Georgene Huang was two months pregnant, unemployed and looking for a work environment that promoted women and offered decent maternity leave policies. Yet asking questions about aspects of a job during interviews, she worried, seemed like an invitation for rejection. Searching for answers online didn’t help. Then the penny dropped: When Huang realized how hard it was to find the insights she needed, she stopped interviewing and decided to do something about it by starting a company called Fairygodboss.
That was three years ago. Since then Fairygodboss has grown into a powerful site where women can learn about each other’s work experiences in a confidential space. Huang and her co-founder, Romy Newman, have raised $14 million and built a full-time team of more than 40. In September, Google picked Fairygodboss to be one of a dozen companies to take part in its first accelerator program for women founders. (Also in the group: edtech company, Possip which offers schools and districts text-based, two-way messaging in 100 languages.)
Huang is Fairygodboss’s chief executive. And though the coronavirus has pushed many businesses, including Fairygodboss itself, to lay off employees, advice and education about how to find the right next job has never mattered more. Better news: Huang says that she sees the hiring tempo picking up.
In this third conversation in the EdSurge miniseries, supported by Peak State Ventures, with female entrepreneurs building businesses at the intersection of learning and working, Huang shares her insights into the complexities of the current job market.
EdSurge: You’re very focused on helping women succeed—so much so that you define Fairygodboss as “A person who elevates women at work.” What’s it like for women in the job market during these challenging and crazy times?
Huang: It’s hard to be a jobseeker right now. There are so many uncertainties, especially for some professions that won't likely come back. In some cases, the advice is to seize the crisis the best you can: Maybe it wasn’t the job you really loved—but something that you did within the job. It’s a moment for self reflection. We’ve done a lot of free resume consults. At the same time, we’re seeing demand for workers begin to pick up. We believe next year will be better. Although we laid off about 20 percent of the team when COVID hit, we’re hiring now. The number of jobs posted on our site are back to pre-pandemic levels. And we’re having energized conversation with companies around diversity. The people who have found a way to find hope—who are staying positive, improving their resumes—they inspire me.
You created a comprehensive diversity and inclusion plan for Fairygodboss this year. What did you learn from doing that?
One of the principles guiding our plan is to be as data-oriented as possible. We’ve always had certain processes and procedures. But as a startup, we just never wrote that many things down, even in a company handbook. So one part of our plan is that we shouldn’t have processes that aren’t written down, as simple as that sounds.
You have to start with data. You can’t make assumptions. In order to understand where we are, we had to ask our employees questions and to start collecting data. We produced a 100-page deck in July and tried to look at all our processes, including how we speak within the company, and how we speak to those outside Fairygodboss.
It absorbed far more time and energy and intellectual effort than I thought it initially would. It’s made us more sympathetic to why it takes companies, especially large companies, so long to get it right. It’s all about systems and practices. I could imagine how a small company that has a strong desire to do the right thing could implement D&I very badly.
What’s one tricky issue?
Take the concept of diverse slates. That’s intended to make sure that you are interviewing people who are underrepresented minorities as part of your hiring process. The first gating issue is just administrative: It’s not even possible to interview diverse candidates unless you ask demographic information of the people who are applying. If you don’t ask the questions, you cannot have a diverse slate.
In some cases, companies are uncomfortable asking those questions.
Sure and you can’t require anybody to answer that question. Then there’s another factor: People who are minorities may actually feel more uncomfortable answering those questions honestly. That can create a data problem. It’s not insurmountable, but there is absolutely a reason why I think companies don’t all just do it.
Is it challenging to explain to people why you want to collect the demographic information?
I think you can do it but typically it’s not done well. You can anonymize the data. There’s a lot of information that people feel better about giving it to you if you share your intent and what you’re going to do with the data, namely aggregating it or limiting access to the information.
It’s a deliberate decision to slow down your hiring process because, by definition, creating a diverse slate means you have to interview more people. It doesn’t matter if the first person you met was amazing. You’ve committed yourself to, mathematically again, interviewing a minimum number of people, which goes back to the data administrative point. It’s not very sexy in the D&I world to talk about this, but I have come to the conclusion that you can’t do it effectively without just a huge amount of administrative effort.
Will those companies that prioritize D&I emerge from this downturn stronger than their competitors, particularly as we live in an increasingly diverse world?
It's a long-term secular trend that equality and inclusion issues will continue to be important to generations of people. Those issues are also tugging companies to move into issues that historically haven’t been part of business—whether it’s the boycotts of Facebook ads or the corporate statements and donations to the Black Lives Matter movement. All of this is really new behavior by companies. They have stakeholders and shareholders—but in the past, it’s always been the shareholders that win. I think part of the reason that it’s changing now is a generational and cultural thing—but maybe also it’s becoming clear that stakeholders and shareholders are not as separate as they may once seemed.
Given all of the uncertainty in the world these days, how do you prioritize what to do?
As the CEO, my primary objective in normal times is to thrive and succeed. In these times, you can’t thrive and succeed without first surviving. Because we are a startup that runs operating losses, we made the decision to reduce our headcount pretty early on. We did it because we knew that we were a labor market-related company and that all of our revenue comes from employers, many of whom were going to stop hiring or dramatically slow it down or change their behavior in this way. I looked at it as a matter of survival for the entity and for everybody who was going to stay with us.
There are a lot of ways to do layoffs. Do you feel that your perspective as a female CEO influenced that in any way, shape or form?
I obviously don’t have the counterfactual of what it would be to not be a woman. I’m not sure gender influenced me as much as the fact that I worked in the financial industry at a hedge fund during the ’08-’09 financial crisis. Having been through a layoff and been on the [other end of that] did make a difference for me.
You realize that people remember how they felt about you. Everyone understands at some rational level why a company has to do layoffs when it’s so clear. None of these decisions were performance-related. They were truly about surviving as a company and so there’s no reason to not give people some sort of warning. You want them to walk away with their head held as high as they can hold it. I think that’s the humane thing to do and it’s probably also the right business thing to do. Former employees, as we very well know because we have job reviews as part of our platform and site, leave a lasting reputational mark on the company they leave.
People can say whatever they want about a company and usually companies can’t say whatever they want back. It’s not exactly a communications level playing field. Right?
People can always be disgruntled. But if you don’t surprise them—give them notice—give them every explanation, be as generous as you can be with severance, basically do layoffs in as dignified a way as you can over the Internet, then you minimize the business risk. I don’t know if that’s a gender thing, but I feel, as somebody who’s been through layoffs before, that there’s no reason not to treat your former colleagues with every ounce of respect and generosity that you can provide.
What do you expect of your investors and your board members?
Look, I’m realistic about investors. I used to be one. I think you have to start by looking at what investors’ jobs are and their economic interests: Investors are supposed to make money for the people who gave them money.
That’s really simple but I think a lot of people have talked about VCs as if they have some other goals. They may. But generally their mandates are to return more money than they started with. I view investors realistically through that lens.
Looking at investors through that lens, how can or do they help you?
There’s accountability. Even if you’re a terrible board member, the process that the company has to go through to summarize, on paper, what we did last month or last quarter, is valuable accountability. It’s a bit like our approach to the D&I plan. Just documenting what you think you did is inherently valuable.
That’s a low bar!
It’s really basic. It’s like a 101 of corporate governance, right? Having that regular accountability and reporting to a group of people—not just yourself and not your employees—that is very important.
On top of that, introductions to people are always important, and you hope that your investors can introduce you to people. It can be hard for investors to be aware of who you might want to meet because they are, by definition, not operating the company. So that means it’s your job to tell your board what you need.
The more clear you are, the more helpful they can be. You can’t expect them to just read your mind or imagine your strategy. No one is as close to the company as you are.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your board members so far?
It’s important that they don’t all say the same thing. Some of the more interesting moments have happened when board members make different observations about the work or data I’ve shared.
Some people find differing points of view on the board horrifying because then you’re dealing with no leading voice or consensus. But as long as you have confidence that A) you’ll still be leading the company and B) they’ll support you, it’s actually more useful when they don’t agree about something than when they agree.
Typically when they agree about something, at some level, you already know the point. They may have raised an issue to a higher plane of consciousness, but it’s not a surprise. Right? It’s something that makes sense. It’s logical. You’ve most likely thought about it at some point.
When they disagree about something, you have to really pause and ask yourself, ‘Why do they disagree? This is probably an area I should’—I hate this term, but it’s appropriate—‘double-click on. I should examine this issue.’
Any advice you have for early stage entrepreneurs, including those who may be trying to raise money during these very strange times?
The best advice that I’ve got is: If you don’t have to raise money, just don’t. If you have to then, just like any other time, give it all that you’ve got but be aware of how your narrative fits in the macro context. When you’re an earlier stage startup, you have less sunk costs in whatever you’re doing, so you can pivot better. It would be very difficult for us to just say, “Okay, we’re going to scrap all our customers and just do a different business.” But that’s still possible when you don’t have any investors. I think about that. In some ways, I think these times might be more challenging for certain growth companies and VC-backed companies.
Recruiting overall, like many industries, has been dominated by men for a long time. You’ve said one impact you’d like to have is to make women feel safe asking critical questions such as: ‘What’s the parental leave policy? Are there any women in management? What are the politics of the company?’ If you could wave your Fairygodboss magic wand, how else would you like to change the recruiting industry?
My current answer surprises me. It’s a little bit different than what I would have said a couple of years ago. But it’s this: I think to have systemic change we need better data and measurement.
This is a big theme for you.
Yes. Because after five years of hearing so many companies say they want to hire more women in leadership and more technical women, I have started to realize that part of why they all say the same thing is that there’s no common understanding of the talent pool, and particularly the motivations and tradeoffs that women are willing to make. Female engineers comprise a minority of all engineers. That means, of course, every company’s going to have trouble hiring women engineers and certainly trouble getting to parity in their workforce. It’s just a mathematical fact. So it’s not a very useful conversation when a company says, ‘I want to hire more female engineers.’ It may be admirable as a statement of intent. But it’s not an actionable statement.
I’m also frustrated with statements like: ‘It’s a pipeline problem.’ That is also too readily used as an excuse. What’s the difference between an excuse and a reason? I’d say it’s data, right?
I’m trying to run a scaled platform that achieves change at scale. Change at scale means being honest about who’s out there.