Not a Black Chair.
As a young black woman in the tech industry, by virtue of my existence, I am bound to face discrimination. I’ve wanted to share this story for 2 years, but I’ve been scared. I recently decided that speaking up is far more important than remaining silent.
I’m hoping that telling my story urges both Squarespace and other companies in the tech industry to change their behaviors for the better.
If my experience resonates with you, maybe you’ll be inspired to speak up, or at least seek help. If it doesn’t, that’s fine. Keep it civil.
Fall 2011: In the Beginning
I started working part-time at Squarespace in September 2011. After falling seriously ill for a period of time and losing my full-time job as a result, I joined Squarespace full-time. When I came back, a coworker, Paulina Vo, told me about a new “cute” coworker she thought I’d like. Moments after I hopped online to start my first shift back, he messaged me.
His name was Brian Carroll and he told me he picked up most of my shifts while I was out with pneumonia. We slowly got to know each other and discovered we had a lot in common.
Eventually, we exchanged numbers and one Saturday evening, Brian invited me out to see his friend’s band play.
We talked and gushed about how great it was to finally see each other in-person. We really hit it off and I ended up going home with him that night.
After a couple more weeks of flirting, I told Brian I liked him and that I was interested in pursuing a relationship with him. He reacted by explaining that he’d recently gotten out of a long relationship and wasn’t ready for a new one. He suggested revisiting the idea in the fall, because at the time, he wanted to focus on himself and his music. I respected that and decided to wait.
Early 2012: “You have no excuse”
While supporting Brian’s advancement, I was also trying to move up in the company. I asked for a promotion many times as I watched people who were hired after me, with less skill, being promoted or given projects to work on.
Not knowing how to negotiate or ask for what I wanted, I asked for a meeting with the Director of Customer Service (named Christa Collins). I told Christa I was “tired of doing chump change work,” which angered her. She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day. In hindsight, my choice of words weren’t the best, but neither was her reaction. Prone to grudges, resentment, and fickleness, Christa’s reaction to my words was par for the course.
For example, during a weekly Customer Service Meeting, Christa opened the meeting by yelling about a remote worker who lost Internet and didn’t finish her shift.
She shouted something to the effect of, “I have fucking children and there was once a fucking snowstorm and I lost Internet. You know what I did?! I fucking packed my children into the car and drove to a Starbucks to answer email tickets! You have no excuse.”
I never forgot that meeting. I’d had terrible managers in the past, but this was another level. Unfortunately, this type of behavior and unprofessionalism wasn’t uncommon at Squarespace.
Even so, after a few months, I was eventually promoted to a Supervisor role.
Late 2012: “What’s my value?”
After my promotion, I realized that every supervisor had a special project/team they led. Paulina led Live Chat. Vishal Patel worked closely with Tom Guzman to run the Escalations Team. Yet I still only answered email tickets. At first, I let it go, but after many requests, I finally got a project to work on–Concierge. I was excited to have something to manage, but Christa kept pulling me off of Concierge to help her favorite supervisor, Paulina, build the Live Chat Team. Soon after, Concierge was killed because I wasn’t able to give it my full attention.
As the customer service department rapidly grew, I continued to lack a team or project. Without these responsibilities, I decided to throw myself into being a fantastic mentor. All supervisors were mentors, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about my mentees’ hobbies. I found ways to make work enjoyable for them by incorporating their outside interests into a job that some of them only took to pay the bills.
Part of our mentorship involved disseminating KPIs (key performance indicators) to our mentees through a spreadsheet. The document was large and unwieldy and I saw a way to clean it up, so I took the information and created a template. I brought it to the Customer Care Henchmanager, Bryson Wyatt who worked directly with Christa.
Bryson angrily ripped the sheet out of my hand and told me that I was “not a designer”, so I should “stop trying to do design work.”
As my responsibilities shrank, I watched Brian–sans supervisor title–begin to acquire more responsibilities than me. He even got promoted to Commerce Team lead. I was happy for him. So much so, that I told him that I’d be willing to quit to be with him.
He said that he didn’t think it was appropriate for us to be together because I was a supervisor.
I told him that never stopped him before. He didn’t say anything more satisfactory and we left it at that.
Mid Summer 2013: No Ireland for you
In 2013, Squarespace opened an office in Ireland for Customer Service–now renamed Customer Care–and supervisors were sent over to train a new batch of hires. There was frustration amongst the supervisors who had not been chosen, myself included. Christa had been promoted to Vice President of Customer Care, and she nastily told us that just because “your title is ‘Supervisor’ doesn’t mean you get to go to Ireland.” While this is a valid point, it was inconsistent with her decision-making metrics in the past.
At this point, I still didn’t have a team or project to manage, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. We received a lot of customer support email questions about code that very few of us were able to answer. I decided to gather information about what it would look like if we had a group of specialized individuals who knew how to code and could answer code-related questions–a Customer Care Developer Team.
I spoke with the Developer Evangelist to learn about what he’d expect such a team to do in order to help his job move more smoothly.
I compiled my research and shared it in a Supervisor’s meeting. I spoke carefully, saying why I thought this team should exist. I planned to propose it to Christa when she returned from Ireland. I wouldn’t get the chance.
Tom Guzman, the Escalations Team supervisor told Christa that I tried to create my own team without her approval. It turned out that Tom had plans to do that himself. My ambition encroached upon an aspiration of his and Tom used politics to get me in trouble. It worked.
There was a negative perception of me, and it was growing.
On another occasion, I got pulled into a meeting with Christa and her Customer Care Henchmanager, Bryson. They wanted to address hearsay– “disparaging remarks I made” about “upper management”.
I calmly asked her to tell me who made the claims and when. She bristled and said the information was confidential (I knew who it was, though. A gossipy co-worker named Paul Malinowski). I told her that I openly talk about my frustrations with being a supervisor without a project or a team to manage, which essentially meant I had no work to do. I finally told her that unless she heard something inappropriate directly from my mouth, there was nothing more to say. I excused myself and left the meeting.
When I finally did receive more responsibility, it was something I expressly resisted.
We had a lot of new hires on a twilight shift and there were no supervisors to guide them. It was decided that I’d be the supervisor for this shift. I pushed back, saying that I preferred not to. After all, being overworked was what led to the illness that caused me to lose my previous full-time position. I proposed a compromise–a rotating schedule to lessen the impact of working all day and then working until 2 or 3 in the morning. We had about 10 supervisors at the time and we could share the shifts.
Christa quipped and told me that I’m “always saying [I] don’t have enough work. So this is what we’re giving you.” She further rationalized the unhealthy scheduling decision by reminding me that working regular overnights would be “good for team morale.”
Out of fear and frustration, I conceded. I worked the late night shifts, and came in bright and early, only operating on about 5 hours of sleep. This didn’t last long. I soon ended up in an emergency walk-in clinic due to sleep deprivation.
Early August 2013: The Annual Squarespace Boat Cruise
Every year, Squarespace held an annual company boat cruise. To sum it up, we’d all hop onto a boat and take a ride around Manhattan. There’d be dinner, unlimited alcohol, and lots of dancing.
The boat cruise went by quickly. Afterward, a few of us went to a karaoke bar. At about 1AM, I decided it was time to go home and Brian wanted to split a cab with me.
We sat in awkward silence until suddenly, he put his arm around me and pulled me close. Confused, I resisted a bit but he pulled me in tighter and put my head on his chest. As he hugged and kissed me, he told me he loved me.
Surprised, I told him I loved him, too.
The dynamic of our strange friendlationship changed after that night. We were close again. We talked a lot more, joked a lot more.
Last Week of August 2013: “…You blend into the chair.”
The Weekly Supervisor’s Meetings regularly reminded me of how useless I felt in my role. We’d go around the table and each supervisor would provide an update on a project they were working on. At a particular meeting in late August, a supervisor mentioned that he was going on vacation. He asked if another supervisor could take over a small project of his. I volunteered, and he snarled at me, saying that I didn’t know how to do it and that he didn’t have time to teach me.
We continued taking turns going around the table, giving updates. When we got to me, Christa asked, “Amélie, where’s Amélie?”
Confused, I looked at her–I was sitting right across from her. I looked at her and said, “I’m right here.”
She stared at me for a few seconds and remarked, “Oh. I didn’t see you. You blended in. You’re so black, you blend into the chair.” I didn’t believe what I was hearing and I didn’t know what to do. I looked at my arm, compared it to the chair in front of her.
“Nope, my arm is brown and the chair is black,” I quipped awkwardly.
She replied, “No. They’re the same color.”
The room was silent. None of my fellow superpervisors: Bryson Wyatt, Josh Wolff, Thomas Guzman, Vishal Patel, Paulina Vo, Shon Dempsey, Will Herbert, Shaun Horine said a word.
First Week of September 2013
I reported the incident to Squarespace’s Human Resources department.
The sole Human Resources (HR) person, Kristina Paul, was on holiday. Instead of waiting for Kristina’s return, the company decided the Vice President (VP) of Finance, Peter Kyviakidis would handle the debacle.
In HR disputes, it’s common practice to speak with the involved parties individually. For example, the University of California, San Francisco’s “Guide to Managing Human Resources” states that HR should “meet with employees separately at first and question them about the situation.” That didn’t happen in my case. Peter the VP with me and Christa in a small room. Christa told her side while I quietly waited. When it was my turn, I told my side and Christa interrupted me with pepperings of “that didn’t happen”.
Finally, Peter the VP turned to me and said, “Maybe she was talking about your shirt.”
I stared at him in disbelief and said, “the shirt I wore that day was blue…”
He paused. Wheels were turning in his head. Then he gave me a strange story about a time he was in a room of women and said something he didn’t think was offensive, but they found it to be so. He suggested that maybe I was just being “sensitive”.
I left the meeting feeling overpowered and angry.
HR Kristina sought me out when she returned from vacation, but it wasn’t productive. The damage had already been done. HR Kristina had a separate meeting with Christa and decided her “punishment” would be to send an email to the Customer Care Team.
Despite my anger over the message (what kind of punishment was that for an inflammatory comment said to erase my existence–in front of other members of management?) and frustration about the situation, I knew I needed to document the events. I decided to swallow my pride and sent a seemingly happy/A-OK email to HR Kristina and Peter the VP recording the commentary.
It follows here:
Thanks for taking the time last week (4 September 2013) to meet with myself and Christa regarding the discriminatory remarks that were said on 29 August 2013.
(Specifically, Christa made a comment during the Customer Care Supervisors’ Meeting in which she referred to not noticing my presence at the meeting because I “blended into the chair because you’re [I’m] so black”.)
After the meeting, I feel much better about being here and I really appreciate the time that was taken to file the report. The atmosphere has definitely improved and everyone has been working to make sure that we’re all aware of each other in an incredibly respectful manner.
I also appreciate the email that Christa sent out to the team regarding the issue:
I wanted to send a note regarding our work environment and the manner in which we speak to each other here at Squarespace. It’s important that when we speak to each other and joke around in the workplace that we’re mindful of the comments we make so as not to be disrespectful or offensive.
In keeping with Squarespace’s policies regarding discrimination, harassment, and retaliation please review our handbook policies:
We expect everyone to comply with these policies at all times. If any of you are ever made to feel uncomfortable or are offended by anyone’s comments or conduct at Squarespace I encourage you to speak with human resources, or anyone on the management team you feel most comfortable with.
If you have any questions or issues please don’t hesitate to reach out — I’m always available.
Again, thank you for taking the time to meet with myself and Christa. And please let me know if there is anything else that I need to do on my part (I had the anticipation of filling out paperwork so that these would be on file, but that wasn’t the case–is that standard?).
Kind regards and have a great weekend,
September 2013: Not chosen for Ireland
When I wasn’t chosen to go to Ireland, I wondered if I should find another job. Brian (who was not a supervisor at this point) was chosen. I knew there was a case being built against me in the office and my self-worth was beaten to a pulp. After these experiences, I didn’t think I was good enough to find another job. With that belief, I resolved to push through the mistreatment.
The 2 weeks that the chosen supervisors and Brian would be in Ireland seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to take a vacation. I needed to collect myself.
When the supervisors came back from Ireland, Brian’s demeanor toward me was icy. I didn’t know what to make of it and tried to let it go.
From there, my experience at Squarespace continued to deteriorate. I tried to gain allies in management I could talk with, but found none. Finally, in the beginning of 2014, I was given a new team to lead–“Repair & Delight”–within Customer Care. However, I was quickly undermined. Instead of running it on my own, as was the privilege given to all other supervisors, I was to lead with a coworker who was not a supervisor. This was further proof of my consistent devaluation within Squarespace.
February 2014: A slap and a firing
By February 2014, my frustration had reached a boiling point. I had resolved to quit and picked a date to give notice: Monday, February 17. February also happened to be the time when Squarespace initiated an exchange program bringing people from the Dublin office to New York.
On February 14, 2014, some of us from the New York office took the Dubliners out for drinks. We met up with Brian, as well as some other coworkers, and hopped from a bar in SoHo to a bar in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
I had too many drinks and I felt sick. I went to the bathroom, feeling terrible because I was drunk–something I hated because it meant that I wasn’t in control. On my way out, I saw Brian hugging a Dublin Woman, Laura Mastrocinque, about to kiss her. Horrified, I ran past them, went upstairs, and put my head down on the table. A few moments later, Brian ran after me and touched my arm.
“Amélie, you’re drunk, let me get you a cab.”
I told him to get away from me, but he insisted on trying to “help me”. Frustrated and angry, I got up and slapped him. “Don’t fucking touch me, you pig,” I cried.
I walked out of the bar and managed to hop on a train home. Confused, I laid in bed, unsure of everything that just happened.
In the morning, I woke up and sent him a text message apologizing for slapping him, and letting him know that I was really upset.
He agreed to talk on the phone the next day.
Sunday, Feb 16, 2014: “I fucked up.”
When we spoke, Brian admitted that as soon as I slapped him, he realized he “fucked up.” I told him that I felt confused, that I didn’t understand why he told me he loved me. He said he didn’t mean it in the way I thought, and that he loved me as “a friend.”
“Okay, but then why did you kiss/hug me?” He provided a lame excuse–he only said that “because we’re friends.” That was the moment when I realized he was a womanizer.
Monday, Feb 17, 2014: “Maybe I should quit…”
The following Monday was a holiday. Not many of us were in the office and news of the slap traveled fast. The Customer Care department was not unlike high school, so it was no surprise. There were rampant hookups, unlimited gossip, and varying cliques.
I found Brian and told him that I felt terrible about what I had done and was thinking about quitting. He asked if I had a plan. I didn’t. He told me that if I quit, he’d never talk to me again because he thought it was stupid of me to quit without having a plan.
So I didn’t quit.
Tuesday, Feb 18, 2014: A meeting at a café
The next day, I got invited by the Customer Care Henchmanager Bryson and HR Kristina to a café around the corner from the office. My heart was pounding.
At the café, they interrogated me about Friday night, the slap, and my relationship with Brian.
I told a half-truth–that I slapped Brian because I was drunk and frustrated with our friendship. He was recently promoted to Developer Evangelist and I wanted to protect him.
HR Kristina told me that they were going to do an investigation over the week and get back to me. She told me that I should go home. I asked if I could gather my belongings from my desk. She and Customer Care Henchmananger Bryson told me that I could not. They turned off my work email and company access while they conducted the “investigation.”
Thursday, Feb 20, 2014: “…Your work was getting so much better.”
Two days later, I met with HR Kristina and the VP of People, Joris Luijke. The investigation was complete and they decided to terminate me. To add insult to injury, HR Kristina told me that it was “such a disappointment because my work was getting so much better.” I felt confused–from whom had she heard this? How could I have “improved” when I was not given any work?
After the meeting, I texted Brian to let him know that I got fired. No response.
I noticed that Christa blocked me on Facebook. Her husband also unfriended me. Pretty much everyone in the company stopped talking to me. I was the Squarespace Social Pariah.
It was announced at a Customer Care Meeting that I no longer worked at Squarespace and it was left at that.
That Thursday night, an ex-coworker invited me out to dinner. I waited down the block from the office and I ran into Brian. I meekly waved at him and asked if he told HR that we hooked up.
“Yeah. Because I honestly wasn’t worried about losing my job. Also, I’ve never been involved in so much drama in my entire life.”
He then walked away.
Summer 2014: “Everyone knew…”
My experiences with Squarespace and the people who work there were discouraging, to say the least. When you’re consistently told that you’re worthless, you begin to believe it.
To make matters worse, one friendly ex-coworker delivered some upsetting news over lunch. She told me that everyone in Customer Care knew that Brian had a relationship with Dublin Woman, Laura.
On company time and money, he was flown over to Ireland and slept with yet another coworker.
Another notch on his belt was a blonde, white woman in Business Intelligence, Emily Wagner, who he strung along, as well. Early in my friendlationship with Brian, I had discovered that BI Emily didn’t like me. It turns out this was because I was getting “too close” to Brian. They slept together before he slept with me. She, too, slapped Brian at an after-hours, off-premises, non-work event. She was not fired for the slap.
Late 2014 through Early 2015
After a year of not being able to afford a real meal for weeks on end, and coming quite close to homelessness, I was able to get back on my feet.
I worked my way out of debt and began rebuilding my life.
August 2015: The lawsuit
Countless friends and family counseled me about the comment Christa made to me about my skin color. The general consensus was that I should sue. I hesitated because I had signed a severance agreement.
I had to find a way to break the agreement I signed. In late 2015, after months of searching, I found a lawyer who specialized in discrimination. I needed to find a way to come up with $7,500 for his fees.
November 2015: The GoFundMe
A friend helped me to set up an anonymous GoFundMe campaign. My name was not attached and I added no self-identifying information about myself or Squarespace to the GoFundMe.
The campaign gained traction and I raised the funds I needed within 4 days.
I filed a claim that I was coerced into signing the severance agreement. When the courier brought my things, I signed the agreement and gave it to him. I believed that I had been coerced because I was given the agreement and signed it immediately.
This was the fact that my case relied on, and it turned out to be false.
I misremembered, and had actually been given the agreement the day before. I had 24 hours to look it over before signing it, and thus my case against Squarespace dissolved.
Squarespace caught the error and submitted a counterclaim to my lawyer showing receipts of when the courier came to my apartment, along with a screenshot of the GoFundMe campaign.
I take full responsibility for my faulty memory. I made a mistake, I own up to it and I have to live with it. Squarespace, however, is not owning up to their mistake.
Even though my case dissolved, I recently realized that I have two options:
- Slink away
- Keep fighting and tell the truth.
I’m choosing the latter.
For the past year, I’ve been seeing a therapist. It turns out that I have a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. At one point, it was so bad that I couldn’t take the train for fear of either running into Brian or panicking at the train stops near my former office. I’ve slowly been improving, but what has Squarespace done?
Instead of firing the racist Vice President of Customer Care Christa Collins, or firing both myself and Brian Carroll for causing unrest in the workplace, they chose to only fire me. They failed me, Brian, and the Christa.
If Squarespace believed that they hadn’t created a great injustice, then why did they take a screenshot of my anonymous GoFundMe? Tracking someone’s actions you don’t perceive as a threat is strange. This behavior tells me they’re aware of their actions.
Squarespace, you hoped I’d be another black woman in the tech industry who would quietly watch as you grow in power while I wither away. You are mistaken.
Today: This is no longer about me
The racism I experienced at Squarespace was overt and documented. There’s no way to sugarcoat, “you’re so black, you blend into the chair.” I even tried to redeem the situation by giving the VP Christa a chance to backpedal. She chose not to.
I keep thinking about people of color and women who have had similar experiences. If I don’t say something, I’m only hurting myself and allowing one more company to get away with seemingly condoned acts of egregiousness.
And for what? A severance agreement?
Every day, marginalized people are punished for simply existing. They are harassed, discriminated against, insulted, and disrespected repeatedly
As humans, we all want to be respected, uplifted and noticed; not belittled, shot down and ignored.
No matter who you are, you deserve to work in an environment that is supportive.
You deserve to feel loved and appreciated.
You deserve to be valued.
You deserve to feel safe.
You deserve to feel free.
You deserve the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
You deserve the chance to shine.
And most importantly, you deserve to be heard and when something goes wrong.
Squarespace, my community is my immunity. And as much as you may want me to be, I am not a black chair.