Stories about toxic workplaces abound in Silicon Valley. Little wonder. At fast-growing startups, CEOs are driven to constantly strive for ever-more aggressive targets, sometimes leading to unhealthy stress levels, bad behavior, communication breakdowns and burnout.
That high-pressure culture isn’t just affecting businesses in the tech sector; it also seems to have seeped into an esteemed tech-related nonprofit.
Black Girls Code, launched by founder Kimberly Bryant in 2011, has an inspiring mission: to directly improve racial equality in tech by helping girls of color learn to code. Currently, of the roughly quarter-million programming jobs in the U.S., 62.1% are held by white people, according to job search site Zippia. Fewer than 6% of programmers are Black, and an even tinier percentage are Black women.
The San Francisco-based group has been in rapid-expansion mode, especially over the past few years amid a growing racial justice movement. By 2018, the organization had taught coding to about 8,000 participants. By 2021, that number had swelled to 30,000. And the nonprofit, which now has 15 chapters across the U.S., has even bigger ambitions — Bryant has said she wants Black Girls Code to train 1 million girls of color by 2040.
However, the past couple of years have not always gone smoothly for the group, which now has an annual operating budget of over $3 million. Turnover was high during the pandemic. Some workers complained bitterly about Bryant’s leadership style, describing it as “rooted in fear” and calling the organization a “toxic & poorly managed non-profit.”
“The founder is a mean girl who doesn’t empower her leader and micromanaged everyone from program coordinators to directors,” one former employee posted on employer review site Glassdoor. “At least 80% of former employees will tell you this was one of the worst experiences in their professional career.”
Last month, the board of Black Girls Code put Bryant on paid administrative leave and launched an investigation into complaints about the founder and allegations of unspecified “workplace impropriety.” Not one to shrink away from controversy, Bryant has been pushing back against the criticism and defending herself fiercely.
“First and foremost, I know that I have not personally done anything unethical, immoral, or illegal as the Founder and CEO of Black Girls Code,” she told TechCrunch in December. “As a founder who has built something from her own blood, sweat, and tears from the ground up, this fight for me is about justice and giving rights to founders, especially women in leadership.”
We talked to Bryant, and she shared more with us about struggles at her organization and why she wants to regain her post. Watch the video here.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Business of Business: Black Girls Code is a phenomenal organization. Everything that I know about it is just so inspiring. What you’ve done with it is amazing. But unfortunately, there’s been some terrible news of late and you’ve sort of been ousted from the organization. What do you think this is really all about?
Kimberly Bryant: Well, you know, I think first of all, I wanted to just clarify for the record that I'm on a paid administrative leave. So I haven't been formally removed from Black Girls Code. But it's really an administrative leave that was placed on me in December, because of some workplace issues around personnel that really prompted some members of the board to opt to do an investigation. And I'm still on hold and waiting for that investigation to occur so that we can move this issue behind us.
And some of the things that have come out in the press are discussions of negative Glassdoor reviews and allegations of a toxic workplace. What do you make of all of that?
Like many other nonprofit organizations, as well as for-profit organizations, we transitioned over the last two years in the midst of this pandemic [into becoming] a fully virtual organization. We were not spared the Great Resignation. And I've seen recent reports that say that nonprofits were some of the most damaged and impacted by this Great Resignation that we're seeing in the workforce right now.
Black Girls code experienced that as well. Most of the people that we hired in 2020, came into the organization at a time when we were fully virtual. We were not interacting and working with each other [in person]. And so many of the workplace and cultural challenges that we had were actually exacerbated because we did not have time to work with each other as a community and really address those things.
I think what we saw in 2021, those resignations that we experienced, were a result of really an organization that was experiencing rapid growth, and really hyper growth in terms of doubling our staff and having this influx, incredible influx of revenues and support. We were really trying to figure out how to navigate this and coming from a really small grassroots organization, [to having] twice the staff, multigenerational staff, that we have not had to manage before. And like many organizations, we really struggled with making that transition, which really led to a lot of the departures and transitions that we experienced in 2020.
Right. So do you think a lot of these negative perceptions are coming from people who were at the organization for only a short time only experiencing it when it was remote?
I definitely know that when we started to experience some transitions from staff members in the middle of the year last year in 2021, they were [mostly] folks that had joined our organization in the midst of the pandemic. And many of those folks we never even saw us except from behind a computer screen because we did not take our organization back into even a hybrid model in our workplace until October of last year. We started to experience these transitions in June and July of last year.
So, I very much think that a factor in this national avalanche was new folks coming into our culture, which was already perhaps not as mature as we would like to be, and not as healthy as we wanted it to be as a grassroots nonprofit organization. And seeing some of that friction caused a lot of the atmospheric challenges that we had as an organization, and we actually brought in some professionals to help us with [with that].
So I think that as an organization, what we saw was a need to bring in some external resources, which we did in terms of bringing in a cultural strategist, as well as really bringing in an external organization to do a workforce study on our compensation policy and philosophy, as well as bringing in an executive coach to work with our senior leadership team and in our executives — all with a mind to really build this workplace around social equity and justice. And that is the work that we've been doing for the last six months as an organization, in concert with our board of directors.
"I do think that as the organization has evolved and matured, we're perhaps at a place as a social justice organization, with a mission to teach girls about technology, we have probably transitioned into a need for a bit more advocacy, in terms of our board of directors being more closely aligned with our mission around social justice inequity."
And the negative perceptions, just to kind of pin this down a little bit, do you think they come from people just interacting on Slack or over online as opposed to being in person? A lot of interactions are easier to have in person, or they just don’t go as well online.
I can think back to probably some of the best years that I have experienced in the organization, back in 2018 and early 2019, was when as an organization, we were in the trenches doing this work together. So some of my closest work friends and workmates who have been part of the organization, we would spend hours in the office like, “Yes, we were doing a lot of work.” But a lot of that time spent together was not necessarily doing work, it was getting to know each other as people.
Some of those folks that I work with in our Oakland office in 2018, we created a close familial bond. Those folks actually helped me take my daughter to college when she started in college as a freshman. So, it's those type of work relationships and bonds that, I think, really helped to create a solid foundation, especially when you're doing work like ours, which can be hard, it can be challenging, it can be stressful.
Now, I don't want to say, “Oh, you have to be friends with everyone that you work with.” But I think that some of the challenges that we face as an organization, are no different than what we see in many other workplaces around the country, especially at a time like this in the midst of you know, stressful external events, such as the pandemic, and not being able to commune with each other and build that culture that that really creates for a healthy work environment.
That makes sense. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the board? Were there any tensions that were brewing? I did notice you did made a very bold act by turning down a donation from Uber because of the sexual harassment allegations. I mean, that's incredible. But I could see that being a point of contention, possibly.
Well, that event was, I want to say that was in 2017. So we were still very much [in early stages, and did not have the same board structure as now]. We were a fiscally-sponsored organization until right about the middle of 2018. [Later, the group became a 501(c)(3) organization.]
So that issue was not something that created tensions on the board. I do think that as the organization has evolved and matured, we're perhaps at a place as a social justice organization, with a mission to teach girls about technology, we have probably transitioned into a need for a bit more advocacy, in terms of our board of directors being more closely aligned with our mission around social justice inequity.
What I think I saw as a founder is a misalignment in terms of mission and vision and goals as well. Things that we were building this culture on and BGC with those board of directors who started with us in 2018. That really is what is evident now is we're in the midst of this push or pull challenge, if you will, between the board and myself, and not really being in close alignment.
Yeah, that's unfortunate, and that can create a lot of unnecessary stress and difficulty. But backing up to hopefully a happier note: Why did you decide to found Black Girls Code?
The story of Black Girls Code, and it is my story: It was founded in 2011, primarily because my daughter was going into middle school and really starting to develop this keen interest in computer science and technology. She is and was an avid gamer. And so when we were looking for ways to really get her to learn these tools of how to become a technologist, when I looked around, and we live in the Bay Area, I didn't find many organizations that were really doing a lot of work with girls of color. There was more of an adult coding movement, a learn-to-code movement, and it was slowly starting to transition into a learn-to-code movement for young people and kids.
And in many of the events and activities that I was able to get my daughter involved in, I found that those rooms were very-male centric, so lots of little boys and very few little girls, very few students of color. And so this idea, if you will, for Black Girls Code really evolved around my need and my desire as a mother to have my daughter be able to find her tribe and interact with other girls, and be able to feel like she belonged in the spaces.
And so BGC started with a very small pilot group of like six girls that would meet together on the weekends. And that's how BGC started. And so it was not originally my intention for this to be more of a global movement. It was more a desire to bring a group of girls together with my daughter and teach them the skills that I have learned so many years before in college, and it really just grew much further than I could ever have imagined.
"I am still very hopeful that we will be able to resolve the situation with the board of directors as soon as possible. I'm still very hopeful that that will be the case that I do believe that I still have work to do at Black Girls Code."
Amazing. Were there any major challenges that you had to face in growing this organization or founding it?
Of course, I think, you know, the Uber story that you mentioned, brings up a really good part of some of the lessons learned along this journey. So when I founded Black Girls Code, I literally started with my savings that were put in my 401(k). You know, I had just left my corporate employer, started out on my own doing some independent consulting, thinking that I would start my own for-profit company. I just didn't want to be in Corporate America anymore. And I was going out on my own. And I kind of stumbled across this need. But I didn't have any outside funding sources. I didn't really have a desire to create a nonprofit.
So it was really my 401(k) that started this work. And for I will say the first year and a half, I was still working full time as a consultant at the same time I was working with Black Girls Code. It just became so intensive that I decided to leave. I had interns, employees and interns that were working for free. And I was like, it would be great if I could pay this one intern something. So I was like, “Let me leave and try to take off for the summer to raise funding, and then I'll go back to work. But I'll have enough to pay this one employee.”
One of the things that's been challenging for the past 10 years is being in high demand but under-resourced. A lot of I think, some of the feedback that we've gotten from my team, but also our experiences is that until 2020 like we really were working with less staff than we needed, less resources and needed, and less equipment than we needed. We literally in 2021 just started to buy the staff new laptops. You and I were having a problem getting online to do this interview because I'm still on my old laptop. I haven't updated mine. But we didn't have resources to do this work, even though we had this exponential demand.
I've done the mail, I've been to the bank to do bank deposits, I do payroll, I've done five jobs. And so have many, many of the other team members. So I think the biggest challenge that we faced over the last 10 years is just being so terribly under-resourced, even in the face of such demand for what we do and such excitement for the work that we do.
It wasn’t until 2020 When we started to get this support coming in in wake of the George Floyd protests and such that we finally started to have adequate resources to both build and hire a team, and build our systems, like our Salesforce. We didn't have resources to do that before. And so that is probably been the biggest challenge, which is why that Uber event was so significant for back in 2017, the notion of us turning down a six figure grant was significant, because that was really like one of the biggest grants we had received at that point.
"I think it puts a tremendous weight on the founder or the person in the lead to carry the ship all by themselves. And that puts a lot of stress on the organization as well."
So I think that has been the biggest challenge. And I think on top of that, for me, as a founder leading alone at the top, without really having a team, a leadership team, is something that I would never suggest to any other founders. Like, it's not the way to build. It is the way I built, but I don't suggest it, because I think it puts a tremendous weight on the founder or the person in the lead to carry the ship all by themselves. And that puts a lot of stress on the organization as well. The leader is really not equipped to do all of those things, run the operations, get the mail. Like it’s just not tenable over a long period. If I had to do it over again, I think those are the two things that I would really reconsider.
Absolutely, bandwidth is only so much for every person. What made you want to code? And what kind of barriers and challenges did you face as a Black woman in an industry where there clearly are not enough Black women?
Yeah, so it's interesting how I started my journey. I'm an electrical engineer, by training with a master’s and bachelor's in electrical engineering and a minor in computer science. So when I was going to get my bachelor's degrees back in the middle of the 80s, it was really more women receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer science than there are today. It didn't seem that way, though. It was right in the middle of the 80s. When Web1.0 was just starting to emerge. And that's a fact. You know, I mean, I'm not that much older, if you will, like I was at the beginning of this movement.
And so I think for me, I was really intrigued by technology. So my very first class was, you know, learning how to code in Fortran, which my daughter will look at me like I’m crazy if I say I used Fortran. But that's what I learned. And I think for me, it was just really this new thing “www.” I remember vividly, like, seriously, like being in my first job, and actually, one of my peers saying, like, “Hey, there's this new thing called the internet. And if you type in www…”, and then I think we had a very long list of numbers that we have to type in and get into the internet. That was real. And it was just like a new world emerged at that time.
And so for me, I think it was just this notion of this was the new frontier. I remember the earliest Apple Macintosh computers, and how excited we were to actually have something like that we could take home. So I think for me, it was just that piece of learning something new, and being on the forefront of this emerging industry that was just starting to unfold. I think I still feel the excitement of something new that I experienced back in the mid-80s. And getting on the internet I get the same type of excitement, and I’m really starting to dip into Web3, and get my feet wet on crypto and NFTs and exploring that world, the blockchain. I think we're still at another stage, really going into the next generation of what the internet will be.
So where do things go from here for you with regard to this investigation? And you know, what, what happens if you can't come back to Black Girls Code? What will you do?
Well, I am still very hopeful that we will be able to resolve the situation with the board of directors as soon as possible. I'm still very hopeful that that will be the case. I do believe that I still have work to do at Black Girls Code. I'm not one of those founders that intends to be in my organization for 20 or 30 years. But I do have some work that I need to get done. You know, there is still a foundation that I hope to leave with my organization, and there is succession planning that I hope to complete. And I absolutely do intend to be part of my board of directors for many years to come.
But I think after that, the situation has really opened my eyes to how issues like this are more common than they are rare. Over the last few weeks, I've had probably 20 or 30 individuals, mostly women, many women of color, that have come to me with stories very similar to mine. And in the midst of doing my work, I wasn't even aware that this sort of thing happened. I think, like many nonprofit founders that start in this industry without a lot of experience, we were unaware of some of the gaps and challenges around nonprofit governance and the model itself.
And so for me, part of what I want to do in the future is really lean into advocacy. I think, you know, in 2020, there certainly was this rush to support organizations and, and founders of color, but there's still a gap when we look at these models and structures of leadership and power, that often tend to disenfranchise women, especially women, once they're in a leadership role. And I feel very privileged, even in the midst of I want to say this storm, I feel extremely privileged, because I do have a platform.
"There are other women who experienced this type of injustice, if you will. I'll just call it as I see it. And they can't speak on it, or if they can, they don't have the platform that I have."
There are other women who experienced this type of injustice, if you will. I'll just call it as I see it. And they can’t speak on it, or if they can, they don’t have the platform that I have. And I feel that it's important for me to use the privilege that I have gained to become a voice for others, to create support systems for other women in leadership, to share my story to other women, so they don't make the mistakes that I made — so I can share with them how they can create strong governance models within their organizations that protects the vision of the organization as well as themselves and what they have built, and they have a lasting legacy. So this advocacy work will be very much a part of what I do in the future, and think, and then I think beyond that, it's like really taking the work that I've done over the last 10 years with BGC to the next level. I do want to do more in the tech industry. I do want to lean into Web3, and I do want to do work that empowers other women to build.