Nearly two years before Better.com CEO Vishal Garg fired 900 workers in a phone call that made him infamous as one of 2021’s worst bosses, half a dozen of his employees got on the phone with two women at a tiny startup in Brooklyn, New York to talk about the problems with Garg.
Garg didn’t magically become a pariah on that day he fired 10% of his workforce without apology or warning. Ariella Steinhorn and Amber Scorah knew just how miserable his workers were in 2020 — before the pandemic began — because they sit at one end of a vast whisper network of internet-savvy workers who share gossip and tips about how to take your (usually horrible) workplace story and bring it into the public light, without going to traditional journalists.
The whispers go a little something like this: Scared of your non-disclosure agreement? Need legal help? Don’t trust reporters? Lioness sells itself as the destination for those who just really want to share their story with someone. With very little advertising and no search engine optimization — their website is very hard to find on Google — Steinhorn and Scorah have achieved a word-of-mouth reputation that leads a few dozen people every week to reach out about a problem at work.
Coordinated groups of legal, strategy and media teams for tech whistleblowers started to emerge in the late years of the Obama administration (think Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning), according to Delphine Halgand-Mishra, the founding and executive director of a whistleblower support organization called The Signals Network. (The Signals Network was founded in late 2017.) Prominent whistleblowers like Frances Haugen and ex-Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma made the importance of a coordinated legal and media strategy well-understood across the tech industry specifically, Halgand-Mishra said.
Lioness is one of the newer entrants to the developing whistleblower support space. Though most organizations like The Signals Network fund themselves through grants in a nonprofit model, Lioness is funded primarily by paid partnerships with law firms. Law firms pay Lioness as a partner, and Lioness will refer clients to their attorneys for help and receive pro bono legal advice when they need it. Though Lioness has received venture funding offers, the women turned down the investments because they want full control over their work.
Scorah and Steinhorn said it’s not exactly a lucrative job. “We always say, this would be the perfect job for a trust-fund kid,” Scorah said (which neither of them are, they clarified). And they aren’t immune from trying to make a buck off a hype cycle; they minted a non-fungible token for the art attached to one essay on their platform as an experimental funding source, and they are now accepting donations in cryptocurrency. “Whomever buys the NFT, we don’t know who they are necessarily. They don’t have any control over us,” Steinhorn said. “There is so much money sloshing around in that ecosystem, if someone were to buy it, it could be a revenue stream for us that doesn't conflict us.” Lioness is also exploring documentary film projects, which tend to be more lucrative avenues than written stories for companies in the media industry.
And while the site might be best known for sharing issues of individual discrimination or sexual harassment, the women have also begun to collect stories about financial fraud, white-collar crimes and unethical or manipulative business practices.
“Yesterday, we heard from like five or six people alone who just needed help. They all came out of the woodwork on Jan. 3,” Steinhorn said. “We’ve talked to of course tech employees, medical residents, gold miners, urologists, real estate agents. I just spoke to someone yesterday who works in the film industry in sound mixing.”
“There’s a high correlation between if employees are being terribly abused and financial fraud in an organization. If you have someone who is harming a lot of people through bullying, that can translate to other realms of the company,” she added. “There are definitely patterns that we see in terms of labor practices and financial practices. There are ways that people set things up to minimize accountability into any practices.”
Steinhorn conceived of Lioness in 2019, when she was working as a communications manager for e-scooter company Spin. Like any typical tech employee, she had a side business at the time, only this business was really the precursor for Lioness. Called Simone, her business connected people experiencing workplace harassment to legal resources, much like Lioness does today.
In late 2019, inspired by the need she saw through Simone, Steinhorn left Spin to launch Lioness and work on the project full-time, completely solo. The work quickly became too demanding for one person, even in the earliest days. So, when searching for a partner, Steinhorn met Scorah on LinkedIn, where she was building a name for herself as an advocate for parental leave policies and as a writer who understood how to tell a deeply personal and painful story.
Scorah’s son had passed away on his first day of daycare, after Scorah was forced to return to work. She wrote an essay for The New York Times about her loss, and her story and her advocacy for better leave policies resonated with countless other mothers. As she started to find her place as a storyteller and a writer, recognizing the power of sharing her own deeply personal loss, she met Steinhorn. The two women — who both live in Brooklyn — saw in each other the same understanding of the power that telling one's story could have when connected to a social issue. When her son died, Scorah says that a woman who had been through something similar said, “There’s no one way around difficult things, and only a way through." Scorah added, about Lioness, "You are helping someone through difficult things."
When former Blue Origin communications manager Alexandra Abrams wanted to share her own experience of workplace sexism, she turned to Scorah and Steinhorn for help. Abrams and 20 other anonymous Blue Origin co-signers eventually published an essay on Lioness’ platform accusing the company — and primarily its CEO, Bob Smith — of creating a sexist and discriminatory culture that stifled innovation and growth. The essay made a massive splash, spurring further investigation into the problems at Blue Origin and inspiring another woman in the space industry, engineer Ashley Kosak at SpaceX, to share a similar story with Lioness.
“I read the Blue Origin essay, and then I read it about 20 more times. And several months later, I decided I wanted to reach out,” Kosak said. When she told Scorah and Steinhorn about the sexual harassment, the objectification of women’s bodies and the way the company ignored her efforts to make SpaceX more sustainable, they validated her experience. They reminded her that she had a story worth sharing, and then they helped her craft an essay.
For every person with a story to tell, Scorah and Steinhorn will spend weeks, or even months, helping them craft a narrative that they believe is both factually accurate and emotionally truthful for the essayist. They operate like the op-ed department at a major news organization, except they also provide their sources with legal connections at major law firms. They also won’t encourage someone to write a public story unless they are fully prepared for the consequences of media attention, and they won’t publish anything unless they’ve fact-checked everyone’s claims. The women also often speak with multiple people at one company (like in the case of the Blue Origin and SpaceX essays), even if only one person’s story ends up publicly posted online.
The women have plans to publish more first-person essays like Abrams’ and Kosak’s in the coming months — and also to hear more stories that might be shared in other ways. While no employee from Better.com ever published an essay on the Lioness website, Garg still ultimately faced a reckoning that Steinhorn and Scorah witnessed begin.
“We see it as a more journalistic version of Medium. We are a publisher with media insurance. We time it with other journalists, we publish the essay and we also share with journalists. It’s more of a coordinated campaign to get the story out there through the essay,” Scorah said.