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As Taylor Smith scrolls through her pictures from 2017, there is one particular backdrop that crops up again and again: The Refinery29 logo, glowing purple and yellow against a white wall.

“Wow,” she says. “I can’t believe how many pictures I have with that damn neon light.”

Smith, who is black, took a photo with the sign on the first day of her internship. Everyone did, she says. On nights she worked late, she’d often sneak another picture on her way out the door. It was hard to believe that this was her job: making videos in an office with hanging ferns, pink accent pillows and a staff that was overwhelmingly young and female. When she posted Refinery pictures to Instagram, she says, she’d get texts from friends at her old job, a male-dominated talent agency: “Wow,” they’d say. “I’m so excited for you.”

Stepping off the elevator at Refinery29's Los Angeles office, the first thing Smith saw was a neon sign. (Courtesy of Taylor Smith)
Stepping off the elevator at Refinery29's Los Angeles office, the first thing Smith saw was a neon sign. (Courtesy of Taylor Smith)

When Smith started working at Refinery29, it felt like more than a job. The company reflected the person she wanted to be, she says. While women’s magazines like Glamour and Cosmopolitan wrote articles on the “Top 10 sex secrets,” Refinery promoted a version of feminism that was more “grounded” and “relatable,” highlighting working women who are “doing the things they want.” The company calls itself “a catalyst for women to feel, see, and claim their power.”

“You’re so excited to work around people who have the same goals as you,” said Smith, “who champion people who are unheard.”

But she quickly realized that Refinery seemed more interested in empowering white women than women of color, said Smith, one of a small handful of black women in the Los Angeles office. She was overworked and underpaid, making $11 an hour without benefits — dog-sitting on the side for extra cash — while spearheading major video campaigns for the company, like leading production on a million-dollar video series in partnership with Google. She asked for a raise and a promotion “I don’t even know how many times,” Smith, who was 24 when she joined the company, said. When Refinery finally brought her on staff in August, one year and seven months after she started, they offered her an assistant producer title — even though she’d been doing the work of a producer, she said.

“It’s like a slap in the face. Producing things like this should empower someone to feel higher than themselves — but then you feel so small,” said Smith, who made videos about the school-to-prison pipeline and black transgender women undergoing facial feminization surgery. She’d often think about Refinery29’s ongoing project that promotes women asking for raises.

“I felt so small.”

Across the women’s media industry, black employees and employees of color have been speaking out against the racism they’ve experienced on the job, with many of their tweets going viral. Working for feminist lifestyle and media platforms like Refinery29, Bustle, and Ban.do — all led by white women — employees say the rhetoric of female empowerment rang hollow for women of color, who were often paid less than their white colleagues, denied promotions and pigeonholed into writing stories on beats related to race. They endured racist comments from leadership, they say, meeting resistance when employees tried to further diversify their brands.

Over the last week, the editor of Refinery29 and the chief creative officer of Ban.do, a woman-centered lifestyle platform, have stepped down, along with the founder and chief executive of the Wing, a feminist networking space.

“We are deeply dismayed to learn of the toxic culture that has existed at Refinery29, issues we were not made aware of when we acquired the company in November 2019 and for which the founders have apologized and taken accountability,” Nancy Dubuc, chief executive of Vice Media Group, which owns Refinery29, wrote in a statement. “We have announced a search for a new editor in chief of Refinery29 and an immediate action plan to ensure that our workplace empowers diversity, equity, and inclusion inside our walls and reflects the brand purpose audiences have come to know us for.”

The movement was spurred largely by the way these brands responded to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent global protests calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism. When Refinery29 blacked out its website in solidarity with the protesters, Ashley Edwards — a former Refinery29 editor, who is black — was one of the first to call them out.

The treatment of black employees was particularly painful because it so directly contradicted the feminist mission of the company, said Edwards.

“I really loved the values: women asking for what they deserve … a commitment to publishing articles about plus size women, gay women, trans women,” Edwards said. “But if your feminism doesn’t have black and other women of color at the forefront — doesn’t give them a seat at the table — is it really feminism in the first place?”

Bustle presents itself as an “intersectional feminist company,” said Clarissa-Jan Lim, a Southeast Asian woman who worked as an editor there from 2017 to 2019. A website focused on women’s fashion, news and lifestyle, Bustle often features content that is geared toward, and written by, women of color, said Lim. The platform highlights voices from black activists, she said, and includes a diverse range of models in their photos.

But it’s all “optics,” Lim said.

When one former Bustle Digital Group employee, who is black, interviewed at the company, she said she heard a lot about “diversity.”

“On the edit team, I’ve never seen a place be so twisted in my life. They were screaming, ‘We love diversity, this is what we push, this is so important to us,’” said the former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Walking through the office on her first day, she says, “it was like a snowstorm.” Almost everyone was white. During her nearly two years at the company, from 2018 to 2019, she says that no black women on the editorial team received promotions. Only one woman of color received a promotion over that period, she said. (A Bustle Digital Group spokesperson said that “BDG promoted several women of color on editorial during this time.”)

In the two years that Lim worked at Bustle, there were only a few people of color on the full-time staff, she said. Most of the black employees were writers, she says, who at Bustle all work part-time at an hourly rate, usually for seven hours a day. As an editor, Lim was constantly fighting for hourly wage increases for the writers in her section, especially writers of color.

“The higher up you go, the whiter it is. If you look at who is in charge at Bustle, who gets to make the calls: All of them are white women,” said Lim.

“Under no circumstances has BDG practiced bias in how we hire and compensate our staff, and we are committed to fair pay and compensation principles,” a BDG spokesperson said. “Inclusivity has always been core to our company and brands, however, it has become abundantly clear that all media organizations need to do more to elevate diverse talent.”

At Refinery29, Edwards oversaw several writers on the news and politics team. Over time, she realized that a Latina writer was being paid $15,000 less than two of her white writers, despite driving more traffic to the section, a metric she says is highly valued at Refinery29. When she raised the disparity with then executive editor Yael Kohen and then managing editor Rebecca Smith, Edwards said, “they basically laughed at me.”

“I remember one of them saying that she gets paid enough,” Edwards said.

Kohen declined to comment on specific personnel matters, citing confidentiality. “I took all matters of pay, personnel and promotion very seriously,” she wrote in an email. Kohen has since left Refinery29 for the Wall Street Journal.

In a statement provided to The Lily, Smith wrote, “I am committed to ensuring that every team member is paid in line with their position, scope and their experience. This writer was an important part of Refinery29 and did amazing work, and I am sorry if she was undervalued.” Smith is now vice president for editorial operations and strategy at Refinery29.

It was easy to feel “tokenized” as the black writer who writes about issues related to being black, said Khalea Underwood. When she applied to be a beauty writer at Refinery, Khalea said, she was told that the position was for a “natural hair writer.” That was welcome news, Underwood said. She got the job, and was thrilled to be writing specifically for a black audience.

But after more than a year at the company, she started itching to write about other topics, too. She decided to apply for an opening for a senior beauty writer, a position that would cover a wide range of beauty issues. When she brought this up to her manager, now the beauty director at Refinery29, she was surprised that Underwood would be applying for the job, said Underwood.

“The fact that she was surprised was offensive in itself,” said Underwood. She had all the skills and experience listed on the job description, she said. “Why wouldn’t you consider me?”

Refinery29's offices were decorated with a millennial aesthetic: lots of accent pillows and hanging plants. (Courtesy of Taylor Smith)
Refinery29's offices were decorated with a millennial aesthetic: lots of accent pillows and hanging plants. (Courtesy of Taylor Smith)

In the meeting, the manager said Underwood “didn’t seem happy on this team,” according to Underwood. When Underwood asked her to explain, she said, her manager cited her use of Slack, saying that she was sometimes “very short” with her colleagues on the corporate messaging platform.

“I am paranoid to this day that if I don’t soften something with an exclamation point or an emoji, I’m going to seem harsh or disengaged.”

Even before the meeting, Underwood had started to experience anxiety attacks at work, feeling physically sick before she went into the office in the morning. The work was overwhelming and nonstop, she said, consuming her life long after work hours were over. Eventually she had to turn off email notifications on her phone. Fielding criticism from her manager, she began to second-guess herself. It was hard not to feel like someone was policing every little thing she did.

“I would feel it in my stomach, you know?”

Edwards was also criticized for her tone on Slack, she says. Kohen told her that she sometimes came across as “rude,” Edwards said. When Edwards asked her to elaborate, she said, Kohen couldn’t.

“I got to a point where I was questioning myself constantly,” Edwards said. “Am I sounding rude? Did I say that too forcefully?”

Both Edwards and Underwood have since left Refinery. Edwards works for Google News; Underwood is a beauty editor at the Zoe Report, a division of Bustle Digital Group.

Smith, the video producer, left Refinery to be an associate producer at Mic in October 2018, approximately one year after she was hired into a full-time position at Refinery. When she told Stone Roberts, the senior vice president of video strategy, that she was leaving, he responded by asking what position Smith had been hired into. Roberts reminded her that he’d said she wasn’t ready for a producer role, according to Smith.

Then Smith remembers him saying, “You’ll need us before we need you.”

“Any other place I’ve worked, when I told them [about a new job,] it’s usually been pretty congratulatory,” said Smith. “But this was just like, ‘I told you so, you're right where you're supposed to be.’”

Refinery29 did not respond to a request for comment on this incident.

Tiffany Moldof Ruiz, who is Latina, experienced her own deeply confusing and uncomfortable exit when she left Ban.do. For her first few months at the company, she said, it was “refreshing to be at a place that seemed to me to be celebrating women.” As design director from 2015 to 2017, she’d often been invited to meetings with Jen Gotch, founder and former chief creative officer, and the two other top leaders at the company. When an executive at Lifeguard Press, which owns Ban.do, told her that she was being laid off, he offered little explanation, beyond saying that they assumed Gotch had already spoken to Moldof Ruiz about the issues with her performance.

Moldof Ruiz struggled to remember Gotch saying much of anything that was critical.

There was the one time when Gotch told her that she “was not the brand,” Moldof Ruiz said. Her style was too “street,” Moldof Ruiz remembers Gotch saying.

“I was design director there, influencing all the products,” Moldof Ruiz said. “How was I supposed to be confident in my role when she was straight up telling me that I am not the customer?”

Gotch did not respond to a request for comment on this incident.

Gabriella Sanchez, a former Ban.do employee, shared her experiences on Instagram, claiming that “overtly racist comments were openly made … on a regular basis.” Sanchez cites one instance when Gotch began using an “accent” reminiscent of “old racist movies” at a restaurant after seeing a black couple sit down a few tables away.

“One of the girls asked her why she was talking like that and Jen made a joke of it and laughed and said it was her ‘plantation accent,’” Sanchez wrote in the post.

Gotch also expressed resistance to featuring a more diverse range of models and influencers on the Ban.do platforms, says Meghan Alfano, a white woman who worked at Ban.do from 2015 to 2019. As a marketing assistant, and then as a public relations manager, Alfano said, she would field emails from customers and influencers involved with the brand. She says she received dozens of messages, urging Ban.do to diversify the models on their website. She forwarded “every single email” she got, she says — usually to Gotch or Kelly Edmonson, the style director.

“We are incredibly sorry that knowingly or unknowingly people have been hurt by their time at Ban.do. We are committed to creating a workplace and environment that is a safe space for everyone,” Kim and Todd Ferrier, the owners of Ban.do, wrote in a statement. “The only way forward is to educate ourselves, to listen, create change and amplify the voices that need to be heard.”

On one particular occasion, Alfano was assigned to develop a list of 50 potential models and influencers for a new apparel campaign. When Alfano presented her findings — approximately 70 percent of the women were people of color — Gotch told her that she seemed to be “trying to cross off a diversity checklist,” according to Alfano. She urged her to include more white women, Alfano said.

Gotch and Christene Barberich, the former editor of Refinery29, have stepped down. But some employees say it’s not enough.

Many of the women in top positions at these companies are “taking the fall” for male executives even further up the chain, said Moldof Ruiz. The president of Lifeguard Press, who is a white man, had a hand in much of the company culture, she says.

Over the past week, Lifeguard Press has attempted to shield itself from the Ban.do fallout. When asked about the relationship between the two companies, Amy Ziskin, a Ban.do spokesperson, said, “Lifeguard Press and Ban.do are two separate companies. Lifeguard Press does not own Ban.do.” But multiple employees says Lifeguard executives took a leadership role during their time at the brand. The Lily obtained a screenshot of the Lifeguard Press LinkedIn page from June 7, immediately following Sanchez’s allegations against Gotch. In the “About Us” section, Lifeguard Press says, “We also own and operate Ban.do.” That line has since been removed.

Lifeguard Press also recently deleted their Instagram account. This happened after they were tagged in many of the posts about racism at Ban.do, according to Moldof Ruiz.

White male executives at Refinery 29 have also dodged much of the backlash.

“I rolled up to two white men, Justin [Stefano] and Philippe [von Borries, the co-founders and former co-CEOs of Refinery29],” said Nneka Okoli, a black woman who worked on Refinery’s business side from 2016 to 2018. Stefano and von Borries left their management roles in November, when Vice acquired Refinery29. “No one ever talks about them.”

About a year into the job, Okoli says, she found out she was making approximately $15,000 less than a white man with the same title.

To make real change, Edwards says, Refinery29 needs to “rebuild its brand,” promoting the many talented black women and women of color within the company. If they are brought in to fill top leadership positions, she says, Refinery will have a better chance at becoming the brand “it’s supposed to be.”

Smith was promoted to producer after just six months at Mic. Now, she tries not to think about her time at Refinery29: She has unfollowed the brand on Instagram and Snapchat, and never checks their website.

This isn’t the first time Smith has spoken publicly about her experiences at Refinery. She has tweeted a few things before, she says, but the comments never took off. She doesn’t have a large following on Twitter.

“I kind of knew no one would really listen if I didn’t have a blue check mark.” It’s exciting, she says, to see how closely people are paying attention now.

In March, Smith got a call from the executive producer at Refinery. She wanted to know if Smith would consider coming back as a supervising producer.

She declined, and thanked her for calling.

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