Tech Startup Kanarys Empowers Black Employees To Speak Up, Companies To Build Inclusive Work Culture

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
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Kanarys co-founders Mandy Price, CEO (center), Star Carter, chief operating officer (right) and Bennie King, chief analytics officer and Mandy’s husband (left). Photo provided by Kanarys

Being a successful company means more than creating innovative products. Whether CEOs care to admit it or not, a company’s trajectory is decided by its workforce. A toxic and non-diverse work culture is costly. Workplace culture drives employee turnover and affects the retention of underrepresented groups, costing the tech industry $16 billion each year,
according to a Kapor Center 2017 publication, “Tech Leavers Study.”

Until now, we’ve had to rely on word of mouth and sites like Glassdoor to discover what work culture is like from the perspective of Black people.

Enter Kanarys, a recently launched startup that’s empowering individuals to speak up and organizations to build more inclusive work culture.

Kanarys is hoping to help potential employees and companies learn if the culture of a workplace fosters acceptance of diverse personnel. The Kanarys name comes from the practice coal miners once had of carrying a canary into a mine to determine if the environment was toxic or not, per the company’s LinkedIn page.

The company is led by co-founders Mandy Price, CEO; Star Carter, chief operating officer; and Bennie King — chief analytics officer and Mandy’s husband.

The three co-founders have known each other since college days and each has their own unique story to tell about direct and subtle aggression against them in the workplace. Price remembers being questioned about attending Harvard and having to learn “survival skills” to make it in corporate America. These helped fuel the mission of Kanarys.

The team has grown to 14, building a platform to anonymously share ratings, reviews, and feedback related to diversity, equity and inclusion issues to help address potential issues in the workplace.

Kanarys has raised $725,000 in private funds and has secured a research partnership with the University of Texas at Austin on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Mandy Price spoke with Moguldom about the importance of a platform such as Kanarys, the challenges of starting a company with no salary and going global.

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Mandy Price, CEO of Kanarys, a platform to anonymously share ratings, reviews and feedback related to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace to help address potential issues.

Moguldom: Why did you start Kanarys?

Mandy Price: I started Kanarys from my own experiences in the workplace. I realized that many companies are well-meaning and have diversity and inclusion programs, but typically, those programs are surface level. They weren’t really dealing and addressing the true inclusion issues that, to me, were front and center in the workplace. I wanted to create a solution that uses technology to help foster and bridge the gap that usually exists for employees to bring these issues up to their employers. By relying on data on diversity, equity, inclusion, we can build and empower individuals to make changes without having the defensiveness that usually results from conversations dealing with race, religion, sexuality, and disability — the things people just aren’t comfortable with talking about. We can address the fundamental issues, be able to say, “This is what the data is showing as far as the issues that exist within your workplace.” We can actually collaborate and work on strategies to address inclusion because it’s hard to dispute and refute data.

Moguldom: You said you started Kanarys out of your own personal experiences. Share some examples?

Mandy Price: Throughout my career, I’ve had to deal with a lot of aggressions and things that over time I started to normalize. I would say, “OK, this is just a part of being a person of color practicing law.” More than anything, I was shocked that I started normalizing biased behavior. I learned survival skills — the survival skills of how to get ahead in corporate America and deal with people questioning your credibility and having to prove your competence. While on the hiring committee at one of my law firms, one of their partners asked me if I got into Harvard legitimately. Another instance was when I was a partner at a firm. I was meeting with a client and one of my fellow partners referred to me as the firm’s “diverse partner.” He didn’t talk about my experience or work. It’s been that type of demeaning behavior.

It’s something a lot of underrepresented professionals encounter within the workplace, not just people of color. The same kind of interactions happen with women. People that are disabled or LGBTQ also deal with these issues within the workplace. It took me many years before I was comfortable approaching people and saying, “That’s inappropriate.” I think as you come in at the entry level you are guarded because you don’t want to lose your job. You don’t want to have negative career ramifications. It wasn’t until I started practicing law for many, many years and had established a reputation at the respective firms I worked at that I felt comfortable to push back.

For example, I told the partner who called me the “diverse partner”, “That was inappropriate, you should not be referring to me in that manner.” At Kanarys, we don’t want people to take years. These issues have real ramifications on people’s careers long term if they are pigeonholed in certain roles or feel like they can’t succeed or have opportunities within their workplace. We want to allow folks to communicate these issues to their employer in a way where they’re safe, they won’t have any type of retaliation against them but at the same time, their employer is able to get the information, the data that they need to make those changes within their workplace.

Moguldom: What makes Kanarys different than other solutions and companies that are attempting to have the same conversation on diversity and inclusion?

Mandy Price: On the Kanarys platform, employees are able to anonymously share ratings, reviews and feedback related to diversity, equity and inclusion issues to help address potential issues in the workplace. Employees will also be able to rate their company on five key metrics and subsequently answer a series of diversity, equity and inclusion-focused questions that incorporate AI and machine learning technologies. Data analytics collected from reviews and surveys is anonymized and aggregated and made available via a company dashboard for corporate partners. This allows leaders to make informed decisions about how to improve the culture directly based on employee feedback and input.  Kanarys provides a forum where employees can help elevate inclusion within their workplace without fear of retaliation. Potential employees can learn information as well. Do they recruit at historically black colleges and universities? What is their parental leave that they’re offering? Do they offer equitable LGBTQ benefits? The information is in-depth, and I encourage people to go to the platform to see more of the information we’re tracking.

Moguldom: What have been some challenges since launching or creating Kanarys?

Mandy Price:  One of the biggest … was leaving my job. I was a partner at a law firm. My husband is one of the co-founders so both of us were leaving our careers with two kids to start this. It was hard to go from having a very stable life, making a good paycheck, to starting over from the ground floor and going to not being paid at all. We haven’t taken a salary since we started this company over a year ago. It has been very difficult and we’ve had to make a lot of adjustments but I believe in what we’re doing and I’m so proud of our growing team. We started out with three co-founders and have grown that to now being 14 individuals. I am extremely proud of the work we’ve put into the company and the technology that we built. Another challenge is when we originally started building our prototype, we hired the wrong tech partner. That was something that really set us back. Luckily that mistake happened early on so we were able to recover and know more about what we should be looking for when we’re bringing tech talent on board. It was something early on that we had to realize. Even if you’re getting recommendations you really have to vet folks and make sure that you’re relying not only on talent and capabilities but on passion and mission and purpose behind the company as well.

Moguldom: What have been some notable wins?

Mandy Price: We have raised $725,000 so far and that has allowed us to build the platform and to launch. We’ve also inked a research partnership on diversity, equity and inclusion issues with the University of Texas at Austin. We’re very excited about the advisory board we’ve been able to bring on board as well as the team of 14 as far as the internal Kanarys’ team we’ve also been able to put in place. Within the 14 months we’ve been doing this we’ve had some great wins.

Moguldom:  Did you secure the $725,000 through one particular funding round or one particular investor?

Mandy Price: No, it wasn’t one particular investor. We have not gone to any VCs. What we’ve raised, we originally raised, people call friends and family, but it was much more expansive than just our friends and family. We had a lot of our professional colleagues to step in and participate in our friends and family round to raise the initial capital. Then, we did some additional fundraising to help us finalize the platform from angels that knew what we were trying to do within corporate America and had a similar desire and interest within the space.

Moguldom: What is the dynamic of having three cofounders?

Mandy Price: I think it’s been tremendous. I do know folks who are solo founders and I really commend them. It’s so hard to start a company and to get it off the ground. I cannot imagine doing it without my two co-founders. All of us have known each other since we were undergrads at the University of Texas at Austin close to 20 years ago. We had a good, strong relationship prior to founding the company. Star and I have also worked together for many years. We went to law school together and then subsequently worked at the same law firm for many years. We actually shared the same office for two years. I think given that we had such a strong working relationship over the years it made it very easy to migrate to a relationship where we were in the same office again for hours and hours. I couldn’t think of a better founding team. We’re all still aligned because, just like I have numerous stories about what happened in the workplace, they have stories as well. They’re on the same purpose-driven mission and know Kanarys needs to exist to truly bring equity and workplace fairness to the workplace.

Moguldom: What do the next five years look like?

Mandy Price: In the next five years, we will not just be within the U.S. We will be trying to bring a culture of inclusion and belonging with a global presence, especially knowing so many companies have a global presence that we need to make sure that the data and metrics and analytics we’re tracking don’t just apply to a U.S. workplace. We know that the issues we need to measure are going to be different based off of different communities and different countries, but account for it within our build-out. Also, within the next five years I think companies will realize they have to be intentional about inclusion. That kind of thinking of diversity and inclusion as we’re celebrating a certain month or a certain group really doesn’t bring about workplace fairness and the changes that need to exist. Because of the data and analysis Kanarys has done, companies will have a different approach and are really thinking internally about organizational health and what they can do to ensure that their workplace is truly equitable.