The co-founder of Ozy Media allegedly once demanded to see an employee’s medical records after she suffered a panic attack and extreme depression after working 18-hour days at the ‘abusive’ firm.
Eva Rodriguez, 24, a creative director for Ozy since 2017, was rushed to the ER and later admitted into a six-week outpatient program for ‘extremely depressed people’ after the panic attack late last year.
‘I felt so helpless because I desperately needed to sleep and take time off, but Carlos had expressed how critical my role is to the show,’ Rodriguez told CNN Business in reference to Ozy CEO Carlos Watson. ‘And if I didn’t do this, the show cannot go on.’
Soon after, she says she got a call from her doctor’s office that a ‘pushy’ and ‘aggressive’ man claiming to be Ozy’s Human Resources director had been asking to review her medical records.
The nurse from the doctor’s office told Rodriguez that the man’s name was Samir, referencing Ozy’s co-founder and COO, who is currently on leave from the company after he allegedly impersonated a YouTube executive on a call with Goldman Sachs.
Rodriguez revealed she’d suffered the panic attack – which she at first mistook for a heart attack, two weeks after being pushed into an 18-hour work day role creating branding for The Carlos Watson Show, the talk show hosted by the CEO of Ozy Media.
She said she returned to work after completing her program, but ultimately decided to leave Ozy in February when she contracted COVID-19 and her employers allegedly told her to ‘work through it.’
‘It’s like a cult,’ Rodriguez said. ‘I really felt like I would be nothing without them because they had given me so many great opportunities and that I would let them down severely if I ever quit.’
Eva Rodriguez, left, said Ozy Media co-founder Samir Rao had allegedly acted as the company’s Human Resources Director and demanded medical records from her doctor after the employee suffered a panic attack late last year
Rodriguez worked an 18-hour role for The Carlos Watson Show, hosted by the company’s CEO
CNN reported it had interviewed nine other former Ozy employees who shared stories similar to what Rodriguez experienced.
The former staffers accused Ozy Media of pushing employees too far as the fledgling media company set about ambitious goals to become a big name news outlet.
Ozy is a media and entertainment company founded in 2013 that includes a digital magazine, newsletter and podcast.
One former employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told CNN that the company expected four writers and two editors to produce 40 high-quality magazine articles per week.
Others said they found themselves managing entire departments while in their 20s with little to no experience.
They also said the company never fully staffed up to the amount necessary, instead it went through a cycle of layoffs and new hires.
Whenever employees felt overwhelmed, the former staffers claimed Watson would step in and use his charisma to make sure staffers could not say no.
‘Carlos was a bully,’ a former staffer said. ‘He would do whatever it took to get what he wanted. He did not accept no for an answer.’
Two formers staffers claimed Watson had screamed at them, repeatedly, during the tenure.
The employees added that they often found themselves working on the weekend and having to schedule their lives around Watson.
‘[I was] trying not to lose my mind and avoiding the blast zone of Carlos’ frequently expressed ire,’ Eugene Robinson, a former editor-at-large at Ozy told CNN Business. ‘While the outside world he faced saw glib and charming, those who had to work with him saw a very different face.’
The employees were also upset by Watson’s claim that Rao’s alleged impersonation incident was due to ‘personal mental health issues’ and that the company stood by Rao, noting that they had never seen such support about their mental health from the CEO.
Ozy, whose well-heeled investors include the Berlin-based media powerhouse Axel Springer and Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, did not immediately respond to an inquiry from DailyMail.com.
Goldman Sachs believed that Alex Piper, pictured above, was speaking with them about Ozy’s success on YouTube
The FBI has opened an investigation into Ozy Media and Rao, who is being accused of pretending to be Alex Piper, YouTube’s head of unscripted programming, to vouch for Ozy in a call with Goldman Sachs in February to close in on a $40 million investment for the media company, the New York Times reports.
During the call, Rao – as Piper – boasted that Ozy had a huge subscriber base, garnered significant ad dollars and was run by an incredible leader, all to win favor with Goldman Sachs.
Goldman Sachs officials described the call as unnatural, almost sounding ‘digitally altered,’ the Times reported.
After the call, a Goldman Sachs official emailed a confused Piper, who said that he was never on the call.
YouTube launched its own investigation after finding that someone had impersonated one of their executives, which quickly led them to identify Rao.
Watson reached out to Goldman Sachs and also confirmed that Rao was the one on the call, apologizing profusely for his actions.
Ozy CEO Carlos Watson, pictured above, attributed Rao’s actions to a ‘mental health crisis,’ but did not elaborate further, the Times reported. He was above speaking at a panel discussion Ozy hosted in 2018
Many in the industry began to accuse the company of overinflating its audience size and influence, with one source calling it a ‘Potemkin village,’ a term for a decorative façade that hides what’s failing just beneath the surface
Featured speakers at OZY Fest 2018 included Christian Siriano, Roxane Gay, Isaac Mizrahi
Along with its news department, Ozy also produces a number of non-fiction television shows and, in 2016, launched its own Manhattan-based music and comedy festival, OzyFest – which brought a cease-and-desist letter from Ozzy Osbourne who claimed that the name was too similar to his Ozzfest music festival.
Carlos Watson: The former MSNBC star turned entrepreneur who founded Ozy
Watson, 52, was born in Miami to a Jamaican father and a mother from Virginia, and went on to graduate from Harvard University and Stanford Law School.
A fast-rising star, his early career included stops at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company.
His TV career launched in 2002 as a political analyst for Fox News and CourtTV. He was also a CNN commentator for two years.
By 2009, Watson had secured an anchor gig with MSNBC, where he co-hosted an afternoon segment with Contessa Brewer.
The show was short-lived, and Watson launched Ozy in 2013 with Samir Rao, his fellow Goldman Sachs alumn.
Ozy has garnered some $70 million in venture capital backing, but the latest allegations raise questions about the site’s business performance.
Watson had once vowed that the annual event was going to be ‘the new South-by-Southwest,’ but former employees and insiders said that the struggling festival was more akin to the infamous Fyre Festival.
By 2018, Ozy was raising eyebrows with the claim that it had sold 20,000 tickets to that year’s event at the Rumsey Playfield despite the venue only having a capacity of just 5,000.
‘We had never proven the ability to sell even 5,000 tickets,’ a former employee told Forbes. ‘When we were trying to sell 5,000 tickets we were begging people to buy them. We were putting them on discount, discount, discount, giving them away.’
Much like the Fyre Festival, the failed 2017 event meant to promote the Fyre music booking app, Ozyfest seemed to be an expense that promised much more than it could deliver.
Then in 2019, Watson made an ambitious gamble by scheduling Ozy Fest for Central Park’s massive Great Lawn, vowing to sell 100,000 tickets and promising appearances from comedian Trevor Noah and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
Planning for the event got off to a rocky start after the company was busted using an image of the much more popular Global Citizen Festival in ads for the Ozyfest- a bait-and-switch that Ozy execs blamed on a rogue team member.
And the promised lineup for the event was even more sleight of hand, according to former employees.
‘The way they’d get guests on their TV shows and guests on their festivals is they’d lie and say they already had commitments from X, Y and Z,’ one employee who worked on Ozy Fest told Forbes.
‘And they were like, oh that person dropped out, oh that person can’t participate. But they never had those people to begin with.’
Documents filed with the New York City Buildings Department showed the 2019 festival was only licensed to host 15,500 people per day during the two-day festival.
Staging the event would have cost some $6 million, in addition to the millions Ozy likely spent on advertising, according to experts consulted by Forbes.
Insiders say it came as a relief when the festival was cancelled at the last minute by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also called off the New York City Triathlon due to a searing heatwave that hit 100 degrees.
Likewise, Ozy’s 2020 festival was canceled due to the pandemic.