalit. Yet the State of California decided to sue us. That’s just on the single discrimination claim. And of course, I’ll tell you more about the other claims.

Ravi Kapur: For those of us who have not worked at a big tech company like Cisco, are folks disclosing their backgrounds? Obviously every major American company that I know of wants to have a diversity index, whether they want say it or not. They want to have a quotient of Asian Americans and African Americans and people of all stripes. So when people are applying for a job at startup, are are they taking that into consideration that this person is of Indian descent or perhaps an immigrant? What’s the calculus on this, and how would you even know what someone’s caste is?  

Dr. Iyer: So to say the least, in Silicon Valley and especially in startups, you have a tinderbox environment where you need to go and succeed. You need to build a product, you need to hire people, you need to ship product, you need to get customers. Silicon Valley environments are primarily about merit, right? And of course, you try to balance things as you can…as you build a larger group. But in many cases, you are hiring for an expert in a place, and those experts are tiny in them. No one asks anybody their caste, no one cares about it, to say the least. The only reason I happen to know the caste of the other senior Dali candidate is because he was a close friend…a confidant. We discussed social justice topics many times, and he had discussed it himself. So it’s like with anything else, when you know somebody for decades, you happen to know more things about them, which is irrelevant to what happens at their place of work. In fact, all of my top leadership positions in this Cisco startup, including the position that John Doe claims discrimination for, went to this other senior Dalit colleague of mine because he was the best person for the job on his merit, on his hard work, on his awesomeness, and knowledge of the networking space for no other reason but that.  

Ravi Kapur: Now, interestingly enough, I’m tied to Silicon Valley companies enough where I have friends and colleagues that have worked at Cisco. They tell me that at that time it was an intense environment, right?  You have that startup within a corporate environment, the Cisco Alpha program. So do you think something got misconstrued? The intensity of building a startup is no joke. As someone that’s done it a few times myself, you want to have strong teammates. Do you think at some point during the recruitment process that something was said that could have triggered this whole series of events?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, if you look at the lawsuit, it’s a sad thing because what the California Civil Rights Department has done is quite a sad saga. When you take a phrase, which is said, empathetically, honestly, as a statement of truth for an answer to a direct question, and in a job interview you take that statement out of context, you drop every other piece of circumstance and exculpatory evidence to try and come up with a case to force a case of caste discrimination. That’s a very sad day in the state of California. The state of California alleges a single sentence that says John Doe was not on the “main list,” which was allegedly said by me. The state of California does not want to give you context, does not want to tell you why the question was answered. Does not want to tell you that there was a question that was asked of me. Does not want to tell you that it was in a direct interview context. Does not want to tell you that I am obligated to speak the truth on a candidate’s resume. But the state of California wants to pinpoint any particular word from any particular conversation and misconstrue that purposely to create a case of caste discrimination. That’s a very sad thing. In fact, in our last motion we pointed out that a statement of truth is not harassment, right?  When I say that John Doe is not on the “main list,” independent of the state dropping context and coming up with a story around it, independent of that, a statement of truth is not harassment. So, just to say the least, if you look at work environments and where the CRD in particular is headed, you can pretty much take any work environment today, record any conversation, and pick any word out of context and sue anybody. That’s a sad situation today. Look, I’m being sued or Cisco is being sued, and I’m accused of caste discrimination of Dalit discrimination in a Silicon Valley group where every position has been first awarded to another senior Dalit. You can just sort of work out the logic of that, but that’s the Civil Rights Department for you.  

Ravi Kapur: This “main list” comment, did it come from an email or did it come from an actual discussion?

Dr. Iyer: It came from me answering a direct question on a candidate’s job interview. I do not know if the State of California wants me to lie, then Kevin Kish and the CRD better come out and tell me that.  

Ravi Kapur: So that was used as a huge linchpin in the case against you? Obviously, it did dissolve, but what took so long? Obviously, we know during the COVID period litigation in California and many other states got jammed up, and it took a long time. What took so long for this whole case to unravel in the way it did?  Obviously the full state and the CRD resources are immense, pursuing this, and this would be obviously a historic case. And after a while, they had to drop all the charges. What took so long for them to figure out that this was not going anywhere?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, the only reason they dropped the charges was because we filed a motion to sanction the state in January of 2023. As to why they sued, I think that’s a more interesting question. Given the amount of data and exculpatory evidence that the CRD wants to hide from the citizens of California, from the legislature, from the governor, I think that is the more interesting story of their behavior. I do not know, but if you look at the rest of the charges, they have data and information that they know that their claims are not true. Even if you take some of the most basic things, the CRD claims my group is entirely Indian. They have the HR records, so they know that’s not true. The CRD claims my group is entirely upper caste. I don’t even know on what basis they make that statement. The CRD has not even interviewed the other senior Dalit colleague of mine in seven years while claiming that there was an environment that was hostile to balance. I’ve lost count of the number of claims that the CRD has made, that they know that cannot be true. That they know that cannot be true by their own internal records, by their own records, by their own plaintiffs. That is an extremely big problem in the state of California.  

Ravi Kapur: So was the state getting guidance from a third party? Was the John Doe figure in question getting advice from any other outside parties that had potentially a self-interest in propagating caste discrimination? We’re gonna get into SB403 in a moment, but where was the CRD getting information that caste discrimination was prevalent enough to file litigation?  

Dr. Iyer: So it’s pretty clear from the lawsuit that the CRD has been working with Equality Labs. In fact, Equality Labs and the CRD, there’s so much information detail from the lawsuit, from their use of their surveys, from the use of their statements in multiple motions, and in the use of statements that are so terrible in the light of what a Civil Rights Department should do. The CRD has literally racially targeted Hindu Indian Americans. The CRD claims, using the Equality Labs survey, that one in four Dalit Americans has been physically assaulted or raped by upper caste Indian Americans with no data whatsoever, no corroborative evidence whatsoever. This claim has been made, if I believe, more than six times in court records in appeals court, including in verbal motions. I do not know how a Civil Rights Department can treat an ethnicity that way and get away with racial profiling of an entire ethnicity with no proof of data whatsoever. The CRD even makes extremely xenophobic statements about Indian Americans, including saying Indian Americans are overrepresented. I didn’t know that merit is a crime. Life is hell working under an Indian manager. These are the CRDs platforming of claims working with Equality Labs. So it’s pretty clear that the two organizations have been working in cahoots. In terms of why they’ve done that…I do not know and that’s above my pay grade, and I think someone needs to get to the bottom of that.

Ravi Kapur: Just to be clear, Equality Labs for folks that are unaware is a Dalit Civil Rights organization. They’ve gotten quite a bit of scrutiny for the way they go about their business. A lot of folks turn to them for leadership on caste discrimination. At the same time, there’s a lot of pushback about their tactics and their methodologies. And so this caste survey that they have propagated has gotten distributed widely. But, in this case in particular, is it true the court did not accept their findings of the survey that they conducted?

Dr. Iyer: That is true. Even worse than that, the survey themselves acknowledge that it’s unscientific. There are a litany of statistical errors that is a whole snowball sampling where Equality Labs went and picked a particular set of people from a particular caste. They’ve even dropped data from people who said they did not believe strongly in caste. You’re literally dropping data and samples to come up with a factoid. But worse than this is even if you took all of that into account and you just took one of the key conclusions of the survey, which is 26% of all Dalit Americans have been physically assaulted or raped by upper cast Indians, where are the reams of police records to substantiate that? That should be almost 10,000 to 40,000 police records today. How does a civil rights organization that is meant to be impartial, that is meant to be at least basically scientific, that is meant to a modicum of fact checking. How does the Civil Rights Department put out such a survey in a court six to eight times? That is the biggest shame. Yes, our judiciary has not been broken so badly, and the Cisco judge did throw out that survey. But how does this state organization even put out such a survey? That’s a shame!

Ravi Kapur: What was it about your defense team as well as the court itself, the judge, why were so many holes poked through this survey? Obviously this survey has been used quite a bit by universities around the country to get caste discrimination on the books at the CSU system and at Harvard and places of this nature. Even Seattle passed a caste discrimination bill in the last year. So what was it about this case that the Equality Labs survey just didn’t pass muster?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, first of all, you had a judge who was focusing on first principles. In a judiciary, of course, standards or evidence are meant to be strong and meaningful and scientific. Of course, you would argue that in academia, standards of evidence should be even stronger in science. But unfortunately, we don’t see that. We don’t even see that in the legislature today with SB 403. So it’s a very sad state in America, in California that you have people, whether they’re university administrators, judges, of course, but whether they’re legislatures, they need to be able to do a modicum of fact checking. And what’s going on today is very sad. When I look at any system, I don’t come at it from a sense of bias. For example, perhaps there are many Dalits who have been physically assaulted or raped. Let’s just take that as a possibility. Let’s allow that possibility to exist as either true or false, and let’s tease the information. Let’s tease the data. Let’s try and understand. That should be the way one should approach any topic. But when you have bias, when you want to accept a piece of data to push forth your viewpoint, that’s a very sad state. And to me, what the Civil Rights Department has done in pushing this survey is broken at its very foundation.  

Ravi Kapur: Let me ask you, do you think caste discrimination exists in India and South Asia? And do you think it exists in the United States?  

Dr. Iyer: If you ask a question about the possibility of discrimination anywhere in the world, whether the population is a million or a billion, the answer is almost always: it’s possible. It depends. And there are cases that appear to show that discrimination exists, right? In India to a large extent, potentially. Of course, there’s a lot of data to show that many of these cases that are being filed are also false. In fact, I was looking at someone who mentioned that 97% of all caste-based cases were found to be false. I do not know the true statistics on that. I have not checked the data with scientific rigor, so I should not quote that with scientific rigor, right? I should call an anecdote an anecdote. At the same time, it is very true that there is caste discrimination occurring in India. As far as the United States is concerned, can discrimination occur? Of course it can! Do we have current laws to help fix that? Absolutely, we do, and I’m glad for that, right? Discrimination of any form is wrong, and the fact that it is covered by current law is fantastic.  

Ravi Kapur: How has this particular battle affected you and your life, your professional life, your personal life, family and friends? Certainly you came to this country aspiring to do better for yourself, and you clearly have, and yet this is an enormous road bump. I can only imagine what you’ve had to go through. Litigation of any kind is very challenging, but this came after you personally in effect calling you a bigot.  

Dr. Iyer: Let me quote this, hardship is not something that I choose, right? It happens. Victimhood is a choice as a presidential candidate recently said. I do not consider myself as a victim. I think whatever dice life throws at you insofar as you can stand up every day and fight to live a better day, you can. Look, my first four things were tech startups. I was happy I worked my ass off 80+ hours a week, many times. What I find is that life has thrown me a different dice. In fact, I found a new calling. 

My focus is on the truth, and I will ensure that the CRD speaks the truth to the people of California, that the Californian legislators speak the truth, that Equality Labs gets to speak the truth, and Senator Wahab gets to speak the truth. If we can focus on making sure that people speak the truth, that is a better America. And I had no issues with that being my next mission in life. To answer your first question, what has the journey been in the first five years? Obviously, it’s been hard. I’ve gone through some of the darkest and toughest days in my life. 

I grew up in Bombay and 70% of my school kids were refugees from Pakistan. It toughens you. There’s a beautiful aspect to life. I toughened myself a lot growing up in Bombay, but nothing made me ready for what the state of California put me through, for what the activists who say they’re representing Dalits put me through, by what the mainstream media put me through, and what academics who pretend to be neutral have put me through. And of course, what the CRD has put me through. You wake up every day. You read tons of articles, you read the Twitter threads. I have received messages of hate, but I’ve come out better at the end of it. I’ve seen some very dark days, but my focus right now is to fix a wrong.  

Ravi Kapur: Let’s talk about SB 403. This is a law that comes on the heels of a caste discrimination law that was passed in Seattle. We’ve been covering a number of these initiatives largely led by Equality Labs.  There were a number of resolutions that were passed going back to when the status of Jammu and Kashmir was changed. And so there were a lot of Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act resolutions passed in many cities around the United States. And Equality Labs was largely behind that in these kinds of virtual sessions that we would capture during the COVID Pandemic. And then we had this legislation passed in the City of Seattle led by Kshama Sawant, the councilmember up there. And then Aisha Wahab gets elected at the end of 2022 and takes office in January of 2023.  And in March, her first piece of legislation is this caste discrimination law, SB 403, which she has claimed is somewhat innocuous. Certainly, I think by all measures, this caste discrimination bill is clarifying existing law. But it is no question the most divisive piece of legislation that I have ever covered in the almost 15 years that I’ve been covering the Indian American and the South Asian community. And so I wanted to get your perspective on this particular bill and what role, if any, you are playing in this because obviously there are a great many people that are advocating for SB 403. It’s been passed by both the Assembly and the Senate in California, and at the time of this taping. As soon as we release this, who knows, the Governor of California, Gavin Newsom could be signing the bill into law. But the reality is it’s right there on the doorstep of becoming law in California. Have you been involved or engaged in this SB 403 process and give me your thoughts about this particular bill?  

Dr. Iyer: Sure thing. Let me answer the last part of your question. First on Governor Newsom. My quick summary on this whole question is who will tell Governor Newsom the truth? Will it be his legislatures? Will it be the activists? Will it be somebody else? I have no idea, but someone needs to tell him the truth. Let me go back to the first part of your question. I’ve always looked at any conversation with truth as the foundation. Okay? Let’s peel SB403 into two different parts: The process of the bill and the bill itself. I’ll comment on both. If I look at the process of the bill, the saddest thing about SB 403 is the fact that the legislative sponsor, Senator Wahab does not sit down and say, I would like to understand caste. I would like to do a community consultation. I would like to get multiple opinions. I would like to come up and write a beautiful bill if it makes sense that is worded carefully and properly with proper data and facts. She did not do that. She introduced the word caste on the last day before the bill goes public. She called it an ancestry bill. Was there meaningful public consultation on it? No. What are her first versions of her bill? They are discriminatory directly…they’re facially discriminatory. She calls out South Asians in a speech. She calls out countries, India, Pakistan, Nepal for caste discrimination. She has words like Dalit and Adivasi calling out oppressed communities in India, basically implicitly defining oppressor communities in India. These are not what I would call ethical actions. These are not the words of a senator that I would like to represent me. These are not what I want to see from a person who is fair, who is neutral and wants to get to the truth.  

What else does Senator Wahab do? She introduced and milked the Cisco case to the Senate. She literally called out the Cisco case holding her own Cisco co-workers guilty. Why? Because she perceived them as upper caste co-workers. Is that not discrimination? Is that not casteist? She couldn’t care less. What else does she do? She said that she wanted this California Civil Rights Department to handle caste litigation. This is the same civil rights department that assigned caste to 50 of my coworkers, including me. It’s the same CRD that assigned caste to me, knowing fully well that I’m irreligious, even though they define caste as a strict Hindu social hierarchy. This is the same CRD that assigned caste to my co-defendant, Ramana Kompella. And it’s the same CRD that Senator Wahab wants to hand over to do caste litigation. That is unethical and that is wrong. If I have one thing to tell Senator Wahab, which is that I wish her well as a young person in a long career, but I have learned one thing in life, the most important advice that I was given, which is to always speak the truth…No matter how hard it may be. If she wants to build a career that lasts long, she would do better by thinking through that. The last thing is the bill itself. Senator Wahab milked the Equality Lab survey. She made widespread claims of caste discrimination without any corroborative evidence. She knows in the heart of her heart what she’s saying, why she’s saying, and how to get her words. But is she speaking the truth? Only she can answer.  

Ravi Kapur: Sundar, why do you think the Democratic Party, which has been pushing this legislation through and they have control of the California legislature, why has this become such an important issue for them? Obviously, I don’t know anyone that wants discrimination to take place, but certainly this has been endorsed now by the California Democratic Party. It’s been endorsed by the local groups running Democratic initiatives in Santa Clara County, in particular, where there’s a huge hub of Indian Americans. I should counter the fact that Jeff Rosen, who is the district attorney in Santa Clara County, someone that I interviewed, made a little bit of news in the sense that Rosen does not believe that caste discrimination is being ignored. He believes it’s currently on the books and doesn’t need further clarification. There are some folks that testified in the legislature saying otherwise. And this is why this has all come to a head, but tell me about the political aspect. Why are so many of the political leaders, even Alex Lee in the East Bay, who had town hall discussions and decided to come out in favor of SB 403. In the end, why do you think so many of these folks are convinced that such a bill needs to be on the books?  

Dr. Iyer: Yeah, the short answer to that, Ravi, is I keep telling this, which is lack of first principle arguments. You talk to people and they love to throw words and phrases, oh, I shall do what the Hindu legislator tells me to do. I shall do what the progressive party tells me to do. I shall do what the majority whip wants me to do. I shall go with the flow so that I don’t have to make a tough decision. And these are, to be honest, intellectually lazy arguments. Here is the whole point about the bill. If you read the survey, put out by the UK government, the only major community consultation on caste, they did this in 2018. They talked to more than 16,000 people. They came up with something very beautiful and important. And I’m not saying they’re necessarily right or wrong, but here’s what they pointed out. They said that by adding or coming up with a definition of caste, because you’ve taken something that’s very narrow in the sort of South Asian or Hindu or Indian context, and now you’re trying to come up with a global definition, coming up with such a definition was almost impossible for them because they ended up with the definition that was extremely vague and over broad with unintended consequences. So let’s go and look at SB 403 as a bill. I just look at it from an independent, data-driven scientific mindset, if you will. Senator Wahab is a definition of caste. She says, this is the United Nations definition of caste. That’s not a useful definition. That’s not a useful argument. That’s an argument by a party. Let’s peel the definition. Senator Wahab’s definition of caste says that it is any inherited status, essentially, which has social stratification based on roughly four things:

1.  There are restrictions to alter that ability

2.  Restrictions to marriage 

3.  There are segregation 

4.  Restrictions of congregation 

Essentially four things – looks like a fairly innocuous definition. What does this lead us to? If you, you look at what Senator Shannon said last week. She said being born a Muslim woman meets all of these criteria, right? There’s a restricted ability to alter that stratus, and restrictions to marriage and segregation, right? You have a definition of caste that is overbroad. 

Let’s take the word poor. If you’re born poor, you can’t alter that status. You have restrictions on marriage. The internet is not full of women looking to marry poor men, right? So if you peel a definition and you work on first principle arguments, you will realize that the definition of caste in SB403 is over broad and weak. In fact, things like young, wealthy, and poor, ugly and handsome are all caste according to SB403. And this is what I believe is the sad status of what most humans do, which is that unfortunate inability to bring emotion out of it and say, let us sit down and come up with a workable definition by taking feedback from all sides. But Senator Wahab does not want to do that. She doesn’t even want to have a community consultation. In fact, she attacked her progressive legislatures who asked for a community consultation. And so now you end up with a definition like this. Let me give you more. 

There are Dalit groups who argue and in a very rational manner, that adding caste actually makes things worse for them. In fact, the UK government has said the same, which is creating a definition of caste means you’re taking discretion away from judges in terms of case law, giving the widest discretion to judges to interpret caste in any way, shape or form, which includes subcastes, subtribes and jatis and varnas is best done by leaving it to case law, rather than throwing in a definition that constrains the judge.  

But do the legislators want to sit and understand this? Many don’t. So arguably SB 403 is vague and overbroad in the face of the bow, and it has made life harder to win a caste discrimination case. In fact, here’s something else I saw, and I heard someone say, tomorrow to show caste discrimination, you now have to argue that you have had a restriction to get married, that you have had a restriction and segregation. You have to prove that, right? Because the law says that’s what caste is. So inarguably, we ended up with a situation that’s worse than before.  

Ravi Kapur: This is why this issue has been so contentious, because you do have so many Democratic lawmakers that have been pushing this forward. Very few Republicans, to my knowledge, have supported this bill in the state of California. But the state of California is largely Democratic, especially at the legislature level. And then in all likelihood, litigation would ensue, if this bill is passed. And so right now, as we are filming this, the bill’s sitting on Governor Newsom’s desk. And so we’ll see what he chooses to sign. And obviously, there’s a political calculus for all of these parties involved. And sometimes, things are passed because of a lobby that gets things done whether things are being affected or not.  

Let’s talk about the next step. Obviously, it seems like you’re passionate against this particular bill. What can you do from here? You’ve been exonerated in many respects. I don’t know how else to phrase it, but you’ve effectively got the “scarlet letter” on you for a few years. It’s been removed, and yet there are lingering repercussions. What has happened since you’ve been exonerated? What are you doing with your life? Also what’s happened with John Doe? What happened with the startup that you guys were working on together, passionately, ostensibly to create not just tremendous technology, but I imagine additional wealth?  

Dr. Iyer: So just to clarify, I am not passionate for (or against) the bill. I am passionate to find the truth about the bill. And I want to double-click on that for a bit. The saddest thing I have seen today, and unfortunately even more with the progressives, is their absolute inability to want to sit down and get to first principle conversations. Our own legislative member, Ash Kalra, I’ve approached him, I’ve talked to him. I just don’t see any meaningful answers at a first principles level, which is, let’s ask these questions. Is caste officially a neutral term? Let’s have an honest discussion on the use of the word caste? Because dictionaries define caste as part of Hinduism. The CRD defines caste as part of Hinduism. Heck, every activist and Equality Labs themselves has thrown caste as a South Asian/Hindu thing. And suddenly you join the phrase and say, well, caste is now a universal term. I don’t have a problem with that, but is that true? Let’s have an honest conversation about that. They don’t want to have that, they don’t want to have an honest conversation on the survey data. I have talked to at least two progressive lawmakers, and when I talk, I’m just trying to find data and facts as to how people think. I’ve asked one progressive legislative member, how do you allow a survey that says 10,000 to 40,000 Dalits have been physically assaulted by Indian Americans? How do you not ask a single critical question on that? Literally, the answer I was given was that in the legislature, we have lower standards of evidence.  

I then followed up and said, okay, you have lower standards of evidence, but how is it that there are zero police records when the number of physical assault claims are 10,000 to 40,000? They have no answer. And that’s a very sad thing when you systematically want to suppress the truth. That’s an extremely sad thing, and I see that in multiple legislatures…a lot amongst the progressives. But I do see some very honest and wonderful people. I talked to Senator Josh Becker, and he was extremely neutral, went ahead, looked at the facts, and asked some very serious questions. And that’s what we want with the lawmakers. Not to be biased, but to ask critical questions.  Coming to your second question, which is what have I been doing with my life and the startup business?  A quick thing, the startup business is doing extremely well. I’m glad that the technologies we built are doing very well and I cannot tell you the actual sort of ARR and revenue numbers, but in my conversations with folks, I know that this is a product that’s shipping in numbers that are unprecedented for a software tool built just a few years back. In terms of John Doe itself, I have no touch with him. I have no reason to, so I’ve kept my distance from him, and not just now, but even before the lawsuit. In fact, I left Cisco, as well, as early as 2018, but I had planned my departure much before that because as I mentioned, discretion is the better part of valor.  

Ravi Kapur: So you started the company in 2015 and then departed in 2018?  

Dr. Iyer: Yeah. We started the company, well, we spent a year incubating the company from 2014 to 2015. We started the company in September of 2015. And I had pretty much left by end of 2017, and then just put a transition plan in place. I was more in an advisory position at Cisco for all of 2018 before I fully left.  

Ravi Kapur: And so in the years since then, you’ve been, I imagine this became a full-time job fighting off these charges. Are you gonna get back into technology? Are you gonna take some time off? And this particular product, are you able to talk about for those people that don’t know what the startup is? Is this now within the Cisco family of products? Is this considered still a separate startup?  

Dr. Iyer: It is within the Cisco family of products. I won’t go into much detail on it, even though I can, mainly because there are some anonymity issues about John Doe. So any detail I provide on the company and product itself, while I believe I legally can, I’m no longer part of the lawsuit. I should refrain from that.  

Ravi Kapur: And, and why hasn’t this litigation been settled yet? Cisco is still on the hook. The State of California continues their case against Cisco Systems. Looking at the different documents I’ve seen, and most corporations do this, they will settle a case just to get it out of their hair, right? And pay a token amount and move forward. Why hasn’t Cisco done this yet?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, first of all, I’m very glad that Cisco has not done this. It’s important to stand up for ethics. It’s important to stand up against fake and false charges. The bigger question as you asked is why is the CRD doing what they’re doing? Just to double click on one of the charges, the CRD sued us for salary discrimination. They said that John Doe had low pay, and the current allegation is that he wasn’t given a salary increment in October of 2016, which is in the low thousands of dollars. That’s an annual increment, if you will. John Doe, per public court record, is being paid millions of dollars in compensation. And why is he also being paid that money? Because I, the CEO of the company, didn’t take any equity.  

I bequeathed 100% of my equity to all my employees. Despite that, and despite the besieging request of the CRD, the CRD still sued us for salary discrimination in the low thousands of dollars. That itself, I believe, is a moral dilemma that the state of California needs to ask the CRD. I have no idea what Kevin Kish and the CRD do when they run their lawsuits and claims, but that claim itself to sue a CEO was given away its entire equity for a few thousands of dollars while John Doe makes millions. In fact, John Doe makes millions of dollars more than me. That tells you how broken California is.  

Ravi Kapur: Why did you give all your equity? Very few CEOs would’ve done that. That’s, I mean, I live in Silicon Valley. I know most of these folks are motivated by equity. So why did you give up everything? And what recourse do you have in light of all the years that you’ve lost now fighting off litigation that ultimately was thrown out?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, a great question, Ravi. Look, I did three startups before I did this one. I worked hard. I made money. In the fourth one, I said, let’s give things back to employees. I wanted people to have a wonderful time. I wanted people to learn and build something great. Many times you work with people, you give them a great time and experience, and then you go on and build something else in the future. So I’m not greedy. We don’t carry our money to our grave and beyond. So that’s not what motivates me and so anyway, I did that. What recourse do I have today? As I said, I don’t think the universe owes me anything. I’ve never felt that my recourse today is to help make California better. My recourse today is to ensure that each one of us, that includes me first, includes the CRD, it includes Kevin Kish as the head of the CRD. It includes Janette Wipper, the prosecutor who filed these charges. It includes John Doe, our legislators, our governor, our progressive Democrats all need to speak the truth, and I want to ensure that they do.  

Ravi Kapur: Let me ask you a couple of clarifying questions. Do you practice or are you part of any kind of faith and did they tie some identity to you specifically? So we have that clear because obviously when it comes to Equality Labs, in particular, who’ve been involved in all these cases, they largely think upper caste Hindus have a lot to do with caste discrimination. Was that applied to you? And what, if any, kind of spiritual background do you have?  

Dr. Iyer: I have essentially always been irreligious, all my life. I never followed any organized religion. I’ve always thought of religion as any other book that you would read. A book can be interesting, can be good, bad, ugly, terrible, fantastic, and has deep wisdom. You pick the best you can from any of these books and try to follow all of these concepts independent of the religious aspect of it. And so I’ve always been irreligious, I’ve never believed in caste. I’ve written short stories against caste. The CRD interviewed me. They know I’m irreligious. They still deliberately went and assigned me a Hindu Brahmin identity simply to create a narrative of upper caste versus Dalit discrimination. That is a violation of my first Amendment rights. That’s just sort of the tip of the iceberg of what the CRD did.  

Ravi Kapur: Do you have a warning for other people in the community in light of this action? I think that’s what has been the most concerning thing for folks that are opposed to SB 403 bill in California, is that you could be construed as a bigot, someone that is discriminatory just by sheer virtue of being ostensibly brown, or being potentially Hindu. Is that something that you talk about with other folks that you have had these discussions with about the potential bills and folks that could be facing caste-based litigation in the near future?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, here’s the sad reality. So first of all, can you be a target in the state of California? A hundred percent right? You all, everyone already is. As far as the community is concerned, a hundred percent right, any law can be misused and abused. And this law will a hundred percent be it already has been, and it has been abused by the state of California. That is the saddest thing. It has been abused by the Civil Rights Department. The very department that is supposed to protect Californians is the one that’s abusing Californians. And my case is not necessarily fully unique. What the CRD has done with multiple companies before is pretty well known. What is unique about my case is that it’s a single plaintiff lawsuit. And in a single plaintiff lawsuit, if you just look at the number of facts from public records alone – there are more than, I think, more than 40 plus instances from public records alone of facts and claims and allegations that are untrue from public records alone. You can just speculate on what happens when the private records come out. So it is the State of California that is the abuser today, and that is more dangerous than anything else, than a normal plaintiff lawsuit. In terms of the community, I have something even broader to offer. If you read SB 403, and I do not know which progressive legislator takes the time to read this, or I hope the governor staff reads this, this is way beyond the community. Every Californian is a target with SB 403. If you read SB 403 ancestry clause alone, that’s clause I believe, 2.E.9, if I’m not wrong, there’s an ancestry clause followed by a caste clause.  

The ancestry clause allows anyone to sue anybody for any inherited social characteristic – whatever that is. An inherited characteristic is overbroad. Height, weight, eye color, wealth, poverty class – these are all inherited characteristics. Does the state of California want that to happen? If that is the case, if Newsom believes that’s what he would like, then it’s an open kimono – everybody’s a target. So not just all Californians, but if you look at some of the actions of the CRD, the fact that the CRD could violate our First Amendment rights is already a thing that every Californian needs to worry about. Let me give you a snippet. If you look at what the State of California did in the Cisco case, they assigned caste not just to me, an irreligious person, or a Hindu that was Ramana or whoever. I don’t even know what he identifies as. They assigned caste to Muslims. They assigned caste to Sikhs. They don’t care. Ask Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains on 403. What has she done to add safeguards to prevent the assignment of caste to seek by the state of California? She doesn’t even want to take my call. All I have done in the last three months is try to be an honest person to talk to people. They don’t want to do that and that’s a sad day in California.  

Ravi Kapur: Sundar, are you willing to continue to stay in California, to work in California to build businesses in California?  

Dr. Iyer: Well, we all have a finite lifespan. If the State of California is going to be this latent and blase about not even standing up for the truth, I don’t see any reason to necessarily stay in California. You can do great work outside California. That said, we have a fantastic set of people, right? Silicon Valley is a special place, and it’s not just Silicon Valley. Let me be blunt. Intelligence is not everything. There are fantastic people from all over. I mean, you can find some of the smartest engineers in Cal State University, and I know people who work from many universities who work hard and do great things. But there comes a time when people say, I can continue doing my great things, but I don’t have to put up with this. I think there are about 75 companies that leave California – 75 companies at a large level that are known to leave California, of course, a lot more every year. The short answer to your question is I don’t see a reason necessarily to have to do new things in California.  

Ravi Kapur: So, fair to say that you have left the state for good?.  

Dr. Iyer: I’m no longer doing startups in the state, even though I spent 20 years of my life doing only that at 80 hours a week. I’ve given all of my youth and more to building startups and building things in California. The short answer is I’m no longer doing that. And to me, it’s not about me. I’m roadkill as far as this whole thing is concerned. It just saddens me that people in power, you know, whether that be a Senator Wahab, whether that be progressive legislatures, people who have the ability to make a change and to stand up for the right thing, they don’t do the right thing? If you wanna make California better, people who have the power to make it must stand up?  But that’s it. I’m going to fight the good fight. I may be away from California, but that doesn’t mean I do not want to fix California. We’re not victims. We don’t shy away. We need to make sure that we make the world a better place, and we make California a better place.  

Ravi Kapur: And for those people who look at this and they look at the two of us speaking and think, these guys don’t have the context or perspective of my worldview, which has been full of abuse and vitriol, and I face discrimination, what do you have to say for those folks who are adamant that caste discrimination is pervasive and it needs to be regulated and legislated across the board, not just in California, but all over America, and potentially all over the world?  

Dr. Iyer: I have two answers to that. The first answer is if you believe you have been discriminated against, file a lawsuit. Bitch, moan, fight, and make sure that bad people are taken to court. But do it. File those lawsuits. Don’t just talk about it. Don’t give anecdotes, make a filing. The US law is so broad and so beautiful that it allows you to do that.  That’s number one. Second, people think about this being a fight between upper and lower caste. It’s not, it’s a fight between good people and not good people. I would love to see any laws on the book that make sense. If it makes sense to add caste constitutionally, if it makes sense to have a definition of caste that is truly meaningful. If it makes sense to have caste laws that actually make life better for people to file lawsuits, let’s look at that in a meaningful manner.  

But today, you have the worst of all three, as arguably somebody has said. The UK government themselves said, you take away discretion from judges. When you try to define caste, you have come up with a definition of caste that is over brought. You have come up with a definition. You, you pushed a bill with so much discriminatory intent that it will be fought in courts and for what? You have these short term political victories, and where do you end up with, and worse, you have now made it harder to win a case of caste discrimination. As someone said, if you are a plaintiff, you have got to show that you were in a hierarchical system. You had restrictions on marriage, you had congregation and segregation. You have to prove those things. What happens to a Dalit in America who is extremely rich?  

Let’s say you have a billionaire who is a Dalit. They may have no restrictions on marriage. Can they now sue for caste discrimination?  Do they have to prove their restriction? I don’t know. The possibilities are endless. But the point to answer your question is why don’t we sit down and work out something meaningful with proper conversation and community consultation. You will end up in a better place. Whatever the answer may be, I’m not averse to having laws on caste. If it makes sense constitutionally, if the data shows it’s useful, you can come up with a good definition and more importantly, make life easier for people to file lawsuits, not harder with vague and overt language.  

Ravi Kapur: I’ve tried hard to make this a definitive conversation because I know it’s very hard to go through this process of having your life turned upside down with such serious charges held against you for such a lengthy duration only to have it be thrown out. And you’re fully exonerated. And yet, all of this stuff is still out there about you. And I’m sure there’s still folks out there who tie you to this whole situation. Is there anything else that we’ve left out here? I wanna make sure that you feel like we’ve been able to set the record straight on this particular matter.  

Dr. Iyer: Well just to put things a little bit in context, the CRD is still suing Cisco. They would like to show that I, as an agent of Cisco, participated in discrimination against a Dalit, despite me having given every position to a Dalit? So that is the irony today of where we are at. What would I like to say? I’d like to tell the people of California, whether they be tech companies, whether they be individual managers or others who face the abuse of the CRD to stand up for their rights. I have been told innumerable times, whether it be from a defense lawyer perspective of law, which is people just cover to the CRD people. People are afraid. I chose to speak to you today unscripted. I believe that we can make the world a better place when we stand up to truth and injustice. On that last note, I also want to tell Senator Wahab, which is, as a young senator, I wish you a fantastic political career, but you would do better if you spoke the truth and nothing but the truth that will make you a lot more successful than any short-term political victory that you seek.  

Ravi Kapur: It’s a message that certainly is being conveyed by so many people in California. And of course, Senator Wahab has gotten this legislation passed, and now it’s awaiting Governor Newsom’s signature, which is ostensibly going to happen any moment now. So that’s why we wanted to sit down, and I’m really appreciative of you giving me this time to talk openly for the first time, that I know of to any outlet, given that there is still pending litigation against your former employer in Cisco Systems. And I also want to bring one more thing up just for clarification. Just for full disclosure, our organization, Diya TV, received a grant from the California State Library through a program to promote California Versus Hate, which is a website administered by the California Civil Rights Division.  We received a $100,000 grant in 2022, and we created a whole show to profile Asian hate crimes. Obviously, there’s been a spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans. And one of the topics that we covered over the last year was about caste and about SB 403. We were up for renewal in year two, and we were denied an opportunity to get the grant renewal. Why?  They haven’t been clear about it, but I was told eight people made a decision in the State of California that they did not want to renew our grant. And obviously, the focus of a lot of our coverage has been on SB 403 and these caste discrimination battles, which we will continue to do with or without funding. But it was nice to get a grant. We’re appreciative. It’s too bad we weren’t able to get that, but I wanted to make sure that was clear because we did receive funds, which didn’t affect our coverage one way or another, but the funds for year two were not renewed.  

We carry on with our coverage, regardless. And that’s why we want to bring on as many voices, so it’s wonderful to be able to sit down and talk to a man who has been in the crosshairs of this caste discrimination battle. Dr. Sundar Iyer, I really again appreciate your time, your candor. It’s an incredible story, and I wish you and your family well because I know it must have been just extremely difficult to get upended in this matter. So continued success to you, and we will continue our coverage on this matter and many others affecting the community.