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Catalysts for Change
Anh-Minh Le | Photo: Cody Pickens | August 31, 2017
Meet the women leading the push for diversity and inclusion in tech.
In the wake of the March 27, 2015, verdict, no one would have blamed Ellen Pao for retreating into the shadows or taking a very long vacation. Since the day three years earlier when she announced that she was filing a gender discrimination suit against her employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s most storied venture capital firms, the spotlight had shone harshly on Pao. “I knew that it was the first time the doors were being opened in this very secretive culture,” says Pao during a break in the photo shoot for this article. “And I knew that these stories were important.” The closely watched monthlong trial illuminated issues of sexism and harassment, along with the lack of diversity, that had long plagued the tech industry.
After a San Francisco jury cleared Kleiner Perkins of wrongdoing, Pao—now perceived as a pioneer by some and a pariah by others—entertained the oh-so-fleeting thought of hopping on a plane, maybe to Hawaii, where a friend suggested she could lay low. “I was a little bit tempted,” Pao says, “but there’s still so much work to be done. And I wanted to not disappear. I thought it would be better if I came out of this and showed people that you can go through all of this and still be productive and contribute.” At the time of the trial’s conclusion, Pao was the interim CEO of reddit, a position she held until July 2015. In 2016, she began working on a book, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, which comes out Sept. 19. And this past January, she was named a partner and chief officer of diversity and inclusion (or D&I) at Kapor Capital, the venture capital investment arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, run by Freada Kapor Klein and her husband, Mitch Kapor.
Pao’s championing of D&I extends beyond her role with Kapor Capital. Propelled by the support she received during her high-profile litigation, in the spring of 2016, she and seven fellow women in tech—including Kapor Klein—launched Project Include, a nonprofit that provides CEOs with recommendations and tools for cultivating more inclusive work environments. The founders range from engineers to entrepreneurs, all of whom have devoted copious hours outside of their day jobs to what is essentially a volunteer endeavor. “[The trial] was part of what inspired Project Include—this notion that it wasn’t a one-off,” Pao says. The problems she faced at Kleiner Perkins weren’t unique to that firm, nor to the venture capital sector in general. “This was really something that was so broad and so deep that people would come up to me with tears in their eyes and they would recount their own experiences. I think sharing my story so publicly helped people feel more comfortable with their own experiences and realize this was not something they had done wrong. … This was something that was much more systemic.”
As the idea for Project Include germinated, one of the first women Pao reached out to was Erica Joy Baker, an engineer who had already established herself as an advocate for D&I. “I picked people who had spoken up, who had taken risks and who had built their own platforms,” Pao says. In 2015, Baker gained notoriety for a spreadsheet she devised while employed at Google. In the document, co-workers shared information about their pay, gender and ethnicity. About 48 hours after the spreadsheet’s creation, Baker was called into a meeting with her manager. Apparently, the experiment in salary transparency had not gone over well with higher-ups. Baker soon left Google for Slack. (Following the August uproar over Google engineer James Damore’s internal memo asserting that the low number of women working in tech was rooted in biological traits, Baker tells me that she was not surprised by the content. “Views like Damore’s have been shared within Google before, albeit more quietly,” she says, adding: “I suspect in this case the leak of and public response to the doc had more to do with his firing. It would greatly hamper any efforts Google was making around D&I if they did anything less than fire Damore.”)
Although her role at Slack involved spending 20 percent of her time on D&I, ironically, according to Baker, her responsibilities may have hindered her professional advancement. “I was the one who was always passing the issues up the chain of leadership, so they viewed me as the troublemaker instead of the messenger,” she says. “That wasn’t everybody, but there were definitely people at the company who believed that.” After two years at Slack, her last day with the startup was in June. For Baker, when it comes to potential employers, “the path to leadership” is a priority.
It’s no surprise, then, that Project Include emphasizes fostering a workplace where employees feel not just fairly compensated, but listened to and valued. “I was seeing so much effort being put into the diversity piece,” says Baker. “Millions of dollars are being spread around the Valley on getting people in the door, but we don’t have a lot of work happening when people get there. I was really adamant that the work we were doing be focused on that.” Indeed, a number of corporations have made monetary commitments to diversity in recent years: In 2015, Intel, Apple and Google announced that they would earmark $300 million, $50 million and $150 million, respectively. And in June 2016, the White House enacted the Tech Inclusion Pledge. Since then, more than 80 tech companies have signed on, but the initiative has been criticized for lacking teeth. To date, only 17 of the companies have released numbers of any sort on the diversity of their workforce. Hence, another cornerstone of Project Include is accountability—tracking data to determine successes and areas of improvement. When a company signs on, it agrees to complete surveys at the beginning and end of the program, which can last six months to a year. In between, Project Include is available for consults, and meetings among employees as well as other cohorts are planned. It’s not about doing small things and then calling them wins in public, Pao notes, “like this idea that you can do a one-off training for 90 minutes, maybe on unconscious bias or maybe on diversity and inclusion, and then announce to the world that you’ve done this training and give yourself a pat on the back with nothing further.”
For Pao and Baker, an initial conversation over wine and cheese at San Francisco’s Ferry Building was “the start of thinking through what we could do with Project Include, who would we bring on board, how would we make changes that are impactful,” says Pao. Entrepreneur, investor and adviser Susan Wu, who currently splits her time between the Bay Area and Australia, is also among the women Pao enlisted for Project Include. “It’s easy to say we’re all women; we’re all passionate about D&I; we’re all working in tech—but the reality is that we’re incredibly diverse as people,” Wu points out. “Ellen has done an amazing job of uniting a team of women who probably never would have normally interacted in the industry, and demonstrated by example to the rest of the industry how to bring a diverse group together around a common cause.”
Like Baker, Tracy Chou—another Project Include founder—became a well-known figure in diversity advocacy because of a spreadsheet. In 2013, Chou was an engineer at Pinterest, where she was one of the first 15 hires. With the blessing of her employer, she penned a Medium post about gender parity in engineering. In it, she wrote: “While companies do talk about their initiatives to make the work environment more female-friendly, or to encourage more women to go into or stay in computing, there’s no way of judging whether they’re successful or worth mimicking, because there are no success metrics attached to any of them.” (At the time, Pinterest had 89 engineers, only 11 of whom were women.) Chou invited others to add to a spreadsheet she created on Github that tracked the number of female engineers at their firms. More than 270 companies—including Airbnb, Rent the Runway and Yelp—have contributed. (The last time Pinterest self-reported, in January 2017, its percentage of female engineers had climbed from 12 to 20 percent.)
Beyond the easily quantified statistics, Chou has encountered sexist behavior at various stages of her career, from the classroom to the boardroom. At Stanford, where she earned a B.S. in electrical engineering and an M.S. in computer science, a male student once remarked, “I didn’t expect you to be so good at coding because usually physical attractiveness and coding ability are inversely correlated.” Chou was also told that classes were easier for her since she could flirt with the teaching assistants. More recently, while trying to get a startup off the ground, she and her male co-founder pitched to a venture capitalist in the Valley. Afterward, the VC contacted her individually—outside of an email thread that had been established between the three—to invite her to dinner. She declined. Repeatedly. When she left the startup and her previous email address became inactive, he messaged her on Facebook about getting together for dinner or drinks. She didn’t respond. Whether the VC was simply networking or had less honorable intentions, Chou can’t be sure. But this she does know: As uncomfortable as the interactions made her, she has to tread carefully. “I guarantee you that when I start something new, I will have to pitch to his firm again,” she says.
This summer, the headlines about Silicon Valley seemed like a broken record, as a string of accusations of sexual harassment were publicly leveled against VCs. In a New York Times bombshell article entitled “Women in Tech Speak Frankly on Culture of Harassment,” which ran June 30, Wu was among those who called out the bad actors—telling the Times reporter that Lowercase Capital founder Chris Sacca inappropriately touched her face, and that Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital propositioned her. In a story published on The Information about a week prior, half a dozen women also came forward and alleged sexual misconduct by Caldbeck, who soon resigned from the early-stage VC firm he helped launch.
“In 2012, when Ellen spoke out, it was easy to tell a narrative that she was unique, that it was an aberration, an outlier,” says Wu. “Only now in 2017, I feel grateful that there are finally all of these stories coming out that demonstrate that Ellen’s story was not at all unique and that she was really taking an extraordinary risk to be one of the first to go on the record about it. I didn’t fully appreciate how courageous she was until I spoke out myself. It’s been a very hard and scary process. You don’t know if the industry will support you; you don’t know if you’ll be retaliated against; you don’t know if you’re going to be ostracized.”
After the Times article, Wu—who has worked in the tech industry for 25 years, including as a member and CMO of Apache Software Foundation and founding partner of Obvious Corporation, as well as an investor and adviser to Twitter, Square, Color Genomics, Canva and more—was struck by the reaction on Facebook from other female founders from the web 2.0 era. “A majority of them who had left the industry or had moved away from Silicon Valley were saying things like, ‘Wow, I can’t even talk about this article because I’m so triggered because I still suffer from PTSD,’” Wu says. In April, the Kapor Center for Social Impact and Harris Poll released the results of a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults who had left a tech-related job within the past three years. Among the key findings: One in 10 women reported unwanted sexual attention.
Wu, Chou and a third Project Include founder, bethanye McKinney Blount, participated this April in The Atlantic’s cover story that raised the question—in big, bold all-capital letters—“Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” When I ask Blount for anecdotes illustrating the sexism she has experienced in her 20-plus years in tech, she lets out a prolonged laugh. “It happened all the damn time,” she says. Early in her career, she began dressing in a way as to minimize her gender. No makeup, hair pulled back, layers of baggy clothing that obscured her figure. “I was very much one of the guys, and that was cultivated very deliberately,” she recalls. “That’s how I reduced friction for my own career progression. That gave me more credibility, and from a personal standpoint, I wanted to be as unavailable as possible so we could focus on work.”
In her 20s, Blount remembers clients who expected her to go out for drinks with them or join them at their hotel. In her 30s, as she was fundraising for MailRank, an email-sorting business she started with Bryan O’Sullivan, investor meetings were rife with sexism. Potential investors would address their questions to O’Sullivan, who, time after time, would defer to Blount and her expertise. “There was a clear bias to have conversations with him and treat me like his assistant,” she says. (The 2016 survey titled “Elephant in the Valley,” which was inspired by the Pao trial, found that of the 200-plus female respondents, 88 percent had experienced clients or colleagues directing questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them.) At Facebook, which acquired MailRank in 2011, the bias bore out in interviews with job candidates. “I often found myself in the position where the person on the other side of the table would try to sell me on why they’re great by making these extraordinary miscalculations based on my gender,” she says. “Like, ‘You understand how hard it is when you have kids.’ I don’t, actually.”
Today, Blount is the co-founder of Cathy Labs, which builds compensation strategy software for early-stage companies. A couple of years ago, someone on Quora asked what it was like to work with Blount, to which a Facebook colleague replied, “I can sum it up in 5 words: She likes fixing broken things. The messier the problem, the more she’s driven to fix it. ...” When reminded of this assessment, Blount can’t help but laugh again. That, she says, is what drove her to join Project Include: “I want things to get better in the right way, and I don’t want to leave people behind.”
Unlike the other founders of Project Include, Kapor Klein has devoted her entire career—spanning more than four decades—to D&I. She and her husband have even been public in admonishing their own sector. Following former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s February essay about the sexual harassment she endured at the company, the couple wrote an open letter criticizing Uber, of which they are investors. In July, Kapor Klein and Kapor—who are also limited partners in 500 Startups—issued a statement after the incubator’s co-founder, Dave McClure, resigned over allegations of sexual harassment. “This is not something that is fixable with a pledge or a new policy,” they wrote. Kapor Klein later tells me that “without a thoughtful, customized, comprehensive approach to culture in general, and diversity and inclusion in particular, there is no reliable way to know about bad actors or toxic cultures.”
Kapor Klein has long advocated for a systemic approach to D&I, and last year, Kapor Capital made it official. “From January 2016 forward, we have not invested in a seed-stage tech startup that has not agreed to the principles and the specifics of the Founders’ Commitment,” she says. The Commitment calls for establishing D&I goals and providing progress updates, investing in resources to help mitigate bias in the workplace, organizing volunteer efforts in the hopes that employees engage with underrepresented communities and participating in D&I sessions as a means of further education. “If the only focus is greed, if there’s only one dimension—maximizing financial returns—then everything else gets ignored, shoved under the rug, deprioritized,” she says. “And that’s just unacceptable. It’s got to be the limited partners—there’s got to be pressure from every corner of society to change that—but the limited partners need to vote with their checkbooks.”
In Kapor Capital’s current portfolio, 44 out of 79 investments, or 56 percent, have a founder who is a woman or a person of color. Among those companies is Atipica, whose CEO and founder, Laura I. Gómez, is a founding member of Project Include as well. “Investors don’t see a purpose or meaning sometimes in the products that female founders are building, whether it’s around something that they’re passionate about or whether it’s something in the market that hasn’t been there. And I believe that there’s a harder intersectionality when it comes to women of color,” says Gómez, referring to the overlap of social identities such as race, gender and class, as they relate to oppression and discrimination.
Pao shares Gómez’s concerns, noting that in the VC world, “power is concentrated in the hands of so few people. … Most of [the firms] don’t have very many women, very few of them have any partners from underrepresented groups. When do they allow space for people who don’t look like them? When do they change their culture so that they’re looking at opportunities and investing in founders fairly, without this whole systemic bias?” The 2016 Future List, a joint study by The Information and Social Capital, revealed that 10.7 percent of senior investors at the most prominent VC firms were women, and 75 percent of top investors were white men.
Atipica has raised $2 million, quite possibly the largest round of seed funding ever for a Latina-led tech company in the Valley. In addition to her engineering chops—she previously worked at Twitter, YouTube and Jawbone—Gómez has a narrative that makes the professional personal for her: At age 10, she arrived in the United States from Mexico with her parents and three siblings. While her parents became permanent residents under President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty bill, Gómez didn’t gain permanent residency until she was entering her first year at UC Berkeley. She grew up in Redwood City, where her mother supported the family as a housekeeper and nanny, including for some well-known tech titans. Now, Gómez heads her own startup and is an advocate for not only D&I, but immigration reform.
In an April 2015 blog post introducing Atipica, she wrote that Silicon Valley was not a meritocracy; rather, she posited, “tech is a system of nepotism saturated by unconscious biases.” Her company’s product relies on both artificial and human intelligence to surface data-driven insights and recommendations aimed at enabling purposeful, inclusive changes to the workforce. She got the idea about three years ago while speaking on a panel at Stanford Law School. “Everybody kept talking about the [talent] pipeline,” she says. “I wanted to focus on how to fix that using technology.”
Y-Vonne Hutchinson is another founding member of Project Include who helms a diversity-focused firm. Hutchinson was previously a human rights lawyer and labor advocate. When her work in Nicaragua with sugarcane workers who were dying of kidney disease became untenable, she returned to the U.S., landing in the Bay Area. In 2015, she launched labor policy consultancy ReadySet, and quickly realized that the most pressing issues in her field were connected to diversity and inclusion. Now she specializes in D&I, developing customized strategies for companies that “are in it to do the hard work, not just to check a box,” as she puts it.
“We saw an increase in business with Trump, and then with Uber, and then with the VC cases,” Hutchinson observes. “Just a year ago, a lot of people were really comfortable thinking that bias wasn’t that big a problem. What each of these instances has brought to the surface is the fact that, no—bias, prejudice, marginalization, discrimination are very much problems of the present. And not only that, problematic beliefs are still widely held, and they’re not just held by exceptionally bad actors.” While the realities may not always be pretty, Hutchinson sees a silver lining here: “Not denying that these things exist is a step in the right direction.”
The founders of Project Include are cautiously optimistic about a cultural shift in the Valley. They are well aware that outrage is a finite resource, and that the story can move on quickly. “I am absolutely concerned that the attention to diversity and inclusion will wane,” says Kapor Klein. “In my experience, attention to these issues drops off as soon as there’s an economic downturn. … The chief diversity officer gets fired; the entire D&I gets laid off; and the line item for diversity gets slashed.” The best way to avoid this is to “build D&I into your culture,” Kapor Klein continues. “If that’s the DNA of the company, then it’s much less likely to get completely eradicated.”
For this reason, Project Include only works with businesses whose CEOs are willing to actively participate in the program (for example, they must attend the meetings themselves). Everett Harper is the CEO and co-founder of Truss, a software infrastructure consulting firm that solves complex engineering problems; it was among the 10 startups that formed Project Include’s inaugural program. “I agree with their philosophy that this stuff has to happen from the top,” he says. “Because that’s the only person who can really push things forward and lead the way in the changes that the company might make.” The meetings with cohort CEOs was especially useful, he adds, “to learn different experiences and approaches to D&I challenges.” During the course of the program, Truss initiated and completed a salary transparency project and created a Code of Conduct document that includes an anti-harassment policy.
For Harper, the recent events involving Uber, Binary Capital and 500 Startups, “reinforce that, ‘OK, this is not just a trivial matter, people,’” he says. “Had any of those companies engaged in something like Project Include beforehand, I’ll bet some of the systematic errors that occurred would not have taken place and/or there would have been policies already in place to deal with the things that came out. It’s going to be timely for a long time.”
For better or for worse, the women of Project Include are in it for the long haul. “The deck has been stacked against so many of us since the start of the tech industry,” says Pao. “And we have an opportunity now, as people are starting to understand the extent of the unfairness, to try to course correct.” Despite the day-to-day hardships, giving up isn’t an option. “There was a point in time when I described working on diversity and inclusion in the tech industry as like being Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill over and over again,” says Baker. “Except instead of pushing a rock, you’re pushing a big vat of acid that spills on you at the end of every day. It’s really painful and very frustrating to have to keep fighting these same battles every day. It’s essentially gaslighting—people telling you that this isn’t really a thing; the tech industry is fine; it doesn’t need to be more diverse. … Sometimes I just want to be like, ‘I’m done.’ But I want this industry to be better for the people who come after me, so I keep going.”
Originally published in the September/October issue of Silicon Valley