Protocol | 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."

Hollywood averted its first streaming strike with an 11th-hour deal

IATSE's 60,000 members threatened to strike for better working conditions; at the core of the conflict was Hollywood's move to streaming.

60,000 Hollywood workers are set to go on strike this week.

Photo: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The union representing 60,000 studio workers struck an agreement with major studios and production companies.

A last-minute agreement between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) helped avert a strike that would have shut down Hollywood: The two sides agreed on a new contract that includes pay raises as well as improved break schedules, Deadline reported Saturday evening.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

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Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Workplace

Instacart workers are on strike. How far can it get them?

Instacart activists want a nationwide strike to start today, but many workers are too afraid of the company and feel they can't afford a day off of work.

Gig workers protest in front of an Amazon facility in 2020.

Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Starting today, an Instacart organizing group is asking the app's gig workers to go on a nationwide strike to demand better payment structures, benefits and other changes to the way the company treats its workers — but if past strikes are any indication, most Instacart users probably won't even notice.

The majority of Instacart workers on forums like Reddit and Facebook appear either unaware of the planned strike or don't plan to participate because they are skeptical of its power, afraid of retaliation from the company or are too reliant on what they do make from the app to be able to afford to take even one day off of the platform. "Not unless someone is going to pay my bills," "It will never work, you will never be able to get every shopper to organize" and "Last time there was a 'strike' Instacart took away our quality bonus pay," are just a few of the comments Instacart shoppers have left in response to news of the strike.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Protocol | China

WeChat promises to stop accessing users’ photo albums amid public outcry

A tech blogger claimed that popular Chinese apps snoop around users' photo libraries, provoking heightened public concerns over privacy.

A survey launched by Sina Tech shows 94% of the some 30,000 responding users said they are not comfortable with apps reading their photo libraries just to allow them to share images faster in chats.

Photo: S3studio via Getty Images

A Chinese tech blogger dropped a bombshell last Friday, claiming on Chinese media that he found that several popular Chinese apps, including the Tencent-owned chat apps WeChat and QQ, as well as the Alibaba-owned ecommerce app Taobao, frequently access iPhone users' photo albums in the background even when those apps are not in use.

The original Weibo post from the tech blogger, using the handle of @Hackl0us, provoked intense debates about user privacy on the Chinese internet and consequently prompted WeChat to announce that it would stop fetching users' photo album data in the background.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com.

Protocol | Enterprise

As businesses struggle with data, enterprise tech is cleaning up

Enterprise tech's vision of "big data" largely fell flat inside silos. But now, an army of providers think they've figured out the problems. And customers and investors are taking note.

Corporate data tends to settle in silos that makes it harder to understand the bigger picture. Enterprise tech vendors smell a lucrative opportunity.

Photo: Jim Witkowski/Unsplash

Data isn't the new oil; it's the new gold. And in any gold rush, the ones who make the most money in the long run are the tool makers and suppliers.

Enterprise tech vendors have long peddled a vision of corporate America centered around so-called "big data." But there was a big problem: Many of those projects failed to produce a return. An army of new providers think they've finally figured out the problem, and investors and customers are taking note.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

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