Behind the claims of sexism and racism at Atlanta’s premier tech startup
Alejandra Luaces had only worked at Mailchimp for four months when she got a surprising anonymous email. “Oliver* is in an open marriage and is fair game,” the message read, referring to a senior engineering manager. “Serena* also knows so you can ask her to confirm.”
Luaces was not interested in Oliver. She certainly wasn’t interested in asking a female employee about his marriage. As a product operations manager — and one of the few Latinx women in the engineering org — Luaces was determined to succeed at one of the most prestigious tech companies in Atlanta, according to sources close to the situation.
The events were confirmed by three former employees as well as internal documents reviewed by The Verge.
In June 2016, one month after the anonymous email, Luaces and Oliver went to a diversity conference together in New York City. Luaces’ department was going through a reorg, and she was interested in a position on his team. Oliver seemed open to it, even suggesting that he’d speak to the engineering director on her behalf. But he also became increasingly flirtatious, allegedly sending Luaces late-night texts hinting that he wanted to have sex.
After they returned to Atlanta, Oliver sent her a message saying he’d thought they were going to hook up on the trip. Luaces responded that she didn’t think it was a good idea. Shortly after, the offer to move to his team seemingly evaporated. Luaces’ role was being eliminated in the reorg, and she was told she could either take a lower-level position or leave the company.
In the offer letter for the new role, Mailchimp managers told Luaces that she would not be eligible for a pay raise for “at least the next year, and maybe a few years.” The letter also said that while Luaces was a hard worker, “the perception is that you will fill your time with non-work related activities if your task list is not full.”
Luaces’ experience at Mailchimp is now roughly three years old. If her complaint was an isolated incident, there probably wouldn’t be a story. But according to 11 current and former employees, Mailchimp has continued to struggle with instances of sexism, bias, and perceived pay disparities since Luaces left in 2018.
Employees say the company’s position as one of the premier startups in Atlanta allows it to view workers as disposable, as there are fewer tech jobs to choose from than if the company were located in San Francisco or New York City. They also say that because the organization is private and has never taken on outside investment, executives can operate without the specter of more public accountability. Many feel they’ve exhausted every option internally and are only speaking to the press as a last resort.
In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Mailchimp spokesperson said: “We’ve always wanted Mailchimp to be a place where everyone feels included, respected, and empowered to do their best work. But that hasn’t been the experience for all of our employees. Over the past four years we’ve doubled in size, and while we worked hard to foster an inclusive culture as we grew, we fell short in some important areas.” The company declined to comment on The Verge’s questions about individual personnel matters.
Stories about Mailchimp’s company culture began circulating on February 17th, 2021, after a principal engineer, Kelly Ellis, posted a viral tweet thread about her decision to leave. She said she’d dealt with “sexism and bullying” and was underpaid compared to male colleagues. (Ellis did not respond to a request for comment from The Verge.)
Welp, I guess it’s official: I’m leaving my job. I dealt with sexism and bullying, and found out that I, as the only female principal eng, was paid less than the other (male) principals outside of Atlanta. I would not recommend friends work at Mailchimp, especially women.
— Kelly Ellis (@justkelly_ok) February 17, 2021
Mailchimp told employees that it had investigated Ellis’ claims and found them to be unsubstantiated. But CEO Ben Chestnut also said that he knew the company needed to do better. “I’m hearing loud and clear that we have work to do, including needing greater transparency around pay equity and an intentional focus on inclusion,” he wrote in a letter to staffers, which was first reported in Business Insider. “I want to address these issues head-on, and I know we’ll be stronger for it. I’m asking our leadership team to prioritize these issues and work with me to fix them. What we do needs to match what we say.”
Group chats and Slack groups filled with former Mailchimp employees were set ablaze by the news. Workers began discussing their own experiences with alleged discrimination and unequal pay, wondering whether what they viewed as the open secret of Mailchimp’s company culture would finally be brought into the open. “They’re going to have to acknowledge the problems that are being raised, and respond with something other than, ‘we have investigated ourselves and found we did nothing wrong,’” one said in an alumni Slack. “I wish more people would speak out but I wont for the same reasons (NDA, fear of retaliation),” another responded.
Mariesa Dale, a design manager who joined the company in 2018, left after a year due to what she says was a misogynistic culture. “The level of toxic masculinity and sexism was unlike anything I experienced in 10+ years in the tech industry,” she says.
Dale remembers that once, a manager shushed her when she responded to a question she’d been asked directly during a meeting with him and another male colleague. He then asked her male counterpart to answer the question. She says that when she went to HR to tell them about the behavior, nothing seemed to change. “Leadership at Mailchimp clearly knows about this and doesn’t do anything about it,” she says.
In response to this allegation, Mailchimp said no formal HR complaints have been filed against the manager in question.
A female leader who left the company in 2019 said she was repeatedly given what she viewed as gendered feedback and promised promotions that never materialized. Once, when she pushed back on a comment her manager made in a review, he said, “Don’t contradict me in front of the kids,” referring to her direct reports. He also would tell her to “be more professional” when she disagreed with him in meetings. The woman says she reported these experiences to HR, but nothing changed. Eventually, she found out she was making roughly $100,000 less than a male colleague just one level above her who did comparable work, and she decided to quit. She asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation.
A different form of alleged pay disparity is also felt on the support team. According to an employee who recently left, the department is one of the most diverse factions of the company — but it’s also one of the lowest paid. One senior staffer said they made just $48,000 a year.
Employees also say it’s difficult to move out of these positions. While most corporate employees work out of the glitzy Ponce City Market — a mixed-use space filled with shops and restaurants — the support team works in an old building two and a half miles away, making it difficult to forge connections with other teams. “The support team was treated like the custodians,” a former staffer says. “Everyone loves and respects the custodian. They’re a friendly face when you walk in the door. But no one has any interest in promoting the custodian.”
“It feels like you’re the lowest rung on the ladder,” a current employee adds. “When you see people of color, women, LGBTQ people in this department it feels really shitty. We’re hidden away.”
In response to this assertion, a Mailchimp spokesperson said: “In our view, career progression isn’t about moving out of the Customer department, but growing within it.” Mailchimp also said other departments of the company have more gender diversity than customer service, but it did not comment specifically on racial or LGBTQ diversity.
Still, working at Mailchimp is a status symbol — particularly in Atlanta. For many employees in the support department, it’s their first corporate job, and some say they are drawn in by the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine and the Herman Miller chairs. When the pandemic hit and people started working from home, those superficial perks evaporated. “When all those things were taken away I realized I didn’t like this job that much,” the former worker says.
Given their disparate environment, not all members of the support team were sympathetic to Kelly Ellis’ complaints. After she posted a photo of an expensive Lego set on Twitter, one wrote “can you imagine the cognitive dissonance it takes to spend ~48 hours being upset over pay and then tweeting about an $800 Lego set…while people who make 1/3rd of your pay clean up some mess you made?”
The story about a white woman getting outsized attention for discrimination in the tech industry isn’t new. In August 2020, Françoise Brougher, former COO of Pinterest, sued the company for gender discrimination, eventually getting a $22.5 million settlement. She brought her complaints after two Black women on the policy team — Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks — spoke out about discrimination at the company. Ozoma and Banks received less than a year’s severance when they left.
For Angelo Ragin, however, Ellis’ experience was validating. He’d voiced some of the same concerns in 2014 when he’d advocated for a pay raise and was told he was being entitled. His concerns about pay, while old, are echoed by current Mailchimp staffers.
Ragin was the first Black employee at Mailchimp. He started on the tech support team in 2009 before moving to the IT department. The role fit Ragin’s background: he’d previously worked on the Geek Squad at Best Buy and was an expert in Apple software and products.
One of the key metrics on the IT team was how many tickets agents solved. Mailchimp employees would write in with technical issues, and it was up to the team to resolve them as quickly as possible.
Ragin says he was often in the top two agents in regard to tickets solved — a claim backed up by ticket count statistics from 2015. He says he was the guy Mailchimp’s founders, Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius, would go to when they had technical concerns. So when he found out he was making 14 percent less than his white colleagues, Ragin was shocked. He asked to be bumped up to their level, which the company did, bringing his total compensation to $68,400 a year.
Still, Ragin felt like the work he was doing warranted more. “I was the go-to guy,” he says. “I would walk in the office and be going 100 percent all day. My goal was to change the perception of IT, because people needed to trust in the IT department so they feel fully equipped and educated about what kind of stuff they have in front of them.” He wanted to make $80,000 a year.
In his review in 2014, his manager said that the company had already bumped him up 14 percent, and “with bonuses, company-paid health insurance and other perks the total compensation package easily puts Angelo well on the way, if not already in excess of, his $80K/year long term goal.” He refused to further increase Ragin’s pay. Ragin was then chided for advocating for himself.
Another manager wrote in the review: “Management definitely recognizes his efforts and successes but these can be overshadowed when he displays what some might perceive as a sense of entitlement. He needs to be subtler when it comes to voicing his opinion about his compensation.”
The following year, Mailchimp recorded $280 million in revenue, according to The New York Times.
Earlier on in his tenure, Ragin had taken a week off due to a difficult situation in his family. When he returned to the office, he says he was called out for not responding to tickets while he was away. “That crushed me,” he says. “I was just like ‘are you serious?’ Especially because I’m your token Black kid, I’m the one you put on a poster when you go to job fairs to say you’re diverse. You’re not diverse, you just have me here.”
Ragin was also beginning to tire of small slights that piled up from white colleagues. Some would greet him by saying “what’s up gangster” and joke that he was stealing computers. A few years earlier, he’d started a side business repairing iPhone screens and selling accessories to support his family. One day, another Mailchimp employee began joking about him having the accessories piled in his car and asked if he was hawking toilet paper or paper towels, too.
Ragin decided to send a letter to Mailchimp’s co-founders to voice his concerns. “It’s hard to walk into a company you love and have loved for so long, feeling like you’re going to do your best to have a good day but you’re expecting some sort of uncomfortable comment from someone and you just have to swallow your feelings for the sake of not being labeled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘defensive’ by your peers so you just keep quiet,” he wrote.
Mailchimp eventually decided to roll out unconscious bias training and enlisted Ragin’s support. He was glad to advise on the curriculum but was not compensated for the extra work.
While the bias training is now available for all employees, some staffers say the company still has more work to do. On the anonymous forum Blind, some have been discussing a perceived exodus of Black employees in recent years.
This perception could be related to the growth of Atlanta’s tech scene, which is giving employees more options of where to work. In January, CEO Ben Chestnut sent a Slack message to staff about a company called Calendly that had recently raised $350 million in funding. “It can be easy to look at companies like Calendly and feel like the grass is always greener and the wins come easier,” he wrote. “That’s not the case — we’ve got our phasers set to win and if anyone’s got green, it’s us!” He ended with a rocket emoji.
His comments were not meant for Luaces or Ragin. Both had left the company by this point: Luaces to run her own bakery called Hell Yeah Gluten Free and Ragin to start his own consulting business. Ragin never got the promotion he was asking for.
It’s a reality that even employees speaking out publicly cannot change. However much Mailchimp improves, two people of color who genuinely loved the company when they first arrived are now working outside the tech industry.
Ragin says that his experience at Mailchimp even prompted him to go to therapy for depression. “I questioned myself, I questioned my work, I questioned my ability, because every time you get to the next level, they move the bar,” he explains.
*Two names were changed to protect the identities of those involved