This is the second in my series of posts spotlighting underrepresented communities around the world and the entrepreneurs trying to help them. In this installment, I talk to an entrepreneur hoping to curb workplace bias around the world.
Lola Soto was thrown into the world of technology without warning. She was working with friends at a consulting firm when the CEO suddenly chose her as one of the first of their consultants to do database work. Within a few hours, she'd been through a crash course in data analysis and the next day she was on a plane to help a bank migrate its financials from a Legacy system into Oracle.
Soto soon realized that with technology projects, the more complex a business's initiative, the more important it was to have a talented manager. Over time, she felt that the management support for her efforts wasn't growing as she grew. From there, the idea for a new software solution was born.
"One of the things that I've found to be true throughout my career is that the most important decision that a company makes on a daily basis is who they name manager," Soto says.
The Path to Empath
Recognizing the importance of pinpointing employee issues before they become a problem, Soto began creating an application that could help. Empath is enterprise-level software that can help a company identify employee disengagement and potential attrition risks. With this software, businesses may be able to more readily identify when a manager may be leading teams in the wrong direction.
"We call it an Employee Relationship Management Platform, or ERM," Soto says. "Like Salesforce is for managing and maintaining your customer relationships, Empath is for managing and maintaining your relationships with your employees. In that moment I realized, 'Wow, if you use Empath, you get access to feedback on your managers and their team's performance on a configurable basis.' Usually once every week or every two weeks, but you suddenly have access to data on how managers are doing in supporting their team."
Managers receive action items based on the information team members send them. These directives include ways to improve employee engagement and reduce turnover risks. However, if these items are ignored over time or a manager continues to struggle, that manager's supervisor will soon begin to receive feedback. This can prevent an employee from falling through the cracks due to issues that upper management knows nothing about.
Soto plans for Empath to be effective in addressing the biases that still exist in so many organizations. She was a firsthand witness to those issues earlier in her career. She was working hard with a team on a project and noticed she was the least supported of everyone on her team, which was being overworked. As the only woman of color, someone pointed out that bias might have been leading management to support her less than others. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Soto chose to see that as a data point, which she later used to inform the bias-elimination features in Empath.
"I had been working between 100 and 110 hours a week during launches, sleeping bag under the desk and everything, and I realized I'd poured my heart and soul into this and yet I'd gotten burnt out by the experience," Soto says. "The satisfaction of doing a great job wasn't enough to overcome the very strong suspicion I had that there was either manager bias, or bias simply because I was a woman of color. I will probably never know, but I did know that there was no mechanism for me to communicate any kind of data. There wasn't a real way to channel this concern. There was no way to do that without jeopardizing my career, so I just had to suck it up and focus on doing a good job."
Breaking New Ground
Soto's solution is so impressive, she interviewed for it at Y Combinator, perhaps the most well-respected start-up incubator in the world. Soto was one of the first Latina CEOs to interview for the program. Currently, Empath is still in beta, but the software has captured the interest of major technology companies in the Bay Area.
"The reason that we are proceeding carefully is that this is enterprise-wide software," Soto says. "You can pilot on a team, but you ultimately want to beta an executive. For you to use the dashboard, you're going to want data across multiple teams, so we want to make sure we get this right. This is something that every single employee will interact with. We don't want to disengage with employees by annoying them."
After personally experiencing bias, Soto turned her own experience into a solution that can help others. That work has helped make her a strong role model for Latina businesswomen in Silicon Valley. With Empath getting so much attention, Soto just might become a pioneer in the field of employee retention as well.