(Photo illustration by Brian James Kirk)
The first time Yuriy Porytko emailed me drunk, his message arrived in my inbox at 5:24 in the morning in May 2010.
“Pay more attention or be fucking junior league,” he wrote. “I really appreciate what you’re are doing, you have the right idea. My simple opinion is that you have no clue.”
Seven years ago, Technical.ly wasn’t a 25-person media company. We were a blog template where two friends and I posted event recaps and interviews with those who were just beginning to self-identify as part of a Philly tech community. But we were getting more aggressive and finding that community members had opinions. Just a few months before that email, we hosted an open discussion about our model with also then-volunteer-only Philly Startup Leaders. Yuriy, whom I had only met in passing by then, went in on his email message, which included my two cofounders.
“I don’t personally care, really I could give a shit,” he continued. “I have multiple exits from local VC investment and multiple fucking revenue streams.”
Then Yuriy unloaded a line that has become legendary in our newsroom: “You all can eat pretzels forever.”
I was 24 years old and still finding my footing as both a journalist and first-time entrepreneur. So to wake up to an email like that from someone identified as a successful investor, who appeared to be better connected than we were in a community and world we were only beginning to understand, was jarring. This email felt important, like it was a great insight into how business Really Got Done. The final paragraph of the 233-word email shocked us:
“Ok, I’m a little hammered,” he said. “But seriously, you have no real impact on the real world of tech in our region outside the self serving circle of a bunch of complainers that can’t get funded or are stuck with looser early stage capital cunts that can’t accelerate a company past their front porch.”
He advised: “Open up and learn.”
My cofounders and I were sent into a tizzy. We emailed back and forth to develop a response. We discussed it at one of our weekly meetings. Suddenly it felt like there were even greater expectations for what we were doing. We aimed to step up. Seven years later we are something different, bigger and better.
Surely it isn’t because of one drunk email, or even the collection of times Yuriy has chastised me for some expectation we failed to meet. But if he played an important voice for us and, I’d later find out, other parts of the Philly tech community, does it matter that in the end it turns out he likely spent more time as a beeper salesman than a tech investor?
Would your answer change if you knew he had a nasty habit of breaking promises and that an ongoing lawsuit puts him alongside at least three local tech companies in turmoil?
The Philly tech scene, like most, polices itself. That can be beautiful — and insidious.
Provocative and charismatic, Yuriy is among the most recognizable faces of that scene, familiar with all the top leaders. Lots of people like him. He’s bulky and boisterous, a self-styled, street-smart philosopher-type who proudly grew up in a blue-collar corner of economically depressed North Philadelphia, made it to the Ivy League and, in his telling of it, some of the East Coast’s most blue-blooded investor circles. He has touched nearly every tech community group here, making connections and volunteering support either because he cares deeply, or because he’s some kind of charlatan — depending on whom you ask.
But there are on-going concerns that strike at the heart of who Yuriy Porytko really is:
- He is presently facing a civil lawsuit alleging he stole money from a coding internship program, only the most transactional claim of a failed relationship with an Irish investment fund.
- He is accused of misrepresenting his background and network, after a lifetime of boasts gone too far.
- His boorishness, too, has been cited as living proof of just the kind of hyper-aggressive boys club that the Philly tech community has worked so hard to avoid — jokes about guns, boats and sex.
These are the community offenses Yuriy is accused of but nobody wants to talk about, including most of the nearly 30 interviews I conducted for this story. This is the framework of the story you are about to read.
What do you do when one of your community’s first and most eager guides may be more pretender than practitioner?
Accusation 1: The SmartInvest fiasco
I didn’t hear Gerry Moan’s thick Irish brogue because when I asked for an interview, he directed me to speak to his lawyer.
Moan is the CEO and general managing partner of venture capital firm SmartInvest with teammates in Dublin, Philadelphia and Israel, and a pilot accelerator program in Delaware. (It has a sister brand, SmartStart, which is an angel fund.)
In 2011, Moan set plans to bring over SmartInvest from his native Ireland after an invitation from Volpe & Koenig, the Center City intellectual property law firm with several proudly Irish-American partners. By early 2015, Yuriy was overseeing the fund’s American expansion and, apparently, leading a $5 million angel syndicate, part of a pipeline of 20 companies that had been vetted through due diligence and were planning to launch the fund later that year, according to Moan in an interview from then.
But now, Moan isn’t speaking to Yuriy either, since he sent a short message in fall 2015 out to a wide-range of contacts announcing the “removal of Mr. Yuriy Porytko from the post of general partner and of his relief of all and any affiliations.”
Nobody would talk to Technical.ly on the record then, including several local founders whom we knew were rumored to have been involved in the then-on-hold fund. But that’s changed now because earlier this year Moan and SmartInvest filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas a civil lawsuit, alleging, among other things, that Yuriy took thousands of dollars that weren’t his. It has ripped open old wounds.
Now SmartInvest counsel Mark C. Stephenson says he’s requesting the court “enter judgment” against Yuriy for not responding to the lawsuit, but once again Yuriy is proving evasive. The complaint alleges primarily that in early 2015 Yuriy secured a $25,000 sponsorship for the PennApps fellowship program and cashed out nearly $10,000 of it from two-dozen ATM trips between May and September 2015 for his own personal gain. (The complaint redacts the name of the sponsor. In 2014, the program was sponsored by StartUp PHL, the City of Philadelphia’s grant-making program to support tech-fueled economic development, and in 2015 Comcast supported. It is not clear which, if either, of the sponsors are the ones involved. SmartInvest counsel Stephenson would not confirm.)
For his part, Yuriy says the allegations are “completely unfounded” and instead part of a ploy by Moan to pressure him out of compensation he’s owed. Yuriy has “his own response coming soon” that he can’t yet discuss, he said.
Whatever happened between Yuriy and Moan, their partnership represents millions of dollars of empty promises and has crushed at least three tech companies — and perhaps contributed to the shuttering of a pair of coworking spaces here. In a still-young corner of a city’s business community, this blowup, which until now has largely been kept to rumor and gossip, might have had farther reaching implications than expected.
SmartInvest was meant to be the make-good moment of big-talking Yuriy Porytko — a true leadership role in an entirely new early stage investment fund opening in cash-starved Philadelphia. Instead, it just might be his undoing.
Yuriy was SmartInvest’s Fund Limited Partner and Managing Member for the Philadelphia market — just the kind of title Yuriy had once dreamed of. (Though SmartInvest does not appear to have active investments in the United States, it does list a largely Irish portfolio, which includes several active tech startups. SmartInvest lawyer Stephenson said he was unable to confirm whether or not there were active investments in the U.S.)
Not so long ago, a startup founder named Walter thought he was going to join that SmartInvest portfolio. That’s not his real name, but this first-time tech entrepreneur’s experience is an important (and corroborated) part of the story. (We have granted Walter the condition of anonymity, due to concerns he has for this disrupting his current startup. Technical.ly has independently verified portions of his story.)
As Yuriy was signing the papers on his big investment job, Walter was nearly a year into his first startup. The web company he launched wasn’t his first business, though. Rather than the college-dorm-room trope, Walter had spent the past 20 years running a landscaping design-build firm he started as a kid mowing lawns. He grew to lead a team of more than a dozen, overseeing project-based contracts, budget projections and still “swinging a hammer when hammers needed to get swung,” he said. With just a high-school education, Walter knew if he was serious about trading in back-breaking work for a different kind of challenge, he had to go full-time with his startup. He sold his trucks, equipment and transitioned clients. He was all in.
Walter began nervously attending tech events, hoping to build a network to source talent, attract investors and build a reputation in an entirely new industry. He was reinventing himself, so naturally Walter and Yuriy hit it off immediately. Walter was put at ease by another blue-collar guy mingling with the privileged tech elite.
They became so friendly that when one of the worst ice storms of one of the snowiest and most disruptive winters in Philadelphia history hit the region, Walter wanted to help. Yuriy and his girlfriend Jill Lentz were left without electricity for days, so Walter and his then live-in, longtime girlfriend invited them to stay.
“I don’t know if Yuriy knew he was going to fuck me over by then,” Walter told me over the phone.
Soon after their night together in early 2014, this new entrepreneurial journey was straining Walter. His startup hadn’t progressed fast enough and building a network of investors was harder than he anticipated. Strapped for cash, Walter, who once had more than a dozen of his own employees at his own company, took a $16-an-hour construction job with Toll Brothers, needing the health insurance badly. Walter’s startup was adding users but, worryingly, not fast enough. If it was going to work, he needed firepower. He thought his prayers were answered when Yuriy said that SmartInvest looked like a perfect fit. First Yuriy mentioned a small $200,000 seed round. Then Yuriy doubled it, noting that with Walter’s traction, no less than $500,000 would do.
“I was so enamored by the chance at a startup life,” Walter says now. Yuriy took him to a coworking space for the first time, beautifully decorated, with free coffee and beer. It was startling for a guy who was running a sweat-drenched landscaping business just a year earlier. “It was so easy for me to fall in love with it all.”
Walter had never had someone with access to so much money offer it so off-handedly. Unsure of standard procedure, he relied on a handshake deal. By spring of 2014, a year before the alleged ATM visits, Yuriy said the deal was imminent, and they needed to get moving. So, as he had a year ago but now feeling like he had a support system around him, Walter quit his job. He hired a technical intern, a $10,000 commitment to a top-flight university software programmer.
Then something changed.
Over the next several weeks, Yuriy got harder and harder to reach. Still, he was always encouraging. We just have to finish the paperwork, Yuriy would say. Once, when Walter expressed concern about the timing, Yuriy said he’d write a personal check to hold things over if it came to that, Walter said.
But Yuriy’s calls, texts and emails were growing more and more inconsistent. Into the summer, Walter had run out of reserve cash and was using his personal savings and soon credit card debt for website hosting and other expenses. He didn’t know where to turn. Quickly costs started piling up, and Walter said he couldn’t delay paying his technical lead anymore. He ended the internship but still owed money to the promising young programmer.
“I quit my job, lost my health insurance, got kidney stones — don’t get me started — made a $10,000 commitment and put my business on the line,” Walter tells me. “I lost my girlfriend and was almost homeless. And then Yuriy vanished.”
Walter sent Yuriy a final desperate text: “Just give me the $5k to pay the kid. Do the right thing.”
Yuriy never responded.
Turns out Walter wasn’t alone.
From fall 2013 to early 2014, Yuriy says he was building deal flow for SmartInvest, leveraging his Philly network to bring a new investment firm to town, and it appears he at least did that.
One of the most exciting early-stage startups in town at the time was Squareknot, a quirky, design-centric website billed as “the GitHub for things.” It was a bold consumer-facing play led by Jason Rappaport, a friendly recent graduate that Yuriy had met at an event at Lehigh University, 90 minutes north of Philadelphia, and had helped lure to the city. Yuriy had Squareknot begin to draw legal documents and early term sheets for a $1 million investment, Rappaport said. It felt like a watershed moment for the first-time founder.
“We had been planning everything around that million,” the then-24-year-old Rappaport told Technical.ly in November 2014.
Throughout that period, Yuriy was known to book conference rooms in the Squareknot office, which was a light-filled glass cube subleased from Gabriel Investments, a respected regional venture capital firm whose founder, Richard Vague, had taken a liking to Rappaport. Yuriy’s meetings were often unrelated to Squareknot, and it seemed as though Yuriy was passing the Gabriel office as his own, said one early Squareknot employee.
Like with Walter, Yuriy kept saying there were delays in raising money. One month, Rappaport used $30,000 of his life savings to complete payroll and other expenses. The company owed money to a local dev firm and others. Once again, debt piled up waiting on a promise that seemed more distant with each passing day. By March 2014, Yuriy stopped returning Squareknot’s calls, according to Rappaport.
Rappaport, sweet and prone to forgiveness, still feels burned by Yuriy. (He later raised a far smaller amount and is still working on rebuilding momentum.) But he’s careful to note that he felt Moan and SmartInvest could have pushed through if they were serious about their investment expansion into Philadelphia.
“This whole fund is a hallucination,” said another Squareknot employee to whom we have granted anonymity because of their concerns about criticizing an investor. But the point was clear: Yuriy over-promised, but no one seems quite sure whether Yuriy’s delusion was a cause or a symptom of SmartInvest’s own failure to launch.
This same months-long period of Yuriy ratcheting up excitement for a new early-stage fund based and focused in Philadelphia caused other problems to inexperienced and cash-starved tech businesses here. One prominent Old City digital media company built an expansion strategy alongside Yuriy’s commitments of investment, only to see the promise wither. Yuriy is “sick” and caused irreparable harm, said the founder, who declined further participation in this story, citing Yuriy’s past “intimidation tactics.”
“He used to brag about carrying his firearms around. He’s a frightening person,” the founder said. (Yuriy recently sent this reporter an email that included the subject line “conservatively armed,” though I have never felt it was more than an off-color joke.)
At least two prominent coworking spaces, one in Center City and one in Kensington, altered their strategies, expecting to fill large portions of their offices with portfolio companies Yuriy said he would be hosting. It’s a claim several people interviewed for this story say they saw first-hand. How much and where blame should be focused is nothing anyone much wants to discuss, however.
“When Yuriy jumps into a pool, he creates more waves than even he may realize,” said a one-time business partner.
Or as Yuriy’s girlfriend Lentz put it tellingly: “You don’t walk onto the used car lot and not do your own homework.”
Accusation 2: Is Yuriy an investor at all?
The next time I saw Yuriy after he split from SmartInvest (his last day at the firm was Oct. 22, 2015, according to the ongoing lawsuit) he had me moderate a panel of investors for a January 2016 event under the FundingPost brand, a network of local resource lists that he curates in Philadelphia as another of Yuriy’s many affiliations.
In several emails marketing the event, he “mistakenly” described me as the event’s “Penal Moderator.” I got plenty of friendly ribbing for it, but I didn’t pay it much mind: just Yuriy being Yuriy, I thought. It was a productive event for a room full of mostly young and inexperienced tech founders alongside real investors from serious places, like Ben Franklin Technology Partners and Safeguard Scientifics. Looking back, between the serious crowd and my brushing aside the teasing, the message was clear: Yuriy was a serious convener. It was all very chummy.
“Everyone looked like they were Yuriy’s friend,” said founder Walter. “I was thinking: Does nobody know what this guy has done to me?”
Yuriy was born into a proud and loud Ukrainian family.
He remains active in various groups and camps that make up a rather cohesive Eastern European cohort in Philadelphia. He’s fluent in Ukrainian and speaks the requisite smattering of Russian and Polish.
Yuriy grew up in East Oak Lane, not far from where famed linguist Noam Chomsky was raised a generation before. Today the neighborhood has a reputation for being fairly diverse in otherwise largely Black North Philadelphia, and has that section’s only remaining White-working-class pocket. Yuriy was raised with his older sister Andrea Zharovsky in a brick twin rowhome on 12th Street near 69th Avenue.
That’s still the home of his mother, a bookish but sturdy woman named Helen. For years, she taught French at St. Basil Academy High School in Montgomery County, just outside city limits — it’s why Yuriy speaks some French himself. (She now works for the Bucks County schools, Yuriy said.) She was a concert-grade pianist and studied archeology for a time at the Sorbonne when Yuriy was still a small child, taking him to Paris. She speaks fluently or in part nearly a dozen languages.
“Mom has more degrees than a thermometer,” Yuriy told me once, as is his way. He said he “hardly” knew his father. Yuriy has implied he had a violent childhood, but he deflects and obscures, as also is his way. His sister, who has had a challenging relationship with her brother, puts it a bit more directly: “We had a deadbeat dad,” Zharovsky said. Helen was the focus of the abuse, she says. It got violent. There are details. We’ll leave it there.
They were estranged by the time Yuriy was a pre-teen. (Yuriy’s father died in 1994, when Yuriy was 25.) His mother Helen retreated more into academics. She didn’t want to celebrate Christmas anymore, too many painful memories, so there were no Christmas trees or decorations or even presents for many years. Helen continued on, teaching Ukrainian courses and taking night classes herself, so she didn’t always see her children much. They always had a close relationship with their grandmother, Anastasia Sagaty (known as Miss Nasty to some, Yuriy said), and now that grew. She largely raised the kids, while mom worked and studied.
“Grandma really was like my mom growing up,” said Yuriy. (Though Andrea, who speaks with a kind of detached worry for baby brother, says Yuriy was always their mother’s favorite.) So he was shook when Anastasia died this June.
But their mother Helen continued to travel extensively with Yuriy and Andrea, including frequent family trips to the Ukraine and exploits elsewhere in Europe, particularly during summers. Yuriy might have logged more air miles than any other kid growing up in East Oak Lane.
He continued his escape locally.
Yuriy says he ended up going to St. Joe’s Prep, the celebrated Jesuit high school with at least three Philadelphia mayoral alumni, because he thought taking the entry test would be an easy way to skip out on his Ukrainian heritage weekend school.
For a kid as well-traveled as he was, The Prep, as it is affectionately called, was its own cultural education, in the classroom and out. (Tuition at The Prep is more than $22,000 this year. Yuriy was a “scholarship kid” back in the 1980s.) In his yearbook, Yuriy lists chess club, the UN Club, National Honor Society and the student newspaper among his activities. Today he still cherishes his time there — along with Ukrainian culture and literature, it may be the only institution he speaks of with reverence — but it was painful, too.
“It was hard being a poor kid at St. Joe’s Prep,” said sister Andrea. “All he ever wanted was to succeed. I think he had a lot to prove.”
One time, Andrea said, Yuriy came home and told a story of how one of his fellow students who grew up with Main Line money had gotten a new watch and was showing it off at school. It could have ended there, but “Yuriy spoke about that watch for months,” said Andrea.
Yuriy didn’t grow up poor — his mother worked and his grandparents were generous. But The Prep showed him there was an entirely different end of the socioeconomic spectrum. That watch became a symbol of him feeling far behind, said Andrea, of how some get everything and others don’t.
As a teen, he was always on the move. Childhood friends remember him with a motorcycle and a Ford Bronco and other vehicles — always with vague details of where they came from. In 1986, during their next family European jaunt, Yuriy, then just a thin teenager, got a Eurail Pass and left his mother and sister behind. He ended up in Greece, wrecking a motorcycle but ultimately finding his way home on his own.
“Yuriy always wanted to be somewhere better than where he was,” said Andrea.
Yuriy thrived at The Prep, although he was eccentric and mischievous. He did well enough — fourth in his class, Yuriy says — that he got into the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1991 with a degree in European History — the classics, just like his mother. Through The Prep and Penn, Yuriy began building a network otherwise beyond reach for someone from the block.
One critical early friendship was with one of Philadelphia’s most iconic and wealthy families. Through high school friends, Yuriy met and later became close with Brook Lenfest, son of Gerry, who was in the early days of growing Suburban Cable, the legendary regional telecom that would be absorbed by Comcast in 1999 for $6.9 billion. (Through a spokesman, Brook declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Yuriy and Brook surely made unorthodox friends: one the privileged Main Line son of a thriving entrepreneur, the other a street-smart tough with a soft spot for Jesuit theology. But Yuriy was larger than life to other city kids, too. Even after he was attending Penn, he was known to meet up with high schoolers, always with some fantastical story about a life they hadn’t lived yet. Drinking and drugs were common, said one childhood friend.
“When you’re 16, it can be easy for a 20-year-old to look big,” the childhood friend said. “And Yuriy was big.” He often talked about girls, though he had a steady, longtime girlfriend for much of high school. She was another tough woman, the only one who could manage to get Yuriy to go to home for a special family meal and one who was supportive of his academic work.
With that prestigious Ivy League education, Yuriy spent five years after graduation working for Beyond Beepers, a retail chain he joined through an uncle and cousin of his, rising to a vice president role. He started with them in South Jersey and helped launch a Philadelphia storefront. It is still his longest single professional tenure to date.
As much as beepers were meaningful gadgets in the early 1990s, Yuriy’s first serious professional turn into technology came in January 1996. That’s when he took an executive role at Suburban Connect, a division of Suburban Cable, which was increasingly coveted by the fast-growing Comcast. (Lenfest famously never wanted to sell to his Main Line neighbors, Brian and Ralph Roberts, the Comcast founding family, but was absorbed by the comms giant after Suburban sold to AT&T.)
Yuriy lasted in the Suburban Connect role for about two years. He says that’s because by then the early due diligence for the acquisition was beginning and “all the interesting work had stopped.” (A representative of Lenfest-era Suburban Cable does confirm through an intermediary that Yuriy had an executive role there. But there is some dispute about what his title was and some details of his responsibilities.)
“He was a smart guy who made it to Penn and could be a $250,000-a-year kind of tech executive if he worked hard and played by the rules,” said the Lenfest/Suburban Cable representative, who requested anonymity for speaking without clear approval.
Yuriy spent the late ’90s using his language skills and telecom experience in Estonia and Latvia. He’s alluringly vague about the details of these jobs, including an injury he says he sustained while overseas. His sister does say it was serious enough that he ended up in a coma in Riga but admits, “I don’t really know what happened there either.”
Yuriy endured scarring on his scalp and long after suffered headaches and memory loss but Yuriy isn’t saying more than that.
“I don’t know how much things changed after that coma,” said Andrea, of her brother who was always independent-minded but seemed to take a different turn as he grew older. “I’ve asked myself that a lot.”
By February 2000, Comcast owned Suburban Cable, and the Lenfest family was deploying its new found wealth. Brook Lenfest, gifted a tidy sum by his father, launched what was then Brooks Capital Group, a $500 million investment fund that would later evolve into LGL Partners, Brook’s current consolidated family office. Yuriy says he was a primary operations lead for Brook to establish the office and its investment priorities. It’s these three years at Brooks Capital that Yuriy chiefly cites as the foundation of his venture capital background. (A Lenfest representative disputes some of the details about the level of Yuriy’s involvement.)
There was a split — more on that later — but for the next several years, Yuriy tried to build on something he found he loved: technology and investment. He held an array of management consulting and venture capital-adjacent roles, often mixing in the word “investor” with his title and working with an array of suburban men, always described as “billionaires and millionaires.” But he never seemed to be immediately tied to deal flow, though he contests that.
Yuriy says in this time he did more than $1 million in angel investment deals, though he is vague here too. (Looking through SEC filings and other documents, Technical.ly was unable to independently confirm that Yuriy was directly tied to any tech investment.) Yuriy says he’d rather keep his deals “private,” though other prominent tech CEOs chortle at this.
“There are too many people that call themselves an investor that aren’t active and have no reason to be in the room,” said one Old City tech startup mainstay who puts Yuriy in this category. In 2010, this startupper met Yuriy, who was then representing some tech dev consulting firm that aimed to trade cash and equity for outsourced development work. “He is either a liar or just an honest man confused about what I would call important details.”
But Yuriy climbed his way into the tech scene, surrounded by people with similar interests who didn’t know anything about his past. It was another chance to start over.
“You look at how his life started, what’s amazing is how far he has come,” said his girlfriend Lentz.
Lentz is the one who points out to me that so many of the highest-profile, most-damaging experiences Yuriy has had in this local tech community all stem from his one messy relationship with SmartInvest. That’s not many failures, it’s one, she said, albeit with many victims.
But Yuriy’s checkered business past doesn’t start or end there. No fewer than three other former business partners report feeling taken advantage of.
One longtime institutional organizer in the Philly creative community felt bilked out of money after Yuriy agreed to produce a project website. Yuriy’s year with Seed Philly, an early Center City incubator space, ended abruptly in May 2012 before it eventually folded. (The incubator’s founder Brad Denenberg declined to comment for this story.) One other organizer reports being owed money but declined to speak on the record.
In all of those cases, it was a case of Yuriy promising something he could never deliver on — but, critically, not him stealing. The common theme is over-promising. Why isn’t he learning?
“He might mean well, but what speaks most is execution,” said another organizer who worked closely with Yuriy. “He has burned enough bridges” that he’s ending up on an island.
The Yuriy defense, an interlude
Although investments are hard to pin down, Yuriy does have a long track record of volunteerism in the Philly tech community.
He’s a loud and at-times-criticized presence, but, say many local leaders, Yuriy shows up, and no one I spoke to finds it less than genuine. He has a particular focus on younger and inexperienced entrants and often helps get them into the right room when something new and interesting is beginning, said several sources.
Yuriy was “an early adopter” of Philly Startup Leaders, said Tracey Welson-Rossman, a local tech executive who helped launch the group in 2007. It was through PSL that Yuriy joined the community. In 2011, Yuriy helped launch one of Philadelphia’s early Startup Weekends and began curating Startup Digest, a network of locally curated newsletters that has since joined Startup Weekend as part of the umbrella of services from TechStars, the Boulder-based tech accelerator with global aspirations. He still painstakingly curates tech event listings weekly for the newsletter. Later, he added an organizing role with FundingPost, the investor event and information resource.
In July 2012, Yuriy stepped into an organizing role with OpenAccessPhilly, the prominent and well-respected public-private convening group founded by Paul Wright, Jeff Friedman and Andrew Buss in 2010 (it’s currently on hiatus). Yuriy was an early organizer of what became Start. Stay. Grow., a stakeholder group connecting college students and campus resources with Philly tech resources. (Full disclosure: Technical.ly was among those stakeholders.)
Perhaps most prominently, Yuriy took under his wing nvigor, a cross-campus effort by a group of undergraduates to establish a wider pipeline between colleges and Philly tech.
“nvigor would never have gotten its feet under it to begin with if it weren’t for Yuriy,” said Abhiroop Das, who cofounded the group as a Drexel undergrad. He is now in a management consulting role in New York. While other tech community leaders gave warm wishes but little real support, Das said Yuriy “was the only among them to roll up his sleeves and actually listen to what we the students wanted, and heard our opinions.”
Das and another nvigor cofounder Dias Gotama responded to an email from this reporter within hours, rattling off examples of real, direct action Yuriy took on the group’s behalf. He helped them raise event sponsorships, learn about fiscal sponsorship, connect with mentors and would always help give them a history lesson on the community here: “Overall just consistently making sure we got a seat at the table among the established folks in the tech community and had our thoughts heard,” said Das.
One of the many connections Yuriy has made — which also includes setting Squareknot’s Rappaport up with early employees — was between nvigor and Code for Philly, the local civic hacking chapter of Code for America. That group is led locally by Chris Alfano, who also cited a series of crucial introductions, including with an executive at Philadelphia Gas Works, which led to an impactful hack night, and an introduction to an accountant he has used for his company, Jarvus Innovations.
“Yuriy has probably done more for me than most in the tech community,” said Alfano. “But I also saw it was his nature to get excited about things before they fully materialized.”
Joanne Lang, a prominent local founder says Yuriy was “very supportive” of her first company, AboutOne, a family management tool. She said in 2012 he was among the first to volunteer to test an early version of her app and praised her company to a pair of investors he knew that she was later pitching. Through it all, his focus was action, not just kind words.
Likewise, nvigor’s Gotama pointed me to a recent Facebook post from a local college-aged developer, one who comes from a fractured family and who has had financial and home security issues. Gotama thought it was a telling example. Last month, the developer was sharing that he was broke and feeling anxious. In the comments, there were lots of well wishes. Then there was Yuriy, telling the kid he could get him a job, giving him advice, offering other support. I followed up with the young developer, and he confirmed Yuriy often did that, offering real direct support. He appreciated it but hadn’t taken Yuriy up on the offer.
Yuriy has a saying, something he picked up from his girlfriend Jill, herself proudly independent and strong-minded. “Horse. Water. Drink,” he’ll say, shorthand for the old aphorism that even if you give someone everything they to need to succeed, many would rather do nothing and blame someone else for it.
It might as well be a life philosophy for someone as fiercely self-reliant as he is.
Accusation 3: Boorishness
Nobody has ever described Yuriy as well-behaved, least of all Yuriy himself.
But something big happened in fall 2003, something big enough that it fractured the improbable childhood friendship that had previously thrived between salt-of-the-earth Yuriy and Italian-leather-shoes-without-socks Brook Lenfest. It was an ugly fracture and doesn’t appear to leave either blameless, though all parties decline to go into detail on the record.
Brook went on to become one of the region’s most prominent philanthropists, taking his father’s lead and transitioning an early investment firm into a consolidated family office of wealth management and charitable causes. Yuriy spiraled.
The next year, then-35-year-old Yuriy was picked up in suburban Montgomery County for a DUI. Court documents show he and his wife were behind in local and federal taxes. In 2005, they filed for divorce. (It was only after the divorce that Yuriy’s sister even knew her brother had gotten married, she said.)
By October 2009, Yuriy Porytko, well-traveled, Ivy League–educated and once in business with one of the wealthiest families in Philadelphia, was arrested drunk at 3 a.m. banging on his ex-wife’s door, according to the Main Line Times. It was an ugly incident, not one becoming of the kind of man Yuriy wants to be seen as.
“I was completely shattered after my divorce,” Yuriy told me. “I wasn’t myself.”
But that behavior has become familiar to those most active in Philly’s tech community, particularly those who organize events with an open bar.
I found no fewer than five local Philly tech organizers who have had to, in some form, ask Yuriy to leave one of their events or encourage him to slow down his drinking. Troublingly, I, too, once had to strongly recommend to Yuriy that it was time for him to leave one Technical.ly event.
What’s perhaps more complex is that in reporting out this story, I found at least three women, all in their 20s, have felt Yuriy’s reputation for getting drunk at tech events and being crass has crossed other lines, too. An event organizer read to this reporter an email complaint they received in April 2012 about Yuriy repeatedly getting into the personal space of a female attendee. The interaction reportedly escalated to the point where Yuriy, apparently finding it all a big joke, mock shouted “fuck you” to an infant in a baby carriage.
In the category of why this story is important to be told publicly, without anyone more formally addressing it with Yuriy, it happened again.
A prominent female founder felt he touched her inappropriately at a local event and then said “fuck you” when she pushed back. After initially agreeing to be part of this story, that founder declined to speak further. Before then, she produced an email exchange with Yuriy from that time in which he did not deny this portrayal of events. He sent her a meek apology in response: “If I was inappropriate in any way, I apologize.”
Squareknot founder Rappaport’s girlfriend Alyssa Romanko was briefly Yuriy’s assistant (though she says she was never paid) and also felt uncomfortable at times. She said he announced to a group that he wanted to “show her off” in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, and several others simply said he is frequently aggressive and invades personal space — always after drinking. At least one made clear, though, that much of that behavior speaks more to a troubling remnant of a boys-will-be-boys business climate that hasn’t been entirely eradicated from a proudly progressive and welcoming tech community. (See this conversation on sexual harassment here.)
“That isn’t just a Yuriy thing,” said one source.
Instead, the more common gossip about Yuriy tends to focus on what does appear uniquely Yuriy. It might be darker still.
In spring 2016, Yuriy showed up at an event held by a Center City law firm, without having registered or been invited. He got drunk and, according to one prominent startup lawyer and corroborated by an investor, he was heard making racist jokes, including using the “N” word. When he was asked to leave, the lawyer said Yuriy announced that he had a gun and would produce it. Like a lot of promises Yuriy has made, the gun never came out. He was escorted out.
“I just don’t think he can control himself,” said a local event organizer. “That problem isn’t going away.”
I asked Yuriy directly: Do you have a drinking problem? No, he said, he sometimes goes weeks at a time without drinking alcohol.
“I’m a strong personality: Half the people say I’m crass, half say I’m funny,” said Yuriy. “I like to push envelopes and when you’re drinking, we all amplify who we are.”
“I will call the baby ugly if the baby is ugly,” he adds, wavering some in his voice. Then, it seems, Yuriy expects all involved can simply move on.
In spring 2016, during Philly Tech Week, a large regional community celebration organized by Technical.ly, startup founder Walter had shut down the web company Yuriy said he wanted to invest in and had moved on to another. Walter was at the closing Signature Event, networking and connecting with the friends he had made in the local community over the last several years. Someone put their hand on his shoulder. It was Yuriy, wondering how things had gone, after having not spoken since that desperate message the year before.
“Get the fuck away from me, Yuriy,” Walter says he said then. “Don’t catch me on a bad day, because I will fucking drop you.”
Walter, explaining his reaction to me, said: “I had lost it all.”
After initially reporting out this story, I visited Yuriy at his home for what would become a three-hour-long digestion of his place in a tech community that he and I care so much about.
As I was leaving he described the evening as an “ambush,” a characterization I don’t challenge, though I found him more open to me than he ever had been before. At one point, out on his balcony sipping a lager, Yuriy revisited a question I had asked him earlier that evening. His girlfriend Jill, who had been trying her best to impersonate a person who wasn’t hovering around an interview, interjected but he pressed on.
“What is it that I want?” he said. “Impact. With how I got fucked over through my life, I want to teach others to not get fucked over.”
In a follow-up call, I confronted him with the idea that many of the people he’s hurt might find that hypocritical — didn’t he fuck them over? He hesitated for a moment and said, as he has before to me: “Do as I say, not as I do,” punctuated with an uncertain laugh.
After more than two-dozen interviews and knowing him for the better part of a decade, Yuriy is no evil mastermind. He sees himself as a force for good, and, in the eyes of many I spoke to, that is true. He is a big man-child who reaches for what he wants even when it might appear so clearly out of reach to someone else.
That means he asks a lot of other people, even when he himself never meets his own standards. That’s what drives him — to both do good and to cheat. He’s a hardscrabble guy who has taken every shortcut he could find to get where he wanted to go. The ironic thing about shortcuts, of course, is if you spend too much time looking for them, you never get where you want to go. And he’s hurt real people — he’s continued an ugly tradition of men using physical power against women and he’s misled inexperienced founders. Those aren’t trivial sins.
For so long, he has asked more of me than he has ever given me back. Today, that changes. Yuriy, you’ve demanded better of me, in private emails, yes, but also at events and in public forum. So I’m doing the same to you: Be a better version of yourself. Stop the drinking. Make amends. Promise less. Work harder. You’ve had plenty of impact, but you piss it all away. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can change. I’d write that redemption story, if it were to come to pass.
More than once, late at night, at the Pen & Pencil Club, when fellow reporters and I are several drinks deep ourselves and sharing stories of sources, I have brought up Yuriy. Feigning reluctance, I will take out my phone and find that first “pretzels forever” email from May 2010 to share just a bit more about the man. I will read through the nearly perfect message, using his own dramatic pauses, and anyone listening will alternate between laughs and open-mouth gasps. Because of an extra space between his last paragraph and his closing sentence, I often nearly miss it. But looking back to me then as some young reporter feeling lost and vulnerable in trying to grow a media company, that last sentence meant everything.
“You have real potential with what you are doing. I love your model. Try harder,” he said. “Ignore me when I’m drunk. I may not be right, but I am not wrong.”
Except when he is.
Edited by Zack Seward.
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