Silicon Valley has some serious issues, and here at Skillcrush we don’t think it should be your goal. To get a handle on those problems—and creative solutions—we talk to two major players in tech: Ellen Pao and Natalia Oberti Noguera.
Ellen Pao’s story is riveting—she famously sued VC firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination after a truly remarkable amount of sexism and backlash she faced for speaking up. She’s inspired scores of women to come forward and take on big name companies to change the face of tech.
Next, Natalia Oberti Noguera tells us about the future of tech outside of Silicon Valley, and the incredible work she’s done to make tech a welcoming, supportive industry for all of us.
And please let us know what you think of the podcast! We’d LOVE it if you could write us a review on iTunes. We’ll read every single one!
The NEW Tech World Transcript
Aleia: I’ve been on the hiring side for years. It would be nice to have women, but you cannot find applicants.
Lauren: In just the last 48 hours, I’ve spoken to a female tech executive who was grabbed by a male C.E.O. at a large event. . .
Aleia: No eyebrows are going to rise if a woman heads up fashion.
Lauren: . . .and another female executive who was asked to interview at a venture fund because they “feel like they need to hire a woman.”
Aleia: This is where things started getting weird.
Lauren: My new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him.
Aleia: Women on average are more cooperative.
Lauren: Women, on average, have more openness directed toward feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas.
Aleia: Sometimes certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others.
Lauren: Neuroticism. Higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance. Also, higher agreeableness! Oh my gosh, what an asshole. . .
Aleia: Even though this was clearly sexual harassment. . .
Lauren: LGBT tech workers were the most likely to experience bullying and hostility. A majority of queer employees said bullying contributed to their decision to leave.
Aleia: . . .They wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking to.
Lauren: Women of color in particular reported high rates of facing discrimination.
Aleia: They both admitted that this was illegal but none of them did anything!
Lauren: The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that I was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making, and that if I had ever considered that I might be the problem.
Instrumental theme music.
Act 1: The Myth of the Empty Pipeline
Adda Birnir: This is Hit Refresh, a podcast for anyone who’s stuck and needs a fresh start. I’m Adda Birnir, a self-taught coder, educator, and CEO & Founder of Skillcrush—an interactive learning community that teaches total beginners the tech skills that they need to get into better, higher paying careers with real mobility.
When we talk about working in tech, we aren’t talking about moving to Silicon Valley, or getting a computer science degree, or magically transforming into a white guy wearing a hoodie and coding all night. Because at Skillcrush, we know that tech is for EVERYONE.
What you just heard was taken directly from writing that’s come out of Silicon Valley—a former Uber employee’s experience with sexual harassment, articles exposing the predatory culture of venture capitalism, and that infamous sexist and racist Google Memo. If you haven’t read it….Google it.
Right about now you’re probably saying to yourself: Working in tech sounds awful! Why would I want to do that? And you know what I’d say to you? You’re absolutely right. Working in a traditional tech job in Silicon Valley is a mixed bag at best.
Yes, there are high salaries, and free meals and dry cleaning, and massages and bike storage and beer on tap and ping pong tables and yoga. But there are also long work hours, lack of diversity, hostile work environments, systemic wage discrimination, and my personal favorite, rampant sexual harassment!
Here at Skillcrush, one of the things we think about A LOT is the lack of diversity in tech. In fact, the lack of women in tech is actually what inspired me to found the company.
When this topic of diversity—or the lack thereof—comes up you’ll often hear experts and tech insiders talk about the “pipeline problem” meaning that there isn’t diversity in tech because women and men of color are just not interested in the field, so they’re not applying.
To which I say: Bullshit.
The reason there is a pipeline problem—if there even is one—is because we’re not idiots and we can tell when we’re not wanted. And frankly, when people ask me whether I think more women should go work for tech companies, my answer is. . . it’s complicated.
Should women learn tech skills and use them to kick ass? Yes, of course! Should women go work at these big tech companies? Well. . .
Why would you want to go work somewhere where you’re the only woman, the only black person, or the only person with a disability? Why would you want to work somewhere with well-documented wage discrimination? Making change from the inside is important work, but at what cost?
The people who venture into these companies are heroes, but there’s good reason to be wary. And the data bears this out. For example, the few women who enter these companies don’t stay: Women leave STEM jobs at twice the rate of their male colleagues.
Given all of this crap, what are we marginalized people who love tech to do? For the whole story, I went to a woman who has seen it all—and lived to tell the tale: Ellen Pao, who famously sued the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination. I’ll talk to her after the break.
Instrumental theme music.
Scott: Imagine waking up and starting your day in a career that excites and challenges you, with the flexibility and freedom to build work into your schedule—instead of the other way around. That feeling sounds great… and it’s also completely possible. At Skillcrush, the path to a career you love begins right now. In honor of today’s episode—we’re giving away a free ebook that will walk you through why tech’s big payoff is worth it—and how you can work outside this awful system we’re describing. Just head over to skillcrush.com/payoff (all one word) to download your copy. That’s skillcrush.com/payoff.
Act 2: Ellen Pao’s Fight for a Seat at the Table
Ellen Pao: So I hear a little bit of static, if you can hear it that’s fine. . .
Adda: Ellen Pao has one of those resumes that appears to be designed to make the rest of us mortals feel badly about ourselves. Not only did she graduate from Princeton with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, she went on to get a Business and Law degree from Harvard, she worked as a corporate attorney at one of the biggest law firms in New York City and then transitioned into a career in business and management consulting. And oh, did I mention she’s fluent in Mandarin?
This more-than-impressive background is how she ended up as one of only a handful of women working at Kleiner, Perkins Caufield & Byers, arguably one of the most famous and reputable venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. Of course, this is also where her story gets weird.
In Ellen’s new book, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, she chronicles her experience working at Kleiner and suing them for gender discrimination. It’s shocking to read about what she had to endure. When she was first hired, her boss told he’d specifically requested an Asian woman because he liked the idea of a “Tiger-Mom-raised woman.” She frequently had to listen to all kinds of inappropriate discussions at work about topics like strippers and porn. Her investment deals were routinely stolen, sunk, or sabotaged. And she, and other female staff, were systematically passed over for promotions.
After an independent investigation found no evidence of problems at Kleiner, Ellen decided to go ahead and sue the firm for gender discrimination. Five months into the suit, Ellen was fired. And in the end, she lost the case.
But others won’t. And since Ellen’s lawsuit, a number of women have stepped forward and brought cases against major tech companies including Tesla and Facebook, while Google and Oracle are both facing federal allegations of gender pay inequity. Uber just fired 20 employees over the culture of harassment and discrimination.
I spoke to Ellen about her experience and her perspective on the culture of the tech industry.
Ellen: I think for most people, I don’t know about the new generation of the workforce which seems much more aware, but for me—when I started—when things happened to me I would either blame myself like, “Oh, I just need to try harder,” or “I do need to be more loud” or ”I am too loud” or “I need to just fine tune my interactions for each individual instead of using the same one for everybody.“
And then it became, “Well, actually, I think that person is wrong,” but that one person became a problem instead of me and I still thought of it as this meritocratic industry where I would be successful if I just worked hard enough and did a good enough job and then it wasn’t really until I got to Kleiner and saw all the women around me getting different types of feedback that were really inconsistent and not a clear set of actions that needed to happen in order to be promoted. And I realized none of us are going to get promoted. And it all of the sudden dawned on me that this was a much bigger problem than me or one individual partner.
Adda: All of this negative feedback and lack of promotions—it wasn’t personal. It was systemic. In many ways the rules for women and men in the workforce are different. For example, when it comes to negotiation…
Ellen: If you look at women, like the reason that they’re uncomfortable negotiating is because they get penalized for negotiating. People don’t want them to negotiate and there’s research that shows that women are penalized when they negotiate and so of course they don’t negotiate. It’s not that women are milder or meeker, it’s that they’ve been trained not to. And I think that’s important to realize, that it’s not that I’m not doing a good enough job, it’s people don’t want me to do that job. I’m not sitting at the table because people don’t want me at the table.
Adda: In other words, it’s not your fault. The system is literally rigged. But while sexism certainly isn’t unique to the tech industry, tech is experiencing a major crisis. I asked Ellen why discrimination is so rampant in the tech world.
Ellen: Two things, I think it is this pattern of behavior and this traditional establishment that protects it’s own and sees whats going on in other industries and copies it. Even though it says it doesn’t.
But there’s also this small group of people who started venture, they left a semi-conductor firm and they started investing in startups and I think it was eight white men and they invested in a friend and they invested in people they knew and they all look like them and then those people became successful, made a bunch of money started investing their own money and looked at the pattern that worked: investing in friends and people who look like them. And that just became a whole industry. And in tech it was very fast; the success was very fast, the success came very fast. And with Facebook, I think people started looking at white men who dropped out of Stanford or Harvard and studied computer science and that became the model to look for. This really young person who was a man, and who wasn’t of color and people invested only in them or mostly in them and lo and behold that type of person was successful because they were the only people being invested in.
Adda: So Ellen was in this world, trying to change things from the inside.
Adda: You were actually working at Kleiner Perkins while you were suing them. Can you change things from the inside and I guess more importantly in your case what does that feel like?
Ellen: Oh, you’re going to take me back to the dark days!
Adda: I know! I’m sorry, but just like the fortitude that you must have had to undertake that is unbelievable to me.
Ellen: I was so lucky that I was able to talk to women that had done the same thing. They were super supportive, but they let me know what I had ahead of me. One woman that I write about in the book, Renee Amacha, warned me that people will turn on you. And she told me about the strain and the things that happened so I was aware of it. To feel it, to go to work everyday where nobody talks to you and people are embarrassed to be seen with you and they pick up their things and move to another seat if you sit down next to them. It’s hard to describe the feeling. It’s just demotivating. It’s depressing.
Adda: I couldn’t imagine going through that and writing about it but that’s what Ellen did. And it played a huge role in bringing this issue to the forefront, and no doubt, paved the way for untold numbers of women to come forward.
Ellen: I had had so many frustrations throughout the trial of not being able to share my story to be able to give the right context of having so many things I said twisted and so much of this huge negative PR campaigns smearing me. I really felt it was important to tell the story clearly, in my own words, and in a medium where the whole story could come out clearly and without all of the baggage of the attacks from others. So for me this was a passion project. And also for me to help educate other people on what really goes on behind these closed doors, where the decision makers, the billionaires sit and make huge decisions.
Adda: I think you’ve sacrificed so much and really put yourself on the line like what has what makes it all worth it for you?
Ellen: I’m an extreme introvert so doing these podcasts and doing these interviews is not natural to me. But when I hear someone come up to me and say, “Oh I heard you on that podcast or I read your piece in New York Magazine and this is the part that’s really meaningful to me or allows me to do this other thing that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do or it’s changed my life or perspective in some way.” I mean that makes it all worthwhile for me.
Adda: Today, after a stint as interim CEO of the site Reddit, Ellen is now a partner of Kapor Capital, a venture capital firm also based in Silicon Valley famous for their commitment to supporting diverse founders and socially minded businesses. She is also heading up Project Include, an initiative to help companies create more inclusive practices.
Ellen: I love talking about Project Include. Our mission is to give everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech. So we focus on helping companies come up with real inclusion solutions. So not these tepid diversity solutions, but real inclusion solutions and to us that means making sure that it’s truly inclusive of everyone.
It means having a comprehensive plan that’s not just targeted at hiring but also at promoting people, how do you pay people, how do you give opportunities to people, how do you mentor people. As you plan everything that your company does you put some thought to inclusion as part of it so that everybody can have that same opportunity.
And then the last value that we really promote is metrics. And that can hold people accountable and make sure that they’re actually doing the hard work of making sure that inclusion is part of everything they do and that inclusion includes everyone.
Adda: Where are we? What’s next?
Ellen: I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg like, I think that people now recognize and admit that there is a problem and the next big step is going to be doing the hard work, having the hard conversations, making the hard decisions that get us to a place that we reset tech instead of having these diversity initiatives that are oriented more around PR more than change.
Kelli: Thinking about a career in tech but not sure where to start? With The Break Into Tech Career Blueprint, you’ll work with a career counselor to design a custom learning program to prepare you for an amazing and rewarding career—whether that’s launching your own freelance business, working full-time for a busy tech company, or buzzing in from the beach as a digital nomad. Visit skillcrush.com today to chat with a career counselor and see why learning tech with Skillcrush is the answer for your next career move. And remember, we’re giving away a free ebook that will walk you through the major payoff of a tech life outside of Silicon Valley— and you can download your copy at skillcrush.com/payoff (all one word). That’s skillcrush.com/payoff.
Act 3: Natali Oberti Noguera and the Way Forward
Adda: Unfortunately, as it turns out, tech companies aren’t the only places where women and minorities have a tough time. Going your own way also has its challenges. Now, I will say here that this is a topic that I have a lot of feelings about.
To begin, I was very much inspired to start Skillcrush because of everything you just heard about women and tech. And when I was starting Skillcrush, I faced plenty of obstacles in terms of how to fund my venture. Let me tell you, no one was excited to fund an online tech education company whose goal was to teach women to code.
And in the end, I decided not to try to follow the so-called traditional path for tech companies of raising venture capital. Instead, I bootstrapped my company, which meant that for the first two years, I only made about $5,000 a year from Skillcrush, and otherwise lived on money I made freelancing. In 2013, I declared $22,000 as my income.
But listen, I was able to do that because I was young, childless, dating a wonderful guy who helped me make rent, and had about $10,000 in a Roth IRA that I could use. And let’s be real, this is also about privilege: I’m white, I went to Yale, I have a family who could support me if things got really desperate. In other words, I had a safety net that allowed me to take the risk.
Many people aren’t in this situation—they’re not even close. So what’s the solution?
Natalia Oberti Noguera: Hey everyone, my name is Natalia Oberti Noguera.
Adda: Natalia is the founder and CEO of Pipeline Angels, a company whose mission is to change the face of angel investing and invest in women and non-binary femmes who are founding social enterprises. I wanted to talk to her about how, as anything other than a young white dude, it can feel like there’s no way into tech.
Natalia: You know, you often hear about, “Oh, these white guys got funding over like a paper napkin idea” and particularly when it comes to the corporate world we often talk about how—and this is very binary—they talk about that women get promoted in terms of their performance and men get promoted in terms of their potential and I’d say that that’s a huge parallel that we see in startup world in terms of who, with a paper napkin idea, that’s “potential” right? Like, in terms of hey, that person is getting funded and by person I mean guy, right? And by guy I mean white guy. There’s a very well-known white guy investor that was getting interviewed at a tech conference and he was asked, “What do you look for when you invest?” And he very nonchalantly said, “Someone like me.”
Adda: So marginalized groups aren’t getting hired, and they’re not getting funding. Fortunately, for all of us, Natalia is working on some solutions.
Natalia: I often talk about how entrepreneurs, they are faced with “bootstrapping,” then “friends and family” round, then “angel” round, then “venture capital” round. There are a lot of entrepreneurs who don’t have friends and family for the friends and family round. So that’s really where our members fit in in the funding continuum. They serve as the friends and family for entrepreneurs who don’t have the friends and family round and I’ve started quoting Rihanna, I’ve started saying, “If we really want to see more voices as entrepreneurs ‘shine bright like a diamond,’ we need to invest in diamonds in the rough.”
Adda: Here’s the thing. Obviously it’s absurd and deeply problematic that women and minorities are funded at such a lower rate. And frankly, we’re all losing because of that. But, it’s also important to remember that bootstrapping your company is nothing new. People have been doing it for literally thousands of years. We might exoticize bootstrapping in the VC era, but really it’s just about getting by—it’s how most people start their businesses. And more importantly, I think it’s crucial that we don’t give those VCs more power than they deserve. Yes, they have access to a pile of money. But that’s it. They’re just one way to get started.
That said, everyone should get an equal shot at getting support starting their business. So, what has to change?
Natalia: How awesome would it be if straight people took care of all like the homophobia? How awesome it would be if white people took care of racism? How awesome would it be if all the guys took care of sexism? And so in that sense if I can at least you know, help even start this conversation, have this conversation I hope that it’s a way that I can show my support.
Adda: Natalia’s right—racism is a white problem, sexism is a male problem, and so, given this, how do I as a white woman do my part to fix things? This is something we talk about at Skillcrush a ton: How we can be as intersectional as possible, serve as many people as possible, and be truly inclusive. We’ll be assessing how we’re doing—and where we’re failing—in our season finale.
So, back to the question: How can we make tech as welcoming as possible? Especially since—despite everything you’ve heard in this episode—working in tech can be really spectacular.
You can make a full time income freelancing relatively easily. You can work at so many awesome companies, inside, and outside of technology. You can start your own company. You can work remotely. Really, there are so many options and opportunities, and I think it’s so important that people who don’t currently see tech as a welcoming place know that there is a place for them here.
One thing to keep in mind is that so much unconscious bias is borne out in what we say, or more importantly don’t say. Being neutral and avoiding talking about issues like race and gender and sex and economic privilege is the worst thing to do.
Natalia: “If you want to be inclusive, be explicit.” And so in that sense the vaguer that something is, the harder that it one has a sense that one is welcomed or belongs in some way. So for me, I really view it as by being explicit, we’re showcasing who we were welcoming into the room. I think it was Maya Angelou, she said: “I didn’t do any better, because I didn’t know any better, and now that I know better, I do better.” So having that, like…knowing that making it explicit would also make someone doubting whether or not that they’re welcome was really important for me.
Adda: Yes to all of this. Now what about those companies—the ones we mentioned in the opening of this episode—are they able to redeem themselves? As the head of a company that helps fund non-white, queer startups—startups ignored by the mainstream tech world—Natalia is in a unique position to comment on this. And you wanna know what she says?
Natalia: I don’t care, Adda! That’s my answer. I don’t care about them. I don’t care about them. Obviously there’s still a lot of work to be done. And its that, by creating communities whether its Pipeline Angels and other groups of more voices that we are helping entrepreneurs find investors who respect them and who will support them and will say to them “We believe you.” No matter anyone else who might say like, “I had a great positive experience!” It’s still about not invalidating the stories of people who have had negative experiences and saying guess what? I see you, I believe you, I support you.
Adda: Yeah, like I’ve said…there are real problems here. I get why people are wary of the tech world, and this is why we’re working to make it better.
Natalia: Well, I was going to say breaking news, Adda, Skillcrush is part of the tech world and how awesome is that, right? The other thing that you reminded of because we were talking about the is earlier behind the scenes in the green room, was about how the answer is not just, “Oh, everyone go out and join a tech team in a big company” so like the other thing I see from the other end is that the answer is not everyone become an entrepreneur. And that’s part of why I launched Pipeline Angels because some people might actually love their corporate job. I know! It’s surprising, but some people do! Or they might not have yet come up with their own idea and one of the things that I share is a way for them to keep to kind of be connected with the entrepreneurship ecosystem without having to launch a startup is by investing in one. And so that’s a way that we can support more voices is by actually finding different roles that we can have in the ecosystem. So we’re actually seeing more voices investing in more voices.
It’s like the learning the “rules of the game” and sometimes there are no rules so that’s why it’s not merit right, not merit-based. At least learning how to work within the system and it’s also disrupting the system. It’s going to take more than just one “strategy” or tactic to continue to make things better and so that’s why I. . .It’s a world where it makes sense to have Skillcrush, it makes sense to have Girls Who Code, it makes sense to have Black Girls code, it makes sense to have these different ways to change the world because the status quo is not cutting it.
Adda: Yeah, I think you bring such a good point up which is, it’s just figuring out how to strike the balance of critiquing the problem but also creating alternatives.
Natalia: And I’m very…people are always like don’t complain, just do, and I’m like you know what? It’s okay to do both.
Adda: My conversation with Natalia gave me a lot to think about, and I especially loved what she said about the need for us to both be loud about what’s happening, and also to create solutions outside the system.
We try to create solutions by helping our students transition into technical careers and show them how to make money in tech outside of Silicon Valley. But it’s just as critical that we walk the walk: that we’re a company that hires women, men of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, people living outside of urban centers. And that every day, we prove that it doesn’t make us weak, it makes us awesome.
I have a good friend who was telling me what she liked so much about her boyfriend: She said that he has the BIGGEST tent and everyone is welcome in it. Whenever I think about that analogy, I envision one of those huge party tents, and I imagine that the tent is the whole tech industry. And then I imagine people like Ellen or Natalia or my team at Skillcrush, all working to make that tent bigger and more welcoming to everyone.
Because everyone is welcome at our party.
Haele: We’re produced by me—Haele Wolfe—and Julia Sonenshein. We’re edited and our music is composed by Arlen Ginsburg. Our art is by Monalisa Kabos. Kelli Smith and Scott Morris read our ads. Huge thanks to our heroes Ellen Pao and Natalia Oberti Noguera. Run, don’t walk to buy Ellen’s book: Reset, My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change and to subscribe to Natalia’s podcast, Pitch Makeover.
Shoutout to our whole crew at Skillcrush—especially to Lauren and Aleia for reading the drivel you heard at the top of this episode with so much power. We love you.
You can find us on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe and please leave us a review. We read every single one. We also want to let you know that we make so much more content that can help you move forward in your career—whether you’re a total tech newbie or navigating your new skills on the job market. Come hang out with us at skillcrush.com/blog for articles, worksheets, guides, and even comics. Our newsletter is awesome, so be sure to sign up. See you in two weeks.
Scott: When you’re juggling a busy life on top of a 9-to-5, how do you make a career change fast? Skillcrush teaches you everything you need to launch an exciting, creative career in web design or web development. We’ll show you the secret to making money WHILE you learn tech skills, all in just about an hour a day. Today is all about working in tech outside of Silicon Valley, so we’re giving away a free ebook that will walk you through the big payoff of working in tech—when your goal isn’t Google. You can download your copy at skillcrush.com/payoff (all one word). That’s skillcrush.com/payoff.