Here at LendUp, in order to serve the needs of our diverse customers, we must build an equally diverse employee base -- one that understands the problem we’re trying to solve, and approaches it from different perspectives.
Sponsored by LendUp’s LeanIn Group, Ellen Pao (Venture Partner at Kapor Capital, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the Kapor Center, and Co-founder of Project Include) came to speak with us about her experience building inclusive and welcoming work environments, and the many events that led her to where she is today.
Below is a condensed overview of that conversation.
Where did it all begin for you? What was your thought process through your various transitions?
I grew up and went to college in New Jersey. My parents were immigrants -- they’d come from China, where basically you study really hard to get into college because it all depends on one exam, and they instilled that discipline into me. I studied electrical engineering and then went to law school, but tech drew me back. I eventually moved to Silicon Valley for a startup job, then worked in venture capital, and ended up suing my employer for discrimination and retaliation. I came out of that and was lucky to get hired by Yishan Wong at reddit, where I took them through a lot of changes. This year I joined the Kapor Center and Kapor Capital.
My career path is funny because I had no long-term plans or huge ambitions. My whole career has been one random event after another, and taking advantage of opportunities as they came along. That’s true for a lot of people -- but I’ve always envied those with 5-year or 20-year plans.
I started as an electrical engineer in college. My parents were both engineers, so we were very immersed in that world and I learned about coding early on. Law school was a step “off” -- but I had taken classes on politics, anthropology, and sociology, and I found this whole world of structure around “the right thing to do” very interesting. In practice, however, I found these issues are actually handled very differently, so I went back to business school to build a new network so I could go into tech. I never intended to be a venture capitalist, and I never intended to do diversity and inclusion. But these opportunities showed up and were interesting to me, so I ended up having this interesting path.
As we focus on building a healthy workplace, one of the things we’re aware of is implicit bias. Could you talk about the efforts you’ve seen to combat it, and why it’s important to work against it?
I’m really happy that you used the term “implicit bias” vs. “unconscious bias.” Today everyone should realize that bias exists in everyone and it’s not unconscious anymore. It may be in one direction or another, and may be small or large, but as a person you naturally develop mental constructs and they impact your decisions and how you perceive and interact with people.
One of the things we’ve seen in tech is that bias is very strong. There’s a lot of institutional behavior that makes it very difficult for people who are different to be hired and to be accepted. In tech and especially in venture capital, there’s a huge percentage of people who are white and male, or Asian and male; that’s just not reflective of society. And if you look at how tech has been built up -- it’s been a small group of people who have been successful and then invest in their friends, who then hire their friends. And it’s created a cycle where a homogeneous population is making a lot of decisions, then ratifying those because they see people who look like them being successful. So it’s been very interesting to see that this is actually not the best way of making decisions.
If you look at the larger tech companies -- they’re starting to analyze their hiring and interviewing processes. They’re realizing that what they thought were clever and quirky tests to test “culture fit” and other factors, are actually mechanisms that set friends of employees up for success, rather than testing what really matters: their ability to do the job. A lot of smaller startups are innovating and trying to change the way they do things even more -- Asana and Pinterest are two examples. It really does come from a CEO and the co-founders and trickle down.
The goal of the nonprofit I recently co-founded, Project Include, is to give everybody in tech a fair chance to succeed. We’re looking at how people can hire better, and make their companies represent the communities they serve and are housed in. We’re also focused on how companies can ensure that once those people are hired, they are given an equal chance to succeed. Everything in the employee lifecycle should allow everyone to succeed fairly. I don’t think any company has gotten there -- you haven’t seen 50/50 on gender, not to mention we rarely see higher than 3% Black or Latinx, and never even 1% for Native Americans. Not to mention categories like disability and sexual orientation, which often aren’t measured or shared.
At reddit, I was able to hire much better people than I perhaps “should have been able to,” because I was a woman of color and these candidates were interested in joining a diverse organization. If you can build enough critical mass -- and it may feel like it takes a long time -- in the long term, diverse teams attract diverse teams. And that pays off. You’ll start getting inbound, because candidates feel like it’s a place where they have opportunity, where they won’t have to answer questions about what it’s like to be Black or a woman in engineering every day of their lives.
What excites you about LendUp and the work we’re doing?
Five years ago, I went to YC demo day. It’s a very formal process where they hand you a list of companies that will present that day, and you go in and meet as many as possible. They gave me the sheet of paper with all of the founders and descriptions, and after reading it as quickly as I could, the one company that I was super excited about was LendUp.
You’re solving a huge problem. This is something that technology can help, but has never been used to try to solve: people were stuck taking out loans with huge interest rates, ruining their lives, and there was no way they could get out of it. I was impressed by the founders: Sasha from the Grameen Foundation -- you know he’s not going to take advantage of customers -- and Jake with his experience building tech from the ground up at scale. And the idea of moving these people up a ladder -- that maybe they’re stuck now but we can get them up the ladder, to show them how to save, to move them to better financial products, so they have a lot more opportunity -- that was very powerful to me. I loved that they were using technology -- tackling it from a mobile-first angle to make it easier and more effective. And I really love the startup for wanting to solve this problem by approaching it from the consumer end, not from an exploitative perspective.
There’s a lot to be said for Sasha and Jake, and everyone here, for having the vision, driving things forward, and sticking to your values -- in an industry where regulations and other challenges can make it very difficult succeed. But to your credit, you’ve powered through and you’ve continued to push forward this vision, and to be successful, and that’s super exciting to me.