A Tech Whistle-Blower Helps Others Speak Out
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a bill to expand protections for people who speak up about discrimination in the workplace.
A new website arrived to offer tech workers advice on how to come forward about mistreatment by their employers.
And Apple responded to a shareholder proposal that asked it to assess how it used confidentiality agreements in employee harassment and discrimination cases.
The disparate developments had one thing — or, rather, a person — in common: Ifeoma Ozoma.
Since last year, Ms. Ozoma, 29, a former employee of Pinterest, Facebook and Google, has emerged as a central figure among tech whistle-blowers. The Yale-educated daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she has supported and mentored tech workers who needed help speaking out, pushed for more legal protections for those employees and urged tech companies and their shareholders to change their whistle-blower policies.
She helped inspire and pass the new California law, the Silenced No More Act, which prohibits companies from using nondisclosure agreements to squelch workers who speak up against discrimination in any form. Ms. Ozoma also released a website, The Tech Worker Handbook, which provides information on whether and how workers should blow the whistle.
“It’s really sad to me that we still have such a lack of accountability within the tech industry that individuals have to do it” by speaking up, Ms. Ozoma said in an interview.
Her efforts — which have alienated at least one ally along the way — are increasingly in the spotlight as restive tech employees take more action against their employers. Last month, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, revealed that she had leaked thousands of internal documents about the social network’s harms. (Facebook has since renamed itself Meta.) Apple also recently faced employee unrest, with many workers voicing concerns about verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination.
Ms. Ozoma is now focused on directly pushing tech companies to stop using nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking out about workplace discrimination. She has also met with activists and organizations that want to pass legislation similar to the Silenced No More Act elsewhere. And she is constantly in touch with other activist tech workers, including those who have organized against Google and Apple.
Much of Ms. Ozoma’s work stems from experience. In June 2020, she and a colleague, Aerica Shimizu Banks, publicly accused their former employer, the virtual pinboard maker Pinterest, of racism and sexism. Pinterest initially denied the allegations but later apologized for its workplace culture. Its workers staged a walkout, and a former executive sued the company over gender discrimination.
“It’s remarkable how Ifeoma has taken some very painful experiences, developed solutions for them and then built a movement around making those solutions a reality,” said John Tye, the founder of Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit that provides legal support to whistle-blowers. He and Ms. Ozoma recently appeared on a webinar to educate people on whistle-blower rights.
Meredith Whittaker, a former Google employee who helped organize a 2018 walkout over the company’s sexual harassment policy, added of Ms. Ozoma: “She has stuck around and worked to help others blow the whistle more safely.”
Ms. Ozoma, who grew up in Anchorage and Raleigh, N.C., became an activist after a five-year career in the tech industry. A political science major, she moved to Washington, D.C., in 2015 to join Google in government relations. She then worked at Facebook in Silicon Valley on international policy.
In 2018, Pinterest recruited Ms. Ozoma to its public policy team. There, she helped bring Ms. Banks on board. They spearheaded policy decisions including ending the promotion of anti-vaccination information and content related to plantation weddings on Pinterest, Ms. Ozoma said.
Yet Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks said they faced unequal pay, racist comments and retaliation for raising complaints at Pinterest. They left the company in May 2020. A month later, during the Black Lives Matter protests, Pinterest posted a statement supporting its Black employees.
Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks said Pinterest’s hypocrisy had pushed them to speak out. On Twitter, they disclosed their experiences as Black women at the company, with Ms. Ozoma declaring that Pinterest’s statement was “a joke.”
In a statement, Pinterest said it had taken steps to increase diversity.
By speaking out, Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks took a risk. That’s because they broke the nondisclosure agreements they had signed with Pinterest when they left the company. California law, which offered only partial protection, didn’t cover people speaking out about racial discrimination.
Peter Rukin, their lawyer, said he had an idea: What if state law was expanded to ban nondisclosure agreements from preventing people speaking out on any workplace discrimination? Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks soon began working with a California state senator, Connie Leyva, a Democrat, on a bill to do just that. It was introduced in February.
“I’m just so proud of these women for coming forward,” Ms. Levya said.
Along the way, Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks fell out. Ms. Banks said she no longer spoke with Ms. Ozoma because Ms. Ozoma had recruited her to Pinterest without disclosing the discrimination there and then excluded her from working on the Silenced No More Act.
“Ifeoma then cut me out of the initiative through gaslighting and bullying,” Ms. Banks said.
Ms. Ozoma said she had not cut Ms. Banks out of the organizing. She added that Ms. Banks had “felt left out” because news coverage focused on Ms. Ozoma’s role.
Understand the Facebook Papers
A tech giant in trouble. The leak of internal documents by a former Facebook employee has provided an intimate look at the operations of the secretive social media company and renewed calls for better regulations of the company’s wide reach into the lives of its users.
How it began. In September, The Wall Street Journal published The Facebook Files, a series of reports based on leaked documents. The series exposed evidence that Facebook, which on Oct. 28 assumed the corporate name of Meta, knew Instagram, one of its products was worsening body-image issues among teenagers.
The whistle-blower. During an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Oct. 3, Frances Haugen, a Facebook product manager who left the company in May, revealed that she was responsible for the leak of those internal documents.
Ms. Haugen’s testimony in Congress. On Oct. 5, Ms. Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee, saying that Facebook was willing to use hateful and harmful content on its site to keep users coming back. Facebook executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, called her accusations untrue.
The Facebook Papers. Ms. Haugen also filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided the documents to Congress in redacted form. A congressional staff member then supplied the documents, known as the Facebook Papers, to several news organizations, including The New York Times.
New revelations. Documents from the Facebook Papers show the degree to which Facebook knew of extremist groups on its site trying to polarize American voters before the election. They also reveal that internal researchers had repeatedly determined how Facebook’s key features amplified toxic content on the platform.
Since leaving Pinterest, Ms. Ozoma has moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where she lives with a flock of chickens she calls the Golden Girls. She also runs a tech equity consulting firm, Earthseed.
Through Earthseed, Ms. Ozoma is continuing her whistle-blowing work. She is collaborating with the nonprofit Open MIC and the consulting firm Whistle Stop Capital to stop tech companies from using nondisclosure agreements to keep workers anywhere from coming forward on discrimination.
In September, Ms. Ozoma, Whistle Stop Capital and Open MIC, along with the social impact investor Nia Impact Capital, filed a shareholder proposal at Apple. The proposal asked the company to assess the risks associated with the use of concealment clauses for employees who have experienced harassment and discrimination.
Last month, Apple said in a letter that it wouldn’t take action on the proposal, arguing that the company “does not limit employees’ and contractors’ ability to speak freely about harassment, discrimination and other unlawful acts in the workplace.” It declined to comment beyond the letter.
Ms. Ozoma also supports and counsels other tech activists. The Tech Worker Handbook website, in part, was designed to help with that. The website has information on how to navigate nondisclosure agreements and how to protect against corporate surveillance or physical threats. Across the top of the site is a slogan: “Preparedness Is Power.” Since it went online on Oct. 6, the site has had over 53,000 visitors, Ms. Ozoma said.
“I send it to people who are thinking about coming forward,” said Ashley Gjovik, a former activist employee at Apple who has relied on Ms. Ozoma for support. When people think about whistle-blowing, she added, “their mind won’t go to the places of the personal, digital, security stuff, all of the legal ramifications, how do you even get that story out, the impact on friends and family, the impact on your mental health.”
Last month, Ms. Ozoma also got a call from Cher Scarlett, another activist Apple employee who left the company this month. (Ms. Scarlett declined to provide her real name for security reasons; she is legally changing her name to Cher Scarlett.) She asked Ms. Ozoma how to pass legislation like the Silenced No More Act in her home state, Washington.
Ms. Ozoma described the steps she had taken, including working closely with a lawmaker who could write a bill, Ms. Scarlett said.
Along with another tech activist, Ms. Scarlett then contacted Karen Keiser, a Washington state senator and a Democrat. Ms. Keiser now plans to sponsor a bill to expand whistle-blower protections when the legislative session starts in January, her office said.
“This is why the network of whistle-blowers and women like Ifeoma are so important,” Ms. Scarlett said.