On a recent episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, investor and entrepreneur Ellen Pao joined Swisher in studio to talk about her new book “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.” The book deals with the aftermath of Pao’s ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in which she alleged gender discrimination. She also talks about her ensuing work as interim CEO of Reddit, what she thinks of the controversial memo written by former Google engineer James Damore, and why we shouldn’t take tech companies’ proclamations of “free speech” idealism at face value.
You can read some highlights from the podcast here and here or listen to the entire interview in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Ellen Pao, who's the author of the new book, “Reset, My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.” In 2015, she sued her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for gender discrimination. She also worked in business development at Reddit before serving as its interim CEO. Today, she is a partner at Kapor Capital, and co-founder of the nonprofit diversity organization Project Include. I have interviewed Ellen many times before; we covered the trial, and I've known her for a very long time. Ellen, welcome to Recode Decode.
Ellen Pao: Thank you for having me.
No problem. You've been on a tear. You've been sort of everywhere, it's Ellen Pao. This book is getting a lot of attention.
It's been good. It's been great. Also, it's been calling attention to the issues, which is important.
Which is now, of course, it's perfect timing, or good timing for bad things, or whatever. We're going to talk about the book in a second, but first I want to talk about ... We're going to assume people don't know who you are. Everyone in Silicon Valley certainly does, but let's talk about how you got to where you got. You had started off, you have quite a resume. So why don't you go through that really quickly?
I started out studying electrical engineering at Princeton. I also did a side certificate in the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. I went straight to Harvard Law School.
Before that in the book, you talk a lot about your background and growing up — sort of seems idyllic, the upbringing you had.
It was nice, yeah. I mean, it wasn't quite idyllic, because it was a little bit of a small town. They didn't really have very many Asians, so there was a little bit of tension there. But my parents were ... we had dinner together every night. It was very education-oriented. My mom was a researcher at the lab so we had access to computers. My dad was a math professor. So we had access to a lot of information and educational tools and focus.
And achievement, around achievement.
Yeah, the thought was, they had come from China on education scholarships, and for them, education was the path to success and the path to contributing back.
It was gender-based, they were pushing both.
Right. I think we had three girls.
So there was no ability to be unfair or gender-oriented.
But it wasn't that, it's that your mother was a researcher. She had a significant job, and the idea was that you could achieve whatever you want. That's the pressing idea.
Yeah, but the goals weren't that great. They were like, "If you could be a professor or a doctor, that would be so awesome. You can do it if you work hard enough."
So you went on to Princeton, go ahead.
Went on to Princeton and then, after Princeton, I went to Harvard Law School. I practiced corporate law for two years, a year in New York and then a year in Hong Kong, mostly men in the group. It was fine, but I knew from my summer jobs I didn't want to practice law. It was a lot of unhappy people who are lawyers.
Sure, that's a different story. That's not necessarily gender-based — everyone in law seems unhappy, pretty much. But you had electric engineering as your background at Princeton. Why corporate law? Why not engineering, really?
I didn't know what it was. It was a little bit of ignorance, but also I like the logic and I thought I could do big things with law, and at the time the electrical engineering was a little bit ... Silicon Valley was not big yet. It was more limited, and I just didn't know what was out there. I thought corporate law, I could have an impact. I ended up not realizing what corporate law actually was.
All right, so you had this great resume early on. You were on an achievement path, which many people are. From there you went where?
I went to Harvard Business School.
All right, so you got ...
All of them. I wanted to come, and then I was so out of touch with tech, I'm going to go back to business school. I ended up spending my summer at Bain in San Francisco. I worked for a couple of tech projects and loved it. I thought it was great. Came back after business school.
What were they?
I don't know if we're allowed to talk about our clients, but one was like a big software company and one was a hardware company that was tanking. It was two — one on the rise in a new industry, and one tanking. You could see, it was an interesting contrast. It was fun.
From there, you went to the business school, and your goal there was to ...
To get back into tech.
Get back into tech.
So I came back out, I joined this startup called WebTV, which ...
I forgot you were there.
Yeah, and then it got bought. Before I started, it got announced that Microsoft had acquired it, so I joined in this flux where it was before Microsoft really dug its fingers into it, but there was some change. But it was cool, there were a lot of cool people. There were a lot of people from General Magic and from Apple. We were building a cool product, it was revolutionary at the time. People would be using the internet and their computers in the living room, instead of in the office.
That was a new concept.
And then Microsoft immediately tanked it down. It was one of those, there were like 27 purchases during that year. A lot of people got very wealthy doing that. You went from there to?
I went from there to a startup called Tellme Networks.
You were at Tellme with Mike McCue, okay.
That was fun.
Which also got bombed by Microsoft.
It also got bombed by Microsoft. Actually, in between I worked for Andy Rubin at Danger Research, which also got bombed by Microsoft.
So three big, over $300 million acquisitions by Microsoft. Also worked MyCFO.
I remember that.
So I worked with some really cool people, and I worked with some cool startups. Jim Clark.
Yeah, I'll never forget, I was at a dinner with him, and he said, "You know, Kara, if you have a couple million dollars ... " I was like, "Hmm, your group is a little small," because he lived in his world of multimillionaires, and it was very funny. I thought people who are very wealthy like to be petted quite a bit, so I didn't see how an online portal for their wealth was something that they ...
You were right, it didn't work.
Yes. I was like, "Rich people like the leather and the coffee and the champagne."
And to call somebody and have them accountable right away.
Yes, exactly. So that was an attempt at that. So how did you get to Kleiner?
Somebody, a friend of mine, showed me the job spec. For chief of staff. He wasn't interested, but you looked at the job spec, and they wanted somebody with an electrical engineering degree, or computer science degree from a top school, and they wanted somebody with a GD MBA, and they wanted somebody who had jobs at leading enterprise software companies, and worked at startups, preferably Kleiner-backed. Right, so Tellme was Kleiner-backed.
What were the other requirements? Then, the jobs in these companies had to be either corporate development or business development, and I'd done business development. Then the last thing was they wanted somebody who spoke Chinese, Mandarin Chinese. I was like, "This is really weird because it matches my background exactly," and I had absolutely no rhyme or reason for any of the things I've done. It was all very random, but it fit some specific ideal of a person that they were looking for. I was like, "Well, I'll just interview and see what they're thinking, why it's interesting." Actually, I turned down the job initially. I was like, "Not for me." I'm on this trajectory, and they're telling me in a year I could be VP, but I'm ready, I'll be a VP in a year at a startup if I continue on this track. But then John Doerr sold me.
Right, John Doerr, he was ...
He's the best salesperson in the world. He sat me down, he was like, "Just do it. Just try. It will open doors." I said, "Well, why not."
All right, so your idea was you wanted to become a venture capitalist, or that to be sitting next to John Doerr during all these dealmaking is like a great seat?
Yeah. To be sitting next to John Doerr in an industry that was changing. It was transforming, and he had the cupboard seat, so to be next to him, to be able to see everything that was going on, to be able to see all these new technologies, was exciting to me.
And so you did this. It would be a job most people would take, like, "What a great opportunity," kind of thing. I don't want ... because we covered the trial a lot, everyone covered the trial a lot, but it immediately, relatively soon, turned badly there. You ... very briefly and then you get to the trial.
I was there, I guess two years when I tried to quit. They're like, "No, no, no. You're doing the best of anybody in the firm, you should stay." I said, "Fine." So I stayed, and then let's see, and then in 2012, so that must have been four years later, things kept happening. I wasn't progressing, none of the women were progressing, and bad things were happening to people. I ended up going through every avenue I could internally, and finally I said, "Okay, this has to stop, I'm going to sue."
What prevented you from leaving? I'm just curious, because this was a fast-moving time, too, in Silicon Valley.
Yeah. I guess you're right, 2008 was a little slow, but it got ...
I could have left, but I was like, "But somebody has to stop this." Something really bad could have happened, and I would have felt that was on me because I had let that person, I had let the guy who was harassing people stay. They shouldn't have put it on me to make that decision, but I felt like it was my fault. Bad things happened to this other partner, I thought worse things could keep happening if nobody holds people accountable, yeah, and changes the culture, because this is something that seems to now be rewarded. So I said I was going to stay and file this complaint, and then I was going to leave. Then my lawyers were like, "No, no, no, no, no. You need to stay," so I ended up staying for six more months.
Right. And so, the trial — we read about the trial and I would love to get your ... You wrote about this in the book, and maybe you recount that now, how do you feel about how it went? Obviously, you didn't win. They had an astonishing legal firm against yours. They had so many troops, it was really visually fascinating to watch, and a little bit scary, actually, from your perspective.
It was so unfair. Also, my team, they were ethical. Really, they followed the law, they wanted the truth to come out. There was less of that on the other side. I don't want to call them unethical, but there was the way they presented things was very ...
They were very super-aggressive. They had a narrative about you.
You actually talked about it in the book. I think I tweeted the quote, it was, "You're aggressive and unlikeable and yet shy and nothing ...
Sharp elbows, or not sharp enough. It continues, but there's nothing I could have done to be perfect. But the thing is, we did the same thing to the other women in the firm. There was this narrative around how we work that was very sharpened and presented in a way that was incredibly aggressive at trial.
Were you surprised by that?
Of course that's what they would do. I'm not surprised in any way.
You see it with every other person who sues: "Oh, they're a poor performer. Oh, their case has no merit. We're going to fight vigorously."
How did you feel after the trial? It went on for a long time. It did open people's eyes, I think, there was no question about it. I remember, because we covered it quite a bit, that I would be places and someone would say, "I had that experience." It was the first time I think women did start talking about it. I was at one event and someone was reading our coverage, and they were like, "Ugh, I know that one, that one." You know what I mean? It was really an interesting ...
There were people who were reading your coverage every day, because you were live-tweeting from the trial.
Ellen Pao: Yeah, Shonda Rhimes was like, "I followed your trial every day," because I told her I watched her show every week, because I was like, "That was my one escape." But I think it had an impact on people, because it was the first time these things were articulated out loud in public. There were so many people who said, "You know, these things happened to me, but I haven't even told my husband. I haven't told anybody for 10 years, but these things happened, so I believe you." I think it was also the aggressiveness of the attacks on me, where people were like, "Hey, I actually believe you." They felt like they wanted to come out and say that to me. That was super-helpful to me.
Do you have regrets about doing that? Or anything that you did that you think you did wrong? Not wrong — I'm not saying you did something wrong — but in terms of strategically in dealing with this?
Yeah, I mean I could have been smarter on the PR front. I could have spent more time with the press. I think they had points every day that they were trying to make. They were handing them out, and I was more like, "Oh, my lawyer said we shouldn't say anything. The judge said not to say anything, so I'm going to follow the rules." That, obviously it didn't work so well.
I think early on, the fact that every juror candidate who believed that tech was a biased industry got booted off. That seems like a fundamental error, and I feel like I should have pushed harder against that. I ended up giving 700,000 pages of documents. They gave 5,000, right? So, that wasn't a great strategy. But I didn't have the resources. They had people who ... they had teams of people doing things.
And I just didn't.
You didn't. Where you surprised by the outcome?
There was a part of me that was like, "It's so unfair," and, "I should win." But if you look at how the law slices, you need to win by more than ...
Because you're a lawyer. I mean, you have ...
Yeah, so I can understand it, even though it was corporate. It had to be one specific type of bias. It had to be the gender bias that was holding me back by more than 50 percent chance. But there's also age bias, and there's also racial bias, so was it all gender? Was there some other factor?
I was fascinated by the racial part of it. I suppose I should have been struck by the gender issues, but I was more struck by how they were portraying you as an Asian person. It felt so like an old Charlie Chan movies, like “inscrutable,” like all the old idiotic tropes about Asians were in there, in that trial. No one noticed them. I kept going, "What? Did they just say she was inscrutable?" Because I think that's what they said. It was really interesting. I found that to be much more disturbing to me in many ways, because the other stuff was so obvious, these were slowly layered in in a way that I thought was very effective also at the same time.
I don't know if it helped the jury or not. When the trial ended — and you write about this in the book — it put you at a crossroads of like, what are you going to do? Because you had put yourself out there, almost completely — completely, actually. You were definitely a canary in the coal mine of this issue. One of the things that we wrote about quite a bit was that for a lot of people, the result wasn't, "This is terrible," it's, "Oh, we can't have so many women."
"That was just a weird isolated incident ... She's got some problem, Ellen's got some problems." Meaning, I think, it's the "She's not a perfect victim" argument, essentially. How did you feel immediately after?
There's a sense of relief, like, "Finally I can get out of this and not have to be in the public spotlight, not have to be thinking about these issues. I can just move on."
It's not what happened.
No, but also I was still at Reddit, so I was still working. It was a relief also to be able to focus 100 percent on running Reddit. I think it was hard to see that this was happening to so many other people. There was still this narrative about how this case was a problem. It's now making people less willing to hire women, and also there's so much focus on the gender, and there are also all of these other types of bias and discrimination. There was not a sophistication around the discussions around it. It was very much like, "How do we hold on to what we set up and make sure that we can continue to run things the way we've been running things?"
Right, so what do imagine the impact was? Because I think it was much later, I think you sort of set the ground up for what then came this past year.
I think it was giving people a better understanding of what's happening. That a lot of things have happened to individuals, and they didn't know how to process it, and here was a way of looking at it in context and having it voiced as, "This is actually discriminatory. This is actually bias. This what is systematically preventing you from succeeding, and it's not your own fault." People started talking to each other.
They started talking publicly, and you saw this slew of woman after woman after woman, and a few men, bringing up their own stories, each time getting slammed by the press or by the public. But I think there were enough people behind the scenes being supportive, so I would write to some of them and tell them that what they're doing, "You're doing a good thing, I believe you. This really did happen to you, just ignore the comments, just move on." I think over time it laid the groundwork for [Uber engineer] Susan [Fowler] to come out — she did a great job narrating her experience — and for people to say, "All right, this is actually happening. Let's not try to pick apart the story or the person, let's look at the problem." I think in the last year we've seen people now understand there is a problem.
When was that? It's introducing — because yours is gender discrimination, hers was ... Even though I think what she really was writing about was a management out of control, which I think is why it was so effective, but she was talking about sexual harassment, too. Which is another avenue, a terrible, horrible avenue. But do you think that's why it had so much more resonance with Susan at Uber? Or is it part of the same ...
I think there was a mix. I think there were enough people who had then laid the groundwork. I know from people coming up to me in the street or writing to me, that there are men who are starting to say, "You know, my co-worker told me this thing happened to her, too. You bringing it up made her feel comfortable talking about it, so I believe you, too." I think there were enough people starting to talk about it that it laid the groundwork for people to believe. I also think she did a great job being very meticulous. She had all the receipts. She was very careful in, like, "I'm not doing this for money. I'm not doing this for fame. I am just laying out what happened to me." So, very unemotional, very careful.
Yeah, it wasn't emotional. That's exactly the right word for it, which is interesting. But you did that too. You had your ...
People were not ready at that point.
You had your list. One of the things you write about in the book is this, you had your list. Your, what is it called? What did you call it? The gripe ... The trial, I'm blanking.
You know what, it was like a therapy thing, my resentment list.
It should never have been in the courtroom, but whatever.
Right, yeah, because it made you seem like an angry lady, essentially.
Right, keeping track of things.
But I was like, whatever. But I also think, people loved Kleiner. There were a few people who had had terrible experiences and they reached out to me, but in general people ...
And they love John Doerr.
They love John Doerr, and they were afraid of Kleiner. I think Uber did not have that reputation.
It had a reputation of being aggressive, of not following the law and of being invasive of privacy, and kind of this ...
Right, that's a fair point. I didn't think about that, because they're like, let's kill that, even though they were sort of the honeypot of Silicon Valley right now, at the same time nobody ... they had no friends.
Yeah, and they had the God View, and they're doing all sorts of things that were kind of riding the edge of ethics.
So of course they did, too, which they did.
Yeah, it was easier to believe. If Kleiner could do this, and we thought they were so great, well of course Uber's doing it.
Why did you write this book? We just talked about the trial, it definitely took its toll on your life. They attacked your personal life quite a bit, which was disturbing to a lot of people, to watch that happen, sort of the character assassination. People are more than welcome, I think, not to like you, it's on their own, but it really was quite an effort. You went to Reddit afterward. You became CEO, and then you became subject to a series of eviscerating attacks online.
But we made the right decisions, right?
We got rid of unauthorized pictures, naked pictures. We got rid of revenge porn and then all the other companies. We were the first big company to do that. Then we got rid of some of these really harassing subreddits. Recently there's a report that said, I think out of Georgia Tech, that said the work that we did actually worked. Those five subreddits coming down, those people ...
The bullying, the ugliness.
Yeah, it changed the behavior of the people who were doing it. It helped make the site better. We knew that when we were doing it, but it was hard for people to accept that change. In this environment where people were very wedded to free speech, it became a personal attack on me.
Right, so why did you pay, and not Alexis or any of the others?
I think it was ... There's a lot misogyny and racism on the site. It's not pretty. When the person who's trying to get rid of it is actually a woman of color, it inflames some of those emotions and those reactions.
Did you expect that level of ire?
We talked about it. The site is noxious, so I was expecting some, but there were attacks on my family. And the amount of energy, you know, people did these super-elaborate memes.
Yeah, I saw some of them.
And then Photoshopping to perfection. I'm like, "Think about the good that you could do if you put that work someplace.” My god.
You didn't suggest that, did you?
I think I said something in my book about that.
Because really, that amount of energy and effort, and it was actually quite skilled in some cases ...
Why do you think that is? Why is that? Why do you attract that? I'm not saying it's your fault, but what is it?
I think, I would not engage, so I did not ...
Right, and you had done the trial, so you're well known for that.
Also, I have super-thick skin, having come through all that. I like, "No. I know what we're doing is right, and we're just going to keep going." Because I was so sure about it, and unwavering, it helped my team. They were like, "Okay. We're on this path. She's not joking. Let's just do it."
I think it was a team effort, very much so. I supported their decisions. Somebody else, the person who headed our community team, picked the five subreddits to take down. I was like, "This is your call, it's your team that's going to be dealing with all this, so I'm backing you 100 percent." We just went and we did it, but it was not ... I think it was the women on the team who got doxxed and who got Photoshopped, and one person got fat-shamed. There's a lot misogyny. I don't know if that was a strategy to put me in there to take all that, but it kind of took a lot of energy out. They asked me to leave.
The stated reason they said to me was, "We wanted to get to like 350 million users, or 500 million users by the end of the year." I said, "That is not possible. That just is not possible. We're going to focus our effort on getting rid of all this, all this harassment on the site, and getting rid of some other ... the noxious parts of the site. We're not focused on growth." The product is barely working and scaling, so there's a lot of ...
Things that need to be fixed.
Yeah, we've got a lot technical debt, and you want us to hire. There's only so much that can be done. I can't commit to you that we'll get to 350 million. They're like, "Okay, so we'll find somebody else." I don't think they're at 350 million now, two years later.
It's interesting, because I think a lot of ... when you think about where the priorities are, one of the ones that runs strongly through the Valley is this free speech idea, and why are we bothering with this, and this and that. You talk about that a lot. Is that something that's ... because it goes back and forth on whether it's a good thing, but that's one of the things you always hear, is, "Well, people should be able to say what they want. People should be able to do what they want. These tools are there not to be restricted."
Yeah, I was one of those people. In college I was the editor of this college daily paper. I was very much like, "What we do is hugely valuable. We need to be able to write what we want to write." We outed some professors for bad behavior. That journalistic integrity, and being able to write what you want to write, is not how it's played out on the internet. It's not used ... This idea of free speech is used to protect harassing behavior and harassing messages, and that, I think, is actually counter to the actual goals of free speech.
The goals of free speech are to have this platform where people share ideas, and you have conversations, and you convince each other about the benefit of all these different ideas and opinions coming together. What you end up with is a bunch of really loud high-populated groups pushing off other people, the marginalized voices that free speech is supposed to enable and protect.
So, how do you see that? Because on one hand, you want to hear the ugly speech, don't you? Or not?
If it's ideas. But if it's just, "I'm going to shout a bunch of curse words at you," nobody wants to hear that.
All right, well let's take James Damore, for example. Which, I just talked to Suzanne Majewski yesterday about the firing round, and she was quite firm that they did the right thing at Google.
I agree, yeah.
Others did not. There's definitely ... they don't often say it, but I know it's there and you hear it, and you can see there's a lot of people very supportive of him and what he said. He didn't say ... Google has made its argument, which I think I agree is also correct, that he would create an unsafe work environment. But you know, what's happening in Berkeley, what's happening everywhere else, and the groups of men who want to say what they want to say, part of me is like, "Yeah, let's hear them. Let's hear the ugliness, because it's not helpful to shut it down."
Pretend it doesn't exist.
Yes, exactly. Yeah. How do you look at that? Who decides? That's the difficult part.
I think it's different from my work environment, like who are my peers and who am I working with. I don't want to have people in my office telling people that they are not qualified, that women are worse engineers than men. That is not productive to my work environment. That is not my value as a company. So that idea has to go, and if you can't be convinced that that is not the case, then you're not going to be a productive contributing member of my team, no matter what.
If this is the goals of the team, right.
Right, right. I think that ...
I'm just thinking, the Army, the Air Force currently just gave that speech, just the other day, "Get out."
I think there's a difference between, what should the government enable and what should you be able to say on these different platforms, from what are you able to say in a work environment and what are you able to ...
So the work environment should be whatever the work decides it wants to be.
And its values, yeah.
I think that's, for me, a pretty easy case. Then, how do you think about free speech from the broader perspective of, "I'm a platform and I want to encourage these ideas and allow people to see it." I think for us at Reddit it was, when you are harassing people to the point they don't feel safe, they stop participating on your platform, that is the line that we're willing to draw.
We want all voices to be able to use the platform. There was a period of time where, before we got rid of the unauthorized nude pictures, the whole site was people looking for naked pictures of celebrities. We could not get anything else in because the demand was so high and we couldn't service the actual real conversations. So, is that what you want your site to be, devolve into the crap that people ...
The naked celebrity picture site.
And if you're the only site that allows it, then that is what you're going to be, and you don't have any good conversations then.
How do you allow these voices to still have these opinions? I'm just using James as an example, Damore's example, I don't know him. Should he be able to articulate these things? Should we listen to them? Who decides on what's tolerated to exist?
I actually don't like giving him that much attention and credit.
Because I think he's some rando who ...
I think he's common. I think he's very ...
Yeah, I think, but why him? He's not a special person.
Not him in particular.
No, ideas I agree with, that we should be talking about them, but why should we give him any attention? There's no reason to.
Well, because I think he does represent lots of people.
I think to say, "Oh, he's ..."
But to use his name and to give him all that attention. I had a huge problem with The New York Times article, to present these ideas without any kind of context and to give him that platform I think was irresponsible.
Well, except that I think in hearing them, I think what's interesting is happening, not just there, but just Berkeley, everywhere else, it's like, we don't want to hear it. Why not hear it? Why not hear Milo? Why not hear ... Listen, I don't want to listen to Laura Anne Ingraham, but I want to listen to Laura Anne Ingraham. You know what I mean? I feel like if we don't hear it, it's pretending it's not there, and it feeds into that movement, which is depicting things as they are as a really important valuable thing.
I guess, where's the line between depicting them as they are and encouraging them? Some of these ideas are not ones that you want to have encouraged, and not by your institution. So similar to, it's different, because it's not a workplace, but similar to your workplace, there are certain ideas that you don't want to encourage.
Well, yeah, except then who decides? The issues, it's not just in the media, but it's the platforms, Facebook and others, because they're now de facto news organizations, as far as I can tell.
I don't think not hearing ... It's like taking a photograph, the photograph is what it is. I'm thinking of this election, we didn't listen to a lot of ... Like, should you quote David Duke? Absolutely. If we had been quoting him more, we would have seen it coming. Or under like, "Oh, he's a fringe person." I'm like, "Is he?" You know what I mean? That's the difficulty of this.
I think there's ...
I've heard a lot, "Don't give people a platform." Why not articulate them?
I think so, but you need to provide the context. You need to provide ... You can't just end up with these silos that we have now, where it's like these echo chambers, and it's just people spinning out of control, and fake news coming up and people believing it, because it's gotten so far from the truth and there's no communication between the two sides. I think you have to be responsible as you do it. You can't just allow random crap to proliferate without any kind of context.
So what do you do? Because then that requires people to have a point of view. Google was very quick to get rid of him, because it's a workplace issue, and that's what they hung their hat on. But I think, internally within Google, that a lot of people supported this guy. What does a company like Google do, for example? Or if you're Facebook, they were very loath to move into this Russia area, because they're like, "We're just a benign platform and we don't know what goes on here."
But I think that's bullshit.
I agree with you, and I said that many times. But at the same time, taking their point of view it's like, "Who decides?" They don't want to decide.
But they make all these decisions every day. What is spam? What isn't allowed? Breasts on Facebook, and they're not particularly good at it, from what I've seen. They're making these decisions, why not make this decision around this? They're deciding what's terrorist, what is terrorism on your site. So, why not cover this area, as well. I think you have to draw clear rules. I think that's the problem.
I don't know if you saw, maybe it was like a month or two ago, the rule book was presented, and it was a mess. It was a total mess. I think you have to have clear rules that you can point to and that people can understand, so that you're working within a system. Like raising a child — you've got to give them the boundaries, and you either follow the boundaries or it's chaos.
So who should make those rules?
The problem is when you don't make rules, you're allowing this behavior that ... ends up making the rules.
So you are making rules anyway, so you may as well own up, take the responsibility or hire some people that you pay a shit-ton of money to do that.
Why don't they want to? Why do you think they don't want to? Because they really still don't.
It is so much cheaper not to do it. Free speech is easy — it's free, you just let it go, whatever happens, happens. That's, I think, where Reddit got where it is today. It was this super-small organization, it's easier just to say, "We allow whatever." It's an easier rule.
It's a super-easy rule, we allow whatever you want to say to go on the platform and that's it. You don't have to pay anybody to monitor it, you don't have to build technology, just prevent it. It's a free-for-all, and everybody understands it, and that's what happens.
But I don't think money's just it. It's something else ...
It's money and prioritization. It's, “I'd rather get more users, I'd rather figure out my business model, I'd rather make sure the technology scales.” At the end of the day, the rules around the community and all of these many complicated decisions get de-prioritized.
And they're not subject to the abuse, either ...
No, because most of them are white men.
Right, right. So how do you change that idea? You discussed this issue, how do you get that ... In the next section, I want to talk projects, including things you're doing now, but how do you get them to that? Because again, I would rather see what they actually think. Pretending they don't think like this is ... I want to hear from them.
At Reddit, I was working with a product manager on this idea of bringing together subreddits that are opposing and having conversations between the more thoughtful people from those subreddits. Find the moderators who are open to having a conversation and are not just going to scream at the other side, and actually have a conversation about these different issues, and see if you can bring people together a little bit more. Or at least have people think through these ideas and create conversations across different groups of subreddits so that it's not these silos. You can build some empathy. You can build some understanding. You can hopefully stop shouting at each other.
Do you imagine you can do that? Because it seems like things have gotten real far.
I think there are still people that you can, but it will be harder to find those people, and there'll be a set of people who will never say, “That was a good conversation.” It is harder to bring everybody together, I agree, because there's so much misinformation out there. People are so locked into their views, and they've had so much confirming information because of the way the news gets presented today.
Are you blaming the media? I'm just curious, is it the media's fault? Is it Facebook's fault? Or are people just using these tools, you could say it's really interesting that the U.S. built all these social media tools. and they become weaponized by Russia. They're using things we invented. I do think these people never thought of these consequences in the first place.
No, I totally agree.
I think they absolutely don't. I had a conversation when Facebook went live, and I kept saying, "Well someone's going to kill someone," and a lot of their executives were like, "Kara, you're so cynical." I was like, "What? I'm sorry, people are awful." That's my experience. What was interesting is, why doesn't it occur to them? Or maybe the penny's dropping now with all these congressional investigations. Then I want to get back into the issue of gender, because it's the same thing. It never occurs what happens in Silicon Valley, particularly.
It's an echo chamber itself. Where you go to all these different events, it's all the same people, and they're talking about the things that matter to them, which is different than what matters to the rest of the world. It's a very insular community. It's not that many people who influence a lot of things, and then it's a lot of people who are trying to make those people happy, because there's so much wealth and power concentrated in so few people that's it has distorted the social mechanisms which would make people understand what else is going on.
I do, though. It's fascinating, because I find them naively optimistic. I don't think they necessarily ... It's not, because I will have conversations, I generally believe they believe this isn't happening or that it's not their fault. It's sort of, I call them open wounds. They're like, "Oh, we feel bad this happened." I'm like, "Yeah but you made it." You know what I mean? Which is an interesting thing. What is that ... Where are we then in Silicon Valley on this issue? And then in the next section, we'll talk about Project Include.
I think it's hard, because as you said people don't feel accountability, so then they don't feel any kind of responsibility to clean it up. I don't know. I don't have that much hope for ... Maybe the congressional hearings will push people a little bit more. Maybe, but people still use the products, right? There are still people who are using Uber, who are using Facebook. You know that they're selling every bit of information they can, and they're advertising to you based on everything that you've done, but it doesn't prevent people from using it.
I think people have gotten really addicted and really tied in to these products. The hope is that they'll fix these products, that they'll reset their cultures, that they'll bring in people at higher levels who have different perspective, not just gender but race and age and sexual orientation and immigrant status, all these different aspects that are different from who's currently running things. But it's super-slow, people aren't tracking it, and it doesn't seem to have an impact on product.
So you feel positive about them?
I feel positive about these new companies. Project Include, this nonprofit I started with seven other women to try to push for change in teach, there are these early-stage startups CEOs who get it. They're like, "I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do. I'm doing it because I want a better product. I'm doing it because I want to recruit people in 15 years, when 75 percent of the population is either female or nonbinary or underrepresented person of color.”
I know this is where I have to go, and I'm excited about it, because when I go to work and I see people working together and they seem happy and they feel included and they feel like they belong, it makes my day. These are the people I think who are going to take tech into the right direction. I think this desire to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, this desire to have the next Facebook is incredibly toxic, and we have to move past that.
Talk about Project Include and what you're doing and what you hope, because I find it's fascinating, because you seem to have a much more hopeful ... given all you've been through, than I do. I don't. I don't think people ... change.
I don't blame you. Yeah, I don't know that people can change, but I think the people who are in charge can change, and I hope that happens. I think, I guess it was in the end of 2015, I started meeting with some people, and I end up meeting with a few folks, including Erica Joy Baker and Tracy Chou. We ended up talking about like, "Okay, everybody now is talking about the problem. How do we actually fix it?" We're seeing all these unconscious-bias training, or I'm going to go recruit at this conference for women, and then I'm going to talk about it in the press, and then I'm done. We're like, "This is all so terrible. It's really embarrassing. How can we help and give people what they need to actually change?"
The eight of us got together, and we spent several months putting together 87 recommendations, grouping them into different categories. Our core values were very consistent, very easy to come up with. I think they still hold true today, two years later. One, you need to make sure that you're including everyone. There are so many efforts, and it's super-frustrating to us to see all these efforts around gender. “I'm going to include some women and then everybody can feel good.” All the women on my team feel good, but I'm not solving the problem, I'm just making that in-group a little bit bigger, and then I'm ignoring all the people, and a lot of them have much worse problems, like are treated much more poorly, but I feel like I'm taking care of my daughter, because I have a daughter and I'm going to make sure the world is good for her when she becomes old enough. That is the reason I hear the most often from some of these old-line male executives.
No, I get that. That drives me crazy, I have to tell you. What about your sons?
Yeah, what kind of world do you want them to be in?
Yeah, it's funny because I remember when Donald Trump said that, the remark about pussy-grabbing, and then like, "Well, I have a daughter." I'm like, "Yeah, but you have a son, what about this?" Having a daughter is not the reason you should do it, it's because it's the, one, right thing to do; two, a guy, whoever child you have, it has to be thinking of it. What's the point of it right now? What are you doing? I do want to talk about Kapor Capital, too, what you're doing.
We're coming up with recommendations around helping CEOs come up with inclusive plans, and then comprehensive plans, and then also measuring them. We have two programs. One is called Startup Include; one is called VC Include. Startup Include works with startups, and mostly with the CEOs. We work with them to use surveys to figure out what the demographics and sentiment are of all their employees. Then we group them by different underrepresented groups, and then see, "You have one group that is unhappy about compensation. Let's think of some ways to try to either educate them about what you're doing that's fair, or make your process more fair, or figure out where you are." And give very specific recommendations on how to be inclusive and how to ... a lot it turns around hiring, like how to bring people in to make your teams diverse.
You and I talked about this, the blind hiring, when we were on stage at Code, the idea that there should be blind hire. It was one of your concepts.
Yeah, because you just see study after study, people are really biased and they can't get out of it. They can't, they just can't do it. One of the women on Project Include, Laura Gomez, has a product where it helps with hiring using data and analytics. She was telling me the story about this woman who was dinged in an interview process, but then when she went through a blind hiring process, she had the best technical score out of anybody. They ended up hiring her, and it was the bias that prevented her from being hired, because they assumed she wasn't good technically.
Right, right, because of lots of reasons. Also, there's this idea of fit, they use ... What's really hard about this all, I think, if I really have to think about it, is that especially in tech, is they think so well of themselves, and they're actually nicer people. It's not like a Wall Street person with a stripper. That's easy, like, okay, I get you pretty quickly, or whatever, any of those industries that are well-known for more dude behavior — bad dude behavior, not dude behavior.
We use the term tech-bro, which is probably slightly unfair to use, but it does seem to fit a lot of people, but that it's they don't feel that it's them. They're nice people, and yet the same results happen, right? And then they don't want to face the fact that maybe they're not ... They don't ever want to admit that perhaps they still have the same problem, which is a hard problem to deal with. Like in gender, I don't think they purposely don't want great tech skills, and yet that exactly what happened. They use the term “fit” a lot, they use the term ... Lots of terms they use.
I think there are two things going on. One, I think there is a set of people that we were talking about earlier, this group of people who actually think that women and maybe black and maybe Latin people and maybe other groups of people are actually not equal.
Then they pool and they cherry-pick science. Certainly that's what Damore certainly did, I think.
Yeah, and you have to lower the bar to bring them in. People use this weird language to explain it, because they don't actually want to say, "I think women are not as good as men," or, "I think black people are not as good as white people."
They use the word “standards” — "We have standards."
"We have standards."
They never bring up standards with white men, and you know a lot of stupid white men.
Oh my gosh.
It's fascinating, never ...
And they just keep getting funded.
I know, exactly. But what's interesting is the word “standards” never comes up, except when it has to do with putting a woman on a board or whatever. I'm like, "I don't think it's standards for the group you’ve got there now ..."
Yeah, and in most cases you're raising the bar to prevent that person from coming on board. I think it's toxic. I think the second thing is, I do think people really want to believe that tech is meritocracy and they are meritocratic.
Yes, they do.
And then when you call out, like, "Well, why do you have no women in your venture capital firm?" They become very defensive, and then they come up with all these reasons.
Can't find them.
Yep, can't find ... Or, there's only one that's qualified, and she doesn't want to work here.
Yeah, we tried.
We got a no.
They're not as good at it.
There's no pipeline of them.
What is, to you, the problem?
I think it's all of the above.
Yeah, definitely a pipeline issue, no question.
There's definitely a pipeline issue, but I think more people would come into it if there was a better place to go, there were more role models, you could see a path in these companies. But also, there is a better pipeline than actually gets hired. You're not looking hard enough and you're not actually ...
Especially on boards, for sure for boards.
Where I think a lot of it starts.
Yeah. It was interesting, I was talking to somebody whose board members were like, "Oh, you know, we need to bring more diversity to this board." He was talking to me and I'm like, "Then you need to tell him that he needs to get off the board." Like, "If he's not happy that it's all white men on the board, then he needs to get off. He needs to step off and bring somebody else on his team or somebody, if he doesn't one then, somebody else." They want it all the ways, and they're not willing to actually do the hard work to make it happen, right?
Right, because someone has to give away something, essentially.
Those are the kind of things, and then we do a lot of evangelism, advocacy. But the core things are working with the CEOs. We found great CEOs who are interested and excited and that we think are leaders in tech. You know, Dustin Moskovitz, Jack Conte, people who we think are doing great things and also that other people will follow. When they're successful, they can be advocates for diversity and inclusion, and then get that tech flywheel going.
Are people getting tired of the discussion? Because it feels like maybe they don't want to hear it anymore. I definitely can feel that. I get it on things like, "Oh Kara, stop talking about ..."
I'm not friends with those people.
Yeah, but they do.
I believe you. I think part of it, I think people feel ...
You could see in their eyes, too.
Yeah, they feel a little bit like ...
Under siege, and then they don't know what to do. They want to solve the problem, but they actually don't want to do the work, so they just want it to go away. Why do you keep bringing it up?
Yeah, this lady problem.
Like, "Hey, we fired this guy already, why aren't happy with that?" Because you replaced him with somebody who looks just like him. That's why. Because you are setting yourself up for that same problem. Why don't you just fix it? I think it's partly, "Oh, I actually don't believe there's a problem." It's partly, "I don't know how to fix the problem, so I want to pretend there's no problem." Then it's partly like, "I'd rather talk about something else that's more exciting than something that's going to bring me down."
Right, so with Kleiner, it was about a gender discrimination issue, but sexual harassment has gotten more of the focus. I do think sexual harassment is pervasive, but less of a problem than gender discrimination. You know what I mean? Because I think they do go hand in hand, and they're part of the same toxic tree, but sexual harassment, a lot of people can go, "Oh, no, no, no." A lot of men do not like this, do not want this to happen in their company, etcetera. Most of the really problematic people are pattern — they do it in a patterned way. Most of the more annoying sexual harassment are these microaggressions, like, "Smile more. You should smile more," or, "Don't you look pretty," which are like ...
"Go get the cookies," or "Take the notes."
Yeah, whatever, which are more around the gender discrimination kind of thing. That's the thing I worry about, the people like, "Oh, we're going to fix the sexual harassment issue," which I think is probably easier to fix than the other part, and ignore what I think is the more problematic issue.
I don't know, because I hear about people saying that, "I'm not going to meet with a woman one on one."
Yes, they do. Yeah, so no, that's definitely ...
It's the Mike Pence thing.
Yeah, I don't know if they're going fix ...
I have to be able to control my ... I can't control myself, and therefore I'm not going to help women anymore. That's the thing.
Right. Right, and that's ...
Why don't you just control yourself?
Yeah, and so why are all these women complaining, it just means we're never going to hire a woman.
I don't know. I think it's like, how do you pick which is the bigger problem? Then I think the discrimination also ties to people who discriminate against women are also likely to be discriminating against people based on race and age and all different types of things, because they're tied to the person that looks exactly like them. I don't know, it's all ugly.
Yeah, so what do we do, Ellen?
I think a big part of it is, I hope this next generation of workers, and I believe they are much more informed ... Like Tracy was maybe 26 or 28 when she ... I think she was 26 when she created a database of ... a GitHub repository for where are people in terms of their engineering teams in demographics. At 26, I was totally clueless, I had no idea what was going on. I thought everything was meritocratic and I was working my hardest to get my way up.
So I think that next generation is much more aware. I'm hoping that people telling their stories makes them even more aware, so that they are looking for the right companies to join. That's these companies that are people who are interested in diversity, inclusion, who are listening and who are changing and who are not taking the old admissions-committee model of cultural fit and, "Do I want to be on a plane with you for 24 hours in a row?" as their guides. They're joining these other companies that are using technology to make blind admissions, who are using technology to make sure that performance reviews are fair, and just adopting and experimenting to try to make things better.
You're now at Kapor Capital, what are you doing there?
I am chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center, which is an affiliated nonprofit foundation. Then I also am a venture partner at Kapor Capital. So I work with entrepreneurs, with founders, with CEOs, on making their companies diverse and inclusive, and then I also look at investments.
Do you think that's catching? Because Mitch and Frieda are very ... this has been one of their things for many years.
It does seem like it's changing. We hear from venture capital firms that are interested in adopting our founder's commitment, where founders commit to making their companies diverse and inclusive, before we will actually invest in them. They commit to having impact and making sure that they're impacting ...
What is the commitment? How do you make them do it?
We're not going to say, "Oh, we're going to kick you out," but they state that they want to make their teams diverse and inclusive, they are signing up to participate in a set of workshops that we have, and sharing information, and in working with us on our different initiatives to make sure that they understand, how do you write a code of conduct? How do you form you values? What should you be thinking about as you look for an investor? To have this holistic view and comprehensive view of what inclusion means?
What did you think about the decency pledge? I know you're not going ... I hated it. I hated it. Kara Swisher hated it.
I think I slammed it in The New York Times.
Yeah, you did.
What did it do? Nothing.
It did absolutely nothing. It's another tepid diversity initiative that makes people feel good about themselves but accomplishes nothing.
Nothing, right, exactly. If you, Ellen Pao, was god of Silicon Valley, which I think would scare a lot of people, what are the three things you would do? It sounds like a silly question but it's not. What would you ...
I would just take a ton of money. I think if you could get, I don't know, maybe even just $25 billion, and give it to the smartest people of color, women of color, women, to invest, it would change the landscape. It's not going to happen. The LPs, I don't know where they are, but they've been completely silent on these issues.
I've heard of one or two who have taken issue with the sexual harassment, because as you say, that's a much easier one to draw a line at.
Oh, no, nobody likes that. Nobody likes boob -grabbing. No. Because that's actionable, too. Gender discrimination is much more difficult.
Yeah, and you don't feel good about being in a company with a harasser or investing in a firm with a harasser. It's embarrassing. But I think if you gave money to people, and they were able to invest it in the best companies and the best entrepreneurs and the best founders without all this bias hanging over them, you'd have a different world.
And different investors.
You'd have different investors, you'd have different founders, you'd have different people succeeding. Instead of only white men are getting the money so only white men succeed, and then it reinforces, "Oh, only white men should be getting money."
You mean they're just not better than us? Ellen, what? You can say no.
So, are you hopeful for what's happening now, because they feel ... I'm not, because I just think that they're going to paper it over.
I think in the last year, the amount of change we've seen in people's perceptions has been immense.
Yes, thank you, Uber.
So that makes me ... yeah.
No, really, in a lot of ways. Because I think it ...
Thank you, Susan Fowler.
Yes, of course. But I think I wrote a piece called, “Thank you, Susan Fowler,” but I think it's not just that, it's that people can't look away. It's the quintessence of all of it. It seemed like everything drained down into Uber, and there it was, and it's gore and it's ...
It changed people's framework for thinking about tech companies.
But I hope it's not everyone goes, "Oh, it's just Uber."
Right, and I don't think so. I think then you saw all these other companies, and it's been kind of a storm of ...
When does that stop? Do you imagine this stopping?
It doesn't seem to be. I think there's still a lot of cleanup. As you said, it is not just Uber. They may be the worst, potentially, but there are many other companies that have been in this toxic tech culture. I think that gives me hope that people will actually make the changes. When I talk to people who are now speaking up, and they're doing little things that are making a difference. I talked to people who are speaking up and going public, and then you have the technology, through Medium and Twitter, to reach so many people in your own voice, without, no offense, having to go through the press, having that ...
I know, it's the media's fault, Ellen.
It's not, but it is different. You feel a lot more control. To feel like you have control over your story if you're going to do and say something sensitive. I think that makes a huge difference, and I'm hopeful. But I agree with you, there are not indications that it's changing. We have a ton of work to do, we have just changed the nature of people believing the problem or not.
Do you worry because of the larger culture, and with Trump in the White House and the stuff that spews out of his Twitter stream every moment?
I think that's a huge problem, and it's making people who otherwise would be quiet speak up, but in some ways it is good. You hear that person, you fire them. They're out. Get out. I think it also has activated a lot of people. Where they feel like, "Oh, I just can't be quiet anymore, because look what happens."
Right, also I think a lot of times people get exhausted and are in a perpetual state of rage and it creates intolerance, too. You know what I mean? Like that stuff at Berkeley, I'm like, "Just let the guy talk," I know he's gross, but let's just ...
I feel a little bit different.
I know, people are like, "Oh, I'm being damaged by it." I'm like, "You can take it."
But I feel like this is my home.
This is my community. When the kids are ... You know, some kids are probably like 14, 16, who are going to college, to have that in your community base doesn't feel good.
No, I know.
I know it's a bastion of free speech over at Berkeley, it's hard but ...
I know, but at the same time, it's like, then they come at you. You give them an excuse to come at you if you don't let them ...
But they have platforms.
I know, but you know. You know.
Yeah. That's more complicated ...
They don't have to be nice, we do. You know what I mean?
I know it sounds ... It's unfair. So, last question, what is your goal with this book? Do you have a goal, or you just felt like typing?
No. One big thing ... God no, about myself for so many pages, no, that was not the goal. I think a lot of it was there are so many people who are so supportive, and then they connected with different parts of my story, and I wanted to give them a whole unsmeared version. I also wanted to make people feel positive about tech. There are so many good things about tech.
It's a shockingly positive book.
Yeah, I could not have written it a few years ago.
She's kind of pissed. She's in a pissed ...
Yeah, well she wrote fast. She didn't have time.
That book — she's pissed. She was on the stage at Code this year, and she got on the stage, I'm like, "You're in trouble, you're pissed, because they're going to not like you being pissed” kind of stuff.
But she went through.
Yeah, yeah, that's true.
There are so many good things about tech. There are so many awesome products, and there are so many things that can change the world. I wanted to make sure that people stayed in it. That they don't take a look at it, see it's pretty toxic, and maybe I should go do something else. We need people to come in, and we need people to succeed. I'm hoping to help them by understanding what's going on around them, by giving them some tips, and then by showing the positive side of it.
Yeah, it's sort of the attitude about democracy — it's the worst system ever, except for all the rest. The field is like that, it's the worst system ever, except for all the rest.
Yeah, but you've enjoyed much of it, right?
I have. At some point, I'm like, "Are you kidding?"
You see the system, and it's so bad, and it's so hard to change ...
No, mostly it's that they're so not easy to pin down, I guess, because they are nice. It's not like you're dealing with just flat-out assholes.
Who are lying to you, and ...
Right. It's sort of like, at Uber, definitely, it's like, "Okay, I got them. I got what they are." But it's more insidious, because it's so ...
Yeah, the VCs are all so nice. I mean, that's their job.
Yeah, you know what I mean? Then you're like, "They don't even understand." It doesn't even occur to them ... And then you have to be mad to get their attention, and it does work when you're mad at them.
That's tiring, so tiring.
It's tiring. It's exhausting. So, last question — what is the thing you ...
I thought the other one was the last question.
What? No, this is my last question. You're going to have to answer. It's my empire here at Recode. What is a thing that you think people don't get about you? Ellen Pao is what?
I don't know. I think, like, you know, I'm just trying to do the right thing.
You are actually very funny. I think people don't get that.
Maybe, yeah. I met somebody, like, "Oh my God, you're so warm and friendly." It's like, "Oh, sorry. I didn't mean to."
Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, you're inscrutable, Ellen. No, no. You've become an iconic thing, and therefore you become a cartoon of yourself probably in some way.
Also the PR. That huge PR campaign didn't help.
Yeah, it's probably true. Anyway, Ellen Pao's new book is “Reset.” Is it going to become a movie with Shonda Rhimes? Is that why you were talking to Shonda? I'm interviewing her next week.
No. I ran into her at a conference, and then I ran into her at TED, and we just ...
... chatted and stuff like that. I love her, though. I think she's awesome.
I'm excited to interview her. I'm-super excited. I'm a huge fan.
Yeah, she's ...
She's powerhouse. Is it going to become a movie, or is it going anywhere else?
We'll see, maybe you can do a cameo.
No, thank you. No, thank you. No, thank you very much.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.