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Turmoil and “bullying” at bra startup ThirdLove led much of the team managing the company’s image to quit in 2018.
Shanee Benjamin for Vox

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ThirdLove says it’s by women, for women. But women who’ve worked there disagree.

Employees at the bra company allege policies at odds with the brand’s progressive stance and bullying from the male co-CEO.

The fiercely worded letter ran as a full-page ad in the New York Times on Sunday, November 18, and took direct aim at Victoria’s Secret. “I was appalled when I saw the demeaning comments about women your Chief Marketing Officer, Ed Razek, made to Vogue last week,” it began. “How in 2018 can the CMO of any public company — let alone one that claims to be for women — make such shocking, derogatory statements?” It was signed by Heidi Zak, co-founder and co-CEO of ThirdLove, a direct-to-consumer bra company and Victoria’s Secret competitor.

Razek had indeed made appalling comments in Vogue the week before — among them, an out-of-touch excuse for the brand’s outdated beauty standards (“We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes. No one had any interest in it.”) and a direct attack on the young bra startup (“We’re nobody’s third love, we’re their first love”). The comments confirmed what many people had long suspected: Victoria’s Secret, a company synonymous with long legs and six-pack abs, did not represent most modern women.

It was the perfect opportunity for ThirdLove to swoop in as the anti-Victoria’s Secret, and the fledgling bra startup did just that. “Haven’t we moved beyond outdated ideas of femininity and gender roles?” Zak asked in the ad, her tone oscillating between rage and disbelief. “Let’s listen to women. Let’s respect their intelligence. Let’s exceed their expectations.” Then, in case it wasn’t already clear, she spelled it out: “ThirdLove is the antithesis of Victoria’s Secret.” The entire campaign seemed designed to show how woke, how feminist, how very different ThirdLove was from traditional bra makers — and it worked.

From the outside, ThirdLove appears to be the ideal millennial brand. Its models aren’t all skinny and white; its sizing supports many body types; it emphasizes customer service and publishes blogs about the women who design and build its garments. “By women, for women” is one of its go-to battle cries. ThirdLove has become a media darling.

A New Vision of Lingerie: Men Not Required,” proclaimed a New York Times article featuring ThirdLove. “Women are no longer buying the marketing fantasy,” added a columnist in Canada’s largest paper in an article about the recent “explosion of disruptor brands seeing enormous growth by creating products and services that are genuinely for women by women.”

Many women saw ThirdLove’s marketing and believed it was a “different” type of startup. Several employees who joined in recent years said they did so because they believed ThirdLove was a female-run company with an important mission and an empowering environment. When they arrived, they were surprised to find Zak’s husband and co-CEO, David Spector, highly involved in their day-to-day work, with a management style described as “condescending” and “bullying.” This about-face was compounded by company norms — don’t negotiate your salary, don’t leave before 6 pm, don’t work from home, don’t skip a happy hour — that felt out of sync with the brand’s external image.

Interviews with 10 current and former employees, all of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, suggest tensions reached a breaking point in 2018 when ThirdLove waged a public war against Victoria’s Secret — a war many suggest Spector orchestrated. ThirdLove and Spector have declined to comment on the specifics of these allegations. The co-CEO’s behavior during this period, described as intimidating and dismissive, precipitated the exodus of the two teams managing ThirdLove’s image: the brand team and the brand marketing team. Now, an employee says, “People are warned against disagreeing with him publicly ‘cause it’s like, look what happened to the brand team.”

A mission to disrupt the bra industry

Zak and Spector founded ThirdLove in 2013 after leaving their jobs at Google and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, respectively. The idea struck while Zak was shopping for a holiday party and found herself at a mall, immersed in the bright lights and loud music of Victoria’s Secret. “I walked out of the store with a bra that didn’t really fit, and I had that pink-striped bag in my hand and I took it and stuffed it into my backpack because I was embarrassed to be shopping there,” she said during an interview for this story.

Zak and Spector set out to build a better bra, a better brand, and, most of all, a better shopping experience for women all over the world. They tapped respected lingerie designer Ra’el Cohen to be their chief creative officer and first hire.

Six years, 350 employees, and $68.6 million in funding later, what they’ve built threatens to disrupt the entire bra industry. Among other innovations, Zak and Spector use data and machine learning to predict better sizes and conduct most of their business online (they recently opened their first retail store in New York). The company’s Instagram feed features artistic drawings of boobs and diverse, attractive models. The website boasts feminist slogans like “To each, her own” and “See, our shapes don’t define us.”

It’s these progressive messages that helped convince some young women ThirdLove would be a good place to work. Sources say they were attracted to the company’s “by women, for women,” brand ethos, the idea of working for a truly female-oriented Silicon Valley startup. Initially, some say, they weren’t even aware of Spector’s involvement.

That’s likely because, although ThirdLove doesn’t necessarily hide Spector, they do make him less visible than Zak and Cohen. Click on the “Our Story” page on ThirdLove’s website and you’ll see a large photo of Zak and Cohen alongside a heartwarming origin story. Spector isn’t mentioned anywhere.

A screenshot of the ThirdLove “Our Story” page featuring a picture of CEO Heidi Zak and designer Ra’el Cohen against a backdrop of bras plus a block of text describing the origin of the company.
A screenshot of the ThirdLove “Our Story” page, which features Zak and Cohen and does not mention David Spector.
Zoe Schiffer

Nor is he prominent in the media. A Fast Company article titled “Victoria’s Secret threw shade at ThirdLove, and CEO Heidi Zak had the perfect response” described Zak as the founder without mentioning Spector at all. Another on CNBC titled “Google alum turned start-up CEO” profiled Zak’s many accomplishments and also left Spector out. Search for “David Spector” and “ThirdLove” online, and you’ll find about 2,600 results. But search “Heidi Zak” and “ThirdLove” and you’ll see almost 20,000.

“It was pitched like a women-for-women company,” a source we’ll call Kira explained. During the hiring process, she received a text from her former manager saying, “‘Hey, a guy named Dave Spector reached out to talk about you and your experience, he told me not to tell, but of course I’m going to.” She assumed Spector was just “the guy doing referrals.”

When she received the job offer, however, Kira was disappointed to see a surprisingly low salary offer and limited benefits package. When she tried to negotiate, the recruiter told her ThirdLove didn’t do that. “At a by women, for women company, I was kind of bummed out that they didn’t expect me to come in and negotiate,” she said. “They try to make you feel greedy,” a coworker we’ll call Lauren added. ThirdLove has disputed the claim that they do not let people negotiate.

But even if they did, many companies discourage negotiating explicitly because women are less likely to do so and the system can unfairly favor men. That’s what Ellen Pao did during her short stint as Reddit CEO.

ThirdLove’s practice of not negotiating salaries felt less benevolent when paired with below-market-rate salaries. Five sources say they received offers far below what they felt they were worth but they accepted because they believed in the company mission. These feelings are echoed in ThirdLove’s reviews on Glassdoor, where many people mention feeling underpaid. One such review, titled “Meh,” says simply: “don’t get paid enough for the amount of work I do.” Another, titled “Toxic culture,” says: “Compensation is low across the board.”

On some teams, leaving before 6 pm was frowned upon, and skipping a company happy hour was known to elicit strongly worded emails from Spector. For years, the company offered six weeks of maternity leave, which is the California minimum (it’s since been increased to four months).

New employees get 15 days of accrued paid time off a year, including sick days. If they take time off before it has accrued, they’re often asked to sign a waiver saying they’ll pay the company back if they leave before making up the time.

Such policies, while not abnormal for a small company, can disadvantage working mothers. “When long maternity leave and flexible work schedules are provided by an employer, women are more likely to stay with a company, grow in their positions and be strong contributors to the organization,” wrote Roxana Maddahi in Forbes.

Until mid-2018, the company also didn’t have an official HR team, although a spokesperson clarified there have been “teammates performing Human Resources jobs at ThirdLove since 2015.”

“The problem with ThirdLove is that they keep saying they’re a startup, and they use the term startup as an excuse like ‘we’re not gonna give you competitive salaries, you’re gonna be on the grind, but it’s all about this mission and if you believe in the mission, the company will be successful and then you’ll be successful.’ But ThirdLove is not a startup,” a source said.

Nevertheless, new hires came in with high hopes of making an impact on women’s lives and a few red flags weren’t going to stop them. “The first three weeks I was pretty optimistic,” Kira said. “I was like, okay, there’s some low-hanging fruit here, if they just released a slightly more flexible work policy and grew the HR team, this could work.”

“None of us really agreed with it from the beginning”

In October 2018, ThirdLove decided to partner with Australian model Robyn Lawley to urge people to boycott the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show in protest of its unrealistic beauty standards. In a blog post announcing the move, the company promised to donate one bra to a woman in need for every Instagram post that featured the hashtag #WeAreAllAngels.

Kira, Lauren, and multiple other coworkers said they believed in the message but felt uncomfortable with the combative tone. “The perception was that it was picking a fight,” Lauren said. “None of us really agreed with it from the beginning.” Plus, the company had just come out with another campaign celebrating women’s individuality with the slogan “To each, her own.” “It was like ‘what if a woman wants to be in the show or watch it, why are we telling them what to do?’” a source we’ll call Kate said.

Around the same time, Kira told a consultant at the company, a leadership coach who worked closely with Spector, that she wanted to meet with the executive: “Almost verbatim she said ‘Dave is a deeply insecure man, make sure you pat his ego throughout your conversation and that you don’t surprise him. Talk about things he knows about.’” The consultant could not be reached for comment. As of publication, ThirdLove and Spector had not responded to requests for comment on this matter; we will update if we do receive a response.

Kira left the conversation worried, but felt sure the tension would die down once the fashion show was over. Within a month the Vogue article came out with the barb from the Victoria’s Secret executive, “we’re nobody’s third love, we’re their first love,” and ThirdLove’s campaign escalated even further.

The brand team published a response — an Instagram post highlighting the article along with a carefully worded caption — but Spector felt it wasn’t strong enough. According to multiple sources from the team, he ordered them to take down the post despite the traction it was getting (it allegedly received 100 comments in the first 30 minutes) then dictated a new one he felt better represented the brand.

When it came time to write the letter that would eventually run as an ad in the New York Times, Spector was similarly involved. “It was supposed to be this empowering letter from a female CEO but Dave rewrote it. Heidi gave him credit for it in a company meeting,” Lauren said. One woman remembers turning to her teammate, saying: “In a by women, for women company, it’s pretty ironic that we’re all tiptoeing around a man.”

After that, every social media post had to be pre-approved by the leadership team, which now seemed to mean only Spector. “He definitely would go fishing for random things, find some minute detail and blow up about that,” a former employee told us. People remember him standing over employees’ shoulders, dictating colors, images, and even fonts for social media posts and advertisements.

He also became increasingly obsessed with Victoria’s Secret. “They’re such a messed-up company, run by a man, they’re so old school,” an employee remembers him ranting. Spector’s personal Instagram account also began to make people uncomfortable with Stories and images berating the larger brand and calling out executives for blocking him.

A screenshot of David Spector’s Instagram Story about Victoria’s Secret. By the nature of the Story feature, this content was on Spector’s profile for one day.
Zoe Schiffer

“People were getting bullied,” Lauren added. Multiple times, an employee who worked at the front desk said Spector walked into the office with a small piece of trash and reprimanded her for not cleaning up the street outside. “When you’re in the position of being reprimanded by the CEO as a pretty low-level worker, it’s never a good feeling,” the employee said. As of publication, ThirdLove and Spector had not responded to requests for comment on this matter; we will update if we do receive a response.

A few weeks after the Vogue article came out, Zak, Spector, Cohen, and their families flew to Mexico together for the Thanksgiving holiday. The rest of the company was expected to work the day before and after Thanksgiving unless they wanted to use their limited paid time off.

“The day after Thanksgiving I said to my coworker, ‘I’m better than this, this is not my life,’” Kira said. Her coworkers wanted to help but were struggling to cope as well. “There was a day one girl cried at 11 am and 4 pm and it was just like, you can’t cry twice a day at work,” Kira added. Soon, both women decided to leave.

Kate was also reaching a breaking point. “I thought this was normal, but it’s not normal to not take paid time off, it’s not normal to get text messages at midnight,” she said, noting that some of these texts came from Spector, who was a frequent “night worker.” Eventually, she also decided to quit.

By May of 2019, most of the members of the brand and brand marketing teams had left the company. Some were asked to sign post-employment non-disclosure agreements, barring them from speaking publicly about the company for at least a year.

Overall, people felt disappointed by Spector’s behavior. “It started to feel real hypocritical, the fact that he points fingers at a company being led by a man when it was so clear that we were being led by a man,” a former employee said. ThirdLove and Spector declined to comment on this accusation but through their legal representation did emphasize that it is Zak and not Spector who is truly running the company.

“It’s not his fault he’s a man.”

Not every team at ThirdLove has had this experience; the data, engineering, and design teams all seem happy with how Zak and Spector run the organization and are insulated from the micromanagement. A former technical executive said he doesn’t understand people’s complaints. “I don’t think there’s a big problem there,” he added. “On Glassdoor people are like ‘Dave is a man’ and all this kind of stuff, but it’s not his fault he’s a man.”

Clare Karunawardhane, senior director of design and development, said she appreciates the leadership and company culture at ThirdLove and feels really supported as a working mother at the company. “Recently, it was my son’s first day of pre-K and school starts at 9 am. I told them I’m gonna come in later and they were like, ‘No problem.’ It was perfectly fine,” she explained.

Megan Cartwright, director of data science, agreed. “My team all leave around 5 pm,” she said. “I’m working with really amazing female leadership and my team is almost all women. I actually have to really try to recruit men.”

But others say they see a large difference in how technical and creative teams are managed. “The difference in treatment for people in a numbers-based environment and those in more creative roles is wild,” a former employee said. “There was a lot that felt really directly bad, and kind of abusive, when I was there,” she added. “That’s a pretty big word so I don’t want to say that lightly, but it’s not a good working environment.”

Another source said she saw both sides. “I knew a lot of people who felt it was really toxic,” she said. “I would bounce back in between because I was one of the lucky ones who joined at the right time and was on the right team so it was actually really good for my career.”

But this source also knew people felt underpaid and overworked. “A lot of people felt a bit exploited,” she said, adding that even things that were supposed to be fun, like company happy hours, could end up being stressful. “A lot of stuff felt kind of phony, like they wanted it to be a loving, warm company but it honestly felt like mandatory fun. There was this whole thing that if you didn’t go to happy hours you could get in trouble. You knew you had to be there.”

The gap between ThirdLove’s external image and its internal company culture felt crushing to many female employees. They thought they were joining a movement: a female-led, female-oriented startup with an important global mission.

When they met Spector, they quickly realized this vision wasn’t the whole story. Many said he wasn’t interested in helping them grow or hearing what they had to say. They reported feeling bullied and even traumatized. Most of all, sources said, his behavior and level of involvement felt hypocritical given the company’s brand ethos.

“I would absolutely call ThirdLove’s culture toxic, and I would call it top-down toxic,” a former employee said. “New hires feel like they’re joining a movement they believe in and have a really hard experience when they realize that’s an illusion.”

Following publication, ThirdLove contacted Vox to clarify certain statements in this article. Vox has updated the article to reflect ThirdLove’s clarifications.

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