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What does accountability look like in 2020?

“What happens after a company gets called out?” he asked over the phone. “Do you know what happens to the people in-house that come forward?”

I didn’t.

A Black male engineer at a fashion tech company who wished to remain anonymous was telling me how he’d been passed over for promotions white counterparts later received after they’d pursued risky and unsuccessful projects. At one point, he said management tasked him with doing recon on a superior who made disparaging comments about women because his subordinates were uncomfortable reporting it directly to HR.

When human resources eventually took up the matter, the engineer said his participation was used against him.

More recently, his company brought furloughed employees back and managers promoted a younger, white subordinate over him. When he asked about the move, his direct supervisor said he was too aggressive and needed to be more of a role model to be considered in the future.

In the absence of industry leadership, there’s no blueprint to remedy institutional problems like these. The lack of substantial progress toward true representation, diversity and inclusion across several industries illustrates what hasn’t worked.

Audrey Gelman, former CEO of women-focused co-working/community space The Wing, stepped down in June following a virtual employee walkout. Three months earlier, a New York Times exposé interviewed 26 former and current employees there who described systemic discrimination and mistreatment. At the time, about 40% of its executive staff consisted of women of color, the article reported.

Within days, Refinery29’s EIC Christene Barberich also resigned after allegations of racism, bullying and leadership abuses surfaced with hashtag #BlackatR29.

In December 2019, The Verge reported allegations of a toxic work environment at Away under CEO Steph Korey. After a series of updates and corrections in reporting, it seemed she would be stepping away from her role or accelerating an existing plan for a new CEO to take over. But the following month, she returned to the company as co-CEO, sharing the statement: “Frankly, we let some inaccurate reporting influence the timeline of a transition plan that we had.”

Last month, after Korey posted a series of Instagram stories that negatively characterized her media coverage, the company again announced she would step down.

Bon Appétit former editor-in-chief Adam Rapaport resigned his position the same month after news broke that the cooking brand didn’t prioritize representation in its content or hiring, failed to pay women of color equally and freelance writer Tammie Teclemariam shared a 2013 photo of Rappaport in brown face.

In a public apology, staffs of Bon Appétit and Epicurious acknowledged that they had “been complicit with a culture we don’t agree with and are committed to change.”

Removing one problematic employee doesn’t upend company culture or help someone who’s been denied an opportunity. But with so much at stake when it comes to employing Instagram-ready branding, the lane is wide open for companies to meet the moment when it comes to doing the right thing.

A 2017 report by the Ascend Foundation found few Asian, Black and Latinx people were represented in leadership pipelines, and at that point, the numbers were actually getting worse. Seemingly, in an effort for transparency and accountability to do better, 17 tech companies shared diversity statistics and their plans to improve with Business Insider in June 2020. The numbers were staggering, especially for an initiative supposedly prioritized industry-wide in 2014:

Underrepresented minorities like Black and Latinx people still only make up single-digit percentages of the workforce at many major tech companies. When you look at the leadership statistics, the numbers are even bleaker.

While tech’s shortcomings show up clearly in a longstanding lack of diversity, companies in other industries polished their brands sufficiently to skate by — until COVID-19 and the call for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder called for lasting change.

In June, Adidas employees protested outside the company’s U.S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon and shared stories about internal racism. Just a year ago, The New York Times interviewed current and former employees about “the company’s predominantly white leadership struggling with issues of race and discrimination.”

In 2000, an Adidas employee filed a federal discrimination suit alleging that his supervisor called him a “monkey” and described his output as “monkey work.” When spokesperson Kanye West said in 2018 that he believed slavery was a choice, CEO Kasper Rorsted discussed his positive financial impact on the brand and avoided commenting on West’s statement.

In response to the internal turmoil at Adidas, the brand originally pledged to invest $20 million into Black communities in the U.S. over the next four years, increasing it to $120 million and releasing an outline of what they plan to do internally, Footwear News reported.

On June 30, Karen Parkin stepped down from her role as Adidas’ global head of HR in mutual agreement with the brand. In an all-employee meeting in August 2019, she reportedly described concerns about racism as “noise” that only Americans deal with. She’d been with the brand for 23 years.

Routinely protecting employees perceived as racist, misogynistic or abusive is bad for business. According to a 2017 “tech leavers” study conducted by the Kapor Center, employee turnover and its associated costs set the tech industry back $16 billion.

POC experience-centered social and wellness club Ethel’s Club invested into its community’s well-being and has not only managed to stay open (virtually) through the COVID-19 pandemic, it has managed to grow. Meanwhile, The Wing lost 95% of its business.

So, what really happens after the companies are called out? Often, the bare minimum. While the perpetrators of the injustice may endure backlash, abusers in corporate structures are often shifted into other roles.

Tiffany Wines, a former social media and editorial staffer at media/entertainment company Complex, posted an open letter to Twitter on June 19 alleging that Black women at the outlet were mistreated, sharing a story in which she claimed to have ingested marijuana brownies left in an office that was billed as a drug-free environment. Wines said she blacked out and accused superiors of covering up the incident after she reported it.

Her decision to speak up prompted other former employees to share stories alleging misogyny, racism, sexual assault and protection of abusers. One anonymous editor said she was asked if she would be comfortable with a workplace that had a “locker room culture” during a 2010 interview. (She did not end up working there.)

Complex Media Group put out a statement four days later on its corporate Twitter account, which had approximately 100 followers — as opposed to its main account, which has 2.3 million followers.

“We believe Complex Networks is a great place to work, but it is by no means perfect,” read the statement. “It’s our passion for our brands, communities, colleagues, and the belief that a safe and inclusive workplace should be the expectation for everyone.” It went on to state that they’ve taken immediate action, but it’s unclear if anyone has been terminated. [Complex is co-owned by Verizon Media, TechCrunch’s parent company.]

Members of the fashion community have formed multiple groups to combat systemic racism, establish accountability and advance Black people in the industry.

Set to launch in July 2020, The Black In Fashion Council, founded by Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and fashion publicist Sandrine Charles, works to advance Black individuals in fashion and beauty.

The Kelly Initiative is comprised of 250 Black fashion professionals hoping to blaze equitable inroads, and they’ve publicly addressed the Council of Fashion Designers of America in a letter accusing them of “exploitative cultures of prejudice, tokenism and employment discrimination to thrive.”

Co-founders of True To Size, Jazerai Allen-Lord and Mazin Melegy, an extension of the New York-based branding agency Crush & Lovely, started offering their Check The Fit solutions to the brands they were working with in 2019. The initiative is an audit process created to align in-house teams and ensure sufficient representation is in place for brands’ storytelling.

Check The Fit determines who the consumer is, what the internal team’s history is with that demographic and the message they’re trying to communicate to them, and how the team engage’s with that subject matter in everyday life and in the office. Melegy says, “that look inward is a step that is overlooked almost everywhere.”

“At most companies, we’ve seen a lack of coherence within the organization, because each department’s director is approaching the problem from a siloed perspective. We were able to bring 15 leaders across departments together, distill through a list of concerns, find points of leverage and agree on a common goal. It was noted that it was the first time they were able to feel unified in their mission and felt prepared to move forward,” Lord says of their work with Reebok last year.

Brooklyn-based retailer Aurora James established the 15 Percent Pledge campaign, which urges retailers to have merchandise that reflects today’s demographics: 15% of the population should represent 15% of the shelves.

During the melee that transpired largely on Twitter and Instagram only to attempt to be reconciled in boardrooms, one Condé Nast employee and ally has been suspended. On June 12, Bon Appétit video editor Matt Hunziker tweeted, “Why would we hire someone who’s not racist when we could simply [checks industry handbook] uhh hire a racist and provide them with anti-racism training…” As his colleagues shared an outpouring of support online, a Condé Nast representative said in a statement, “There have been many concerns raised about Matt that the company is obligated to investigate and he has been suspended until we reach a resolution.”

Simply reading through accusers’ first-person accounts, it often seems like these stories end up on public forums because little to nothing is done in favor of the people who step forward. The protection has consistently been of the company.

The Black engineer I spoke to escalated his concerns to his company’s CEO and said the executive was unaware of the allegations and seemed deeply concerned.

Seeing someone who seemed genuinely invested in doing the right thing “obviously, means a lot,” he said.

“But at the same time, I’m still really concerned knowing the broader environment of the company, and it’s never just one person.”

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Decrypted: As tech giants rally against Hong Kong security law, Apple holds out

It’s not often Silicon Valley gets behind a single cause. Supporting net neutrality was one, reforming government surveillance another. Last week, Big Tech took up its latest: halting any cooperation with Hong Kong police.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and even China-headquartered TikTok said last week they would no longer respond to demands for user data from Hong Kong law enforcement — read: Chinese authorities — citing the new unilaterally imposed Beijing national security law. Critics say the law, ratified on June 30, effectively kills China’s “one country, two systems” policy allowing Hong Kong to maintain its freedoms and some autonomy after the British handed over control of the city-state back to Beijing in 1997.

Noticeably absent from the list of tech giants pulling cooperation was Apple, which said it was still “assessing the new law.” What’s left to assess remains unclear, given the new powers explicitly allow warrantless searches of data, intercept and restrict internet data, and censor information online, things that Apple has historically opposed if not in so many words.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can live without China. They already do — both Facebook and Twitter are banned on the mainland, and Google pulled out after it accused Beijing of cyberattacks. But Apple cannot. China is at the heart of its iPhone and Mac manufacturing pipeline, and accounts for over 16% of its revenue — some $9 billion last quarter alone. Pulling out of China would be catastrophic for Apple’s finances and market position.

The move by Silicon Valley to cut off Hong Kong authorities from their vast pools of data may be a largely symbolic move, given any overseas data demands are first screened by the Justice Department in a laborious and frequently lengthy legal process. But by holding out, Apple is also sending its own message: Its ardent commitment to human rights — privacy and free speech — stops at the border of Hong Kong.

Here’s what else is in this week’s Decrypted.


Police used Twitter-backed Dataminr to snoop on protests

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Unpacking tech’s response to the killing of George Floyd

The brutal police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, has prompted one of the greatest civil uprisings of the modern day. In the weeks following Floyd’s death, the conversation around diversity and inclusion, as well as tech’s role in upholding white supremacy, has returned to the forefront. 

But it is action, not words, that has the potential to effect real change in the tech industry. Otherwise, the hundreds of statements from tech companies and leaders in the industry won’t count for anything. Once society has moved on to its next distraction weeks, months or years from now, the words of today will have been forgotten. That’s why it’s essential the tech industry not let Floyd’s tragic death be just another statistic, but an impetus for a shift in representation in the tech industry and, ultimately, for a shift in power.

Amid this tragedy, many tech companies and leaders have spoken out against racism, saying things like, “We stand with our colleagues and the Black community” (LinkedIn), “We stand with the Black community against racism, violence, and hate” (Salesforce) or “we all have the responsibility to create change” (Facebook) — while simultaneously fostering an environment where employees defend racism, contracting with U.S. Custom Borders and Protection, which has been deployed to police protests, or enabling President Donald Trump’s post inciting violence to remain on its platform. These are just a few examples of many, but they all evoke one thing: complicity.

LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky later addressed the town hall where employees were defending racism.

“Many of you shared the hardest part was realizing that this company we love and hold to such a high standard still has a lot of work to do to educate ourselves and our colleagues on how to create a culture that is truly anti-racist,” Roslansky wrote. “We will do that work.”

Beyond complicity, lip service has long been an issue in the realm of diversity, inclusion and equity in tech. Consider that those in the tech industry have made statements before about police killings of unarmed Black people. Also consider how little has changed in the industry in terms of representation of Black people and other people of color in tech, as well as policy changes to keep people safe from racism and other forms of harassment on the internet.

Thumbtack, for example, in a post about how the company stands with Black voices and wants to invest in the success of its D&I program, said it would hire a new head of diversity and inclusion. That’s in light of having just recently let go of Alex Lahmeyer, who served as the company’s diversity and inclusion lead for four years, in April. According to Lahmeyer’s LinkedIn, he was laid off along with 250 of his teammates amid the COVID-19 pandemic

“While it doesn’t surprise me, I’m upset that companies use DEI programs for PR strategy and then slash them like they’re deadweight,” Lahmeyer wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “Yes, some companies are facing difficult financial decisions, but there could not be a worse time to reduce the function that ensures your marginalized employees feel seen and heard.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, Thumbtack said its business “has bounced back from the effects of COVID-19” and has opened up hiring solely to find a new head of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We are intentionally making this our first before any others as part of a plan to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive team,” a Thumbtack spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Google, similarly, has reportedly rolled back many of its diversity efforts over the last couple of years. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai spoke words of solidarity in light of Floyd’s death and changed the Google and YouTube homepages in support of racial justice. But actions speak louder than words.

Despite years of inaction and backtracking in the tech industry, this has the potential to be the moment when the tech industry finally turns a corner and starts to make meaningful change as it relates to racial justice. But in order for this to be that moment, tech companies need to double down on diversity and inclusion efforts, not scale them back. That means hiring more Black and brown people, implementing a consistent and equitable performance review process, closing the pay gap as it relates to race — not just gender — and laying out clear paths to raises and promotions. Again, action.

Already, there have been some promising first steps taken in the industry in light of Floyd’s death. For example, investor Jason Lemkin committed to trying to only meet Black founders in June and Andreessen Horowitz has a new program to financially support Black and other underrepresented founders in tech.

“I think there are some people who are doing a great job at this even though there is no perfect way of doing this,” Backstage Capital founder and Managing Partner Arlan Hamilton told me last week during a conversation for the Commonwealth Club. “And I think there is a disgusting silence from some people that it just tells me everything I need to know.”

The best thing an investor can do right now, according to Hamilton, is to do their job.

“It’s your job to look at these founders,” she said. “You’ve been able to hide in the shadows and not do your job because the boss hasn’t been walking around. But right now everybody’s watching and there are no tears for you if you can’t find the pipeline.”

In perhaps the boldest move to date, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian announced his decision to step down from the board of directors. Reddit, which has long been a platform rife with racism, sexism and other problematic content, was founded by Ohanian back in 2005Now, he’s called for the company he founded to fill his position with a Black board member. Additionally, Ohanian said he would use future gains on his Reddit stock to serve the Black community. 

Boards of directors at tech companies have long been lacking Black people. It’s something Rev. Jesse Jackson has called for since at least 2014 and the Congressional Black Caucus has demanded since 2015. Over the years, tech companies have made slight progress in the area. In 2015, just months after the CBC called for more diversity at the board level, Apple appointed James Bell, former CFO and president of The Boeing Company, to its board of directors. In 2018, a handful of tech companies added Black people to their boards of directors, including Airbnb, Facebook and Slack. Still, boards of directors at tech companies are predominantly white and male.

That’s what makes Ohanian’s resignation and recommendation all the more important. It effectively removes himself from a position of power to make room for a Black person at the table. Now, Ohanian is making a shortlist of potential candidates to present to the board.

Tiffani Ashley Bell, founder of The Human Utility, is one person who has thrown her hat in the ring. As she noted, she “literally gave the entire technology industry (and some others based on messages I’ve gotten) the source code for eliminating white supremacy.”

It’s a great read, so be sure to check that out here. In it, she argues that dismantling white supremacy comes down to willingness. She presents a number of questions designed to foster self-reflection and enable people to examine their role in upholding white supremacy. She also emphasizes action.

She writes:

Are you willing to hold space for Black employees? As in, are any Black people even on your team―especially in leadership positions? If not, are you willing to treat hiring Black people as another growth challenge and hack it? Are you willing to recruit at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as enthusiastically as historically white colleges and universities? Has your company ever set up a table at the National Society of Black Engineers career fair?

As I mentioned earlier, this is not the first time the tech industry has responded to the brutal killing of a Black person. But something about this moment does feel different. Hamilton believes it’s because most people have been stuck at home for a long period of time in light of COVID-19.

“It is like the world and the country has a front-row seat to what Black people have to witness, take in, and feel all the time,” she told me. “And it was before they were seeing some of it, but they were seeing it kind of protected by us. We were kind of shielding them from some of it…It’s like a VR headset that the country is forced to be in because of COVID. It’s just in their face.”

At the moment, it’s hard to gauge what is performative and what might result in true change. But we’ll be following closely to see what, if anything, manifests from the latest platitudes from tech CEOs and investors.

TechCrunch has reached out to Salesforce and Lahmeyer. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

If you have any inside information about what some of these companies are doing, please get in touch. You can reach me at PGP: E0B2 45C7 5FC7 545B 46B8  269C 0F6C 1A7F FFB5 E031

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Decrypted: DEA spying on protesters, DDoS attacks, Signal downloads spike

This week saw protests spread across the world sparked by the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis last month.

The U.S. hasn’t seen protests like this in a generation, with millions taking to the streets each day to lend their voice and support. But they were met with heavily armored police, drones watching from above, and “covert” surveillance by the federal government.

That’s exactly why cybersecurity and privacy is more important than ever, not least to protect law-abiding protesters demonstrating against police brutality and institutionalized, systemic racism. It’s also prompted those working in cybersecurity — many of which are former law enforcement themselves — to check their own privilege and confront the racism from within their ranks and lend their knowledge to their fellow citizens.


DEA allowed ‘covert surveillance’ of protesters

The Justice Department has granted the Drug Enforcement Administration, typically tasked with enforcing federal drug-related laws, the authority to conduct “covert surveillance” on protesters across the U.S., effectively turning the civilian law enforcement division into a domestic intelligence agency.

The DEA is one of the most tech-savvy government agencies in the federal government, with access to “stingray” cell site simulators to track and locate phones, a secret program that allows the agency access to billions of domestic phone records, and facial recognition technology.

Lawmakers decried the Justice Department’s move to allow the DEA to spy on protesters, calling on the government to “immediately rescind” the order, describing it as “antithetical” to Americans’ right to peacefully assembly.

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Facebook employees stage virtual walkout in protest of company’s stance on Trump posts

Some Facebook employees are virtually walking out today to challenge the company’s lack of response to President Donald Trump’s posts pertaining to protests in light of the murder of George Floyd. Employees participating in the protest requested time off and then added an out-of-office response to their emails notifying senders they are protesting, The New York Times reports.

Last week, amid protests in Minneapolis against the police killing Floyd, and unarmed black man, Trump posted on both Twitter and Facebook that, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

As The Washington Post reported, there is a racially charged history behind that phrase. In the sixties, a white police chief used that same phrase during civil unrest in black neighborhoods in Miami. Trump, however, claims to have not known that.

Twitter’s response was to apply a notice to his tweet, stating that it violated Twitter’s rules about glorifying violence.

Facebook, however, took a different approach. Its response was to do nothing.

On Friday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained that the company’s policy “allows discussion around state use of force, although I think today’s situation raises important questions about what potential limits of that discussion should be.” Additionally, Zuckerberg said “we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”

In addition to the protest today, employees have circulated petitions that call for Facebook to add more diversity to its ranks, while others have threatened to resign if Zuckerberg does not reverse his stance.

“We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership. As we face additional difficult decisions around content ahead, we’ll continue seeking their honest feedback.”


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