I’ve skirted around the margins and edges of this and said it out loud to a few people and now it’s time to set it in stone writing…
A company truly and deeply committed to DEI, anti-racism and equality of all kinds cannot be this or do this under the stewardship of a white person at the very top.
I say this from recent lived experience of co-founding a company with a white woman, which had significant potential…but which, two years later, is no longer in existence (here’s why).
[This is NOT an isolated experience, it happens all the time to Black and Brown people]
Omnis Education, my former startup, had huge potential…
- This was an EdTech company that we raised half a million dollars of pre-seed funding for in record time (about 8 weeks).
- This was a company that had scaled from 2 to 30 people within the space of 3 months (then settled back down to a more manageable 15).
- This was a company that had a number of large ($10m+) potential clients/projects in the pipeline who wanted to use the EdTech platform we were building for exciting, game-changing use cases (from educational entertainment to climate change).
- This was a company that we took to a satellite event at the World Economic Forum and received yet more positive responses.
- This was a company that we’d figured out a compelling, and engaging answer to the question:
If you could start from scratch with a blank canvas and design a curriculum and model of education that better prepares kids for the world today, what would you do?
This was a company that was going places. But now? It no longer exists after the CEO called a shareholder meeting requesting the dissolution of the company a month ago.
How on earth did it get to this stage? If you’ve read the reason I resigned from this startup back in June, this carries on the saga because it clearly didn’t end there…
The Key Players
Below are the key players – who they were and where existing connections/ties exist (pay attention, that’s an important bit!)…
The Board – which consisted of:
- C, one of the CEO’s best friends.
- Our former CPO, L, who left after we questioned her performance, suggested a 3-month performance process but she chose to step out. Most of the company, including me, were under the impression that L was no longer on the board until the CEO wheeled her out after I resigned as never having left it, despite her request to leave months ago.
- Me, though I was excluded from a number of meetings & discussions throughout this process which was denied.
- J, the CEO, whose performance was in question by me and the rest of the leadership team, who had the most insight and experience of working with her daily for over 2 years, at least in my case.
The External Reviewer – the board hired an external company to review what had happened right before my resignation and to essentially assign blame for who had caused the most damage to the company…me with my resignation (not chosen, but for my own safety after an intense act of racist DARVO from the CEO and her board member best friend) or J, having started a relationship with a subordinate contractor (the only man in the company), not reported it immediately and then her subsequent actions once I’d resigned.
The founder of this company is a Black woman, D. She’s also one of the CEO’s best friends AND the first person J revealed the relationship to, via a call on our company platform which is how I found out about the relationship in the first place from a transcript in our files!
This is who they hired to investigate my ‘claim’ of racism and whether the CEO’s actions were inappropriate or not. Conflict of interests, much?!
The Shareholders – many of the shareholders were friends and family, as they often are in a pre-seed round. These friends and family included the CEO’s parents, her board member best friend and a number of other folks close to her.
The Omnis Leadership team – this consisted of our former Head of Education, Mae, our QA Team Lead, Becky and our DEB Team Lead, Sharon.
How It Went Down…
Let me outline a high level summary of how it – the company – went down…
On August 24th, the CEO hosted a shareholder meeting to present the findings of the commissioned report and request the dissolution of the company.
I had prepared a response to the report which was sent to the CEO a good 24 hours before the meeting.
The meeting document she’d prepared was already skewed and biased to present the narrative that achieved her objectives (we’ll come to those shortly) and the meeting was, as one shareholder who happened to be my friend, stated: “…like choreographed theatre”.
J, the CEO, did not share my response to the report in advance of the meeting with the external reviewer (in my response I questioned the integrity of the report due to key documents not being provided/reviewed). She included it as a link in the meeting document, likely in the hope that no-one would see it. Fortunately, Mae requested additional reading time to read the response, therefore pointing out its existence and requiring everyone to read it during the meeting itself.
D, the external reviewer, was left scrambling to defend her process with no advance warning this would even be necessary. (If a so-called friend did that to you would they still be a friend?)
During the meeting, J gave many and varied reasons for the need to dissolve the company which included:
- The financial runway coming to an end with no sustainable income to survive; this was true. She’d been working for over a year to bring in sustainable income – her one CEO job as the primary sales person for the company hadn’t yet yielded anything (this was, of course, also put at my door and my assertion that the board had oversight of her performance, not me, was conveniently ignored).
- The product wasn’t in alignment with what ‘stakeholders’ wanted – no mention of who these stakeholders were and in that one assertion, she threw another friend of hers under the bus who was also in attendance of the meeting and also didn’t appear to notice! The direction of the Omnis product was at this person’s instigation and was her lifelong goal to create a curriculum like the one we were creating; while she worked at Omnis the previous year she’d been instrumental in setting the direction so to have J claim it wasn’t what folks wanted…
- My resignation which had left a void too big to fill!
- The lack of a team to continue to build the product because they had, so she claimed, wilfully refused to work for her and not me.
As expected, the CEO called for a vote for me to be removed from the board. And then called for a vote to dissolve the company. Both were approved.
…and two years of blood, sweat and tears and many, many sacrifices on the promise of something bigger, were gone with one shareholder complaining: “I can’t believe I lost my money to wokeness” 😱
If you’ve got questions, good! Here are the things you should be asking:
- Why did my resignation mean the entire company needed to be dissolved?
- Why did the CEO not step up and lead the company through this after I left?
- Why was the CEO not fired by the board and/or shareholders?
- Why was it necessary to investigate whether my assertions of racism were indeed ‘true’ or not?
- Especially since it used up the precious financial resources the company had left…
- Why wasn’t our progressive anti-racism policy followed for this incident of racism, as it had been for every other incident to date?
- Was it appropriate that a Black woman was asked to investigate the racism claims made by a fellow member of the Global Majority against a white woman (albeit her best friend)?
- Why was the review of the report conducted at the same meeting as the vote to dissolve the company?
- Why wasn’t there any processing time in between the report findings being presented to the shareholders, for them to consider other ways forward than an immediate dissolution of the company? As has been suggested by many neutral parties, surely their response could have been: “Thanks for bringing the report to us; it’s clear you’re telling us you can’t lead the company through this, we’ll take it from here. Thanks for your service as the CEO…and goodbye now!”?)
- Why was there no team left to build? Why did the team refuse to work for her? (They didn’t – they simply asked her for more guidance and leadership than she was giving and if they had refused, why would no-one question multiple people’s experiences and take the words of one over others?).
- Why was the corporate governance structure so weak?
- Why wasn’t the CEO’s lack of performance/sales picked up sooner by the board?
- What on earth could be so important that an entire company – and several peoples’ livelihoods destroyed – needed to be taken down?
…that last question? What a great one…And finally, we get to the crux of it all.
What could be so important that an entire company is dissolved for the protection of it?
Can you guess?
The CEO’s image.
…Her performance had been questioned by her own leadership team and COO.
…Her performance, or lack thereof, was evident for all to see in the lack of sales and real company growth for the past year; an area solely in her remit.
…Her performance as the most senior leader after I resigned was there for all to see in the lack of a plan, the lack of any action and the lack of communication to a team; or more, accurately, not the lack of action but the actions of letting go of the leadership team (the only ones capable of continuing the product build who were all paid for 6+ weeks but instructed not to do any work), the ending of all the contractors’ contracts with 1 day’s notice, the lack of any kind of communications except some behind-the-scenes “Now I can speak honestly and freely” private messages to select folks only AFTER the company was dissolved….
…her ongoing acts of racism compounded by the final one that was clearly the proverbial straw.
Her image was everything. And we all paid the price to keep it intact.
This is not uncommon for white leaders, of any gender. There’s apparently a high correlation between CEOs and those labelled as narcissists. This is unsurprising.
The need to keep the image they want to portray overrides ANY- and EVERYTHING else. Any company truly committed to DEI and equality (or any other mission-based goal) should reconsider the choice to have a white CEO…