Human Capital: The Black founder’s burden

Welcome back to Human Capital, where we unpack all-things diversity, inclusion and labor in tech. This week, we’re looking at Google’s internal message board problem, as well as some highlights from TechCrunch Disrupt, where I had the pleasure of chatting with actress, producer and tech investor Kerry Washington about her investment strategy and her thoughts on The Wing’s internal turmoil.

Later, we’ll also highlight some other gems from Disrupt speakers on imposter syndrome, representation syndrome, the hidden burden of being a Black founder and the importance of encouraging other Black and brown folks to enter this industry and stay.

Also, Human Capital will soon be available as a weekly newsletter. You can sign up here.

Google’s internal message board problem

Google found itself asking employees to be more active in moderating some of the internal message boards, according to CNBC. The issue is that Google has reportedly seen more posts being flagged for racism or abuse on its message boards. Some of these posts reportedly reinforce negative racial stereotypes, use harmful gendered phrases and insult Google employees based on their nationality. Here’s a snippet from Google’s internal blog, via CNBC:

“Our world is going to get more complicated as the year continues,” the team stated in the internal blog. “Tensions continue specifically for our Black+ community with Black Lives Matter, and our Asian Googlers with coronavirus and China/Hong Kong. All of this is compounded by the additional stress of working from home, social isolation, and caregiver responsibilities — to name a few. This new world creates urgency to keep work a welcoming place.”

Yes, tough conversations are the theme of the year. But we also know Google has had issues with employees before. You may remember James Damore, the now former Google employee who sent around an anti-diversity manifesto back in 2017. Google ultimately fired Damore that same month.

We reached out to Google for comment but have not heard back.

Kerry Washington on The Wing scandal

At TechCrunch Disrupt, I had the pleasure of virtually interviewing Kerry Washington, best known for her work in Hollywood as the lead actress on “Scandal” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” But she’s also invested in a handful of tech companies, including Community, Byte and The Wing. The Wing, however, went through some turmoil earlier this year. Employees alleged mistreatment of Black and brown workers, which ultimately led to The Wing CEO Audrey Gelman’s resignation.

“Well, you know, I’m not new to scandal, so there’s that,” Washington told me in response to a question about her reaction to the news. “I was and I am really deeply still inspired by the original vision of the company. And, I think like a lot of companies in this time, because of the several pandemics that we’re facing, whether it’s our awareness around racial injustice, or COVID, lots of people are in a moment of recalibration and self-reflection. So I think that there is incredible space to improve the dynamics. And as somebody who’s an investor, as a woman of color, it’s important to me that there is increased transparency and also accountability.”

Over the past few months, Washington said her role as an investor has been “really just supporting leadership in this transition,” as well as expressing to those leaders a “deep desire” for transparency and accountability.

On imposter syndrome and representation 

Also at Disrupt, my homegirl Kirsten Korosec led a wonderful conversation with Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins of PromisePay and Jessica Matthews of Uncharted Power, two Black female founders, about how they both successfully pivoted their companies while navigating the pressures that come with being an underrepresented founder in Silicon Valley.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, founder and CEO at PromisePay:

It feels like tech has failed so significantly in investing in people they don’t know and missed out in growing companies because of that. So I think our obligation is to help make sure that we are not the only ones.

Jessica Matthews, founder and CEO at Uncharted Power:

It’s not imposter syndrome, it’s representation syndrome because I feel the exact same way. When we raised our Series A, the immediate thing I thought was, ‘Oh, man. I can not lose these people’s money.’ This is huge and if we don’t work, it’s not even about us, it’s about every other person who looks like me.

Michael Seibel on the Black founder experience

In a panel on the Black founder experience at Disrupt, Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel spoke about a “hidden burden” for underrepresented founders.

“I think that there’s so much deserved activism around access to this world for underrepresented founders, that I feel as though there’s like, more pressure to succeed, in a weird way,” he said. “And I think that can be helpful to a point, but I think that it can be challenging. I also think that there’s so much emphasis around the toxicity in the technology world that a lot of really talented people believe it’s horrible, like believe that our world looks like Jim Crow South. And so therefore they shouldn’t even step any foot into it where like, I would challenge anyone trying to be successful in any industry to be able to avoid the types of problems that exists in the technology industry, if they come from an underrepresented background. So I don’t think the environment’s significantly different in our world than other worlds. I think that the environment is hard. You know, there is bias if you’re underrepresented, across the board, no matter what industry you go to. So if you’re gonna be successful, you’re going to figure out a way to get around it.”

But that’s not to say you’ll have to figure it out on your own, Seibel said. He pointed to how there are people who are willing and able to help. That includes him and the many other Black founders present in Silicon Valley.

“But if we somehow scare talented people away from this world, we won’t ever fix this world,” he said. “And we won’t ever, even more importantly than fixing this world, there’ll be huge swaths of the world that don’t have products and services that they deserve and that they need. And so I think we have to be careful to make sure we communicate that opportunities exist here. And that if you’re trying to be a high-powered lawyer, or if you’re trying to be, you know, a top banker, you’re gonna go through the same bullshit. Like, different industries, same bullshit. So if you’re trying to make an impact in the world, strap in. If you’re an underrepresented founder, you’re gonna have to deal with these issues, no matter where you do it.”

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