Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to expand protections for people who speak out about discrimination in the workplace.
A new website has been launched to advise technical workers on how to speak up about abuse by their employers.
And Apple responded to a shareholder proposal asking it to review how it used confidentiality agreements in cases of harassment and discrimination against employees.
The divergent 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 whistleblowers. The Yale-educated daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she has supported and mentored tech workers who needed help speaking up, pushed for greater legal protections for those workers, and urged tech companies and their shareholders to change their whistleblowing policies.
She helped inspire and pass California’s new law, the Silenced No More Act, which prohibits companies from using nondisclosure agreements to silence employees who speak out against discrimination in any form. Ms. Ozoma also released a website, The Tech Worker Handbook, that provides information about whether and how workers should ring the bell.
“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,” Ms Ozoma said in an interview.
Her efforts — which have gradually alienated at least one ally — are increasingly in the spotlight as unruly tech workers take more action against their employers. Last month, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, revealed she had leaked thousands of internal documents about the social network’s damage. (Facebook has since rebranded itself as Meta.) Apple has also been dealing with employee unrest recently, with many employees voicing concerns about verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination.
Ms. Ozoma is now focused on directly urging tech companies to stop using nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking out about workplace discrimination. She has also met with activists and organizations seeking to pass legislation elsewhere similar to the Silenced No More Act. And she is in constant contact with other activist tech workers, including those who have organized themselves against Google and Apple.
Much of Ms. Ozoma’s work comes from experience. In June 2020, she and a colleague, Aeroca Shimizu Banks, publicly accused their former employer, the virtual bulletin board maker Pinterest, of racism and sexism. Pinterest initially denied the allegations, but later apologized for the culture in the workplace. The workers went on strike and a former executive sued the company for gender discrimination.
“It’s remarkable how Ifeoma went through 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. offers to whistleblowers. He and Ms. Ozoma recently appeared on a webinar to educate people about whistleblower rights.
Meredith Whittaker, a former Google employee who helped organize a 2018 strike over the company’s sexual harassment policies, added Ms Ozoma: “She has stuck around and worked to help others whistle more safely. “
Ms. Ozoma, who grew up in Anchorage and Raleigh, NC, became an activist after a five-year career in the tech industry. She studied political science and moved to Washington, DC 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 the public policy team. There she helped get Mrs. Banks aboard. They spearheaded policy decisions, including ending the promotion of anti-vaccination information and content related to plantation marriages on Pinterest, Ms. Ozoma said.
Still, Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks said they faced unequal pay, racist comments and retaliation for filing complaints on Pinterest. They left the company in May 2020. A month later, during the Black Lives Matter protests, Pinterest posted a statement in support of its black employees.
Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks said Pinterest’s hypocrisy prompted them to speak out. On Twitter they have their experiences revealed as black women at the company, with Ms. Ozoma stating that Pinterest’s statement was “a joke.”
Pinterest said in a statement that it has taken steps to increase diversity. On Wednesday, the company settled a lawsuit against shareholders over its workplace culture and pledged $50 million for diversity and inclusion efforts.
By speaking out, Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks took a risk. That’s because they broke the nondisclosure agreements they had with Pinterest when they left the company. The California law, which provided only partial protection, did not apply to people who spoke out about racial discrimination.
Peter Rukin, their attorney, said he had an idea: What if state law were expanded to prohibit nondisclosure agreements to prevent people from speaking out about 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.
On the way, Mrs. Ozoma and Mrs. Banks got into an argument. Ms. Banks said she stopped speaking to Ms. Ozoma because Ms. Ozoma recruited her on Pinterest without disclosing the discrimination there and then barred her from working on the Silenced No More Act.
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“Ifeoma subsequently removed me from the initiative through gaslighting and bullying,” said Ms. Banks.
Ms. Ozoma said she had not removed Ms. Banks from the organization. She added that Ms. Banks “felt left out” because the coverage focused on Ms. Ozoma’s role.
Since leaving Pinterest, Ms. Ozoma has moved to Santa Fe, NM, where she lives with a flock of chickens she calls the Golden Girls. She also runs a technology stock consultancy, Earthseed.
Through Earthseed, Ms. Ozoma continues her whistleblowing work. She has partnered with the nonprofit Open MIC and the consulting firm Whistle Stop Capital to prevent tech companies from using nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees everywhere about discrimination.
In September, Ms. Ozoma, Whistle Stop Capital and Open MIC, along with social impact investor Nia Impact Capital, submitted a shareholder proposal to Apple. The proposal asked the company to assess the risks associated with using concealment clauses for employees who have faced harassment and discrimination.
Apple said in a letter last month that it would not take action against the proposal, arguing that the company “does not limit the ability of employees and contractors to speak out about harassment, discrimination and other illegal acts in the workplace.” It declined to comment on the letter.
Ms. Ozoma also supports and advises other tech activists. The Tech Worker Handbook website is designed in part to help with that. The website contains information on how to navigate non-disclosure agreements and how to protect against corporate surveillance or physical threats. At the top of the site is a tagline, “Preparedness Is Power.” Since the site went online on Oct. 6, the site has had more than 53,000 visitors, Ms. Ozoma said.
“I’m sending 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 of whistleblowing, she added: “their minds don’t go to the places of the personal, digital, security issues, all 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 received a call from Cher Scarlett, another activist Apple employee who left the company this month. (Mrs. Scarlett declined to give her real name for security reasons; she legally changes her name to Cher Scarlett.) She asked Ms. Ozoma how she could pass legislation such as the Silenced No More Act in her home state, Washington.
Ms Ozoma described the steps she had taken, including working closely with a legislator who could write a bill, Ms Scarlett said.
Then, along with another tech activist, Ms. Scarlett contacted Karen Keizer, a Washington state senator and Democrat. Ms Keizer now plans to sponsor a bill to expand whistleblower protections when the legislative session begins in January, her office said.
“This is why the network of whistleblowers and women like Ifeoma are so important,” said Ms Scarlett.