This former tech worker is helping change laws for people who get laid off
Ifeoma Ozoma’s path as an advocate for tech workers started with a series of tweets one morning in June 2020.
It was a few months after she was pushed out from her job at Pinterest, the image-sharing and social media platform. Across the United States, protests and outrage filled the streets after a White police officer in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of George Floyd for more than nine minutes, ultimately killing him.
As companies scrambled to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, her former employer released a statement.
“We heard directly from our Black employees about the pain and fear they feel every day living in America,” Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann said in the statement. “This is not just a moment in time. With everything we do, we will make it clear that our Black employees matter, Black [Pinterest users] and creators matter, and Black Lives Matter.”
Ozoma, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, said she wasn’t having it. She fired back with a series of tweets accusing the lifestyle company of racism, pay inequity and retaliation.
“I shouldn’t have to share this story in the year of our Lord, 2020 — but here we are,” she tweeted. “I’m an alum of Yale, Google, FB, … etc and recently decided to leave Pinterest, which just declared ‘solidarity with BLM.’ What a joke.”
Ozoma said her tweets broke a nondisclosure agreement she’d signed when she left the company, thrusting her into the spotlight as the latest person to speak up about alleged mistreatment within the male-dominated tech field. While she’d already left her job by then, she risked the reputation she’d built from years of work within the industry, she said.
But instead of shrinking from the challenge, she leaned into it.
“My entire career has been in tech and so I was very aware of the costs of speaking up, but I wasn’t afraid of it. I knew that it was what I had to do,” she said. “Fear is something I haven’t really felt since my mom died from a rare cancer when I was in college. The worst thing that could have happened already did … Pinterest could bankrupt me and make it impossible for me to be hired by any other tech companies, but they couldn’t break me. “
It started with allegations of unequal pay
Ozoma told CNN her conflict with Pinterest started after she realized she was getting paid less than half what a White male colleague earned for doing the exact same work.
She said she raised her concerns with her employer and gave the company time to address the issues. But in March 2020, she was let go from her job at Pinterest.
“The purpose wasn’t just, ‘let me vent,'” she said of her flurry of tweets in June 2020. “The purpose was, people need to understand that this is what’s happening. And if it happened to me with the public profile that I had within the company and outside of the company, then it can happen to anyone else.”
Two months after Ozoma and another woman of color, Aerica Shimizu Banks, publicly accused Pinterest of racial discrimination, former chief operating officer Francoise Brougher sued the company over gender discrimination and retaliation. Pinterest later agreed to settle the lawsuit for $22.5 million, but did not admit to liability as part of the settlement.
It later said it conducted a thorough investigation on the issues raised and concluded Ozoma and Banks were “treated fairly.”
“We want each and every one of our employees at Pinterest to feel welcomed, valued, and respected,” a Pinterest spokesperson said in June. “We’re committed to advancing our work in inclusion and diversity by taking action at our company and on our platform. In areas where we, as a company, fall short, we must and will do better.”
In a separate statement to CNN late last month, Pinterest said it’s launched various diversity and inclusion measures, including pay transparency tools for employees. The company said it’s also taken steps to monitor employee salaries to ensure equal pay for comparable work.
“We have increased the percentage of women in leadership, added board members who are committed to diversity, and we continue to set goals for increasing diversity at the company,” a Pinterest spokesperson told CNN in an email. “We … are committed to ensuring that every employee feels safe, championed, and empowered to raise any concerns about their work experience.”
She became a passionate advocate for whistleblowers
After Ozoma began tweeting about her experience at Pinterest, direct messages poured in from people facing similar frustrations at other companies, she said. She knew she had to do something about it.
She emerged as a passionate advocate for tech workers by seeking legal protections for whistleblowers.
Pinterest is based in San Francisco. At the time, California’s law offered some protection to employees who broke non-disclosure agreements to speak out about workplace harassment or discrimination based on sex — but not about racial discrimination, Ozoma said.
Ozoma got busy. She began educating whistleblowers on their options, urged tech companies to rethink their policies on nondisclosure agreements and reached out to lawmakers to seek new legislation that would protect employees speaking out on all forms of discrimination.
In California, she worked with state senator Connie Leyva on a law that prevents nondisclosure agreements from being implemented against people speaking out on any workplace discrimination, including race.
In October last year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill — known as the Silenced No More Act — into law.
“California workers should absolutely be able to speak out — if they so wish — when they are a victim of any type of harassment or discrimination in the workplace,” Senator Leyva said at the time. “It is unconscionable that an employer would ever want or seek to silence the voices of survivors that have been subjected to racist, sexist, homophobic or other attacks at work.”
Her work is global now
Ozoma’s advocacy work has given whistleblowers a safe space to go for information.
Around the same time Newson signed the measure into law, she launched a Tech Worker Handbook online to provide free resources for employees seeking information on how to speak out on workplace discrimination and harassment.
“So many people reached out when I told my story, and most of them were tech workers or workers within the tech industry,” she said.
She said she’s recruited dozens of experts and tech industry professionals to contribute to the site, saying the goal is not to encourage employees to be whistleblowers, but to provide them with information about options if they choose that path.
“I cannot tell someone who is supporting their kids and their partner on their health insurance … go leave your job so that your kids don’t have health insurance, so that you can feel good about speaking up,” she said.
“It’s such an individual decision. If I had kids at the time who are on my health insurance, I probably wouldn’t have said anything.”
Since the site launched, Ozoma said she has received hundreds of inquiries from employees seeking more details on how to disclose and fight discrimination at work. The 30-year-old mentors activists and other people fighting all over the world against workplace discrimination.
Ozoma now runs a tech policy consulting company, Earthseed, and is the director of tech accountability at the new Center on Race and Digital Justice at the University of California, Los Angeles. This year, Time Magazine named her one of its TIME100 Next, a group of emerging leaders who are shaping the future.
Her new role as an advocate is happening hundreds of miles away from the tech world she left behind.
After leaving Pinterest, Ozoma moved to a farm near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she grows her own vegetables and raises a flock of chickens nicknamed the Golden Girls.
She said she has no plans to go back to Silicon Valley, but will keep fighting for employee rights.
“I’m just working now from a different position on issues that really impact the industry in a way that I feel is additive,” she said.
“I don’t think that there’s anything more fulfilling than being part of the circle of life,” she said, using a metaphor that mirrors her current life on a farm, “whether that’s watching a seed or planting a seed in the ground and watching it grow and create more seeds.”
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