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‘This Problem Is a Lot Bigger Than Me’

Tech exec and new memoirist Ellen Pao is doubling down on disrupting the Silicon Valley boys’ club. 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Name: Ellen Pao
Occupation: Venture partner at Kapor Capital and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Kapor Center; CEO of Project Include
Age: 40s
Residence: San Francisco

San Francisco: You became a household name after your landmark discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. Can you take us back to that day in March 2015, when the jury came back with its verdict clearing the VC powerhouse of any wrongdoing?
Ellen Pao: It was bittersweet. Because we lost, but there was so much support for what we were doing. In the public realm, people were very supportive. They had come out to watch the trial, they were sending me emails, they were sending me messages on Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn. It was remarkable to me how many people connected with different parts of my experiences and how universal these problems were. This was something that was much more systemic. For me, it became, How do I take this platform and all of this support and do something positive with it? And ultimately that became Project Include.

When did Project Include—which you founded last year with seven other women in tech—begin to take shape?
I was still at Reddit [as interim CEO] after the trial. It wasn’t until the end of the year that I started talking to different people. We were all unhappy with the state of diversity efforts. People were doing small things and calling them wins publicly. Like this idea that you can do a one-off training for 90 minutes, maybe on unconscious bias or diversity and inclusion, and then announce it to the world and give yourself a pat on the back with nothing further. I had drinks with Erica [Joy Baker, formerly of Slack] at the Ferry Building one night, and she was very supportive of doing something. And that was the start of thinking through what could we do with Project Include, who would we bring on board, how would we make change that was impactful.

And how do you do that?
We hope to give everyone a fair chance to succeed at tech by working closely with CEOs, by sharing our recommendations, by giving voice to people’s experiences, and by sharing data that can be used to set standards and benchmarks. 

What makes for an effective diversity strategy?
Diversity and inclusion should really be part of your culture, and it should be something that the CEO is the main advocate for in order to really have it take hold. Project Include recommends that programs be inclusive of all groups—that it’s comprehensive across not just hiring and bringing in people, but also all the activities within the company so that people feel included and get opportunities fairly once they come on board. And you need to use metrics and see if you’re making progress and understand what’s working and what’s not. You need to hold yourself accountable. 

What are the main hurdles in changing the culture in the tech industry?
In tech, it’s particularly difficult because power is concentrated in the hands of so few people. There are VC firms with managing partners who make the decisions, who have a strong influence on investment decisions that end up changing the landscape of tech. These individuals can have this huge, huge impact, and often the decisions are heavily biased and discriminatory. 

So the VCs also need to acknowledge their role in changing the culture?
The question is, do these VC firms end up just playing musical chairs, where they shift the people in charge but they don’t actually change the behavior? And when I say “the behavior,” it’s not just harassment, but it’s also this systemic bias that prevents these firms from having diversity on their team. Most of them don’t have very many women, very few of them have any partners from underrepresented groups. When do [the VCs] allow space for people who don’t look like them? When do they change their culture so that they’re looking at opportunities and investing in founders fairly, without this whole systemic bias?

Your memoir, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, comes out September 19. Why did you decide to write a book?
I thought, I have had this set of experiences. I haven’t had an opportunity to really share what happened to me in a complete way. With the trial, you get little pieces, and it’s shaped by the structure of litigation. It was also shaped by Kleiner having a very heavy PR strategy and team. So there was always a part of me that wanted to share my story, especially when I heard from so many people—people in tech, people outside of tech—who were connecting to pieces of the story. Hopefully, I could help other people and also call attention to this problem that’s a lot bigger than me and a lot bigger than this trial.  

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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