In this episode of The Forum Podcast, Miloney Thakrar (Mind the Gender Gap, Inc.) interviews Dhavide Aruliah (OpenTeams, Inc.) to unpack what it means to be an ally for gender equity in the workplace.
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In 2018, Dhavide Aruliah began working at a high-growth startup. Within a month of working there, he learns that a former employee was sexually harassed by the company’s CEO. After expressing his disappointment with company’s inadequate response to the sexual misconduct, Aruliah is abruptly fired three days later.
During this podcast, Miloney Thakrar, Founder & Principal of Mind the Gender Gap, Inc., interviews Aruliah to unpack what it means to be an ally for gender equity in the workplace, why sexism pervades the tech industry, and how companies and their leaders can cultivate a culture of trust and allyship. It offers recommendations for high growth-startups can cultivate a culture of trust and accountability, one that operationalizes the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This session draws from a case study authored by Miloney Thakrar and builds a former presentation at the 2019 Forum on Workplace Inclusion Conference entitled “Redefining Masculinity in Leadership.
- Develop a more nuanced understanding of defining ally as verb in the workplace.
- Learn strategies on how to be an effective ally in the workplace.
- Gain insight into how companies can build workplace cultures that cultivate allyship and trust.
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Ben: Hello, and thank you for joining us for today’s podcast, Ally for Gender Equity, a case study with presenters Miloney Thakrar of Mind the Gap Inc, and Dhavide Aruliah of Open Teams. This podcast is sponsored by Best Buy. I’m Ben Roux, program associate here at the forum on workplace inclusion. In 2018, Dhavide Aruliah began working at a high-growth startup. Within a month of working there he learns that a former employee was sexually harassed by the company’s CEO.
After expressing his disappointment with the company’s inadequate response to the sexual misconduct Aruliah is abruptly fired three days later. During the session, Ms. Thakrar interviews Aruliah to unpack what it means to be an ally [00:02:00] for gender equity in the workplace, why sexism pervades the tech industry, and how companies and their leaders can cultivate a culture of trust and allyship. It offers recommendations for high-growth startups so they can cultivate a culture of trust and accountability, one that operationalizes the values of diversity equity inclusion.
This session draws from a case study authored by Ms. Thakrar and builds on a former presentation at our 2019 conference entitled Redefining Masculinity in Leadership. This podcast will help you develop a more nuanced understanding of defining ally, as a verb in the workplace, learn strategies on how to be an effective ally in the workplace, and gain insight into how companies can build workplace cultures that cultivate allyship and trust. Miloney Thakrar is the founder and principal of Mind the Gap Inc, a strategy firm that leverages data storytelling to advance gender equity in the workplace.
Her practice centers around one key principle, we cannot achieve gender equity without addressing the inequities perpetuated by research and data. As a strategist, researcher, and data storyteller, her firm partners with organizations to translate data into insights and drive impact. Miss Thakrar holds a Master of Science in gender and social policy from the London School of Economics and a Master of Public Policy from Australian National University.
She currently serves on the advisory board of the Africa diversity and inclusion center, the city of Chicago’s status of women and girls working group, The Women Tech Founders Leadership Council and as a member of the Center for Global Inclusion. As a daughter of immigrants who studied and lived in four foreign countries.
She brings a global and culturally responsive lens to her work. Dhavide Aruliah trained as an applied mathematician and computer scientist and is currently the Director of Education at Quon site LLC. He was a university professor at Ontario Tech [00:04:00] University for 11 years before leaving academia to become director of training at Anaconda Inc. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia.
Miloney: Thank you so much, Ben. It’s really been truly an honor to be part of the forum on workplace inclusion community. I’ve always been greatly impressed with the work and the content that it puts out into the world. I clearly see them as thought leaders who have been able to create an intentional community of leaders focusing on workplace inclusion. It’s been an honor to be here. I also feel honored to have Dhavide Aruliah here to share his story, who will be speaking shortly. I wanted to start out, my name is Miloney.
I am the founder and principal of Mind The Gender Gap, which really focuses on building strategies using data storytelling to advance gender equity in the workplace. This story that focuses on a tech startup has been a story that has been a long time coming. It’s a story that has been unfolding and continues to unfold for a while now. When I first connected with Dhavide, back in 2019, Dhavide, I remember distinctly, you sharing your story with me for the first time.
Thinking back of how you were still in the midst of processing all that happened to you. It wasn’t several months later until we reconnected that we revisited your story. I felt as if [00:06:00] I was talking to a different person altogether. Everything from the tone of your voice to your facial expressions to where you’re at with your processing, your demeanor was much more calmer and brighter.
With that said, I really wanted to start out with– first, feel free to introduce yourself, but what ultimately led you to make the decision to share your story and your experience in a more public way.
Davide: Thank you, Miloney, and thank you, Ben and everyone involved with the forum for inviting me here. My name is Dhavide, I’m a computer scientist, applied mathematician, former academic now working in industry. I guess I’ve spent a lot of time– I think speaking to the what you just said Miloney, I originally was fired from this company in June of 2018 and I’ll talk more about that later. It was a good nine months after that, when I spoke to you in April of 2019, when the story had resurfaced.
I had thought it had gone away, and I had been re traumatized by that I think. That happens to a number of people actually involved with this company and their experiences dealing with them. That happened again, recently in the summer of 2020 and it seems to happen sort of whenever they enter a new news cycle. When I’ve thought about speaking about this, talking about it, there are a number of risks involved. One of the things is, of course, I’m talking about issues relating to gender inequality, and sexual harassment.
I’m cautious of the appearance of being a fellow mansplaining [00:08:00] about these things and taking up space where a woman could be speaking. Also cautious, the story relates to this unfortunate woman who was a target of sexual harassment at this company. Initially, I was quiet about it because it was very– I did not want to out her and there were a lot of concerns about re-traumatizing her and her experience there. Another risk for me is also of course, playing into this narrative of the bitter ex employee. I don’t want to play into that narrative.
I know that within the company, there are doubtless, the leadership and the people who have a invested interest in believing that narrative about me, is fine, but everywhere outside, it seems that isn’t the problem. There is a risk also of some legal retaliation. They have threatened to sue people for defamation in the past, they have done so for me, privately and publicly. They are definitely punching down and I’m punching up in this circumstance.
They’re a company with millions of dollars of [unintelligible 00:09:12] resources behind them and I’m a private individual. There is some people that also argue that talking about these things, one risks their opportunities for employment because nobody likes whistleblowers, nobody likes people that speak out about these things. That’s the converse of my experience, and I’ll explain more about that later.
Miloney: [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:09:35], I wanted to pause right there regarding your point on retaliation, because when people think about workplace inequities and inequalities and discrimination overall, I think not enough attention is given to the retaliation piece. Quite often, you see the response for employers is that, “Retaliation is [00:10:00] illegal and we don’t do it,” which I believe at some point was the response from this particular employer as well.
When looking at the data, retaliation by far makes up the largest percentage of complaints by [unintelligible 00:10:20] Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In fact, just in 2019 which is the most recent data available, over half of the complaints that were made focused on retaliation. I’m just trying to underscore that point. Would you continue?
Davide: Yes, thanks [unintelligible 00:10:39]. On the other hand, I guess the main reason for me to talk about this is because I think unequivocally, sexual harassment is wrong. I can say that with conviction, I don’t believe any of the leadership of this company can say that with conviction because it contradicts all of the decisions that they have made around this issue over the last three or four years. I think it’s vital to say this strongly decisively and with conviction.
This should have been an easy case. What happened was witnessed by other people within the company. What is frustrating about this particular case is there was the CEO of the company sexually harassed this woman [unintelligible 00:11:24] and she ended up resigning very shortly afterwards. They should have disciplined him very strongly after the fact and they didn’t.
If we as a society can’t deal with straightforward cases like this really easily– most sexual harassment occurs in private behind closed doors and when it occurs like this, we ought to be able to deal with those cases easily, otherwise, we won’t get the complicated ones right. I think there’s a very strong responsibility for men to use their voices and speak out. I’m a person [00:12:00] of color but I’m still a man, I’m a cisgender, able-bodied, I’ve got all sorts priviledge.
I’m not a young person either. I’ve got an established professional career and so it’s really important that I use the privilege that I have to speak out against the status quo when you have really bad behavior at companies like this.
Miloney: Given all that, what are you hoping the audience will gain from hearing your story?
Davide: I’ll answer this more fully closer to the end but I think on a high level, I’ve now moved on. I’m SVP of education and inclusion at a company called Open Teams. I worked afterwards as a consultant but I think that companies have to figure out how to deal with these situations properly. Cultures of silence and inequality, power imbalances, get perpetuated in work places. In order to generate cultures of inclusion and trust, you have to actually do the work required.
I think organizational leaders have to recognize that and take accountability and act with a sense of integrity and humility in order to build that with people. I also want to use– the experience I’ve had, I think, it’s really phenomenal. This is without a doubt in almost 30 years as an adult working as a university professor, working in industry, I’ve never encountered such a ridiculous leadership and such utter unmatured childish incompetence.
I think it’s really important to recognize that we have opportunities to stand up for the things we believe in and to do so consistently and aligned with our values. I think there are some interesting things I’ve learned. I’ve learned about dealing with lawyers and non-disparagement agreements in ways [00:14:00] I never dreamed of in my career before. We get to choose the people that we want to be through our actions and through our decisions. I really want to share this story to help people see that.
Miloney: Yes, your last point really gets at the core of what this story and this podcast is about and what it means to be an ally in the workplace. That term gets used maybe all too often, but really this emphasis on action and consistent action that is within a strong alignment with values, I think is critical to underscore and highlight in the story which will be a re-emerging theme as we discuss this story in more detail.
One of the details about this story that really stood out to me was that this company reached out to you in proactive recruited you and tried to court you to join their company. Can you talk about your initial impressions of this company and why you ultimately decided to join this company?
Davide: Sure. I first started collaborating with DataCamp. I’ll mention them by name, we haven’t done that so far but I don’t think it’s any secret. In 2016 when I was working at another company called Anaconda, they make online data science courses. I helped create with the– I was at that time, director of training at Anaconda, and I helped create about four or five different courses in the course of 2016, 2017, that were quite successful.
They had [00:16:00] about half a million completions and I didn’t get any royalties for these Anaconda [unintelligible 00:16:04], which is fine, I was an employee of theirs at the moment and they were made with the training team and it was really interesting technology. On the basis of the success and the popularity I had as an instructor working with DataCamp, I made friends with a number of people inside the company.
I had a good friend and colleague, Greg Wilson, who had started working there some time I think in 2017. They had a lot of very talented young people. Although I was happy at Anaconda, the business model was shifting, it looked like they were going to be moving away from training as part of their core business. DataCamp contacted me around the summer, in I think June or July 2017, and then again in December of 2017 asking if I had any interest.
They pitched to me and I flew there in January 2018 for an interview. After some thoughts back and forth about the opportunities there, I decided this was the kind of interesting place to go. Yes, that was unusual, they were quite aggressive in courting me. I’d actually risked their relationship with their business with Anaconda which is one of their business partners because technically I was poached.
Miloney: Jumping to, you now have joined the company, at what point did you begin to notice signs or indicators that the company culture was problematic or at times that you’ve described as toxic?
Davide: It’s really funny thinking about this because I think back, there were warning signs before I joined. For instance, in [00:18:00] August of 2017, the CEO, Jonathan Cornelissen, I heard this through people I knew inside the company. He shared James Damore’s Google manifesto rubbishing DEI, that was rubbishing the ideas of all of the gender and the efforts to try and improve things for women in technology, for instance.
The CEO of DataCamp broadcast this inside this internal slack to the company. I knew people inside the company who were upset about that. I should have taken that as a red flag, but I thought, “You don’t always going to agree with the boss and maybe those things aren’t–” at the same time, I saw that there were things that they were doing that were interesting, I was intrigued by the company.
I think the second sign– I didn’t actually start there until April 2018. When I started, I joined the curriculum team. There were two women who had been on the curriculum team who had left. One had been fired and the other one was unfortunately this top woman who had been a target of harassment in October 2017 and who quit in January 2018 in response to that.
I didn’t learn all the details around this until later but I couldn’t get a straight answer about why the one woman was fired. I had inherited her workload as well as the other woman. In fact, actually, as I was piecing together, I noticed looking at that the unfinished projects in the curriculum team, there was a lot of turnover in 2017 and 2018 even before the store exploded. In 2019, they actually had a lot of people leave the company as well.
There was no discernible HR department at that time. I knew that they were in the process of hiring, I think [00:20:00] at the beginning of June 2018, two months after I started, was when they finally hired a Director Of People, and she had started. I didn’t really get a good sense of how they managed. It really seemed like a lot of stuff was done, like in a lot of start ups, at the last minute. The [unintelligible 00:20:28] and team director, my manager, there were difficulties I had dealing with her.
There were KPIs and RKRs, key performance indicators and objectives and key results and the way that these were negotiated was really set in a way to ensure failure. I was reluctant to see this because I really wanted to get along with her and I felt sorry for her, being one of the few women, 1 of 7 or 8 women in a company of 70 people. I really wanted to get along, but in hindsight, I think there was pressure from above to produce. The whole management style that was encouraged at the company was one of pitting people against each other.
Another sign, I guess, really it was at the company workweek at the start of May 2018, a month after I had been at the company. That’s when I found out about the harassment incident from October 2017 and about the woman leaving the company. A week after that company workweek, another woman had been fired who had only been at the company a month and a half, or maybe two months. She was hired around the time I started. I don’t know what happened, what that was about, and it struck to me, this is really cutthroat, it’s really [00:22:00] a very negative place to be.
The whole three years I had been at Anaconda, I think there was one time I think where a person had been fired, and it was problematic situation. There had already been two people I knew the first half of 2018, including myself and Greg Wilson who were fired on the same day shortly afterwards. There were 4 people fired in a company of about 70.
To me, that doesn’t really reflect a– I’ve been a manager in industry, I’ve been supervisor of graduate students, I’ve had managerial responsibilities. When you’re doing things in that way, that really doesn’t reflect a competent management style in my opinion.
Miloney: I wanted to touch on some of the key points you just highlighted here, but before I do so, I just wanted to get a sense of what percentage of the workforce were women or identified as female to your recollection? I was curious about this because you had mentioned a few terminations involving women.
Davide: I think it was about 7 or 8 out of about 70 to 80 people, so it’s about 10% at most. It was pretty small at the time. It changed a little bit in that time, and I think that it’s probably better now, but I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a good sign, I’ll [unintelligible 00:23:25] on that later.
Miloney: Given that context as well as many of the signs you just highlighted, in many ways, as someone who’s worked with a lot of tech startups, it characterizes a lot of the culture that pervades in the tech startup and I’d say in the broader tech startup ecosystem. One of the things you noted was the lack of infrastructure around HR and even having [00:24:00] a staff person focusing on HR. It’s not uncommon for hyper early-stage startups that are trying to grow and scale as quickly as possible to not invest in those types of things until much later on.
The other thing is this emphasis on competition and working at all costs as well as these other underpinnings that point to a culture where women are underrepresented overall. That is again fairly common to tech startups. Just going back to the company workweek in May 2018, you mentioned you had found out what had happened prior to you joining the company, can you talk a little bit more about what you learned an how you responded when you learnt about this newly disclosed information?
Davide: What I learnt was this woman had left after basically being harassed in front of witnesses at the previous workweek. The company has used various euphemisms to describe this. They called it inappropriate dancing and there is this nauseating conversation around where this lies in this spectrum of different levels of sexual misconduct. I think the important thing is, to me it was awful when I found out what had happened. The most appropriate metaphor I had in my mind at the time was that it’s like a toxic oil spill.
You can talk about how you deal with things if the oil [00:26:00] pipeline breaks, but then once it breaks and you’ve got all the wildlife around you drowning in toxic sludge and trying to clean it up, it’s just a total mess. That’s the way I felt in this company. I had thought about this scenario very much when I used to be a professor theoretically, like how would I respond if I found out one of my academic colleagues or one of the graduate students in our department had committed some act of sexual violence, what would I do?
Would I have the courage to actually speak up about this against one of my other colleagues? I fully believe that if I had behaved the way that the CEO had behaved, if I had had a student in one of my classes after being inappropriately harassed in front of other students in the group, if she then dropped out of the class or dropped out of the program, what are the rest of the students to think? How is this actually to affect the integrity of the program?
I fully expect that I should be disciplined, I should be fired and have tenure stripped if I had done something like that. I think this is really frustrating. I had a tenured academic position, I left academia because I couldn’t reconcile the conflicts inside academia with my own sense of conscience. Then I had left this company which I felt was an honorable decent company where I actually respected the leadership.
When I was now in this company realizing that the leadership were these selfish individuals who were determined to pursue profit at the expense of the wellbeing of their staff, it was awful. I was losing sleep, I couldn’t discuss this with my wife, I was carrying this all on my own and I was conflicted about my loyalty to my employer versus my principles. I knew that I wasn’t going to lie to protect [00:28:00] the sleazy conduct of some pathetic dude up at the top, but I also didn’t know who to trust within the organization.
I found out later that I certainly couldn’t trust the director of the curriculum team and I wasn’t sure who else I could trust within the curriculum team or who else inside the company, so it’s a really stressful and unpleasant experience.
Miloney: Going back to when you clearly expressed where you stood with your values and your concerns about the company and the company culture, and particularly about what you had learnt while you were on this offsite during the company workweek, can you talk about how the company responded and what unfolded at that time?
Davide: Sure, Just as a little background, let me see, this was around the middle of June 2018 after I’d been at the company two months an one half. I had a minor blowout with the curriculum director and so I decided that the next meeting we had, to say, “Look, I’ve got to come clean with you, if I’m going to stay here with this company, I can’t–” I had to disclose what I knew about the harassment that the CEO committed in front of witnesses and I thought that the way that it had been dealt with, it was basically a slap on the wrist and it established two very bad precedents.
I’ve said this to her verbally at the time and I’ve said it in writing after the fact, that it established the precedent that sexual harassment is okay at this company, it’s not going to be dealt with seriously and it also sets the precedent that the leadership are untouchable, they can break the law with impunity. These are both things that they have never, to this day, responded to adequately. [00:30:00] I requested at the time, this was June the 12th 2018, I requested a discussion at the next curriculum committee meeting and I requested this in good faith because I had inherited the workload of the woman who had left.
I had business relationships with external instructors, business partners of the company and I wasn’t prepared to lie about what happened to them if they asked me. I wanted to discuss this with the curriculum team. They made sure, three days later, that I was fired, that I didn’t go to that next curriculum committee meeting the following Monday.
This annoys me a little bit, because I think the narrative I’ve got in my discussions with them since is that somehow rather, this was me trying to sort of strong arm from my position of weakness like, “I know where the bodies are buried,” and that it was sort of making excuses and trying to rescue myself versus actually trying to say, “No, I’m fully within my rights in trying to do the job that I’ve been hired to do well, to request clarification and grown up discussion about this mishandling of this terrible situation by the company’s leadership.”
That was a perfectly good faith action on my part, and I resent my professionalism being criticized by cowards, who clearly don’t have any competence in dealing with sexual harassment. I was terminated three days later, I had a meeting on June 15th 2018, which was the only time I met the head of people, she had only been hired about a week or two before. I was working remotely from Vancouver, met in New York where the company headquarters was.
I had a phone call, I guess, with her, or actually, I think it was a video call [00:32:00] where the Director of Curriculum and head of people showed up and I was told that I was being let go. My first thought when I saw the director of people there, I said, “No, I’m getting my wrist slapped,” but no, it actually turned out that– and I was shocked. I didn’t think like, “This is ridiculous. They can’t fire me three days after I’ve complained about their handling of sexual harassment,” and clearly, they thought that this was a good idea.
They offered me half [inaudible 00:32:30] pay severance and an additional half month to sign a non disparagement agreement. I kept my mouth shut during the call, I was pretty angry but I just thought, “I’m not going to say anything while I’m this angry, I just want to find out what’s going on.” I had been locked out of [unintelligible 00:32:42], which was the mechanism of communication inside the company and I was instructed not to make any contact with the rest of the staff.
I found out that Greg Wilson, my colleague and friend who was also fired the same day, he was also someone who was vocally critical of the company’s handling of this situation. They fired us both on that same day and they apparently made an announcement to the staff and they lied and told us that they had offered us– from what I heard from other people inside the company, they had been told that Greg, I had been offered an opportunity to write a goodbye email to the company, and we refused.
That’s not true. We actually were told explicitly not to make contact with staff and I think this actually was very clear eff you. It was a clear message sent to staff about power, about keeping your mouth shut. Anyway, I followed up on this afterwards, I looked at legal options and found out the rules of at will employment and some of the jurisdictional issues because I was a Canadian contractor working remote from Vancouver and not working in New York.
I looked at their [00:34:00] very one sided non disparagement agreement and I said, like, “This is ridiculous, I’m not signing this, and certainly not for a half month’s salary, I might consider signing it for a year’s salary.” I assumed that they might actually consider that I have bills to pay. Some people consider that that refutes my moral position, and I don’t happen to agree with that I’ve got I’ve got bills to pay and I think that if they want to, I have a right to choose the price of my own silence and my biggest mistake was actually assuming the– over estimating the competence and maturity of the leadership.
I thought that, “This is, at this point, just a business decision. If they really want me to be quiet about their negligence, then they need to recognize that I have the right to set the price of that,” and I thought I was being very reasonable. This was a kind of an infuriating experience. I found other employment options quickly I’ve got a lot of work experience.
I was a little bit cross about the lies they told internally and I kind of resent by professionalism being impugned by schoolyard bullies but I don’t think that– I’m not at all bothered about any of the way that I behaved. I think that I behaved consistently with integrity, which they can’t claim.
Maloni: There’s a couple of things that strike me when I’m hearing you recount how the story unfolded. One was that the employer was definitely wielding– and the leadership team was wielding a lot of power and abusing that power in a lot of different ways.
One of the ways that is [00:36:00] a continuing theme in the story is, the employer controlling the narrative and, in essence, was engaging in bullying behavior, everything from shutting you down, from locking you out of [unintelligible 00:36:18], to telling a different story, or their version of the story to the rest of the workforce, to issuing a non disparaging agreement, which is very common for a lot of employers as a way to really control the narrative.
The other thing that sort of strikes me about this story is, you describe it as infuriating but when you think about the shock, and suddenly you’re let go from this employer, simply because you’re trying to stay in integrity, with your values, this experience, in a lot of ways, was traumatic. I don’t want to speak on behalf of you but just hearing you tell the story a few times now and it was also very painful.
I think it’s important to sort of acknowledge that being an ally, isn’t always this glamorous experience where people are painted out to be heroes in the story, but it typically requires a lot of difficult decisions and choices along the way and in some ways, a lot of risks as well. Moving on, you are now terminated from the company, you now have left the company, what I also find interesting about the story is there’s this significant gap in time between [00:38:00] when the incident of the sexual harassment occurred, which was reportedly occurred in October 2017 and when the company finally issued a response, which is nearly a year and a half–
Davide: About 18 months.
Maloni: Yes, nearly a year and a half later in April 2018. Can you just sort of highlight? What were the different contextual factors at play that finally elicited a response from this company?
Davide: Yes, it’s really interesting because after I was fired, I looked at legal options and, it was a bit exhausting. It looked like I would be spending a lot of money taking certain amounts of risks for relatively little money, it turns out. The rules of at will employment in the United States are quite brutal. They’re definitely very much in favor of whoever has deeper pockets. I gave up, I sort of took on some consulting work, some actually, in fact, for Anaconda, my former employer from whom I was poached.
I made sure when I left that I left on good terms with them, and I did some work with them. I did some other teaching work. I set myself up as a consultant, I had some consulting projects, and I was kind of licking my wounds. I had no idea. I guess I wrote a Glassdoor review at some point. I just sort of thought– I wanted to make sure that nobody went into with the wrong impressions and I read the Terms of Service for Glassdoor for giving reviews of employers and I read the legal words around it, and I sort of figured out how to write a review that would express what I wanted to say concisely.
I even contemplated signing it because I didn’t think [00:40:00] even though they were anonymous, I figured I don’t really care if they know whether or not this is me. I think they probably did. In fact, actually, I got contacted by Glass Store, they asked me to take it down. They were contacted by DataCamp asking to take that down. Glass store reminded me that I’m legally responsible for whatever I say. I replied saying, “Yes, I know,” and I didn’t think anything of that, but it turns out that that review had, and a couple of other reviews probably written by other people who had had bad experiences with the company had been read and, had formed a pattern, and there were a group of women called The R Ladies– R is a programming language in data science.
R Ladies are an advocacy group with some pretty amazing people in it, and they picked up these reviews and they, I guess had also heard through, I think the target of the harassment she was a member of The R Ladies, and so through their own kind of whisper network had heard about what happened, and so they, a number of them on behalf of the instructor community that collaborates with DataCamp, they started approaching them demanding accountability. They kept getting blocked by their head of people, and also by their formula curriculum director who had now become a VP at DataCamp. I think I probably helped her with that, and they were kind of notable obstacles and what had happened is by in– and I had completely let this go and tried to get on with my life.
Then at the end of March, early April 2019, this letter had been produced and signed by over 100 of DataCamp’s instructors demanding clarity over what was had happened. At that point, DataCamp responded with [00:42:00] a public announcement which, amusingly had been attached with a no-index tag. Basically, they put this on their blog, and unlike every single other blog post they had done, they had put in a little bit of code to make this difficult to index by search engines, to make it hard to find, so this actually, is what led to people getting very cross, The R Ladies community and a number of the instructors, because that really came across as an article of bad faith, really that they weren’t really dealing with people.
In this announcement, they had used this inappropriate dancing to try and hide and downplay the sexual harassment that had occurred. The target came forward, actually, shortly after DataCamp’s post, and then a whole bunch of the instructors demanded to boycott their own courses.
Now, and this is a really big deal. I want people to actually understand this, right? This would be as if authors publishing with like Penguin or Random House or HarperCollins sort of said, “We don’t like the way that this publisher is behaving, don’t buy my books,” right? These people have invested a lot of time to produce these courses. They’ve invested a lot of their own association of their own brand and their own identity, their own professional reputations with this company.
They are saying we are– and the way they get paid is through royalties, through course completions. When people are saying, there were, I think possibly dozens of them. I didn’t count, but there were a lot of people standing up and saying, don’t do this, don’t work with them. Don’t take my courses until we get some clarity on this.
Now at the same time, I think around the middle of April 2015 Greg Wilson and I both published short posts, very factual,[00:44:00] very clear, and this comes back to what we’ve said about controlling the narrative. I made it very clear, careful to state the things that I wanted to state clearly and tell my own story and in my own time and not give them the opportunity to do that. I had the freedom to do that because I hadn’t signed a non-disparagement agreement, and this made them also look sketchy as hell.
Our Studio that same day actually, Our Studio, which is a company that some of the instructors were affiliated with, but a lot of the R community looks up to, they had a partnership with DataCamp that they broke off immediately, and then the press started picking up on this, the Business Insider, Buzzfeed. There was a really good article by Davie Albert that was published in mid-May 2019.
Sp at the end of April 2019, the CEO of Cornell Alison stepped down without saying– he was suspended without pay until they could actually get a third-party review to investigate what had happened, and they formed an instructor advisory board using various people from the instructor community to review the processes and basically make sure it helped cement goodwill within the instructor community. This was actually a complete bad-faith move as well because they ended up disbanding them in December 2020, I’ll get back to that later.
These are the things that led to this final 18 months after the fact, after this long stagnating period of the company due to public pressure from a community that I was suddenly– I did not know existed. I found a lot of comfort from some amazing people in that community when I met them shortly after that, but that was what finally led to some [00:46:00] sort of action on this, in this instance, which was kind of impressive.
Maloni: Yes, it’s really interesting how it really took this advocacy group, The R Ladies to mobilize over 100 instructors, you said, to sign this letter and really put public pressure on the company in addition to the press coverage, to really put public pressure on the company to be accountable, and it’s only until then that you see a response from the company.
Given that all this has happened at this point, can you tell us more about the company’s response and the CEO’s response to the sexual harassment incidents involving the employee that worked at the company prior to you joining?
Davide: Sure, so I want to distinguish, first of all, the sin of an individual versus the sin of the leadership of a company, right? Because, so one of the things I think that is deliberately misdirected in discussions about this by DataCamp is this perception that there is this single incident that happened that people across about, right? This harassment incident is this one sin and everyone, and then their narrative about council culture and about the CEO being bullied out of his job appalled them.
What they are neglecting to account for is what people are cross about is not simply that single event, what they’re cross about is everything that happened after the fact [00:48:00] because the company cannot be held to account for the actions of one individual on a dance floor one night. What they can be accountable for and they should be accountable for is every single thing that happened around the boardroom table in collective decisions made after the fact, because every single decision that they have made after that showed a desire to control the narrative that they simply couldn’t control.
It’s just utterly foolish of them to attempt to do that. Given the fact that this was witnessed– by my account when I left the company around a dozen people inside the company, about 70 or 80 knew what had happened, which means– Knowing simply the way human nature is, knowing the way secrets propagate that means it was going to be known by a lot of people inside the company, and it also meant it was going to be known by a lot of people outside the company.
Again, when I approached my manager in June of 2015 about a discussion about how to deal with this properly and proactively, that was a responsible good-faith action on my part. To answer your question though about what they did in sort of some different time periods, and I’m sorry, this is going to be– I’ll try not to get to be too long-winded about this.
The first period I’d say is around January 2018, which is when the employee filed a complaint. Their first response was to pull in one of their investors. This is reported in their final third-party report, a third-party advisor, and they use someone who was an investor in the company who’s, which was a totally shady decision like that really showed a conflict of interest.
The other thing I think that is pretty shady as well is the leadership, the executive at that time, consisted of three co-founders, who were also the board of the company. I believe at that time, I think there’s one other of the investors who’s on there as well now, but and so [00:50:00] When the board decided how to deal with the recommendations from their so-called third-party advisor who’s one of their investors, I don’t believe that Jonathan Cornelison actually recused himself from that process, which is like process 101 kind of. You don’t have the person who is involved with any one of these complaints involved in the decision of choosing their punishment.
The punishment that was chosen was ultimately a slap on his wrist, it was basically a limit on how much he can drink at company functions and a single day’s sensitivity training, which clearly wasn’t very successful because his sensitivity doesn’t seem to have improved much as a result of this.
There are some other things that they’ve done, some fluffy things about hiring a director of people and trying to target hiring more women. All of this is really secondary I think to really concrete actions they could have taken.
I think the next thing I would say is, apart from the other things I witnessed about the company culture slowly as I came to work for them, in the May 2018 workweek, they didn’t use any opportunity to address the entire company. This is six months after the original workweek, the last workweek when this had happened, and clearly, there were people within the company who knew what had happened.
The only thing they did do, they had us read Radical Candor which is ironic because I think if there’s anything that the leadership has shown is that they have no desire for being told what to do by their subordinates. They have no desire for actual candor from their subordinates.
They had an opportunity when we were all there to really honestly say, “Look, we screwed up. This is the way that we’re going to improve things,” an actually recognize [00:52:00] they had actually abused the trust of the rank and file staff. I think that was really a bad idea.
In June of 2018 when they got rid of me and Greg in that amateurish and juvenile manner, I think that was really sleazy, and I think that it really showed you who they are. The implicit message sent to the employees is one of a schoolyard bully, like threats of firing and litigation. They’ve done this numerous times from what I’ve heard from people inside the company complaining about–
I’ve heard that at the meeting Cornelison had stepped down. I’m assuming this is true, again, this is secondhand. They basically have threatened, “That Davide guy is skating on thin ice.” It’s total rubbish, total bs. The only reason to threaten that at a company meeting in front of the staff is to basically make sure the company know to keep in place. There’s only two logical ways I think I can conclude from that, one is that they’re schoolyard bullies throwing their weight around deliberately to try and intimidate people into shutting up, or that they’re petulant, reactive, oblivious children, like toddlers who make these kinds of threats because they’re not aware of how people perceive them.
Those are the only two things I can think of, I don’t know which they would prefer. I don’t know, I think that these– They clearly don’t really understand the effects of their actions as leaders or maybe if they do, they just don’t care. I think their responses in 2018 and 2019 responding to The R Ladies, they were confrontational and aggressive which led to a lot of aggravation from them. That did not cultivate respect and trust on the instructor community who were their suppliers [00:54:00] basically.
That no-index tag in their announcement is a clear evidence of bad faith. I think all of the things they had done at that point, nobody expected the third-party review that they were going to make was going to yield change. All of us anticipated at the time that was announced in April 2019 that they were just going to hire some lawyers to do this, cherry-pick which stories that they were going to emphasize and make sure that the narrative that they got from this supported the leadership, which is exactly what they did.
In 2019, October, the only reason they didn’t reappoint Cornelison immediately, in my opinion, they kept on Martin Tuason as the interim CEO is because I think in September 2019, Cornelison wrote this embarrassing blog post that really rendered his apology of 2019 insincere. I think it was sufficiently embarrassing that they couldn’t reinstate him as CEO immediately because it really would have pissed off people.
They quietly announced– In 2019 October, they announced the third-party report and they doubled down on their inappropriate dancing narrative complaining about how they had been unfairly represented. They quietly in 2019 said that Martin was going to stay on as the CEO indefinitely.
The next thing that happened in July 2020 was they announced, out of the blue, this intention to threaten legal action against Our Studio for breaking up with them. This was just totally specious threat. [00:56:00] It’s funny, that happened and each time they would reemerge with one of these announcements, it would re-traumatize me a little bit, clearly the original target and I think other people who just didn’t want to hear anything about them anymore. This was a specious threat claiming that Our Studio had manufactured this conspiracy against them which is why people didn’t like them.
People responded on social media, I responded on Twitter and I got this tweet and a bunch of other people from DataCamp’s corporate counsel outlining this pathetic legal argument. In response to that six days later at SciPy 2020, I gave a little talk or gave a presentation and I tweeted it back at DataCamp with the hashtag bullies don’t scare me.
I think that it really shows a complete and utter inability of themselves to accept responsibility. They keep punching down, they keep throwing their weight around and they’ve poisoned their own well. They don’t really seem to show the intelligence or the maturity to understand that adults are not going to respond well to that kind of behavior. I’ve spoken up about it, they’ve threatened to sue me for defamation. They can’t do that, it’s an empty threat. I’ll explain why perhaps later. Anyway, that is a long laundry list of really foolish things they have done that don’t inspire confidence from adults.
Maloni: Again, you see this reemerging theme of the employer wielding their power to control the narrative and silence-
Davide: And control it badly.
Maloni: Yes, silence those they don’t want to be included in their larger narrative. [00:58:00] One of the things that struck me particularly about the third-party report is they– Again, it speaks to how they control the narrative and what facts they emphasized and what was underemphasized. You made a reference to the inappropriate dancing narrative.
The other thing that came up that actually the victim of the sexual harassment noted is how the company really made it a point to underscore that the incident wasn’t reported until several months after it occurred. It’s ironic, almost, in emphasizing that point because in a lot of company cultures where it’s instilling fear and bullying behavior, quite often those who’ve experienced some kind of harm don’t feel comfortable coming forward and reporting. It’s in a lot of ways not surprising that several months passed between the actual incident occurring and it being reported.
Davide: Total victim-blaming, it’s shameless.
Maloni: That’s classic victim-blaming. This story keeps continuing to unfold but very recently in December of 2020, the CEO was reinstated into his role as CEO.
Davide: Oh yes.
Maloni: Given this breaking news, what were your initial thoughts and reactions when you learned about this?
Davide: I was obviously pretty angry. They reappointed the CEO, they’d announced DataCamp 2.0 which was in a way retraumatizing the target and myself and other people. [01:00:00] It unambiguously shows again, the company, the leadership prioritizes the wealth of the founders above everything else. They may as well have put up a billboard saying, “Hey, predators come and work for us,” because it really shows that they don’t take sexual harassment seriously. It really is frustrating. Just sort of thinking all that they’re all along, as people have predicted, they were going to just wait until people– Their strategy is to sort of wait until the outrage dies down, wait until people forget, and then will quietly slip the guy back in.
In a sense, actually I did commit– Have a little bit of relief because by that point, Maloni, you and I we’d accepted the offer to do this podcast and I was thinking like am I going to look–? People are going to say like, why are you still complaining about this? They replaced the CEO says, well, no, no. Now they’ve put him back in. Clearly that shows how insincere and the bad-faith with which these people have acted consistently.
Another reaction was the day of the announcement, Anaconda, my former employer from whom I was poached to go and work at DataCamp, they broke off their relationship with DataCamp. They had been trying, and I still have good relationships with them. They had been trying to sort of make that work and they just realized that like, okay, this is just, they were staining their own brand basically by being associated with them, people were cross at them. After two-odd years of like trying to give the leadership the benefit of the doubt, they realized they couldn’t do it.
DataCamp disbanded the instructor advisory board as part of DataCamp 2.0 with this announcement, which again, shows that that was also a bad-faith decision. They had no intent– they don’t care what the instructors think. I don’t think I’m pretty sure the [01:02:00] instructors, advisor, the people who serve on that board are under NDAs, NDA being Non-Disclosure Agreement, not non-disparagement agreement, but maybe they’re under those as well. That’s a confusing thing. The legal acronyms that are overloaded.
I think one thing that’s a little disparaging about this is realizing the funders just don’t care. This is a company because it’s an online company like Netflix or Amazon at the start of the pandemic, they’ve actually prospered. They’ve probably– they’re now 6 million subscribers, and so they’re doing really well, but it just really shows that there’s no incentive for companies to do– if the VCs funding these companies don’t care, why the heck are they going to change their behavior? Why the heck are they going to do that? That has to come from us. It has to come from people who work in this area and for consumers to actually provide the pressure to change.
Maloni: Yes. It really sort of highlights how this tech startup is in a lot of ways, part of a broader tech startup ecosystem, which includes VC funding, which is in a lot of ways notorious for being male-dominated to this day. The majority of venture capitalists are men and largely invest in companies run by men, and there’s this always this emphasis on profit and growth and scaling as quickly as possible, even if there’s collateral damage involving their workforce.
Similarly 2% of all VC funding goes to companies that are woman-led. You kind of see this like broader ecosystem that sort of perpetuates this cycle of [01:04:00] sexism that continues to pervade within the startup ecosystem and sort of foster this culture of great power imbalance and gender inequities.
Lastly, just thinking about this in hindsight and highlighting some of the key lessons learned, what do you think this company could have done differently when responding to this matter? What are some of the key insights or lessons other organizations and companies can take away from this story?
Davide: I think the key thing– and I’ve thought about this a lot, I thought about it a lot while I was there, and it was difficult when I was inside the company, because I had this again, this weird self-preservation and conflict, basically by my own professional obligations in that circumstance.
The only way that they could have moved forward cleanly, would’ve been to remove Jonathan Cornelison from the CEO role immediately. I mean, there’s precedence for this. In June of 2018, Brian Krzanich who was the CEO of Intel, stepped down. I don’t know the exact notions of it, details around it but I know he had had at some time prior to that, a consensual relationship with a subordinate. A similar thing happened actually at McDonald’s corporation in November of 2019, and Intel sort of very clearly stood up and said, look, nobody is above the code of conduct for this company, and in order to earn the trust of our employees and of our greater business community, Krzanich has to step down and bear in mind, like this was a much, much lesser infraction. This was a consensual relationship with a subordinate that violated, crossed their fraternization [01:06:00] guidelines.
Intel is a well run company with competent, ethically responsible adults in the board who actually are concerned about doing things properly and who had the authority to actually implement that change in that structure. DataCamp is nothing like that. They were not able to do that, and I think that there’s plenty of talk in the DEI communities about how you have to get rid of predators to restore trust. You cannot have them around, and it doesn’t matter.
Again, as I said, like if I had done something like, even as if I had done something like that in my role as a professor, I would’ve expected that would’ve been the end of my job at that company, at that university, in that context, because you have to do that. They needed to beg forgiveness of the staff and promise to do better and not try and hide this. This was really, really despicable.
I think they also approached, kind of box ticking approaches to diversity after the fact, I think trying to hire people on and you can’t do it that way. This again is something that is well known. You have to have inclusion before you actually have, you can build diversity because if people don’t actually feel safe, they’re not going to actually succeed.
This is a company in which they’re ideologically motivated by threats and bullying and intimidation to make people perform. I saw that actually in their whole working culture. As it said, like for four firings in six months at that company, this is ridiculous. This is not competent leadership. This is not actually how you motivate people to actually to get things done.
I guess the pandemic, they’re still profiting and they actually feel that this is actually the thing that’s important, but it’s not actually going to do much for the inclusion and the diversity of the company. [01:08:00] I think that at a kind of a corporate and organizational level, those are some lessons. This is the kind of the can do lesson about what not to do is you can look at this company as a model of how to do things badly.
Maloni: Which is why it makes a wonderful case study. Lastly, just to keep up this from the perspective of you being an ally for gender equity, and in run one, you reflect on your experience, what are the key lessons you would like the listeners to take away from the story?
Davide: I think– and I’ve thought a lot about this as well. Again, this is part of the reason I want to share this stuff. Again, with the caveat that I’m aware, I don’t want to be taking up space, that women can be talking about important things, but I think it is also important for men to actually speak out. Silence only benefits bullies, abusers, and other bad actors.
I think one of the lessons I learned in my negotiations is that not to sell my silence cheaply for an NDA. I think there was some back and forth about this and they were quite belligerent and bullying in my negotiations with them through the corporate counsel.
I think another lesson I learned is not to underestimate the cost of silence to you as an individual. I’ve spoken to many and I realized, again, this is a gendered component to this too. I haven’t had contact with a lot of women for the company because they weren’t very many. The men I knew who left the company since, I’ve talked to a few of them and it’s scarred them and I think it was painful and it was painful for me while I was there. I think a lot of men who are decent, caring people who want to think of themselves as allies, who want to think of themselves as decent people who want– Who respect women and just want to get along and for [01:10:00] everyone to prosper, they were confronted with this horrible thing that had happened in this horrible working culture, and not speaking out against it actually scarred them.
I’ve talked to various friends, one of my close school friends, who works in a different industry, in animation, when I was describing all of this to him, he was telling me about a story from when he was a young man, where something terrible happened in some sexual misconduct case. He was young, and he was early in his career, and he was insecure about it, and he didn’t do anything about it, and he feels bad about it to this day. I realized that when you don’t do that, that actually has a cost on your soul, that you really have to recognize that that is actually something when you’re doing this calculus.
A third lesson, I think, I’ve learned is actually to assess risks and benefits accurately and carefully because I took a risk of getting fired, but when it turns out, like getting fired from that place isn’t that bad. I’m so glad that I’m not dealing with this hostile company run by idiots. Now that, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t use words like idiots, it’s a very ablist term, but children. During the pandemic, I think that would be really stressful for me right now.
I think I’m in a much better place. I think it was actually not that much of a risk in the long term. I knew I had career stability and ability to find work. I even managed to contract work with my former employer that I was poached from.
I knew that there were risks in launching a slap suit, strategic lawsuit against public participation, but I knew those threats, ultimately, and I’ve called them on this bluff a number of times, quite publicly and it really is a bluff. The reason why it’s a bluff, I think, is because they don’t have– Number one, I’ve only been speaking the truth. If they were to go into court, everything I’ve said [01:12:00] I’m willing to say in front of a jury, in front of a judge under oath.
And the truth makes them look bad. They don’t have the maturity or competence to actually understand that. The risks that I’ve taken as well, I think they can’t go into court without actually going through a discovery process that actually would hurt them more. I think they’re aware of that, their corporate counsel is certainly aware of that, and that’s why when they do things like threaten to sue people for defamation on Twitter, they didn’t actually send me a cease and desist letter on legal stationery. They may as well have written that threat in crayon because it really shows the amateurish foolishness of this company’s leadership.
A final lesson, I think I’ve learned is not to underestimate the power of rank and file. We’ve seen this actually, with people standing up at Google and forming the Alphabet Workers Union to stand up for tech worker’s rights. I think if there’s anywhere that needs it, DataCamp is a company that probably needs a union, given the way, given the things that I’ve seen there as well, and their public behavior. I think that we have power when we actually stand together. I took some risks, and it’s fine. It hasn’t really hurt me that much in the long run. I’m not bothered. I’m actually quite proud to be fired from a company where people don’t have the competence or the decency to meaningfully say that sexual harassment is wrong.
Maloni: Davide, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story. When I first connected with you, I’ve just been [01:14:00] inspired with the tremendous amount of courage that it took to do what you did, and the message you’re sending, overall, that hopefully, at some point, will have a ripple effect. For those who are listening, hopefully will gain some key insights and lessons of how they can create more foster, more inclusion and gender equity in their workplaces.
There are a lot of nuances and details to this story. That can’t be emphasized enough and I know this podcast it didn’t give enough time or justice to in diving into all those. I just wanted to direct the audience that we will have a document available that provides a one-pager that provides a high-level overview of the key lessons that can be lifted from this case study. We’ll also have the full case study available to be downloaded from the Mind the Gender Gap website during the week of the forum on workplace inclusion. Thank you again for joining us.
Davide: Thank you, Maloni.
Maloni: Thank you, Davide. Did you have anything else you wanted to say before?
Davide: No, I think that I’ve rambled on long enough. I think that be true to it yourselves, I guess. Recognize the importance of actually standing up for the things you believe in because you will always do better that way, I think.
Maloni: Thank you again, Davide. Thank you for all those who are listening.
Ben: I want to thank you both so much for taking the time to be here and for being part of our 2021 podcast series. I especially want to thank you, Davide, for taking the time to share your story and for being an ally in the workplace. I also want to say a special thank you to our [01:16:00] listeners for joining and also to our sponsor Best Buy.
To learn more, please visit www.mindthegap.org. New episodes of the forum podcasts are available at workplaceforums/podcast. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor, and Stitcher. Thank you again for listening. Have a great day.
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