On the morning of December 21st, Kimberly Bryant, CEO and co-founder of nonprofit organization Black Girls Code, learned that she could no longer access her work e-mail. The board of directors at the nonprofit organization, which she founded a decade ago, sent a note to her personal email notifying her that she had been “suspended indefinitely.”
“Press release: So it’s 3 days before Christmas and you wake up to discover the organization YOU created and built from the ground up has been taken away by a rogue board with no notification,” Bryant said in a tweet. Two days later, Bryant responded to her temporary removal in a formal statement to TechCrunch.
“First and foremost, I know that I have not personally done anything unethical, immoral, or illegal as the Founder and CEO of Black Girls Code,” read the statement. “As a founder who has built something from her own blood, sweat, and tears from the ground up, this fight for me is about justice and giving rights to founders, especially women in leadership. We must be treated fairly and just.” Bryant’s statement continued: “None of the so-called allegations have been substantiated, no investigation has even started, and this entire process has been dishonest and unlawful.”
In her statement, Bryant identified interim board chair Heather Hiles, founder of edtech company Pathbrite, as the person who ultimately decided to suspend her “without fair investigation or substantiated allegations.” When asked for more specifics by TechCrunch, Hiles responded in a text message that “the board has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the organization and the well-being of its staff. I can confirm that the recent activities are a result of following through in that responsibility.”
Through a spokesperson, the board declined to comment on if there is an impending investigation, the process of Bryant’s suspension and if the founder was given any notice before being put on leave. The board also declined to comment on the timeline for the ongoing review.
The founder claims there has been no active investigation, even after she approved a payment in October 2021 requested by an ad hoc committee of the board of directors to hire an attorney to conduct one. The board said in a statement it has formed a special committee “to review and evaluate the complaints and determine what, if any, action should be taken with respect to these concerns.” The committee is fully made up of BCG board members.
Bryant founded Black Girls Code in February 2011 to close the opportunity gap in tech for Black women and girls. Since then, the nonprofit has established 15 chapter cities in the U.S. and abroad, hosting technology workshops, hackathons and other enrichment opportunities for over 30,000 Black girls, it says.
Senior sources currently employed at the company say that Sofia Mohammed, Black Girl Code’s vice president of programming, is serving as interim CEO. TechCrunch reached out to Mohammed, who has not yet responded to a request for comment.
‘A mix of emotions’
Five former employees of Black Girls Code spoke to TechCrunch anonymously out of fear of retaliation about the state of affairs at BGC. They confirmed the board’s decision to look into the company culture after a summer of rapid turnover, with many individuals citing Bryant as a key reason for parting ways.
Bryant attributed the turnover to distributed work. “Now, like many orgs navigating the pandemic, we had a lot of turnover in the last year mostly from folks we hired while virtual in 2020. We were not spared the ‘great resignation’,” she said in a text message in response to allegations.
Two former employees, both who spent months at the organization in leadership capacities, say employee churn was largely attributed to Bryant’s leadership style, which they describe was “rooted in fear.” When Bryant was there, they say she would publicly berate managers within meetings, repeatedly calling folks incompetent and urging a manager to “go back to school” when they were unable to deliver on a certain task.
Bryant denied that she said this, pointing to her choice to hire consultants to build a compensation policy to weigh employees’ years of experience over number of degrees. “As a techie in an industry where not everyone needs a degree, it’s not something I place a high value on.”
One employee said that a recurring phrase Bryant used was, “you’re not living up to my expectations of what you should be,” even though, the employee notes, she declined to give them independent access to widely used productivity tools. No new employees were given access to Salesforce, which they said prevented them from accessing key information about the community they were tasked with serving, including names, ages and history in the program. One employee detailed the lack of onboarding process, as well as Bryant’s absence in the daily operations in pursuit of media appearances.
“People stayed because they figured out the workarounds,” said one of the former employees. “Someone said that it was to your benefit to stay off her radar, and if you could figure out how to execute your work even without access to specific systems, you’d be fine.” Bryant said that BGC just completed a five-year strategy plan with the Bridgespan Group “that addresses operational concerns,” which would include strategies around what databases employees have access to. The founder denies having any control over who can access what.
A recently resigned employee conveyed a mix of emotions.
“We know how it is perceived to take down a Black person,” they said. “And that’s not even what we want to accomplish. We want the organization to be under leadership that could continue the growth of our work.”
Despite belief in the mission, they said they finally left the company, partially thanks to consulting their therapist. “To work for an organization that is trying to change how you are treated, valued and appreciated — and when that doesn’t happen again — it’s really a particular kind of betrayal,” they added.
In a now-deleted tweet, Bryant said that “I am driven, [have] high expectations, and [am] a bit of a perfectionist. But I have never in my life misappropriated, misused, or abused anything or anybody for the org I built out of love. So don’t ever ever believe that. It’s not true.”
Checks and balances
Despite Bryant’s denial of former employees’ allegations, currently employed sources close to the matter say that resignations, along with a slew of negative Glassdoor reviews, caused the founder to hire Edgility Consulting, an external firm, to do a salary study and address staff concerns. According to a document obtained by TechCrunch, the consultation was launched in June and completed in December. The findings were not made available.
Karla Monterroso, an executive coach, told TechCrunch in an interview that Bryant hired her in September 2021 after complaints against Bryant and the nonprofit’s culture surfaced.
While Monterroso declined to offer specifics of her conversations with Bryant, she said they met for 90 minutes every other week about culture at the company and the operational complexities ahead. Monterroso was not contacted before the leadership change. The board, which is conducting an ongoing review, has yet to confirm if it has hired an external firm, reviewed salary structures or brought in a board consultant.
“I think there are a lot of imperfect leaders trying to do their very best, and I believe that the story is about systemic complexity that is popping up for leaders of color,” Monterroso said. “And not about any one organization or individual, it’s about the poor conditions that exist for our leaders and our teams to succeed with their dignity intact.”
At the time of publication, Bryant is still employed at the nonprofit but continues to not have access to her company e-mail and internal platforms. Current employees and contractors were told that if they communicated with Bryant, they would immediately be fired, Bryant says.
“Checks and balances of power and support have been put in place at BGC, and I absolutely believe in proper board/corporate governance,” Bryant said in the written statement. There is nothing about how this matter was handled that is appropriate, and I have not been treated fairly or justly.”
Current and former Black Girls Code employees can contact Natasha Mascarenhas by e-mail at email@example.com or on Signal, a secure encrypted messaging app, at 925 609 4188.
Originally published at techcrunch.com