En ce moment

    06/04/2021

    « I don’t like Arabs », « It smells like Africa around here », « Venum is not for fat cows »

    The CEO of Venum, UFC official supplier, accused of racism by current and former employees

    Par Lina Rhrissi

    21 employees of Venum, new sponsor of UFC, are questioning the methods of Franck Dupuis, the famous brand’s CEO. They describe a racist, misogynist and megalomaniac boss whose management appears to be brutal.

    You can walk through a police station or in the streets of a poor neighborhood, your eyes will meet with Venum clothing everywhere. The logo, a large snake head, is the first thing you notice on Chris’s tee, the wild and brutal policeman in Ladj Ly’s movie, Les Misérables. The french rapper Kaaris shot his last clip, AieAieOuille, at the very center of the Venum Training camp. And the american rapper, The Game, also proudly displays the brand name. But the best ambassadors are Conor Mac Gregor, the MMA worldwide superstar, as well as the entire army of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), whose outfits will shortly display the cobra head. Following Reebok in that task, the french company just contracted an exclusive deal with the billion-dollar US federation.

    Racism

    Franck Dupuis is the main architect of this great success. In 2004, he started his career right in the middle of his apartment, in the Paris suburban area. In 2006, he came up with the idea of the Venum brand and created it. And then he succeeded. When asked by the national media outlets Liberation or BFM, the easy-going boss enjoys telling this success story. On the scene, the weather is neat. In the backstage, a storm is under way. In the corridors of the headquarter, seated in Rungis, the atmosphere would be summarized as follows : « step or die ». StreetPress interviewed 21 employees or former employees. Their vitriolic descriptions of the boss match.

    Dupuis is very keen on forgetting that he owes his success to the popular crowd. « The brand he looks up to is Le Slip Français », told an associate. He wants to change his target : fewer « street boys », more « exec’ men ». « In the middle of a meeting, the business manager said that he wanted Venum to be worn by hipsters with Stan Smith on their feet », smiles Malick (1), a former sale representative. « Franck would love to have young executives and fitness girls to buy Venum », states Ismaël (1) :

    « He wants to get rid of the poor neighborhood reputation. »

    During several Venum marketing sessions, Franck Dupuis would have explained on several occasions that he wanted to switch his brand’s target. « Franck Dupuis told me he didn’t like Arabs », remembers Paul (1), a former white employee who sold MMA military or fluo printed shorts for two years and a half. According to him, this conversation took place in the CEO’s office, in 2017. At that time, the company was about to open the Venum Training Camp, a gym located in Rungis. The main topic of the conversation was the entrance fees :

    « He wanted high prices, to keep the bad crowd out of the room. »

    That is a very common topic in the direction’s mouth, suggest several employees.

    At the end of 2018, another racist comment offended the employees. Five of them were having their lunch in the cafeteria of the open space. Four of them were black, one was Maghrebian. Walking by, their boss Franck Dupuis would have said :

    « It smells like Africa around here. »

    « Nobody understood what it was about », remembers Ismaël. A « bad joke », maybe, but a very sticky one according to several witnesses. The Maghrebian people working at the IT service ? Franck Dupuis had a nickname for them : « The Mexicans », because, « these are the US version of the Arabs ». Muslim people ? « The bearded guys » or the « wallahs ». Covid-19 pandemic ? « It’s all because of the Chinese ». During a photo shoot, Franck Dupuis would have laughed at an asian looking model, asking if she could perform kung-fu.

    « It’s always in a small group. He always slips something about foreigners », says Nidal (1), who worked at Venum for years. « At first, you laugh, you think he’s a Jean-Marie Bigard kind of guy (a french very crude humorist, ed) ». « When he was looking at the resumes, he would find foreign names and would tell me to find french speaking candidates », adds Paul. Other employees find some strategies to protect themselves : « Even if it’s not allowed, I would put on my headphones to let the bad jokes outside », explains Damien (1), a former accountant.

    Misogyny

    Non-white women, or women not fitting the boss physical criterias, also are the target of Dupuis’s cracks. In front of several witnesses, Franck Dupuis would have shoot at the PR manager, who was working on a photo shoot :

    « Stop bringing your beurettes (offensive word for Arab, ed) cousins. »

    The man loves them blond and thin. « For him, women had to be very, very thin. Every women above 4 just didn’t exist », explains Julie (1), a former employee. « Just take a look at the sizes in the women’s departement », suggests Malick, a former sale representative. « If you order a 14 size while you’re a 8, you won’t even fit in ». The founder would always explain that his products are not to be worn by « fat cows ». Female employees also suffer an other kind of oppression : maternity leaves are not helping their careers. The boss would have said, in the middle of the open-space :

    « Remind me of never hiring women again : they get pregnant and are not worth it anymore. »

    A bunch of lies

    The 47 year old CEO agreed to meet with StreetPress on march 22nd 2021. After a quick tour of the store and the ground floor of the huge warehouse in a secluded commercial zone, Franck Dupuis receives us on the first floor. The very large windows of his office are opening on the modern open-space. With soft couches and a baby-foot.

    Learning the nature of the testimonies, Dupuis explodes and gets angry at the « shitty crowd speaking against [him] ». He denies the whole thing, and describe the accusations as « villainy ». He adds :

    « When the interview is done, I’m gonna throw up. »

    The energetic forty-year-old, wearing a very tight polo shirt, finally gets quiet. He feels « hurt » by the allegations. « Our richness comes from how diverse we are. Diversity is what gets us rich ». He heavily speaks with emotion about his mother Malika, an Algerian woman born in Kabylia who arrived in France when she was 22. He also mentions the products his company ships for free in Africa, the orphanage his company dresses and the sponsorships of many champions, coming from poor neighborhoods.

    The Wolf of Rungis

    Employees who spoke to StreetPress not only detailed the numerous racist and sexist slurs coming from Franck Dupuis. They also describe a violent and brutal management. The man likes to see himself as a self made man. During the interview, he calls André Vieira, his past Brasilian associate, a « thief ». « I alone jumped into the empty pound », he says. « He has a very huge ego », says Ismaël. He even likes to show off his fortune. « He used to repeat how rich he was, that we wouldn’t have enough of a work life to get as rich as he is ». Everybody knows about his triplex facing the Eiffel Tower, in the trendy city of Boulogne Billancourt. Everybody knows he drives a shiny Prosche.

    With this definition of success in mind, Franck Dupuis passes on to his subordinates a meritocratic way of life, his vision of the american dream. On february the first in 2019, at exactly 11.45 am, the whole team was summoned to join an unscheduled meeting. The meeting lasted two hours. Franck Dupuis wanted to make a point. He displayed an extract of the movie Boiler Room where a broker, played by Ben Affleck, gets rid of two interns before telling the rest of the crowd they’ll be millionaires if they followed him. « He told us that was his goal for Venum : if we were not killers, it was not worth it to show up on monday », says a witness, still shocked. The showman cited as an example one of his female employee, just promoted at a management position. He assures the crowd that she would clean the toilet if asked to do so. « I was very uncomfortable at that point », admits Julie, another employee. « He had this idea that wherever we came from, we could succeed while stepping on people’s heads ». After this episode, many employees found their way out.

    Philippe (1), a kick-boxing fan, spent two years in the marketing departement. He keeps vivid memories of another episode his team went through. It was during the Epiphany festivities, in early 2020. When cutting the traditional cake, Franck Dupuis wanted to crack a joke. « He announced that whoever finds the bean inside the cake, would be fired right away. Everybody was scared ». The joke was soon over : the bean was in his piece of cake. The little assembly could breathe again :

    « I can’t fire myself, we cancel ! »

    The pressure tactics are not always hiding behind a joke. In december 2019, a female employee decided to resign and said to Franck Dupuis that « no one loved him in the company ». Very angry, the boss directly burst in the open-space, mimicked a kalachnikov and said he would « shoot with real bullets » on anyone who would fancy talking. After that, the employer allegedly called his employees « cockroaches ».

    The CEO’s paranoia is common knowledge. « Maybe that’s because he loves his company very much, but he has the strong feeling everybody’s against him », says Djabre Rodrigue. The CFDT union member of the 94 zone met the CEO when dealing with a termination deal. From the very first job interview, Franck Dupuis warned the accountant Damien about what was going on inside the company :

    « He made me understand I had to choose my side. »

    On december 19, 2018, the bullying got worse. At that time, the national rail company, SNCF, was on strike. In order to stop with the employees getting late, and to maintain order, Franck Dupuis decided he would lock the office doors at 9 am sharp. Three employees could not enter the premises. Among them, Christian (1), another accountant, arrived at 9.03. The 43 years old lives two hours away from Rungis, by public transportation. « I told him my daily commute to get to work was four hours and that there was an issue with the train line. He told me it was not his problem and that it was my fault I was living that far », told the employee who was compelled to get back home :

    « My colleague was crying and he was mocking me. That was inhumane. »

    Venum, whatever the cost

    Many employees had the strange feeling they were asked to live for the company. In january 2019, after he suffered a robbery, an employee asked his superior if he could work from his parent’s place, just the time to get back on his feet. « She asked him why he wouldn’t sleep in his car », remembers one if his colleagues. Everyone complains about the lack of appreciation. « Even when we had good results, we were always belittled », says Gajendran who was working at the after-sale service and wanted his name to be out.

    In december 2020, because of the Covid-19, everybody was working from home. A software bug leaded to orders getting invoiced twice, or even four times. After-sale employees were overwhelmed and could answer calls until 10 pm. Franck Dupuis still considered they were not doing their job. The morning after, he called them at the office. One of them is humiliated in front of the others : the boss pretended to congratulate him for his performances. When the employee answered he was just doing his work, Dupuis stoped him in the middle of the sentence, calling him incompetent.

    The employees we interviewed also testify that they had unattainable goals, and suffered threats and constant reminders. On many occasions, after several conflicts happened, a departement head would have physically threatened his employees, telling them they « should all go outside to get this sorted out ».

    Franck Dupuis denies any illegal behavior but admits he has a strong nature. « I am a passionate man, and I like to be surrounded by passionate people », he justifies. « You shouldn’t ask for peace when you come to work here. We are a high-level sports team, we are always at the top. That is what we like, and what makes us move ». Philippe, a former employee, rather considers that employees are squeezed like lemons, until they resign. « One day, I heard him saying : “We’ll gonna load him up until he cracks” ». A former employee, traumatized, even says that the big boss would make up serious mistakes from scratch, to have enough material to get rid of someone. « They asked me if I would sign a false statement to put someone out of the office », he says. An employee did the math : 53 people left since 2019. « In here, we have a farewell party every week », are told the newcomers. The boss is not annoyed by this turnover : his office is stuffed with piles of resumes.

    Burned-out employees

    A vast majority of the employees that gave us their testimonies are fond of fighting sports. Or practice them. They were attracted by the reputation of the brand. Working at Venum, comes with a privilege : meeting with athletes like Tony Yoka, but also having to train in a 20.000 square feet training zone. « Being hired by Venum, it’s a real outcome for someone like me, who’s coming from a foreign country », explains Casaoui Ismaël, who likes taekwondo, muay-thaï and grappling. « But that dream ended up to be a nightmare ». Another employee says :

    « If I had been told before signing that I was about to live what I had to live, I wouldn’t have believed it. Once you’re inside, everything collapses. »

    The consequences on their mental health can be huge. Laurent spent several months being depressed, basically staying in the dark, on his couch. « For five days, I couldn’t stand up. I wasn’t well, all I was thinking about was work, I dreamed about work ». Greg suffered a burn-out and several years of depression. « I talked to my manager about it, I told him I was about to make a big mistake. He just ignored me ». Marion (1), an accountant for three months, was getting to work with anguish. She lost confidence. « I have that in my nature, but it just made it worse ». « It’s the worst professional experience I ever had », remembers Philippe.

    Franck Dupuis has an answer : his management is « helping out ». He takes the example of Francky, his creative director. « When he first came here, he was 19 and was wearing a tee-shirt with holes. He was coming straight from Savigny-le-Temple and I couldn’t know what he was able to do. Today, he’s 30 and lives between Paris and Hong Kong ». Same thing with the marketing and PR director. « Go see Younes ! This guy, he couldn’t find a job before coming here. Hiring people with no degrees and coming from poor neighborhoods, that is what I have been doing for years. I give people their chance. Find me a company that does the same thing. These are people coming from Africa », he says, mixing in his last words foreigners and french people from immigrant origins. Those who worked from him have another theory : « He just drains out young people coming from the minorities, telling himself that we are starving and that he’ll keep us close that way », says Nidal.

    (1) The names have been changed

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