Workplace

Passbase said it cared about diversity. Now it’s facing a discrimination lawsuit.

Passbase published blog posts and spoke about the importance of diversity. Inside, a former contractor alleges things were very different.

A team photo of Passbase that shows the one Black woman on a team with a group of white people.

Passbase, an identity verification startup, faces a new lawsuit alleging racial and gender discrimination and retaliation.

Photo: Passbase

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."

Policy

The Senate antitrust bill just created some very weird alliances

Democrats and Republicans have found the tech reform debate scrambles traditional party politics — and Tim Cook and Ted Cruz have found themselves chatting.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill on Thursday that could remake the tech industry.

Photo: PartTime Portraits/Unsplash

Strange alliances formed ahead of Thursday's vote to advance a key antitrust bill to the Senate floor, with frequent foes like Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ted Cruz supporting the measure, and prominent Democrats including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushing back against it.

Ultimately the bill moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 16-6 after a surprisingly speedy debate (at least, speedy for the Senate). Even some of the lawmakers who called for further changes agreed to move the bill forward — a sign that the itch to finally regulate Big Tech after years of congressional inaction is intensifying, even as the issue scrambles traditional party politics in a way that could threaten its final passage.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

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Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.
Workplace

Should your salary depend on meeting DEI goals?

Diversio just raised $6.5 million to use AI to fix DEI.

Laura McGee has spent her entire career thinking about diversity and business. At one point, she helped lead the Trump-Trudeau Council for Advancement of Women, working with the prime minister and president to build a plan to grow the North American economy through diversity. During that time, she kept hearing from CEOs that they cared about diversity and wanted to improve, but that they had “no data and no metrics.”

That was when she decided to build Diversio: a platform that makes data collection, as well as acting on it, “super simple.”

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Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Enterprise

Why low-code and no-code AI tools pose new risks

The low-code trend has come to AI, but skeptics worry that gifting amateurs with Easy-Bake Ovens for machine-learning models is a recipe for disaster.

The same things that make low- and no-code AI so appealing can pose problems.

Image: Boris SV/Moment/Getty Images

“No code. No joke.”

This is the promise made by enterprise AI company C3 AI in splashy web ads for its Ex Machina software. Its competitor Dataiku says its own low-code and no-code software “elevates” business experts to use AI. DataRobot calls customers using its no-code software to make AI-based apps “AI heroes.”

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Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Workplace

How 'Dan from HR' became TikTok’s favorite career coach

You can get a lot of advice about corporate America on TikTok. ‘Dan from HR’ wants to make sure you’re getting the right instruction.

'Dan from HR' has posted hundreds of videos on his TikTok account about everything from cover letters to compensation.

Image: Dan Space

Daniel Space downloaded TikTok for the same reason most of us did. He was bored.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Space wanted to connect with his younger cousin, who uses TikTok, so he thought he’d get on the platform and try it out (although he refused to do any of the dances). Eventually, the algorithm figured out that Space is a longtime HR professional and fed him a post with resume tips — the only issue was that the advice was “really horrible,” he said.

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Sarah Roach

Sarah Roach is a reporter and producer at Protocol (@sarahroach_) where she contributes to Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. She is a recent graduate of George Washington University, where she studied journalism and mass communication and criminal justice. She previously worked for two years as editor in chief of her school's independent newspaper, The GW Hatchet.

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