Silicon Valley: A Culture in Progress

An important spotlight has been shined on the worst aspects of tech culture, our approach to business, and our ethics. It might be an influential minority of arrogant, selfish, destructive personalities making us look bad, or it might be a broader systemic issue we need to address together. I wanted to share a personal perspective as I reflect on sexual harassment, bullying and powerful, spoiled CEOs behaving badly.

There is another Silicon Valley — the one in which I work, the one I’m cultivating and the one I’m proud of. I want Susan Fowler to know I think she is brave and important. I want her and all humans in similar situations to know there are alternatives. Here’s my experience as a woman at Waze.

I started the US office of Waze in 2009, alone in Palo Alto, with the founders 10,000 miles away. Waze was mostly men, all of them Israeli. I was a non-Jewish, American entrepreneur and mapmaker with an art degree. It took time to adjust to the open and direct culture. People yelled to make points, they gave uncomfortable, critical feedback. People were politically incorrect — they joked about Nazis. But there was never a negative undertone, no hidden agenda, and nothing creepy — ever. After a couple of months, I was banging the table to make my point and creating a place for radically different opinions. It was liberating.

Noam, our CEO, often visited our Palo Alto office from Israel. On an early trip, he inexplicably doubled my stock options. I asked him why, and he said, “Because women don’t ask.” It may have been politically incorrect, but he was right. He was driven by data and a desire to be fair, not by what sounded good in Silicon Valley. It would have been easier and more lucrative for him to ignore the reality of women and maintain the status quo. But he taught me to be more aggressive in giving my female leaders uncomfortable challenges, like promoting an excellent woman her first day back from maternity leave, or encouraging them to apply for promotions at Google post-acquisition. Because it’s true — men ask and women often do not.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone makes mistakes. Noam once said I was acting like a “little girl.” I quit for 24 hours until he groveled his way back into my heart. We talked about it, and he admitted it was stupid. We learned from each other and moved on, because learning to be better from each other is what we do.

This is not a Women’s issue. It’s a culture issue and we all have responsibility. As employees, male, female or on the spectrum, we can stand up to bullies at work no matter how senior they are. As investors we can think twice before investing in companies without an ethical or even decent culture, even when we’re “following” into an exciting deal. Every one of us can take responsibility for a positive environment. And right now it’s critical. If you’re a man who sees a female colleague getting harassed, stand up to it, if you’re a white woman who sees a black or brown colleague getting harassed, stand up to it. You’re a team and an owner of your culture. If you’re not trying to improve it, you’re part of the problem.

I’m a woman, a mom, a Filipina/Native American, an eternal optimist, and an entrepreneur who has been lucky enough to work with people who are encouraging, ethical, fun and excellent at their work. Where I come from, equality of all kinds is a luxury. People are too busy trying to make ends meet to worry about gender or racial equality. I love that here in Silicon Valley we’re leading something important, because we can. We’re on the forefront of inclusion. If we were on Wall Street, abuse and power games would be expected behavior-same in a factory. I expect more of Silicon Valley and that’s why I’m here.

I came as an outsider with no advanced degree from a family of truckers on the East Coast. I had my first CB handle at age 4 (Baby Dee) and my first company at 18. I was hesitant to move here at first, because my perception of the Valley was that there was too much emphasis on wealth creation — and not enough diversity — but the Valley embraced me and I’ve been living the dream of bold visions and disruptions. I rarely speak at Women’s conferences and until recently never thought about gender much. But I think about culture all the time.

Products are a reflection of a culture. You can tell a lot about a company’s culture from their products. At least, that’s my experience at Waze. We all have a social contract at our places of work. The same social contract that governs our company extends to our community of map editors, our drivers on the road, and with all Wazers worldwide. Implicit in how we behave and how our app feels, we say, “We’re imperfect, but let’s work together to make things better.” This is why our app started as a blank map, where people could see themselves creating roads. It’s why our community members are by our side when we bring together cities around the world to fight traffic. It’s why we trust each other and why (I believe) our Wazers and partners trust us. We need all of us to contribute to this huge mission to end traffic and make mobility better. Having a rotten culture will ultimately seep into the relationship customers or users have with a product. I’m rooting for the good guys: the Warby Parkers, the AirB&Bs, the Meetups, the Google’s (I wouldn’t have thought so until working here!) of the world- heck even Tecate is doing better than a lot of tech companies.

I don’t think that great products need to come from “nice people”. As a teenager I was already an Apple fan. Steve Jobs was one of my early inspirations for building things that matter. I never thought of him as a “nice guy” although I never knew him. But he inspired people to rally around an important mission. You could feel the mission in the products. It’s too easy for entitled founders to claim “world changing” status and wear attitude as a cover-up for their personal need for power. My Silicon Valley is more critical, looks deeper and calls bullshit. We reserve “changing the world” for people who actually do it. It’s amazing that here we all really do have a chance to make a difference on a massive scale- it’s a gift to take seriously. But not something we can claim until we actually do it.

So what can we do? For a humble start we can:

Lead. Waze doubled in size last year and it takes work to maintain what’s important at high velocity. We have a strict “no assholes” policy and we’ve kept it even when we really needed to grow the team. We still screw things up all the time. We’re human. It takes being adaptable and self-aware. For the most part people at Waze can be themselves, not just respected for — but reveling in — our differences. We trust each other’s strengths and are honest about each other’s weaknesses. As leaders we don’t need to work for, partner with or invest in assholes.

Build a team we trust and debate often. Our leadership team is so much stronger than any one of us. I can be an unrestrained optimist because my team is so different, and, frankly, they need my rainbows and unicorns to balance their severity. We’re a group of people with strong opinions but we encourage debate (more like arguing) and even when we don’t want to hear it, we talk about the hard stuff. After 8 years I’ve grown to love this team, really love them, and to feel a citizen of Wazers around the world.

Commit to our culture and hold our teams accountable. Product vision is nothing without values to accompany them. The world is watching us, and we’re abusing our responsibility to be role models. We have a leadership vacuum in this country and entrepreneurs should be able to step in. Being successful in business is not enough. Making billions of dollars is not enough if you are exporting an erosion of society.

The point of all of this is that all of us need to hold our companies accountable to our values. Every voice is important, senior/junior, male/female, founder/employee, black/brown/white. This is a microcosm of larger society and we have a chance to make things better. It’s a missed opportunity if this many privileged, smart people can’t pull it off. I feel we’re doing that at Waze — it’s a work in progress but we try to improve every single day. As entrepreneurs, we have the chance to build not just products and companies that scale — but cultures worth scaling.

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