The Sorry State of Diversity on Tech Boards

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for WIRED25

When Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian resigned from the company’s board last week, he asked to be replaced by a black candidate and pledged to donate future stock earnings “to serve the black community.” Ohanian said that his decision, which came after some internal strife over Reddit’s hate- speech policies, is in response to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice. “I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now,” he wrote on his website. “To everyone fighting to fix our broken nation: do not stop.” On the latest Pivot podcast, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway discuss Ohanian’s move, diversity on tech boards, and the power those boards have to create real change.

Kara Swisher: On Friday, Alexis Ohanian, one of Reddit’s founders, stepped down from the company’s board of directors and asked that the space be filled with a black leader. In response, Reddit’s current CEO Steve Huffman wrote that the company would honor Ohanian’s request. Reddit has long allowed threads that fuel and amplify white supremacist rhetoric, and the company has not taken those down. I have interviewed [Reddit founders] Alexis and Steve Huffman a lot about this issue. They’ve had some good answers and some not-so-good answers. But Reddit’s former interim CEO Ellen Pao wrote on Twitter, “I am obligated to call you out. You should have shut down The_Donald, a pro Trump message board” — which it is — “instead of amplifying it and its hate, racism, and violence. So much of what is happening now lies at your feet. You don’t get to say BLM when Reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long.”

That is quite a strong statement from Ellen, who has a lot of strong opinions. And I think I tend to agree with her. I’ve had these arguments with Reddit. They had placed The_Donald on a ban — they have all these different rules. I don’t remember the last thing they did, but they gave them some sort of warning. I know Alexis well, and I think him just saying this is great, but he’s right. Even though Reddit, more than many places, has tried to clean up, the way they structured it has led to a lot of these sort of dank areas of the service.


Twice weekly, Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher host Pivot, a New York Magazine podcast about business, technology, and politics.

Scott Galloway: First off, the board of directors — I think it kind of all starts there. People are tribal and people are more comfortable establishing relationships with people who look, smell, and feel like them, it’s just instinctive. And we’re evolved and we can self-correct and modulate for that, but that will be, oftentimes, our go-to. And so if you think about corporate America — where it all starts, where hiring decisions start, and capital allocation starts in terms of people’s economic opportunities — is at the board, because the board picks the CEO. And when your board is all white dudes, you have a tendency to just come up with reasons for why the next CEO should be, you guessed it, a white dude. And then he has a tendency to find and establish relationships with other white dudes.

And then it trickles down to this waterfall, which leads to continued, for lack of a better term, systemic racism. So if you wanted to have a really long-lasting impact, and we’ve talked about this a lot on this show — boards get a fraction of the scrutiny relative to the power they have for change. The board decides if and when a company gets sold and who the CEO is, who sets the tone for the company for the next five to seven years on a lot of levels. If you wanted long-term, real structural change in corporate America, you really have to start at a board level.

Swisher: Yeah. But I think you get at the idea that these boards are not powerful in Silicon Valley. I can tell you that. I mean, they just aren’t. I mean Facebook’s is pointless. They could put anybody on the board of Facebook, it doesn’t matter. That’s why people like Ken Chenault and others left.

Galloway: Still, I think somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of companies are dual-class shareholders. I think what would have been interesting is for someone, and I would do this if I had more discipline, but to take all of those performative black square, serif statements around how, “We stand with George Floyd and we’re appalled by this,” and then just have a picture of the company’s board of directors.

Swisher: How funny you should say that, Scott, because I did that story in 2007. I wrote “The Men and (No) Women of Facebook Management.” And all I did was put up the pictures of the management team. It was all men. And this is I think pre-Sheryl. I was focused on women’s issues in these stories. And the other one was “The Men and (No) Women of Internet Boards.” Because the head of Groupon at the time, who’s a lovely guy, had asked me if I knew any qualified women. And I nearly choked him through the phone line. And so I wrote a story about it and I said, “Here’s all the pictures.” There are binders and binders of women. It shouldn’t be so hard to find women or people of color.

And then I had another argument with the head of Twitter at the time, who was Dick Costolo, about that issue, where I think I wrote the single best lede of my lifetime about the board of Twitter …

Galloway: You know, that’s an incredibly high bar.

Swisher: No, it is. Let me tell it to you.

Galloway: That’s an incredibly high bar.

Swisher: It was about how they had ten white men on the board. And I said, “On the board of Twitter, which has three Peters and a Dick, there is no diversity.” Something like that.

This is very lovely for Alexis to say this, but they should have done it a long time ago, and they should have made the board larger. And it shouldn’t just be one new person they pick.

Galloway: Isn’t that where you start?

Swisher: Oh, come on. It’s been 20 years.

Galloway: It’s got to start somewhere, Kara.

Swisher: It’s got to start 20 years ago.

Galloway: You’re hoping we’re just better people and we’ll figure it out organically? A decent place to start is to say, “Okay, we’re going to put a black person on our board.”

Swisher: Yeah, but you know what? I can’t even believe someone has to say that in this … I don’t believe they didn’t do it before. Why it takes these … I find it just … I like Alexis.

Galloway: You’re outraged.

Swisher: I’m outraged. I’m just like, “Stop it, stop it.” And I really like Alexis. I do. And I agree with Ellen that they’ve allowed this site to become a cesspool. Now again, they have tried, Steve and others …

Galloway: Really? Reddit’s that bad? I’ve never thought of it Reddit as being that bad.

Swisher: Oh my God. Scott, Scott. Oh Scott. They had …

Galloway: You’re not giving me any credit. I cry at drive-by graduations, Kara. I cry.

Swisher: I can’t even repeat the name of one of the subreddits that took them forever to get off. It was offensive. Compared to Facebook, they’re incredibly responsive, but that doesn’t mean that …

Galloway: Reddit is incredibly responsive?

Swisher: Compared to Facebook — and that’s the lowest bar. Anyway, I think great — they should have done this five years ago. I’m not going to give them claps for this. I tend to agree with Ellen; I’m not giving them claps for something they should’ve done a long time ago.

Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Sorry State of Diversity on Tech Boards