Ifeoma Ozoma, California's Silenced No More Act and the Value of Disclosing and Disparaging Toxic Tech Companies

Leigh Giangreco
Leigh Giangreco is a reporter covering culture, politics and news. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and Washington City Paper.

Ifeoma Ozoma's first choice was not speaking out.

When she left her role as public policy manager at Pinterest in March 2020, she was presented with a non-disclosure agreement.

"I was pushed out of the company and presented with a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement," she told dot.LA, "and that was my only option for retaining health insurance and compensation right at the beginning of the pandemic."


But Ozoma would break that NDA a few months later, alleging that she and her Black coworkers faced racism and wage discrimination at the social media company. Her fight led her to team up with California State Senator Connie Leyva, who helped draft the Silenced No More Act, a bill that would prevent the use of NDAs in workplace situations involving any form of discrimination and harassment.

The Silenced No More Act is actually an expansion on another law drafted by Levya, the Stand Together Against Non-Disclosures (STAND) Act, which specifically addressed sex-based discrimination. The legislation passed from the Assembly Judiciary Committee in June and is now headed to the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee for consideration.

dot.LA spoke with Ozoma about her work on the bill and the broader battle for tech workers' rights.

dot.LA: To start, can you explain what you did as one of Pinterest's public policy managers?

Ifeoma Ozoma: I led both our U.S. policy and the engagement with external experts at organizations like the WHO (World Health Organization), and I led a lot of the content safety development that came from those engagements with experts. All of the vaccine work that Pinterest was in the news for was my work. Pinterest was the first social platform to take definitive action against anti-vaccination content and groups.

And can you talk more about the discrimination you faced?

Leveling is used as a way to bring in women, particularly women of color, into roles where we're doing the same as, in my case, a white man who is being paid several times more than me. So leveling is what the company used to underpay me from the time I started. At tech companies, it means that women—and in my case, Black women—were brought in pre-IPO— because I was the second person on the public policy team—and given not even a fraction in shares of what my white male colleague was granted, making him a millionaire when the company IPO-ed and meaning I got next to nothing.

You've spoken out about this disparity publicly in the media and on Twitter. Have you faced retaliation from Pinterest?

Well, part of it is when I decided to go public, I knew that they could and they still can sue me because I'm still in violation of the contract that I signed. So, it's what all whistleblowers do: take a risk. That's what I've done and what I'm continuing to do is talk about it. At this point they probably feel like it's not worth a legal fight because if it went to a jury trial with the interviews I've done already, I don't think it would look so good for them in a jury. The only reason why I haven't been sued bankrupt is because they haven't decided to.

Despite the NDA, you came forward with another colleague. You both believed you would be covered by another California law that protects workers who have been discriminated against or harassed because of their gender. Why didn't that law protect you?

I can speak for myself. The law, CCP 1001, which came from the STAND Act, covered sex-based discrimination, harassment and assault. I had filed both internally and with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, race and gender discrimination and retaliation complaints going back over a year and so I was covered on the sex discrimination and retaliation. I was not covered on the race claims and there's no way to disentangle the two because the two are who I am.

And that's why I'm co-sponsoring the bill now that would fix that original law and expand it to cover all forms of discrimination and harassment recognized by the state of California, because no one should be treated differently based on what their identity is.

How did you connect with Senator Connie Leyva on the Silenced No More Act?

My attorney knew that I had worked specifically on engagement with state legislatures while I was at Pinterest, so he and I spoke about what it would look like to expand [the STAND Act]. There had been talk in 2020 about doing it but anything that wasn't COVID-related was pushed from the legislative calendar, and so for this year there was a conversation about bringing it back up again. So he connected me with the California Employment Lawyers Association, Equal Rights Advocates, and then we all connected with Senator Leyva's office. The group, along with Senator Leyva's office, have been working nonstop since [the bill] was introduced in February.

Who stands in opposition to the bill?

The [California] Chamber of Commerce and all of who they represent. Only one company has spoken out in opposition to the chamber to support the bill and that's Pinterest, funny enough, because they thought they could get some news coverage on the same day that my op-ed was published in the New York Times.

The bill sounds like a good deal for workers, but what about the shareholders? Doesn't an NDA protect valuable intellectual property?

Yeah, and this bill does nothing to touch that. Confidential IP has nothing to do with discrimination and harassment, unless you're saying that's a business secret, and I don't think any company lawyer would argue that publicly. So it's absolutely irrelevant and actually, shareholders — the smart ones — are already in support of whistleblower protections, because an NDA and a non-disparagement agreement that keep racism that was perpetuated by Ben, Charlie and their deputies secret — is that really helping Pinterest shareholders?

Even the Chamber dropped that argument, now they're just saying it's going to be difficult for employers, which is what they say about everything — including paying people. Slavery, I'm sure, was easier. This is not difficult for anyone except for those who are intent on not only getting away with discrimination, harassment and abuse but keeping it secret. Again, this bill doesn't have a punishment; if transparency is a punishment, you have to ask yourself what you're trying to keep secret.

If this gets passed in California, what's the impact for other states and potentially policy at the federal level?

There are other states that have substantive laws already on NDAs, all of them came up after #MeToo. None of them to my knowledge deal with non-disparagement agreements. Both are important to address, because the clauses in the non-disparagement agreements are so broad. That's not a decision that any individual should be making on their own, so I'm hoping that the bill as it's written influences future bills that are drafted in other states.

At the federal level, next to nothing is getting through Congress right now. If we can't pass voting protections for people, NDA protections I think would be a bit difficult. I'm not holding my breath on federal legislation for now. I'm focused instead on some of the efforts in other jurisdictions like in Ireland where most tech companies are headquartered internationally. I'm working with a senator there who introduced a bill last month that would address NDAs and secret settlements. Additionally, I'm working on a plan to engage shareholders on this policy work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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NFT Startup Unblocked Raises New Funding, Teases Collectibles Beyond Music

Harri Weber

Do you know something we should know about L.A. tech or venture capital? Reach out securely via Signal: +1 917 434 4978.

Harri is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. She previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find her on Twitter and send tips on L.A. startups and venture capital to harrison@dot.la.

Courtesy of Unblocked

Backed by venture giant Tiger Global, Jay Z’s Marcy Venture Partners and pop star Shawn Mendez, NFT startup Unblocked could soon move into ventures beyond music after closing on a $10 million seed funding round.

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Three New LA-Based Beverage Brands, Three Different NFT Experiments

Perrin Davidson
Perrin Davidson is the publisher of⁣ LAeats, an L.A.-based food community covering the food industry, food entertainment and food tech.
Image courtesy of Bored Breakfast Club

While you can’t drink an NFT, that isn’t stopping some beverage startups from looking to capitalize on the blockchain-enabled craze.

Non-fungible tokens have gained traction in the art world, where artists and creators are using the digital assets to create closer connections with fans and collectors.

The idea of building a creative community around a product is not unfamiliar to beverage brands. After all, generations of beverage aficionados gave us the concept of the bar, the tea house and the coffee joint.

As brands increasingly take to the digital world to increase their exposure, many beverage companies are now experimenting with NFT technology to build interest around their products. Budweiser, for instance, recently signed a deal to mint collectible tokens, as have Bacardi, Fountain Hard Seltzer and the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Three new L.A.-based beverage brands–Bored Breakfast Club, Yerb and Leisure Project–are also using the blockchain to build their companies and engage with customers in different ways. Each is using NFTs to kickstart their direct-to-consumer businesses and build interest in their brands.

The goal is to use the transparency and equity inherent in blockchain technology to attract early adopters—giving them an opportunity to test ideas and products before they’re finalized—and encourage them to invest in a community built around their drinks.

Time will tell if each brand can deliver on that promise.

Bored Breakfast Club Bored Breakfast Club's NFT tokens feature the Bored Ape characters and serve as a subscription membership.

Bored Breakfast Club

One L.A.-based effort, Bored Breakfast Club, has looked to leverage the popularity of Bored Ape collectible NFTs to help jump start a new coffee subscription service.

Frogtown-based marketing agency Kley is leading the effort to use Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) and Mutant Ape Yacht Club (MAYC) intellectual property to build direct-to-consumer coffee subscription memberships that are sold as NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain. The tokens themselves feature a breakfast scene that include BAYC and MAYC characters, and each functions as a coffee subscription membership.

BAYC and MAYC are considered two of the most popular and expensive NFT collections, according to OpenSea, a secondary NFT marketplace that also tracks their value. BYAC NFTs are valued at approximately 74.69 ETH ($244,041) on the platform.

Kley co-founder Brad Klemmer said the idea was to parlay the success of the Bored Apes brand into a new direct-to-consumer offering. Owners of the NFTs get two free coffee shipments and the possibility of more, if the project is a success.

Klemmer said the idea is to build a regular clientele for his coffee brand by shipping it directly to consumers, rather than relying on them to go to a coffee shop or grocery store. “You need a brand and community that puts their product on [consumers’] doorstep on a weekly basis,” he said.

Bored Breakfast Club launched the project on Jan. 10, offering 5,000 NFTs for .08 ETH (approx. $250) each, and promising token holders they would receive a 12-ounce bag of a different variety of coffee for each of two NFT sales thresholds the company surpassed. The NFTs have since sold out, meaning that the project will ship two bags of coffee to each token holder by the end of the month. The company has also created a “community coffee wallet” that could entitle token holders to still more coffee.

Bored Breakfast Club A graphic explains Bored Breakfast Club's "wallet" concept.

That’s because the “wallet“ collects funds from a 5% royalty on its NFTs that are bought and sold on the secondary market. Once it collects enough funds, the company will send additional blends to its 5,000 token holders. (Klemmer said they’re waiting to get data from their initial shipments to determine how much it will cost to ship additional bags). That communal “wallet“ will also pay to produce extra bags of coffee and Bored Breakfast Club merchandise to sell to non-NFT holders.

Klemmer said he sees the NFT offerings as a “fun way to buy coffee.” Also, there were “similarities around NFT communities engaging with each other and what the DTC subscription model is trying to be.”

Bored Breakfast Club works with Yes Plz Coffee, which sources, roasts, packages and delivers the coffee to NFT holders.

Yerb yerba mate drink

Yerb

Yerb was born out of entrepreneur Brett Fink's habit of drinking yerba mate with friends, many of them creatives who were looking for a coffee alternative. The traditional South American drink is said to provide a calmer caffeine-imbibing experience than coffee.

Like Bored Breakfast Club, Fink is hoping to use NFTs to drum up interest in his business early on. But instead of relying on the popularity of a particular NFT brand, Fink sees an opportunity to use the blockchain to heighten awareness of his own brand and, hopefully, develop buy-in for its first product.

Fink, who has past experience building and growing consumer-packaged good (CPG) brands, including cannabis brands, thinks NFTs can help build a creative community around a product.

“If you believe what we believe, and want to create a product for the creative process, you can benefit from it, as there is a massive untapped opportunity in NFT and CPG projects,” Fink said. “You need to get people to believe what you believe, then have them be involved and take ownership of that product.”

Yerb’s first yerba mate drink will be bottled in 12-ounce cans but sold through NFTs that cost 0.039 ETH (approx. $77 USD). The company started offering the tokens in February of last year; each entitles the holder to six cans of Yerb’s first release, as well as an additional six-pack of cans every year that they hold the NFT. Yerb is hoping that the offer will help it identify early adopters who will buy-in to the brand as repeat customers.

Non-NFT holders will be able to purchase the drinks once token holders receive the first shipment. Yerb is targeting April 2022 for that release after hitting supply chain issues last year.

Leisure Project

Leisure Project

Venice-based Leisure Project is taking a similar approach to Yerb by targeting creatives with an emphasis on community development.

The startup, which bills itself as “the world’s first co-created beverage brand,” hopes to market a kind of natural Gatorade for entrepreneurs, creators and innovators.

Leisure Project was started by former NCAA Division I athletes and brothers Steve Michaelsen, who works at Nike LA, and Alex Michaelsen, who works at TikTok marketing agency GO Ventures in Beverly Hills. The brothers, who have been bootstrapping the project themselves, have spent almost two years creating the brand’s first three flavors.

In December, the Michaelsens announced plans to experiment with minting NFTs that would provide token holders with the first run of their beverages, cheaper pricing on additional flavors and the opportunity to pitch new products. Leisure Project has been sampling its drinks at local NFT events to drum up publicity.

Down the line, the company hopes to use the blockchain to give token holders access to a yet-to-be-defined “creator database” of potential partners and grants.

Leisure Project is in its early stages, but its founders hope establishing buy-in through NFTs and social platforms like Discord will help build an authentic community for their brand, and give them a potentially vital advantage over more-established competitors. “Big brands can’t go backwards and do something community-orientated after the fact,” Steve Michaelson said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Bored Breakfast Club would ship four bags of coffee to early NFT holders as sales thresholds were met. The company has since changed that number to two.

Office Hours: JibJab CEO Paul Hanges on Creating Viral Joy

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 75 companies and is incubating several more.

Image courtesy of JibJab

Even if people don't know the brand by name, JibJab CEO Paul Hanges is happy to see the company's greeting cards resonate and its mission to make people laugh continue to thrive.

On this episode of Office Hours, Hanges talks about JibJab, a pioneer of internet comedy that has evolved into a subscription platform for exchanging ecards, as well as a studio that produces video shorts and commercials for clients including Sony, Nickelodeon, PBS Kids, NBC in Disney. JibJab was acquired by Catapult Capital in 2019.

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