This Toronto tech CEO is accused of 'taking advantage of high school kids,' owes them $16K

Members of Toronto’s tech community are speaking out against the CEO of a local company, who they say owes them more than $20,000 in contracts and prizes tied to youth events.

dHack CEO David Kalman says he intends to pay for sponsorship, but needs proper banking information

David Kalman is the CEO of dHack, which he describes as a 'community first' tech event company. (dhack_ca/Instagram)

Members of Toronto's tech community are speaking out against the CEO of a local company, who they say owes them more than $20,000 in contracts and prizes tied to youth events.

David Kalman is the CEO of dHack, which he describes as a "community first" tech-event company. Last year, dHack agreed to sponsor at least two events, agreeing to provide the organizers $16,000 and $7,000 respectively, according to contracts reviewed by CBC Toronto.

Organizers of both events say they haven't seen a penny from dHack and are concerned Kalman is taking advantage of young people interested in the tech industry.

"We just don't need this type of behaviour in our community," said Nadeem Nathoo, executive director of the Knowledge Society of Toronto. The company operates an innovation program for teenagers and dHack was supposed to provide $7,000 to sponsor a conference they held in August.

Nadeem Nathoo, the executive director of the Knowledge Society of Toronto, says he was 'irked' when he found out David Kalman might be taking advantage of youth run organizations. (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

"We had to pay the money out of pocket, which isn't the biggest deal for us, but what really irked me was when I found out that he may have been taking advantage of some youth-run organizations."

Nathoo means youth organizations like Toronto Hacker Club, run by teenagers. The group was supposed to receive $16,000 from dHacks to sponsor a hackathon, tHacks2, in October.

"It's just not right for a guy to take advantage of high school kids like this," said Peter Stakoun, former president of Toronto Hacker Club. "I'm supposed to be able to have faith in adults. It's definitely a learning experience."

Nathoo is taking Kalman to small claims court and Stakoun says he intends to do the same. 

It's just not right for a guy to take advantage of high school kids like this.-  Peter Stakoun, former president of Toronto Hacker Club

Kalman would not comment on legal proceedings with the Knowledge Society of Toronto.

But he did tell CBC Toronto every contract he's had "since starting dHack has been fulfilled except one in [a legal dispute]" and the one with the Toronto Hacker Club.

When it comes to paying Stakoun and his group, Kalman blames the students. He says that he does intend to pay them, but says they still haven't provided proper banking information for where the money should be sent.

And the finger pointing doesn't stop there.

Many young people are still waiting for prizes they were supposed to get from dHack at the October hackathon.

Still waiting on prizes

Chris Dryden won the data science competition with an app he built at the hackathon. He was supposed to get a number of Google products, including a smartphone, as prizes.

Months later he's still waiting. The 19-year-old University of Toronto student says he reached out to dHack multiple times, online, by phone and in person but still hasn't received his prizes.

Chris Dryden is still waiting for the Google products he won at a hackathon in October 2017. (CBC)

Kalman says Dryden and other prize winners have not provided proper addresses for delivery, so that's why they haven't received their prizes. But Kalman told CBC Toronto some of the prizes, like Dryden's, will be available to be picked up at the dHack office by mid-week.

Ari Lotter, and three team members, won the transportation hack at the October hackathon. Their prize was tickets to an upcoming dHack event called TrainHacks, where Lotter said he learned participants would write code while riding a train from Vancouver to Montreal.

Ari Lotter, and three team members, won the transportation hack at the October hackathon. (CBC)

"We thought, 'Wow, this is an incredible opportunity, we're going to go on this long trip and write code the whole time and it's going to be super fun,'" said Lotter. "But things started getting kind of weird."

Partnerships don't exist

The original website, Instagram and Facebook event for TrainHacks said the train would leave Vancouver today, Jan. 8. But as the event got closer, Lotter says he hadn't received any details on bookings so he started looking into what was provided on Instagram.

One post listed Air Canada, the Marriott Hotel Chain, Via Rail and the Canadian Space Agency as partners. So Lotter says he and others emailed them for more information.

All of the organizations denied having a relationship with dHack -- both to Lotter and in emails to CBC Toronto. Via Rail also confirmed that there is no train scheduled to leave Vancouver for Montreal on Jan. 8.

This now-deleted Instagram post is why Ari Lotter started contacting the organizations identified by dHack as partners for the TrainHacks event and they denied they were affiliated with dHack. (Instagram)

"I was kind of freaked out and a little bit disappointed," said Lotter. "Is there a train? Are we actually going to get flown there? ... A lot of thoughts ran through my head."

Kalman told CBC Toronto his "old social media guy" made the posts about TrainHacks sponsorship and the employee is no longer with the company. Kalman says he's since cleared the air with the organizations listed and the event date has changed.

On Friday, Lotter was sent a brief update about TrainHacks, which he shared with CBC Toronto.

The email says TrainHacks will now be starting in Toronto on Feb. 10 and ending in Vancouver on Feb. 15. The information has also been updated on Facebook. 

I'm worried that if organizations like Toronto Hackers Club are essentially being taken advantage of, that these hackathons won't exist the way they have for me in the future.- Chris Dryden

Besides worrying about their prizes, Lotter and Dryden say they're concerned about how Kalman is affecting the tech community. Most of the members of Toronto Hacker Club have resigned since the hackathon in October due to issues with the event.

"I'm worried that if organizations like Toronto Hackers Club are essentially being taken advantage of, that these hackathons won't exist the way they have for me in the future," said Dryden.

Concern for Toronto Hacker Club and future hackathons, is what sent Misha Larionov down a rabbit hole of amateur sleuthing.

Misha Larionov, 16, was sent a cease-and-desist email from David Kalman's lawyer because of a blog post he wrote about dHack. (CBC)

The 16-year-old wasn't able to attend tHacks2 in October, but was told by organizers about some of the issues they said they faced with Kalman and decided to investigate.

The high school student reached out to some of the same supposed TrainHacks partners Lotter did, and was told they had no relationship with dHack.

"I decided that I wanted to go kind of public about this to make sure that he didn't destroy a bunch of the tech community in Toronto like he did the Toronto Hacker Club," Larionov told CBC Toronto.

Cease-and-desist sent to 16-year-old

So he wrote a blog post.

Then in mid-November Larionov was emailed a cease-and-desist letter for making "defamatory statements against David Kalman and dHack."

"At first obviously I was pretty scared, right?" said Larionov. "But then I talked to a few friends, showed it to a couple people, including the brother of a friend of mine and he goes to law school and he looked at it and said, 'This is a scare tactic.'"

Larionov posted another blog post sharing the cease-and-desist letter.

"Even if they did pursue me I don't really have any assets, being in high school without a job," said Larionov.

Kalman says he hasn't escalated things with Larionov because he doesn't "want to drag a 16-year-old kid into a lawsuit."

About the Author

Nicole Brockbank

Associate Producer, CBC Toronto

Nicole Brockbank is a producer for CBC Toronto's Enterprise Unit. Fuelled by coffee, she digs up, researches and writes original investigative and feature stories. nicole.brockbank@cbc.ca