Silicon Valley's Black Employees Question Corporate Claims That Black Lives Matter

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Ifeoma Ozoma's Twitter thread slamming Pinterest's professions of concern for racial injustice went viral this week.  (Courtesy of Ifeoma Ozoma)

Many people consider San Francisco-based Pinterest one of the friendlier social media platforms. That, at least, is what initially drew former public policy and social impact manager Ifeoma Ozoma to Pinterest in July of 2018 from her previous job at Facebook

"I thought this is a company that believes in diversity, or at least says it does," she said. But less than a year later, Ozoma raised concerns about being underpaid for the level of work she was performing at the company.

"I wasn’t being paid fairly, and according to the company’s own chart, while I was still the public face of the all of the work that was being used to prop the company up as a responsible tech company in a sea of irresponsible ones," Ozoma said.

In recent weeks, companies across America have gone all out declaring their corporate allyship with Black Lives Matter. Silicon Valley companies have done the same, but that's generated public backlash from current and former Black employees. None became more viral than Ozoma's tweet thread earlier this week.

When Ozoma was still working for Pinterest, she said she led a number of initiatives she felt really good about, like taking down misinformation about vaccines on Pinterest. She also got the platform to end its practices promoting slave plantations as wedding venues — although she took heat in her performance review later and was told it was because she hadn’t made the case for not ending the practice.

"I should have come up with the pros for promoting slave plantations. Like, to this day, I think about that, and the fact that it was put in writing — in a performance review that then impacted my pay," Ozoma said. "Even though externally, the company really took advantage of the press that came with that decision."

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After going in circles with her manager, his manager and HR for five months, Ozoma finally hired a lawyer. The office atmosphere was already charged when a white male engineer at the company decided to share her personal information with an online group known for “doxxing.”

"My cell phone number, my full name, my photo, my email was shared all over the Internet," Ozoma said. "It was on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, the 'chans,' so 4chan and 8chan."

Ozoma said the engineer was fired a week later but, by then, she was traumatized — and so was another Black colleague on her team she’d brought in to Pinterest.

On June 2, 2020, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann publicly pledged to take a host of steps to prove the company's pronouncement that "Black Lives Matter."
On June 2, 2020, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann publicly pledged to take a host of steps to prove the company's pronouncement that "Black Lives Matter." (Courtesy of Pinterest)

"Our Black lives were treated like they didn’t matter," said Aerica Shimizu Banks, who left Google for Pinterest to head its office in Washington D.C. Banks said she hired Ozoma’s lawyer after her own struggles with their manager and HR.

"Interacting with members of Congress; traveling around the country speaking on panels and events; representing the company — and yet the only expenses that I accrued that were challenged, continuously, were expenses dedicated to Black organizations and Black businesses I had partnered with," Banks said.

She’s also since left the company, and like Ozoma, also tweeted her displeasure with Pinterest engaging in “performative allyship.”

Asked for comment, Pinterest offered a statement: “We took these issues seriously and conducted a thorough investigation when they were raised, and we’re confident both employees were treated fairly.”

Thirteen percent of the U.S. population is Black. But according to the company’s annual diversity report, Black people made up roughly 4 percent of its total workforce last year. That puts Pinterest in line with many other tech companies that report their numbers (some, like Snap, don't) in an industry long dominated by white and Asian males.

Consider the most recent publicly available company data from these locally headquartered companies: 9 percent at Apple, 3.8 percent at Facebook, 5.5 percent at Google, 3.7 percent at Oracle, 4.4 percent at Slack, 5.7 percent at Twitter. Isolate diversity numbers for the engineering or tech departments alone, or leadership, and the numbers are invariably even smaller.

The most recent diversity report for Oracle, the largest tech employer in San Mateo County, reflects industry trends.
The most recent diversity report for Oracle, the largest tech employer in San Mateo County, reflects industry trends. (Courtesy of Oracle)

So should Silicon Valley companies even be issuing statements of support for racial justice? Yes, says Sarah Kunst, managing director of Cleo Capital, an early stage venture capital firm in San Francisco.

"You know, it would be very awkward in this context if you were telling me my life didn’t matter. I think that is a bare minimum. It is far from all anyone should be doing," said Kunst (who was recently on KQED’s board for a year).

Google, Facebook and other companies have blamed their lack of Black employees on the “pipeline” problem — arguing there aren’t enough qualified people to hire, especially in their technical departments.

But many Silicon Valley watchers disagree it's primarily a pipeline problem. Kunst, for instance, argued she's observed a number of hiring managers fixated on a short list of Ivy League universities, unable to broaden their definition of "qualified."

She added it's important to get rid of individuals who make the corporate culture toxic for Black employees and drive them away.

"This feels like a really good time to really dig deep and do an overhaul so that you create a culture that everyone loves and everyone is welcome in," Kunst said, noting many Silicon Valley executives are already rethinking their corporate culture during the coronavirus pandemic.

"A few years ago, companies, people, couldn't even say the word 'race.' Like, not a particular race, just the word 'race,'" said Y-Vonne Hutchinson of ReadySet, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm that works with a number of Silicon Valley companies. "The fact that the conversation has shifted so far in such a short period of time is encouraging. At the same time, it takes more than statements. What is it really like inside of your organization? Can Black people succeed?"

Hutchinson added, "Because for a lot of these companies, we do see investments in recruiting. We do see some people coming through the door. Those people don't advance. Those people leave, and a lot of times that's because they're experiencing microaggressions. They're experiencing racism at work, and there's no accountability for it.".

Karla Monterroso, CEO of the diversity-focused nonprofit Code 2040, said companies need to focus less on job fairs and turn instead to the internal work needed to become welcoming places for more Black and Latinx employees.

"For the longest time, we have focused on the wrong things," said Monterroso. "You will not get the full benefit of their thoughts and innovation because it's more dangerous for them to swim against the current. Advocacy for people of color, especially Black people, will look like insubordination to many people. Until we examine that, it's going to have a disproportionate impact on our workplace."