In December 2017, a group of tech workers were celebrating five years of organizing software products for the civic good in Philadelphia.
Inside a sleek Center City coworking facility, these civic technologists were joined by elected officials and civil servants, showing the growing clout of tech professionals. As part of the event’s programming, emerging organizers toasted prominent leaders who helped jumpstart this work.
A high ranking city government official was given the chance to tout Robert Cheetham — colloquially known as ‘the godfather of open data’ in Philadelphia. Though high-growth, venture capital-backed tech startups were en vogue, said the official, it was really homegrown software businesses like Cheetham’s Azavea that represented the best of Philadelphia. The official recounted how Cheetham’s team leveraged software and public data to guide public servants, including geolocation technology to expose an illegal chop shop.
“That’s not a contribution,” the official said that night. “That’s a legacy.”
Few, if any, of the dozens of those gathered there that night knew that Cheetham was managing a firestorm at Azavea, the small but widely-respected Callowhill-based software development company he founded in 2001 after a career in government. In May of 2016, Cheetham oversaw an explosive team meeting in which his French-born wife and business partner Rachel Cheetham-Richard repeatedly used the N-word multiple times, according to an investigation published this week by WHYY’s news site Billy Penn.
The meeting was meant to address a series of criticisms young employees and their team manager had about Cheetham-Richard’s record as the company’s human resources representative overseeing hiring. They brought concerns that well-qualified candidates weren’t making it past initial rounds of the hiring process, likely because of some racial and gendered unconscious bias. After one meeting with just Cheetham, the employees and their manager met with him and Cheetham-Richard a few days later, emails provided to Technical.ly show.
Vanessa Paige, then a 23-year-old recent hire through the Venture for America program, told Billy Penn about the meeting in this recent report.
“I, too, was called ‘n—-r,’ Vanessa,’” Paige recalled Cheetham-Richard telling her, “but I don’t wear being a woman of color on my sleeve like you do.”
The Billy Penn report said that employees in the meeting heard Cheetham-Richard, who is half-white and half-Asian, use the slur at least two or three times. Paige had been the only Black person in the room. They all left stunned.
Paige had been optimistic about the company culture going into the job, but said she felt cautious about being at a predominantly white institution.
“I had high expectations of trust, transparency, and kindness, which matched what I had heard about their reputation in the Philadelphia startup community,” she said.
After the incident, Paige was approved to work from home on the two days each week when business development meetings were held, “because I felt psychologically unsafe being in the office, especially around Rachel,” she told Techncial.ly.
“I also limited my attendance at office events and tried to work from home as often as possible on days that we had company-wide meetings. Basically, any chance I had to run into Rachel, I tried to avoid,” she said.
But Cheetham-Richard remained with the company until last year. An email provided to Technical.ly from 2016 shows that in July of that year — two months after the meeting — Cheetham-Richard made a company-wide announcement that her role would be changing.
“I am going to still be here, but starting September 1, I am going to be changing my schedule at Azavea to two days a week, provisionally Tue and Thurs, while I explore next steps on a new path,” Cheetham-Richard wrote. “This will likely mean less time on hiring and less time on some administrative work.”
Emails about the 2016 meeting show that Paige and another Venture for America fellow employed by Azavea sought counseling following the incident, which they called “traumatic.” Paige left the company in 2018, after it had launched an “internal investigation.”
In a statement to Billy Penn, Cheetham, the CEO, said, “While the investigation found no wrongdoing in our hiring practices, it found significant issues with how we had handled the situation and communicated the findings to our staff. By not fully addressing our former colleagues’ concerns with the seriousness and respect they deserved, Azavea failed to live up to both our values and our desire to create a safe and welcoming workplace.”
Cheetham has not yet responded to Technical.ly’s request for comment.
A tipping point
After she left Azavea, Paige’s career first took her to Hungry Harvest, and now to Hubspot, where she specializes in diversity, inclusion and belonging on its people operations team. She told Technical.ly that the racist incident at the start of her career influenced the next several years of her professional life.
It wasn’t until 2020, in the midst of the racial justice movement following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police that Paige reached back out to folks at Azavea. Cheetham had issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter on June 2, 2020.
"There’s zero way that you can say these things and then have this very, very dark past with racism that you did absolutely nothing about."
“Azavea isn’t perfect. Both the organization and each of us individually have our own internal work to do,” Cheetham wrote. “It’s important to recognize that we exist within the context of a larger system of racism and injustice. Real change will come from engaging with that on an ongoing basis, even when it’s hard and uncomfortable.”
That was a tipping point, Paige told Techncial.ly.
“I was just like, fuck no,” Paige recounted in an interview to Billy Penn. “There’s zero way that you can say these things and then have this very, very dark past with racism that you did absolutely nothing about.”
Paige reached out to then-head of HR Karissa Justice. Justice was with the company during events in 2016, but was promoted to the HR role in January 2017. Paige and another employee began a process asking for a formal apology from Cheetham and monetary compensation for their treatment. Paige said she was shocked to learn Cheetham-Richard was still employed by the company in 2020.
The next month, in July 2020, Cheetham-Richard stepped down from her position as VP, although she remains as a company shareholder, Billy Penn reported. Cheetham addressed the 2016 incident at an all-hands meeting in the summer of 2020, although Paige doesn’t have a record of what exactly was said. She and another employee had gone back and forth with company lawyers about a potential settlement, but the proposed $17,500 shown in provided emails wasn’t sufficient, Paige said.
Can a company survive a racist incident?
Technical.ly contacted several current and former Azavea employees, in addition to current and former city government officials, local civic technologists and other area organizers, all of whom have worked closely with Cheetham through his myriad civic ventures. Several were at that December 2017 event. None were willing to speak on the record, citing the surprise of the news.
A theme emerged from a handful of discussions by phone and text: none felt naive about the ugly racism or exclusion that remains in the tech industry, but, until this incident, Azavea felt like a welcome exception. Though its staff has long been heavily made up of white men, the company had a reputation for taking company culture and workplace diversity more seriously than others in the tech industry. Unlike the reputation of other tech CEOs, Cheetham has a reputation of being reserved and self-effacing. He and his wife and business partner have been frequent sponsors of local civic tech events, contributors to pro-bono projects and active in neighborhood efforts.
“This is nuts,” said one civic technologist in a text message. “Especially because [this is] Robert and Rachel Cheetham.”
Azavea had a reputation for taking company culture and workplace diversity more seriously than others in the tech industry.
Even we at Technical.ly have worked closely with Cheetham and Azavea, including in the development and launch of OpenDataPhilly.org, the city’s first open government database that launched during the first Philly Tech Week, which Technical.ly organizes.
Technical.ly contacted the city official who toasted Cheetham at that event in December 2017. While they no longer work for the city, they said they had known and worked with Cheetham for decades: “I’m really taken aback by this.” Several officials said some local tech firms have reputations as unsavory partners, but Azavea was far from it.
One former Azavea executive was granted anonymity due to the risk of being involved in associated legal disputes.
They said they believe mistakes were made at each stage of handling this incident, both morally and from a business standpoint. The particular structure of Azavea, where Cheetham is both the company’s owner and its CEO, doesn’t allow for anyone else to interject when interjections could be sorely needed.
The unfortunate reality, the executive said, is that far worse happens than this racist incident and its handling every day at tech companies. But Azavea’s status as a B-corp certified company that touts itself as caring for the social good makes it hurt harder.
Ultimately, they said, it wasn’t one incident. It was a series of choices that have allowed the actions in that meeting to last for years.
With a few years now removed from the company and current work centering on people ops experiences, Paige has a unique perspective.
“When a racist incident happens, leadership must take swift and meaningful steps that center accountability, action, and the needs of the people most harmed,” Paige said. “I think that these three things, along with continued action to ensure that employees are more protected in the future, can help move the needle towards redemption. But the reaction to an incident needs to be equivalent to the gravity of the harm caused.”
She specifically called out that Cheetham-Richard remained an employee of the company for four years following the incident and that Cheetham remains as CEO. She’s worried about the other people of color who may have been harmed by the unconscious bias that permeated during that time.
“How can there be redemption when there is no accountability? Leaders will have to deal with the fallout and consequences that come with putting employees in harm’s way and doing nothing for restoration,” Paige said. “I believe that a company can do good work, but, ultimately, the culture stems from the top down.”-30-