Ifeoma Ozoma was irritated when social media site Pinterest expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement last year as George Floyd’s murder sparked a US national reckoning on race.
A month earlier she had quit her job in the company’s public policy team having grown disillusioned, like many black Americans, at the disparity she saw between her employer’s public stance on civil rights and her experience there as a black woman.
Pinterest’s “middle of the night ‘Black Employees Matter’ statement” inspired her to break her non-disclosure agreement, detailing “the racism, gaslighting and disrespect” she was subjected to by managers and the company’s legal and HR leaders in a widely cited Twitter thread.
Her decision to go public, alongside her colleague Aerica Shimizu Banks, was validated last week when the Silenced No More Act co-authored by Ozoma was signed into California state law. The legislation, which severely restricts the power of NDAs over employees who experience harassment or discrimination, is set to take effect in January.
It has long been standard practice in Silicon Valley to make staffers sign contracts barring them from saying anything negative about the company, even after they leave. The agreements gained notoriety amid the #MeToo movement when it emerged during the Harvey Weinstein scandal that NDAs were being used to keep victims of sexual abuse silent.
NDAs have now become a central focus of a wave of tech whistleblowers that also includes former Theranos employees Tyler Shultz and Erika Cheung, one-time Google computer scientist Timnit Gebru and Frances Haugen, the former Facebook data scientist who testified in the Senate this month that the company knowingly hurts children with its products. NDAs, they say, use the threat of legal action to make it even more difficult for employees to hold companies publicly accountable.
“I don’t think there is any levelling the playing field with any of these companies, certainly not for an individual versus a trillion-dollar company,” Ozoma says. “But there are ways to empower yourself and empower others and I think that providing support and making sure that people are prepared for whatever comes is one of the most important ways to do that.”
Ozoma, 29, grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. She attended boarding school in Connecticut before studying political science at Yale University. “I knew I definitely wanted to work on policy,” she said. “I had been focused on how rights and laws and norms that were established centuries ago then apply in the real world now, and technology is the place that they would be applied now.”
She liaised with the federal government for Google and worked on international relations at Facebook before being recruited to Pinterest’s just-formed public policy team in 2018. There she orchestrated its highly praised decision to stop promoting former slave plantations as wedding venues.
But her time there deteriorated rapidly. A disgruntled colleague collaborated with a rightwing group to “dox” her, publishing her personal phone number on the internet without her consent. She hired a lawyer to support her through intense negotiations over her rank and salary.
Ozoma and Banks both eventually reached settlements with Pinterest, but their accusations sparked a crisis for the company. Former chief operating officer Françoise Brougher filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination and wrongful termination last August, which was eventually settled for $22.5m. Days later employees staged a virtual walkout. The company went on to add the first black female directors to its board and hired a head of inclusion and diversity.
But Ozoma’s life was turned upside down in the weeks after she spoke out, with her days filled by interviews to journalists and speaking engagements. “I thought of it kind of like the sort of launches I had been part of before, where you prepare for it, and then you respond and it was nonstop for a while,” she said. Ozoma also relocated to Santa Fe.
“Speaking out comes with a risk and cost,” said activist and human rights technologist Sabrina Hersi Issa, who sees the bravery of Ozoma, Banks and Gebru following “the arc of many black women who lead out front and endure exhausting, painful pushback”.
Ozoma had not planned to make whistleblowing a central part of her career — and is quick to state that for most whistleblowers it should not be. But within months she found herself drafting a handbook for other tech workers considering speaking out about their employers’ misconduct, with practical advice on how to hire a lawyer and secure your social media profiles in preparation. She also began drafting the Silenced No More Act and fundraising for the lobbyist she eventually hired to shore up support for it.
The bill comes amid mounting criticism of Big Tech over their grip on American life, following scandals over election interference and misinformation on the coronavirus and its vaccines. Ozoma is unsure if paving the way for future whistleblowers will actually help create lasting accountability, but says she will continue working towards that goal.
People “imply that there is some sort of timeline for it, and almost like things will just move towards the next stage at some point, whatever that stage is”, Ozoma says. “People, individuals, have to decide to actually do the work. We need more people doing the actual work.”