“Some of us lose, and some of us win. What’s important is that we’re telling our stories and standing up for ourselves and for one another.”
Ellen Pao’s Story
Emphasizing the importance of human stories and fairness, Ellen Pao is an activist, programmer, author, co-founder, and current CEO of Project Include. A woman of many talents, she has spoken up for diversity, equality, and inclusion in STEM and consequently has impacted the world of tech. Let’s take a look at how she has made a difference.
Her tech story began when Ellen’s mother introduced her to computer programming at the age of ten; with these abilities under her belt, she dove into tech and received her Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, simultaneously earning a certificate in public policy at the University of Princeton. But her education didn’t stop there. Taking a more humanities-based path, she earned her JD at Harvard Law. After working for two years at a law firm, Ellen completed her MBA at Harvard Business School, which led her back to the beginning of her journey: tech.
She landed her first job at a tech company in 1998 at WebTV and from 2001 to 2005 bounced around Silicon Valley until she landed a position as technical chief of staff at a venture capital firm in San Francisco at Kleiner Perkins in 2005, a job that required all her fields of study: engineering, law, and business.
After two years of working under her boss and mentor John Doerr, she became a junior investing partner and a direct employee under the general partner, Ted Schlein. Unfortunately, she was later passed over for the position of senior partner after working on the team for several years, which she knew was unjust since she saw men with similar profiles as hers receive promotions sooner.
Feeling discriminated against, Ellen decided to take action and filed a gender discrimination suit against her employer, which gained nationwide attention. The issue of the gender gap in a field like venture capital was placed under a microscope and Ellen was the one to place the slides on the stage for proper investigation.
Ellen stated, “You had to be one of the guys to be successful.” Although the jury ruled in favor of the company on all counts in 2015, the case generated a buzz and women opened up about their own similar experiences in work environments. The gender gap in STEM was an important part of her story and a theme that would motivate her later on.
Making changes at Reddit
She left Kleiner Perkins but was ready to continue moving forward. Her next position was at Reddit, where she had a major impact on the website. First, she was hired as the head of business development and strategic partnerships and cemented the bond between Reddit and image host Imgur.
Following the resignation of CEO Yishan Wong, Pao became the interim CEO in 2015 and tried a modified hiring process that Wong initiated concerning wage negotiation. Upon hiring a potential employee, the recruiter would provide two options for the final salary without the opportunity to negotiate. Pao cited removing the negotiation process as an action that women much less frequently would try to initiate. In the end, Reddit found that there was no correlation between their previous offers and gender; however, Pao believed that it was important to keep this model in place due to equal opportunity priorities.
In addition to changing the hiring process, she also implemented a ban on revenge porn on the website, which impacted other social networks that later adapted Reddit’s model for their own privacy policies. Although this was a positive change for privacy policies for Reddit and other social networking pages, there was still pushback by users and soon after, Pao resigned from her position at Reddit.
Some may have seen this as a loss but once again Ellen was ready to embrace change and make something of her own that would be a true culmination of her story up until that point: Project Include. Along with seven other tech-focused women, she established Project Include, a non-profit organization focused on providing HR guidance to new startups with the goal of creating a safe work environment for all.
Project Include’s mission is to provide an equal and fair opportunity to all who want to thrive in the world of tech. Analyzing data and advocating for inclusion and diversity in the workplace, Project Include encourages CEOs to employ inclusion solutions so that their startups and enterprises can succeed in bridging not only the gender gap in tech, but also the racial and LGBT gaps that exist. As CEO, Ellen, along with the rest of her team, champion a vision of three core values: inclusivity, comprehensiveness, and accountability, aimed at making the workplace more diverse, vibrant, creative, and equitable.
Since receiving her JD at Harvard Law, Ellen has pushed for both justice and fairness in her surroundings and so it’s no wonder that she would prioritize it at her organization as well. She also experienced gender disparity at her office and after her lawsuit, she recognized the importance of creating a safe space for employees at their place of work. At Project Include, they recommend that CEOs hire a diverse group of professionals and improve opportunities for employees.
According to Project Include, change is comprehensive, which means that a large problem requires measures taken across several fronts. Challenging a well-integrated system is a difficult task and a one-off initiative approach cannot complete the job alone. It’s the CEO’s responsibility to ensure that both inclusion and diversity are present in the whole process and take a comprehensive, company-wide approach with the help of several actionable steps and initiatives.
When managing a company, higher ups need to be kept accountable for those steps and initiatives; at the same time, however, the company as an entity is responsible. Project Include believes that the best way for this responsibility to be tracked is through gathering and analyzing data. By creating questionnaires and implementing benchmarks, companies can access information that answers the following questions:
How is the company doing?
Where can they make improvements?
Who can carry out these improvements?
Project Include is one of many organizations that is shining a light on gender gap problems in the tech world and with Ellen Pao at the helm, the non-profit will continue defending fairness and inclusivity. Throughout the past few years, she has also shared her story in varied mediums, knowing that she can make a difference simply by using her voice. She has written a memoir about her experiences at Kleiner Perkins and has appeared as a speaker in several spaces as an advocate for inclusion in tech.
Some main themes of Pao’s life are clear after reading her story: perseverance in the face of challenge, the importance of telling one’s truth, and fairness above all. From a young age, she worked hard to succeed despite the pushback she felt from others, buckling down, studying, and prioritizing education, determination, and feedback to continue growing as both a professional and leader. When she felt like the situation wasn’t fair, she spoke up and didn’t back down.
Her sense of justice and strength motivated her to push back against the system and as a result, she sparked conversations about inclusivity and diversity in the tech world. She continued pursuing equality more actively and through founding Project Include, has made real and lasting changes to startups and the tech industry as a whole.
“If we do not share our stories and shine a light on inequities, things will not change.”
-Ellen Pao, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change