The two Black employees who took on Pinterest explain why they quit, their fight for pay, the death threats, the private investigator: 'It was a torturous experience'
- When Aerica Shimizu Banks and Ifeoma Ozoma publicly quit their roles on
- In an interview with Business Insider, Banks said her career was stalled and she was interrogated by a private investigator after unwittingly making a proposal that embarrassed a senior executive.
- Ozoma recounted her nearly two-year battle to get the company to recognize the value of her work, even as she fielded rape and death threats after being "doxxed" by a colleague, meaning the colleague shared her personal information on the internet.
- Banks' and Ozoma's stories sparked a public reckoning for Pinterest and inspired nine other former employees, many of them Black, to share experiences with Business Insider that paint a stressful and problematic work environment at the tech company.
In May 2019, Aerica Shimizu Banks' career seemed like it couldn't get any better.
Banks, a graduate of Princeton and Oxford, was about to start her sixth year at Google when a former colleague, Ifeoma Ozoma, reached out about a job at Pinterest. The role would be leading the company's federal policy team from its new office in Washington DC.
Banks was hesitant to leave a happy career at Google and its lucrative stock-based compensation. But she was intrigued by the potential for upward mobility at Pinterest, a much smaller but still fast-growing tech company.
"I was promised that there was no timeline for promotion," Banks said of the Pinterest recruiting process. "As long as you're killing it, you will get promoted."
In May, 2019, Banks joined Pinterest as a public policy and social impact manager. But over the next 13 months, she says her career not only didn't grow, it was stifled. Banks cited "a period of glaringly unfair pay, intense discrimination, and terrifying retaliation" in a now-viral Twitter thread that ignited a firestorm against the company.
Both Banks and Ozoma told Business Insider that their experience on the social network's public policy team was derailed by what they believed to be retaliatory behavior, a doxxing incident that sparked rape and death threats against Ozoma, and an interaction between Banks and the company's private investigator that felt like an interrogation. They also say they failed to be given salaries and seniority ranks that their work duties warranted.
A dinner conversation that left a bad taste
Shortly after Banks joined Pinterest, she began to feel uncomfortable. Banks recalled a team dinner at a Japanese Ramen restaurant in mid-July with her and Ozoma's manager, Charlie Hale. Hale, Ozama says, pointed out a poster stating that ramen was invented in China and asked if she thought Japanese people should be offended, a seeming reference to her Afro-Japanese heritage. She also said he also made comments about a Jewish colleague being "Seinfeld-esque."
"I'm thinking, the only person that said something offensive is you, but I can't say that because you're my boss," Banks said. "I left Google for this?"
She reported the evening to HR, which investigated the incident but apparently did not find Hale acted inappropriately. He was "thinking out loud," not directing the remarks toward Banks, HR concluded, said a former Pinterest employee familiar with the matter, who chalked the whole incident up to Hale being an "inexperienced manager."
Hale declined to comment on his interactions with Banks and Ozoma.
Despite her inadequately-trained boss, Banks had been hopeful that she could move up the ranks quickly through hard work.
She quickly found that not to be the case either. She felt she was routinely doing work above her pay grade, and in December, when budgets were being decided for the new year, Banks asked her manager for promotion guidance. What did she need to do to move up?
It took weeks for him to respond, Banks said. When he did, he mentioned needing a certain number of years of tenure to get a bigger title. That criteria had never been communicated to Banks before, and was at odds with the "just kill it" guidance she had received from Pinterest's recruiters.
"I believe I was told I pretty much didn't qualify," Banks said.
A demotion and a private investigator for Banks
Banks believes her biggest hurdle at Pinterest was retaliation.
"That's what I called it as part of my DHCF complaint," she said about the complaint she would eventually file with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing when she quit the company earlier this year.
Her trouble really began a few months after she started, around December 2019, when as a member of the Social Impact policy team, she discovered the company wasn't paying holiday pay to its lowest-paid contract workers doing hospitality, security, janitorial jobs. "Many were black and brown people and some were disabled," she said.
Banks crafted a policy to grant them holiday pay, first reaching out to the company's hired legal and policy consultants, who concurred with her opinion.
She wrote up her policy opinion and, to her shock, was sent a scathing email from a senior exec in the legal department. In that same email berating Banks, the lawyer said the company was going to adopt the policy. But Banks later learned that the mere proposal had embarrassed an upper manager and Pinterest managers could be ruthless when it came to deflecting blame or taking credit, according to 9 other Pinterest employees Business Insider talked to.
After that, Banks fired the consultants, as she suspected they had misled the senior executive about their involvement in the policy, and the incident snowballed from there.
The senior executive not only accused her of lying about using the consultant, they hired a private investigator to investigate and interrogate her.
"I did not lie. It was a torturous experience," she said. In the end, the investigator didn't release a report of the findings, leading Banks to believe Pinterest didn't get the answer it was looking for.
Nevertheless, Banks was stripped of her responsibilities, all conversations about promotions and career path were halted. Her doctor prescribed anti-depressants, which she had never taken before, she said.
Instead of getting praise for her policy work and a pay raise, she got a poor review and no increase, she said.
Shortly after, she hired a lawyer and pursued a California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing (CDFE) complaint, was granted a "right to sue." Banks says she can't comment on the eventual result of her legal actions.
A fight for pay
Ozoma's troubles began nearly a year into her tenure, she said, though, like Banks, she had a first clue a few months into the job thanks to that chart of seniority level job descriptions.
Seniority-level classifications, aka "levels" are used by most tech companies. Higher levels equate to more responsibility and more pay, particularly in stock. At big tech companies, mid-senior level employees can often expect $200,000-$400,o00 between cash and stock, while the highest seniority levels in engineering make $1 million or more, again, largely in stock. Every company has its own matrix and names for its seniority levels, so a Level 5 at one company might not equal the pay and responsibilities of a Level 5 at another.
One of the long-standing issues with the tech industry is the seniority level that women and minorities tend to be assigned. Across the US, for instance, men are more likely to begin a new job at higher senior levels and that's one reason why men are paid about 20% more than women with similar education and experience, according to a 2019 study by Glassdoor.
It's also one reason why Black women across the board are paid about 40% less than white males and 20% less than white females, according to the National Women's Law Center's analysis of 2018 salary data. In Pinterest's case, 75% of its leadership is male (the people occupying the highest seniority levels), and 25% are female, according to its latest diversity report.
Ozoma first saw Pinterest's formal document describing the job descriptions at each seniority level when she'd been at the company a few months, she said, and she wondered then if she was fairly classified, given the job duties she tackled.
A Yale graduate who had previously worked at both Google and Facebook, Ozoma had been the second employee on Pinterest's social impact public policy team under her manager, as part of a bigger policy-crafting team.
Her work for Pinterest had her flying around the world, the sole person representing Pinterest at meetings with Congressional staffers or the UK Parliament. She was elbows deep on policies like cracking down on anti-VAX health information or leading the company's widely-praised initiative with The Knot to stop promoting former Southern plantations as romantic wedding venues.
She was given plenty of autonomy and high performance reviews. She asked her manager about having her starting level reassessed. This would have meant much more stock, no small thing given Pinterest was on its way to a highly anticipated IPO, she said.
"They wanted to pay me junior salary and have me do senior work," she told Business Insider. At the six month mark, Hale, her manager, gave her an outstanding review and she got the pay increase associated with a great review, according to Ozoma.
But Pinterest didn't increase her level. So she hired a lawyer to negotiate that her starting level be reassigned, hoping to amicably resolve it. Five months later, the company announced a promotion, bumped her seniority level up by one rank, and gave her another raise, that former employee familiar with the matter confirmed to Business Insider.
But Ozoma and her lawyer believed that by Pinterest's own job descriptions, she still wasn't at the right seniority level. The promotion she was given came with no new responsibilities; it was the work she was already doing, she said. And it was work she believed was actually described for a role that was yet another level up from her newly assigned one.
The former employee said the seniority level Ozoma wanted was for people with 15 years of experience, just one level below her manager. Another person familiar with the matter said that Hale, the manager, had "a decade more" experience than these women and had more responsibility. "Pay differs based on different levels of experience and responsibility," that person said.
Ozoma also knew that Banks was ranked at her same, more junior level, and that the document describing each seniority level — which Business Insider has seen — makes no mention of years of experience. The document refers only to job duties.
"This wasn't like us lacking in some way," Ozoma said. "We had all of these credentials and still we had to put ourselves in the humiliating position of begging."
In their initial statement on Ozoma's and Banks' allegations, the company said that both women were"treated fairly," but it has since pledged to take action.
"We never want anyone to feel the way Ifeoma and Aerica did while they were working at Pinterest. We're committed to immediately taking the actions that we've outlined to our employees and we are actively pursuing this work," a company spokesperson told Business Insider.
In physical danger
Ozoma's determination for pay grew more intense after another Pinterest employee leaked internal documents and her name to a far-right political group and shared her personal information on the internet, a practice known as doxxing.
She received death and rape threats, she said, and random people showed up at her house. "The doxing was horrific," Ozoma said.
The company set up a team to investigate. CEO Silbermann reached out to Ozoma to apologize and check in with her. The company also offered to send one of the company's security officers to Ozoma's home, which she thought was "absolutely ridiculous," she said.
She wanted the company to scrub the info off the internet and to have preventive measures in place. Ozoma called former colleagues from Facebook and Google and hired a news intelligence agency to remove her personal information from the internet but felt the company should have done this for her.
Both women filed separate DHCF complaints. In May they quit the company and in June, after seeing Pinterest's statement of support for Black Lives Matters and its donations, they spoke up on Twitter.
Pinterest in crisis
In response to those tweets and Business Insider's reporting, CEO Ben Silbermann sent a letter to company employees admitting that "that parts of our culture are broken" and said "I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't understand the depth of the hardship and hurt many of our team members have experienced."
"It's been devastating to hear the stories of Black employees who feel like they don't belong at Pinterest," Silbermann said.
He's promised a full investigation to look into pay and other complaints, to hire a non-white board member, and to make diversity hiring part of all managers' goals, among other initiatives.
Both Ozoma and Banks hope that things will get better for the Black employees at Pinterest and across the tech industry.
They feel like they've risked everything to fight for senior pay, and the internet has come to their support. Both her and Banks' threads went viral, garnering support from civil rights groups like Color of Change and celebrities like Lady Gaga. The comments on Pinterest's Instagram photos were overrun with people advocating for Ozoma and Banks. Shortly after, the comments were turned off.
Are you a Pinterest insider with insight to share? Contact Taylor Nicole Rogers via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on encrypted chat app Signal at (646) 768-4725 (no PR inquiries, please).
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