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Charge of the Light Brigade: Is Sean Parker's Civic Startup Too Male and White?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, June 25 2014

Screenshot from Brigade.com's About page

Brigade, the $9 million Silicon Valley civic engagement startup backed by billionaire Sean Parker that is promoting itself as restoring voters "to the center of our democracy," got a hard whack on Twitter today after it unveiled more details about its leadership team on its nascent website.

First, Natalia Oberti Noguera, the founder and CEO of the Pipeline Fellowship, an angel investing bootcamp for women, took a screenshot of the company's leadership page (see above), which features six white men, and wrote, "If you're 'for the people," @JoinBrigade, it would be great to have your leadership better represent 'the people.'" Alison Burke, a social media strategist for the Brookings Institution, tweeted, "Can you really be 'for the people' w/ 100% white male leadership?"

Then Cindy Gallop, the outspoken founder of MakeLoveNotPorn.tv and IfWeRanTheWorld.com piled on with, "For centuries, white men have thought they're the only people who can run America. Nothing's changed. @joinbrigade brigade.com/#team" and "Of all the ventures that should have had a gender-equal, diverse leadership team & board…huge wasted opportunity."

I asked Brigade spokesman Andrew Noyes to comment on the controversy, which is rankling many in the online politics world in part because the under-representation of women and minorities across the tech sector is already a very sore issue. Today, for example, Facebook reported that its U.S. staff is more than 90 percent white and Asian and globally only 31% female--numbers that mirror Google and Yahoo's employee statistics.

Noyes said Brigade took these issues "very seriously" and that it was "committed to increasing the diversity of the Brigade team as well as assembl[ing] a diverse advisory board." He noted that the company was only a few weeks old, adding that "Since Brigade is still ramping up, our website lists only a handful of senior staff, board members and investors."

According to Noyes, Brigade employs several women already, including their director of engineering, director of impact partnerships, director of operations and head of technical recruiting. In addition, just from scanning Twitter and LinkedIn, I was able to turn up a few more examples of women working for Brigade, including Heidi Graves, who is a community manager for the company; Shannon Riley, who came on board with the Causes acquisition; and Hillary Violet Lehr, who is a senior strategist.

So Brigade isn't 100% male. Noyes also says the company has employees of color but did not provide details. The company has more than a dozen positions it is actively looking to fill.

Up until now, the reaction to Brigade's launch has been muted among veterans of the civic tech world. But quietly, people are grumbling. The company's emergence is seen as bigfooting many other projects in the same space and its hefty financing naturally induces jealousy, given its lack of an actual product. its very name is an appropriation of Code for America's Brigade global grassroots network, which has been in existence for several years), an inelegant choice at best. But as the protests from Oberti Noguera, Burke and Gallop show, this latest display of Brigade's tone-deaf approach to the well-established online politics sector has more than a few tongues wagging.

One veteran of the civic start-up world said, "While I want to be optimistic, past patterns of this group are redundancy of work others are doing without 'doing the work' to truly understand the problems and systems they aspire to affect. If the pattern holds, they will make a big splash as they blow through their significant resources, and then disappear into the next 'startup' Parker creates to 'acquire' the fizzling remains." 

This person added, "Unfortunately, pumping up fundraising numbers before a product even exists and "'failing fast' Silicon Valley-style, actually has a detrimental effect on the whole space. This is not a dating app. Politics, governing, and civic engagement requires trust and stability. If Parker truly wants to make a difference, he might at least explore how his millions could amplify projects currently underway... And that could easily start by reaching out to the diverse community working in the space."