At the top of Ellen Pao’s Twitter feed is a quote from the author Toni Morrison, part of which reads “if you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
Pao may no longer hold the same traditionally powerful roles she’s held in the past — either at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which she lost her high-profile discrimination case against last year; or as interim chief executive of Reddit, where she resigned after widespread criticism.
But she appears to be putting those experiences to work in her next act: a new effort, in conjunction with seven other women in Silicon Valley, to help empower start-up leaders to improve diversity through sharing ideas and collecting data from tech companies.
The group launching Project Include, announced Tuesday and first reported in the New York Times, includes not only Pao — who teammates say is leading the effort — but a group of women who have put a spotlight on diversity problems in Silicon Valley. They include Erica Baker, an engineer at the messaging app Slack who gained attention following a salary spreadsheet she started while working at Google, as well as Tracy Chou, a Pinterest software engineer who set up a place in 2013 for people to share numbers on female engineers.
Other members of the founding team include Susan Wu, an entrepreneur and investor who works at the mobile payments start-up Stripe; Laura Gómez, whose software start-up is aimed at helping companies recruit more diverse employees; Y-Vonne Hutchinson, a former labor lawyer who leads a diversity consulting firm; Bethanye McKinney Blount, a former engineering executive at Reddit; and Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact who is a longtime advocate for diversity in the tech industry.
While much of the attention on diversity in Silicon Valley has been aimed at large companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook -- all of which began releasing their diversity statistics in recent years -- this group is aimed at CEOs of start-ups and medium-size companies, an effort to get companies thinking about the issue in the early stages.
"We wanted to focus on a group that could create meaningful change and have similar enough needs that we could address them on a web site," Pao said in an interview. And by addressing start-ups, they’re targeting leaders running companies "before a lot of these problems have been built in and are almost impossible for us as individuals to try to change."
The group’s website acts as something of a practical how-to guide for leaders wanting to make their companies more diverse. For instance, it suggests ways to reduce bias from the interview process (asking whether you’d want to get a beer with a candidate is "reflective of interview failure"), build teams (putting at least two members of underrepresented groups together if possible "so they have mirrors and allies"), and improve performance reviews (citing research that men tend to get feedback around skills to develop, while feedback for women tends to be personality driven).
In an industry already stocked with consultants eager to help companies deal with an issue that seems to repeatedly put companies in a troubling spotlight, what does Project Include offer that’s not already widely available? In addition to creating a free community for CEOs, Pao says its focus on accountability through metrics and overall inclusiveness — rather than just on gender, say — is different, as well as the comprehensive nature of the advice on the web site.
Perhaps most distinctive are the personal experiences the group can offer, with many of them having either worked as engineers or leaders in the industry itself.
"I’ve had a steady stream of women who’ve never worked a day in tech approaching me to refer them to start-ups who might use their services," said Kapor Klein. This group, she notes, is "very engineering heavy," a background that could play well with start-up tech CEOs. "That’s unusual -- not just about being able to build things for the group, but for the perspective and the lens for coming up with recommendations."
In addition to sharing advice, research and instruction online, the women behind Project Include hope to work with up to 18 start-ups or mid-size companies, building a community, sharing best practices and tracking data. It hopes the group will form a sort of community — likely using e-mail or a messaging tool like Slack — where start-up CEOs can go to swap data, practices and problems. "I hope we get people having these hard conversations about these trade-offs and about making diversity work," Pao said, such as "Do I fire that phenomenal engineer who’s super productive but also super toxic?"
Currently, the goal is for the group to have a series of meetings with the start-ups over a period of months, tracking diversity metrics, facilitating discussion forums and eventually publishing data about how the companies progress on diversity metrics. For now, they only plan to publish aggregate, anonymous data on the start-ups’ diversity statistics, though they may name companies who do particularly well. "We are not interested in shaming companies," Kapor Klein said.
Pao said these initial plans, however, may change over time as they understand more about what the start-ups need. Interested start-ups will not pay anything to be part of the effort, which is a volunteer side project for all the women involved, though Pao said they'd have to see how "sustainable" that is.
While Pao did not share how many companies have signed up, she said there had been more interest than she expected. Asked whether she was concerned that her suit against Kleiner Perkins could prompt some start-ups to shy away from getting involved, she said she wasn't. "To the contrary, I've had people invite me to give talks about how to make their start-ups more inclusive," she said. "It's been the opposite."
In the end, she said, the group's goal is to help "accelerate" diversity in Silicon Valley, getting companies started earlier and turn what's become a hot-button topic into more action. "Knowledge is power," she said. "Being able to bring our knowledge to others so they don’t have to make the same mistakes and start closer to the finish line is one of the driving goals."