When Ariella Steinhorn and Mary Rinaldi met in the summer of 2018, both were in process of recovering from a professional crisis.
They’d each recently been pushed out from New York City jobs at small, male-dominated tech startups after experiencing what they describe as persistent gender discrimination. Both women signed non-disparagement agreements as part of their severance arrangements, so there are few details they can share. But even stripped to the basics, their stories will resonate with some: Rinaldi, 39, and Steinhorn, 25, describe facing dismissive managers, having their authority undercut, and being inexplicably pulled from key projects and teams.
After being introduced by a mutual friend, the pair quickly fell into the habit of meeting daily at a Bushwick coffee shop to work on various consulting projects and commiserate about the things they wished they’d said to human resources and the lost months of their careers. And on a more positive note, they also discovered another commonality—that they’d both been fortunate enough to have strong professional networks and the resources to find employment attorneys who guided them through severance negotiations.
It was that last point that inspired Steinhorn to burst into their unofficial office one afternoon with an idea: What if they put their muscle into building a company that would provide other women stuck in bad employment situations with access the type of resources that had been so helpful to them? Over the past half-year that germ of an idea has grown into Simone, a fledgling startup aimed at connecting individuals in crisis at work with attorneys, therapists, career coaches, as well as tools designed to help them make the best of a bad situation.
“Maybe this just happened to us. Maybe we are outliers,” Steinhorn says. “But we had a suspicion that wasn’t the case.”
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a cottage industry devoted to finding new ways to address the acute problem of sexual harassment—from improving reporting mechanisms to providing big-data insights into patterns of bad behavior—is on the rise. But as Steinhorn and Rinaldi experienced, workplace discrimination takes many forms, some which can be frustratingly difficult to pinpoint. From pay inequality and hostile environments, to unconscious bias and lack of opportunity, there are dozens of obstacles that can stop employees from succeeding at work. So rather than target a single problem—even one as insidious as sexual harassment—Simone hopes to fight discrimination with what the founders describe as a more “holistic” approach, helping its customers find their way through whatever type of toxic workplace brew they’re facing.
Rinaldi and Steinhorn’s startup—named for the inspirational Simones of history: Simone de Beauvoir, Nina Simone, Simone Weil—matches individuals in bad employment scenarios with professionals able to provide guidance or services, and has so far helped more than a dozen clients negotiate severance agreements and find attorneys. Most of those clients are women, but the company has also helped one man of color find an attorney while navigating workplace racial discrimination and is open to assisting anyone who needs it. “Our goal is to make a more equitable relationship between employees and their employers,” Rinaldi says.
Lawyers say the gray area Simone is tackling is ripe for attention. “There’s a real need out there for employees to have free resources that can help them at a very early stage, when they’re suffering what they think, but aren’t sure, is discrimination or harassment,” says Eric Bachman, a Maryland attorney who handles harassment, discrimination, and retaliation claims and has advised Simone. While organizations such as BetterBrave and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund provide information about sexual harassment and guidance for workers who are definitely in need of legal assistance, there are few resources for employees who find themselves in less black-and-white territory.
Legal advice can make a big difference: Steinhorn’s lawyer helped her leverage a 12-page document where she’d logged proof of good work and positive feedback, as well as the behaviors of higher-ups that rendered her unable to do her job, she says. Her attorney negotiated a strong severance package and better terms on the non-disparagement agreement.
In fall 2018, the founders began building a database of screened professionals willing to be matched with Simone’s clients—not an easy task given many of these clients might be looking for relatively unprofitable advice rather than starting a discrimination lawsuit at $350 to $650 an hour. Still, their roster is now up to 50 lawyers, with therapists and career counselors still to come.
“I get emails inviting me to be on referral networks all the time. They really, carefully struck a different tone,” Roger Townsend, a Seattle-based civil litigator who agreed to be featured in Simone’s network, says of the founders’ mission-driven pitch.
With the help of some of the participating attorneys, the company put together basic templates individuals can use for tasks like communicating with their HR department about severance (their email format helps users to remove their emotions from the correspondence) and documenting their own experiences at the job.
“It gave me all the legwork… I wouldn’t know where to go, and I don’t think this is something you can Google,” says one woman who used Simone to replace her counsel for an EEOC complaint filed after she was forced out from the management team of a small publicly traded pharmaceutical company. Another woman who turned to the startup was able to improve the initial exit offer from her employer from four weeks’ pay and no health insurance to three months’ pay and six months of health coverage.
But despite its lofty goals, the startup faces some daunting challenges. One will be familiar to many founders: How to turn an interesting idea into something that can actually make a profit. Simone is not profitable right now. The cofounders are currently toying with a few potential revenue-generating models, such as charging for the HR communication templates or collecting a fee from the providers who find clients through the platform. They also envision building Simone into a paid platform where women could connect to help each other solve workplace problems and reach their professional goals.
Another hurdle: it’s tricky to grow a startup whose business model is predicated on getting involved in workplace grievances. For instance, Rinaldi and Steinhorn say taking venture capital is out of the question. What if a client comes to them with a complaint against that venture capital firm, or against a company in its portfolio? “We’d be conflicted,” Steinhorn says.
Dipping your toes into the legal world has its own specific risks. Simone doesn’t have attorney-client privilege with any individuals who come to the company, so if any of their clients’ claims progress to a lawsuit, the information clients share with the company could be vulnerable to that process. (The founders ask clients to keep the details of their situation as basic as possible before they connect with an actual attorney.) That’s part of the reason Rinaldi and Steinhorn handle all in-take manually for now—they’re waiting to build a tech layer until they’re confident that the system will be able to protect and handle that sensitive data.
Whether Simone will be able to find its way through such complexities remains to be seen. But it certainly won’t be the only company to wade into these waters. Whether Rinaldi and Steinhorn are able to turn their own workplace trauma into a sustainable business will help determine how many other entrepreneurs follow in their wake.
“What we experienced is basically a version of seeing us as expendable,” Rinaldi says of the workplace experiences that birthed Simone. “It doesn’t have to be this huge case where horrible, horrible things happened. Justice should also happen at these gradations. Those paper cuts that are happening all the time—that’s what we’re looking to solve.”