Mathias Klenk, the CTO of identity-verification startup Passbase, claimed that building an inclusive place to work was a priority for his high-growth startup.
"We want to get this right from the beginning," Klenk said in 2019 to TechCrunch.
On Wednesday former contractor Rose Wanjugu Mwangi filed a lawsuit against Passbase and its co-founders, Klenk and Dave McGibbon. Mwangi alleges racial and gender discrimination during her time at the company, saying that Passbase underpaid her given her expertise and the market value for her role as strategic partnerships lead and head of compliance. She also alleges Passbase did not take her complaints seriously when she reported discriminatory behavior to human resources. Mwangi was the only Black woman at the company.
"I think in most of my career, [being the only Black woman] has been the case," she told Protocol. "I'm very accustomed to just getting in, doing my business, navigating and not really thinking too hard about it because a lot of times we don't have either the resources or the power to actually affect any changes."
Her experience at Passbase was no different, she said. But upon further reflection, Mwangi said she noticed "some red flags" early on in her employment there.
During the negotiation process, Mwangi said the company was not willing to pay her a higher salary, despite recognizing that she was worth more. According to the lawsuit, McGibbon (the COO at the time), said Passbase "would have mutiny on our hands if we paid you more."
The implication, the lawsuit alleges, was that the all-white leadership would not be on board with a woman of color earning a salary close to their own.
Mwangi, who first agreed to a 90-day contract worth $24,000, later signed a two-year contract where she would make $90,000 per year. That figure, however, was still too low, Mwangi said. Given the size of the company, Mwangi said she would expect a starting salary of at least $150,000. Mwangi would not be the first Black woman to be underpaid. Black women are paid 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men.
Mwangi originally came on board to Passbase as a strategic partnerships lead. Over time, however, her role evolved to also oversee compliance and regulatory aspects of the business. Passbase, however, only gave Mwangi a $1,000 merit raise when her responsibilities increased.
Throughout her time at Passbase, from October 2019 through July 2021, a handful of other incidents gave Mwangi some pause. In October 2020, for example, the suit alleges the VP of engineering at the time told her "women belong in the kitchen because men don't do a good job there." In March 2021, during Mwangi's performance review, McGibbon allegedly told Mwangi she had been "perceived as aggressive" because of the tone of her voice. Mwangi shortly after communicated what happened to the human resources department.
"My boss accuses me of obnoxious aggression [and] is informed by HR that this is kind of a racist dog whistle," she said. "I mean, it's almost like a bad movie."
While supporting Passbase's compliance efforts, Mwangi alleges she was left out of important decisions. Passbase, for example, launched a vaccine card upload service in May 2021. But Mwangi alleges Passbase's product team told her about it unreasonably late in the process.
"Because I was a woman and I, of course, looked the way I look ... the idea that I had this much authority seemed to be very difficult for my colleagues to digest, which was quite baffling," she said.
Mwangi reached a breaking point in May, after she said human resources did not adequately address her concerns. That month, she asked the company if she could end her employment contract at the end of 2021, rather than in February 2022.
In the next conversation she had, she said, the company told her she was "not the right culture fit" because she "could not receive the feedback that [she was] aggressive and therefore [was] not a team player." That's when the company said her contract would end on July 31, 2021.
Protocol has reached out to Passbase, but has yet to hear back. We'll update this story if we receive a comment from the company.
In January, Passbase head of talent, Jenna Bachrouche, posted an article on the company website called, "It's 2021. Diversity cannot stay reactive," where she detailed how each of the company's team leaders were going through a workshop titled, "Create a Culture of Belonging."
But by that time, she told Protocol, Mwangi no longer felt like she could speak up about her experiences at the company, or bring up issues about the product without the conversation feeling contentious.
"It got really, really toxic," she said. "It made me very physically ill."