Ifeoma Ozoma’s journey as an advocate for tech workers began with a series of tweets morning of June 2020.
It was months after she was kicked out of her job at Pinterest, the image-sharing and social media platform. Across the United States, protests and outrage took to the streets after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, ultimately killing him.
As companies rushed to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, his former employer released a statement.
“We heard directly from our black employees about the pain and fear they feel every day living in America,” Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann said in the statement. “This is not just a moment in time. With everything we do, we will make it clear that our black employees matter, Black [Pinterest users] and Creators Matter, and Black Lives Matter.
Ozoma, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, said she did not have it. She fired back with a series of tweets accusing the lifestyle company of racism, pay inequality and retaliation.
“I shouldn’t have to share this story in the year of our Lord, 2020 – but here we are,” she tweeted. “I’m a Yale, Google, FB, etc. alumni and recently decided to quit Pinterest, which just declared ‘solidarity with BLM.’ What joke.”
Ozoma said her tweets breached a non-disclosure agreement she signed when she left the company, thrusting her into the spotlight as the latest person to speak out against alleged abuse in the field of male-dominated technology. While she had already quit her job by then, she was risking the reputation she had built years of working in the industry, she says.
But instead of backing down from the challenge, she leaned into it.
“My whole career has been in tech so I was very aware of the costs of speaking out, but I wasn’t afraid of it. I knew it was what I had to do,” he said. she said, “Fear is something I haven’t really felt since my mother died of a rare cancer when I was in college. The worst thing that could have happened has already happened… Pinterest could bankrupt me and prevent me from getting hired by other tech companies, but they couldn’t break me.”
Ozoma told CNN her dispute with Pinterest started after realizing she was being paid less than half of what a white co-worker was making to do the exact same job.
She said she raised her concerns with her employer and gave the company time to address the issues. But in March 2020, she was fired from her job at Pinterest.
“The goal wasn’t just ‘let me vent’,” she said of her flurry of tweets in June 2020. “The goal was for people to understand that this is what’s going on. And if it happened to me with the public profile I had inside the company and outside the company, it can happen to anyone else.
Two months after Ozoma and another woman of color, Aerica Shimizu Banks, publicly accused Pinterest of racial discrimination, former chief executive Francoise Brougher sued the company for gender discrimination and retaliation. Pinterest later agreed to settle the lawsuit for $22.5 million, but did not admit liability as part of the settlement.
He later said he had thoroughly investigated the issues raised and concluded that Ozoma and Banks had been “treated fairly”.
“We want each of our employees at Pinterest to feel welcomed, valued and respected,” a Pinterest spokesperson said in June. “We are committed to advancing our work on inclusion and diversity by taking action within our company and on our platform. In the areas where, as a company, we fall short, we have to do better and we will do better.
In a separate statement to CNN late last month, Pinterest said it has launched various diversity and inclusion measures, including pay transparency tools for employees. The company said it has also taken steps to monitor employee wages to ensure equal pay for comparable work.
“We’ve increased the percentage of women in leadership positions, added board members who are committed to diversity, and we continue to set goals to increase diversity in the company,” said one. Pinterest spokesperson. told CNN in an email. “We … are committed to making sure every employee feels safe, defended and empowered to raise any concerns about their work experience.”
After Ozoma started tweeting about her experience at Pinterest, direct messages poured in from people facing similar frustrations at other companies, she said. She knew she had to do something about it.
She has become a passionate advocate for tech workers by seeking legal protections for whistleblowers.
Pinterest is based in San Francisco. At the time, California law offered some protection to employees who broke nondisclosure agreements to report workplace harassment or discrimination based on gender — but not racial discrimination, Ozoma said.
Ozoma got busy. She began educating whistleblowers on their options, urged tech companies to rethink their policies on nondisclosure agreements, and reached out to lawmakers to demand new legislation that would protect employees who report all forms of discrimination. .
In California, she worked with State Senator Connie Leyva on a law that prevents non-disclosure agreements from being enforced against people who report workplace discrimination, including race.
In October last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill – known as the Silenced No More Act – into law.
“California workers absolutely should be able to speak up – if they want to – when they experience any type of harassment or discrimination in the workplace,” Senator Leyva said at the time. “It is unacceptable for any employer to want or seek to silence the voices of survivors who have been victims of racist, sexist, homophobic or other attacks at work.”
Ozoma’s advocacy work has given whistleblowers a safe space to get information.
Around the same time Newson signed the measure, she launched an online manual for tech workers to provide free resources for employees looking for information on how to report workplace discrimination and harassment. .
“So many people reached out to me when I told my story, and most of them were tech workers or tech industry workers,” she said.
She said she had recruited dozens of experts and technicians industry professionals to contribute to the site, saying the goal is not to encourage employees to be whistleblowers, but to provide them with information about options should they choose this path.
“I can’t tell someone who supports their kids and partner with their health insurance…will quit your job so your kids don’t have health insurance, so you feel good talking” , she said.
“It’s such an individual decision. If I had had children at the time who were covered by my health insurance, I probably wouldn’t have said anything.
Since launching the site, Ozoma said it has received hundreds of requests from employees asking for more details on how to disclose and address workplace discrimination. The 30-year-old mentors activists and others fighting against workplace discrimination around the world.
Ozoma now runs a technology policy consulting firm, Earthseed, and is the director of technology accountability at the new Center on Race and Digital Justice at the University of California, Los Angeles. This year, Time Magazine named her one of its TIME100 Next, a group of emerging leaders shaping the future.
Her new role as an activist takes place hundreds of miles from the technological world she left behind.
After leaving Pinterest, Ozoma moved to a farm near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she grows her own vegetables and raises a flock of chickens nicknamed the Golden Girls.
She said she has no plans to return to Silicon Valley, but will continue to fight for employee rights.
“I’m just now working from a different position on issues that really impact the industry in a way that I think is additive,” she said.
“I don’t think there’s anything more fulfilling than being part of the circle of life,” she said, using a metaphor that reflects her current life on a farm, “that it’s it’s about looking at a seed or planting a seed in the ground and watching it grow and create more seeds.