Many purpose-driven businesses have an origin story, one that goes beyond “Because I had a great idea and I wanted to make some money”.

Mission Equality is no different. The reason for starting this journey – to achieve equality for all – is personal in more ways than one.

I sit at the intersection of a number of deliberately disadvantaged communities – I’m Brown. I’m gay. I’m autistic. I identify – at different times – as a woman or gender fluid or gender free. That’s a fair bit of intersectionality in one small 5ft 2in package. I am regularly discriminated against – almost daily – in multiple ways.

But the reason I resigned from my former EdTech startup, Omnis Education? Racism.

Even as a co-founder and the COO, my position and the balance of power that existed even at the top, still felt so tenuous and unequal that I was not safe. After the most intense act of DARVO I’ve experienced professionally, I resigned.

Why I Resigned…

Just under a week before I resigned, I discovered – inadvertently – that my co-founder and CEO had started a relationship with a subordinate contractor. She’d had a conversation with an external party (using the company platform which produced a transcript which is how I found out) in which she disclosed her new relationship and even boasted about the age difference.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the relationship existing but it needed careful handling across the company and team (especially as we worked with children), and it definitely needed to be disclosed sooner than it was.

A CEO has a certain position of power over everybody else in the company – even with an acknowledgment from the other party that they’re a willing participant in the relationship, an inherent power imbalance exists and some people believe that even with an signed acknowledgment, the company remains at risk.

Given this kind of thing isn’t typical in a company, we had no set process to follow…

Lesson Learned: Ensure you have well-defined clauses to cover relationships in your company; between those on the same level and for those in leadership positions (with each other and with subordinates).

So I defined a process and set of steps to follow to minimise the risks to the company and plot a path through this. This firstly included holding a meeting with the CEO to talk through the relationship, possible risks and how to handle them.

The conversation didn’t go especially well – she minimised the risks and didn’t appear to see the issues that needed handling but agreed with my approach to manage things with the team.

The next step of which was to hold a meeting with the rest of our leadership team to make them aware of the relationship and the path forwards.

Lesson Learned: We had a document culture at Omnis; this is one of the best things we implemented for productivity, efficiency and accessibility. This culture of documentation has been vital in this entire process because everything is recorded and documented – every meeting I had was documented, I have transcripts from some of the calls…it means very little can be called into question and there’s a paper trail for everything.

It quickly became apparent – after I continued to follow the process and had a meeting with the board (which consisted of one woman, the CEO’s best friend) – that the CEO and board member were going to point the finger of blame at me for what they claimed was a misstep in handling the situation (that I went to the leadership team first)…

  • Nothing about the late/non-disclosure of the relationship by the CEO.
  • Nothing about the CEO’s performance and judgment issues it raised – both around the relationship and some ongoing issues, of which this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
  • Nothing about the huge potential risks to the business if the relationship wasn’t managed correctly.

…apparently I had put the company at the most risk by holding an emergency meeting with our leadership team (of 3) to raise my concerns at the CEO’s initial apparent lack of concern about the risks and issues that needed to be addressed…And my actions needed to be included in the board’s investigations. 

This is a classic case of DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim & Offender.

And here’s the most concerning thing: If this can happen to me, a co-founder and C-suite executive with seemingly an equal amount of power as my co-founder and the CEO, imagine how the imbalance of power plays out with folks not in positions of leadership or perceived power…

Why Mission Equality?

This can NOT keep happening. It is exactly why Mission Equality exists because if businesses are largely led by leaders who do not understand the interplay of privilege and power – especially white leaders – this WILL keep happening.

And so the mission, vision and purpose of Mission Equality was born – and it’s a big one. If white leaders – even of explicitly anti-racist companies – can still be this harmfully racist, where does that leave us?

A new breed of leaders is needed to lead the path to equality. Are you one of them?

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