As the world remains impacted by the global pandemic, the new White House administration grapples with all that it inherited. Families continue to manage remote work and home-schooling schedules. Meanwhile, companies are faced with its own set of challenges around adjusting to telework norms while ensuring that company values, culture, and performance remain intact.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Lisa Gelobter who can relate to all that government, families, and companies are dealing with during these times. She was the Chief Digital Officer for the Department of Education under the Obama Administration. Today she is the CEO and Founder of tEQuitable, a company whose mission is to create a work culture that works for everyone by making workplaces more equitable.
We talked about becoming a computer scientist, landing her job at the White House, and pivoting into entrepreneurship. She also cleared up being credited with the creation of GIFs and shared what she considers to be her most impactful contribution to the tech industry to date.
Jumoke Dada: Tell me about one of your earliest or most significant experiences with technology.
Lisa Gelobter: Let me start by sharing that it took me 24 years to graduate from college. I started college early on then I dropped out to work then I went back to finish. To answer your question, I have a memory from the school where it was around 4 AM and I was up working on a robot project. I remember trying to figure out how to make it move towards the light. I had a moment when I realized that no one had figured it out and it dawned on me that I could actually invent something new.
Dada: As a computer scientist, you may have had multiple options for employment opportunities. How and why did you work in the entertainment industry?
Gelobter: I worked at Black Entertainment Television Networks (BET) and Hulu prior to working at the White House. From the outside, it looks like I was super intentional with my career moves. However, every time that I learned about a job opportunity, I would ask myself if I would learn or grow from it because I’m a big believer that every company is a tech company. I worked on the tech side of the entertainment industry by inventing the Shockwave technology that media companies were able to build upon. Shockwave was the invention of animation on the web.
Dada: What about your experience with launching HULU?
Gelobter: I usually talk about Shockwave first because, in my opinion, it was groundbreaking as it set the foundation for the modern web. It was the thing that made the web move and had the most significant impact in the U.S. from a technological perspective.
Hulu transformed the way people thought about digital media and consumed it. However, Shockwave laid the groundwork and the platform for building it. The Hulu development experience was interesting and amazing. When we first launched it, I was the only person at the company who had previously worked at a media and software company. As a result, I ended up being the translator between my software and media colleagues.
Dada: What about graphics interchange format (GIFs)?
Gelobter: I want to clarify that I did not create GIFs although I get credited for it a lot. I think people conflated thinking about animation on the web as being animated GIFs but that was Shockwave. Again, what we did with Shockwave was transformative.
Dada: What would you describe as your biggest contribution to the tech industry to date?
Gelobter: From a technology perspective, Shockwave has had the most impact and has had the most things built on or stem from it. Hulu has had the biggest impact from a consumer perspective. What I worked at the Department of Education under the Obama administration has had the most societal impact.
Dada: How did you land your job at the White House under the Obama Administration?
Gelobter: It’s a funny story. I was in my office while working at BET and I got a call from the White House. I was invited to attend a roundtable discussion focused on the government using technology to serve the American people better. I flew to Washington, D.C. to attend. About a dozen of us met with the former chief technology officer of the USA, former chief information officer, and former deputy administrator for the office of management. We then learned that it was a recruitment event. They shared the potential of the impact of our work and after some time, in walks former President Obama. It was my first time meeting him and after that meeting, I decided that I wanted to work for his administration.
I actually don’t tell this story often partially because when I got to the Department of Education, I realized that there were people on the ground daily who had been doing good work for years with little credit. They are the real heroes.
Dada: After working in government, why did you become an entrepreneur?
Gelobter: While at the White House I enjoyed working on a project called College Scorecard which helped students make informed choices about where they would go to school.
After leaving, I realized that I could help make systemic change. I decided that having worked on transformative technologies in tech, media, and government, I wanted to apply my experience to help the underrepresented, underserved, and underestimated.
I never planned to become an entrepreneur. At the time, Bloomberg Beta started Future Founders. I received an invite while working at the White House so I went and learned about it which helped me when I started my company.
Dada: Let’s talk about your company. What is tEQuitable?
Gelobter: I was fortunate as I don’t have the typical entrepreneurial journey. Through conversations with contacts at Kapor Capital, I was supported. I am risk-averse so if I had to raise on my own, like a friend and family round, for instance, I wouldn’t have done it. I also went through Y-Combinator to start.
My company is tEQuitable and we’re using technology to make workplaces more equitable. We help employees figure out their next steps when inappropriate things happen in the workplace like harassment, discrimination, etc. Companies don’t always have a good pulse on their work culture therefore we also provide data and insights so that they can make systematic change.
We created a third-party, confidential platform to address issues. For employees, we provide a sounding board where they can get advice, explore their options, and figure out their next steps. Meanwhile, we’re gathering data that we anonymize and aggregate, and use to identify systemic issues within an organization’s culture. Based on our findings, we create a report for the management team with actionable recommendations. For us, it’s really important that we work on both sides of the equation.
Dada: What do you believe is one of the biggest problems that women of color experience as entrepreneurs?
Gelobter: Every circumstance is different but I would say that it is fundraising. I’ll also add that there is something about the types of businesses that we create. Many black women, including myself, start mission-oriented or social impact businesses that may be considered to niche for funding opportunities. Kapor Capital only does social impact investing. They fund organizations that will have an impact on closing gaps and opportunities in life and work. We were fortunate to end up with investors whose values aligned with our mission.
Dada: How has your company adjusted to the “new normal” during the pandemic?
Gelobter: We’re a small software company. When covid-19 first struck, companies had to adapt to their new normal. We did a lot of work with reaching out to employees and companies for surveys and providing materials, accommodations, and remediations. We also made suggestions of things they could put into place culture, norms and behaviors.
Dada: Diversity and Inclusion is a hot topic, what are some programs that your company has in place to address it?
Gelobter: Our company is black and brown. What we do for a living is help companies address diversity and inclusion issues.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my biggest concern was that the strides that our company made in terms of people talking about culture, belonging, would take a hit due to budget changes. However, the business has taken off.
The fact of the matter is, in this new world, you want services like what we provide in place because you want employees to feel like they have somewhere to turn. Our services are something that can be dropped in to augment your HR team. Also, people use tEQuitable in uncertain times to reinforce the culture and values.
On the one hand, I’m glad that that business is taking off but on the other hand, it infuriates me that it took civil unrest and more for people to start addressing issues. We have been trying to tackle inequities and systemic injustices since we started the business. Now it’s not just about having companies step up but it’s also how making them bring a lens of inclusion to their company culture.
Dada: Who inspires you and why?
Gelobter: My parents. They are immigrants who left everything behind to come to this country. My dad is a holocaust survivor from Poland and my mom is from the Caribbean. As people who have lost almost everything, they’ve owned more than once, they have a resilience that I admire. They are remarkable human beings who just celebrated their 60th anniversary. I even believe that my dad was a feminist before the word existed.
Dada: What advice do you have for future computer scientists, who are currently in or recently graduated from college?
Gelobter: I’m inspired by the younger generation, too. I believe that I can learn a lot from them. I feel like they don’t adhere to our standards and norms. They are about making change and questioning the status quo. I really appreciate it and I want to encourage them to continue to do two things: be true to themselves and make a social impact.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.