Kimberly Bryant – Heather Hiles – Founders vs. Board Members is an unfolding horror story that demands charitable leaders rethink the way they install board members. The atrocity you’re about to witness is a deliberate act of ORGANIZATIONAL TERRORISM. Behaviors like this, left unchecked, hurt children.
Kimberly Bryant & Heather Hiles – Inside the Power Struggle at BGC
Kimberly Bryant had thought December 21 would be a typical Tuesday. But when Bryant, the founder and CEO of Black Girls Code (BGC), tried to log in to her work accounts, her passwords failed.
Then she discovered the email sent to her personal account from Heather Hiles, the interim chair of BGC’s board, informing Bryant that the board had suspended her, effective immediately.
Bryant — who founded the nonprofit 11 years ago and grew it into a powerhouse in the world of mentoring young black women — had been placed on paid leave so that concerns about her conduct could be investigated, a special committee of the board said in a statement two days later.
Several former employees told Insider they’d seen Bryant berate staffers in front of others and believed she micromanaged BGC’s operations to the point where the organization suffered. Three staffers sent resignation letters to the board, and at least one of them recommended that Bryant be investigated.
But Bryant, who was aware of some of her employees’ complaints and had begun working with an executive coach to address them, saw the suspension as a power move by Heather Hiles, a board member with whom she’d had increasing tensions.
Brimming with anger, Bryant took to Twitter. “Press release: so it’s 3 days before Christmas and you wake up to discover the organization YOU created and built from the ground up has been taken away by a rogue board with no notification,” she wrote in a tweet that went viral and garnered an outpouring of support.
At least one other board member, Sylvia Wilson Thomas, was also shocked. A three-person committee organized by Hiles had executed the suspension without the knowledge of the full board, Bryant and a lawyer for Thomas told Insider. Thomas learned of it only after it happened.
Heather Hiles, Interim Chair – BGC
Insider spoke with Bryant and other people directly familiar with the matter, including five former BGC employees, two advisors and consultants to Bryant, and Thomas’ lawyer, as well as a nonprofit-industry expert. Four of the former employees asked for anonymity for fear of professional retaliation, but their identities are known to Insider.
Their accounts illustrate how even venerated nonprofits are vulnerable to leadership challenges, and how the qualities needed for founders to initially succeed — forcefulness, single-minded vision, relentless drive — can become liabilities that employees are not willing to tolerate as the organization grows.
These challenges can be even more pronounced for founders of color, whose leadership is often subject to high levels of scrutiny.
The events of the past few weeks have also highlighted the tensions and power struggles within BGC’s board. The abrupt suspension of a respected Black female leader in tech considered a pioneer has raised questions about its governance.
Bryant’s supporters contend that the board, whose members are prominent tech and education leaders, mishandled its authority.
“It hurts us as a community when such a prominent community member takes a hit,” said Aniesia Williams, the chief brand and purpose officer of Mercer Advisory Group, who has advised BGC.
Modest Beginnings, Then a Growth Spurt
Bryant, an electrical engineer, famously launched BGC in Oakland, California, in 2011 with funds from her 401(k) and grew the organization to 15 chapters in the US and South Africa. The nonprofit says it’s taught about 30,000 girls ages 7 to 17 to code, partnering with companies like Google, IBM, and Nike.
Along the way, Bryant garnered accolades for helping Black girls pursue interests in tech and became a sought-after speaker.
Like many nonprofit founders, she operated on a modest budget in the early years, reporting less than $1 million in revenue in 2013, 2014, and 2016, according to IRS filings. In those days, she’s said, the nonprofit partnered with a larger organization in order to accept tax-deductible donations, in an arrangement called fiscal sponsorship.
In 2018, BGC gained formal tax-exempt status, IRS records show, and it announced its first board of directors, a slate of renowned Black leaders.
The board now is made up of Hiles, the managing director of the venture-capital firm Black Ops;Thomas, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of South Florida; Stacy Brown-Philpot, a former CEO of TaskRabbit; Robert Simmons, a scholar-in-residence at American University; Sebastian Taveau, an executive at the financial-services company Envestnet; and Sherman Whites, a director at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
By the end of 2020, BGC’s annual revenue had grown to nearly $24 million, according to IRS data. It has grown even more since then, according to Bryant, ending 2021 at just under $40 million.
With that revenue jump, the nonprofit was flung from tight budgets into growing pains, and neither the organization nor its leader was prepared, former employees said.
They described Bryant as a “visionary” who was excellent at fundraising and publicity, but they said her management style held the organization back.
The Founder’s Financial Oversight
Despite the influx of donations, ex-employees said they didn’t have a clear view of overall finances and often lacked budgets for their departments. Bryant kept sole access to the nonprofit’s bank account, often making her the bottleneck when financial matters were concerned, two former staffers said.
In one instance, a hackathon winner had to repeatedly ask the nonprofit about the status of her $500 prize, which took six months for her to receive, two former employees told Insider.
Bryant blamed the delay on the staff, telling the team they lacked proper procedures for issuing and mailing payments, though only she was authorized to cut the check, former employees said.
When asked about the incident, Bryant said she required careful documentation from employees in order to release payments because she had seen other Black-led organizations face financial scrutiny. Since late 2020, she added, the nonprofit has worked with an outside accounting firm.
BGC was also slow to update its programming, and girls who returned ended up repeating material, three former staffers said. Though the nonprofit worked with a research firm to study its programs, it didn’t consistently track participants after they finished, making it difficult to compile data to evaluate its impact, five ex-employees said.
The program has improved in some of these areas, like better outreach to past participants, and it hired employees to revamp its curriculum, Bryant and former employees said. But several former employees said Bryant’s management style kept them from making substantial progress. Turnover was high, three ex-employees said, with some staffers lasting only a few months.
“Nothing ever moved forward,” a former employee said. “It felt like just constantly spinning your wheels while being told that you were incompetent and inept in some way.”
Event planning was another issue, some said. If program managers told corporate sponsors that a requested event date was unavailable, the sponsors would go directly to Bryant, who would give the sponsors what they wanted, two former staffers told Insider.
They said the team would not only face the CEO’s wrath for saying no to the sponsor but be left scrambling to organize the event, sometimes within days.
“People knew that they could just call Kimberly, and then Kimberly would come into the room screaming, try to figure out who that person spoke to, and then we were just forced to make things work,” one of the ex-employees said.
Bryant said that she hadn’t been directly involved with programming since 2017 but that she did tell program managers they were accountable to sponsors.
Former staffers also said Bryant would be slow to give feedback on proposed plans and would change directives after they had already completed work. They recounted that they felt she criticized them if she didn’t like their output or disagreed with their suggestions.
When asked about these allegations, Bryant told Insider she had a “very direct leadership style.”
“I have very high expectations for myself as well as the team,” she said.
The Founder’s Management Style
Like other entrepreneurs, nonprofit founders can often struggle with delegating authority as their nonprofits grow, a phenomenon known as “founder syndrome,” Colton Strawser, a nonprofit consultant, told Insider.
But unlike their counterparts at for-profit startups, nonprofit founders can’t maintain outsized control over the organizations they create. There are no super-voting-rights stock shares, for instance. As a result, their boards hold greater power to fire them.
Anecdotes of workplace strife, or even abrasive leadership, aren’t unique to Black Girls Code, and Bryant’s supporters say she faced heightened challenges as a woman of color in leadership. Whatever shortcomings she may have had, they said, she always sought to act in the best interests of the nonprofit.
“She wants excellence,” said Williams, the BGC adviser. “She’s serious about that. She’s not going to let hurt, harm, or danger come to her program and what she’s trying to do for those girls.”
Bryant was also taking steps to address complaints. In September she hired Karla Monterroso, an executive coach and organizational-culture consultant, after reading Monterroso’s blog post about organizational conflicts.
Monterroso told Insider she had surveyed employees about their experience at the organization and had planned to begin one-on-one interviews with employees in the new year.
But she didn’t get the chance to finish the work before the board suspended Bryant.
Many nonprofit leaders have needed similar leadership help as their organizations have grown, Monterroso said.
“This is an industrywide systems issue,” she said. “Instead of giving the folks who are currently managing this the resources, we starve their organizations and then judge them for not having healthy operations.”
In Bryant’s case, her efforts to hire a consultant may have come too late.
Reports of internal strife had been bubbling up to the board for months. Several employees left during the summer of 2021, and three sent their resignation letters to the nonprofit’s directors. Only Hiles responded, one of the letter writers told Insider.
That former employee also sent an email to the board urging the directors to launch a formal investigation into Bryant’s leadership.
“Black Girls Code is not a safe work environment. It is causing trauma to its staff,” said the email, which Insider saw. “Kimberly Bryant is indisputably the source of that trauma.”
Several board members, led by Hiles, would soon heed that call.
Kimberly Bryant & Heather Hiles’ Battle In The Board Room
When the board’s chair left in September, Hiles was selected as interim chair.
Bryant strongly opposed Hiles’ taking that role. After Hiles took over, Bryant wrote a memo in which she characterized the board as “dysfunctional, toxic, manipulative, and unsupportive,” largely because of Hiles, The Daily Beast reported.
It was around that time that the board formed the special committee to investigate Bryant’s leadership. The committee was composed of Hiles, Brown-Philpot, and Whites, said Tanya Mitchell Graham, a lawyer representing the board’s secretary, Sylvia Wilson Thomas.
For two months the situation appeared dormant, Bryant said, adding that she authorized a payment for the special committee to hire a lawyer but was never contacted by the attorney.
The only inkling of activity by this committee, she said, occurred in early December, when Hiles emailed Bryant’s chief of staff to request information on personnel dating back to 2017.
Bryant recalled that the day before she was suspended, December 20, the whole board held a routine virtual meeting during which no one, including Hiles, mentioned an impending investigation.
Instead, Graham told Insider, the board spent much of the meeting discussing its recently completed “clean” financial audit and goals for the new year.
The next day, Bryant discovered she was locked out of her work accounts.
Bryant blamed Hiles for what she described as a power grab of the nonprofit. “Ms. Hiles has NOT governed BGC with the best interests of the thousands of Black girls and community that we serve in mind,” she said in a statement on December 23.
As evidence, Bryant pointed out that the committee didn’t even send a recommendation to the full board to get its approval to suspend her before it acted. At least one board member, Thomas, discovered from Bryant’s tweet and media reports that Bryant had been suspended.
“There was no resolution, there was no vote,” Graham told Insider. “They just made the decision.”
On December 22, the day after Bryant was locked out, the directors held a special session to discuss Bryant’s suspension, after Thomas had requested an explanation, Graham said. The special committee informed the rest of the board that the suspension was necessary for an investigation to proceed smoothly.
A person familiar with the board confirmed to Insider that the investigation had begun. Sofia Mohammed, the nonprofit’s vice president of programs, is now serving as interim CEO.
Bryant is fighting back
Because she believes the committee didn’t have the authority to suspend her without the board’s consent, Bryant alleges that her suspension is “unlawful.”
“It is unconscionable for people like Ms. Hiles and her cronies to take advantage of a grassroots organization like BGC for their own personal gain,” she said in the statement on December 23.
Strawser, the consultant, said that placing an executive on paid leave to pursue an investigation into misconduct is common. “Just because someone is put on leave doesn’t mean they are fired or will be fired,” he said. “It’s basically best practice.”
Such a decision may not necessarily need a full-board vote either, Strawser said. It depends on the powers the board grants to the committee. Thomas is one of Black Girls Code’s officers, but she is not on the board’s special committee.
The nonprofit’s bylaws would determine whether a committee could have such authority, Strawser said. (Insider has asked Black Girls Code for a copy of its bylaws, but it has not supplied them.)
Regardless of authority, some observers say the committee acted disrespectfully toward Bryant — who remains a highly regarded leader in the tech industry — by not giving her a face-to-face warning.
In January, two internet petitions addressed to BGC’s board in support of her — including one from alumni of Vanderbilt University, Bryant’s alma mater — began circulating.
Combined, the letters had more than 180 signatures as of January 18; Insider saw copies of them. The letters’ signatories include Ellen Pao, the CEO of Project Include and a former Kleiner Perkins investor; Phillip Atiba Goff, the cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity; and McKeever Conwell, the managing partner of RareBreed Ventures.
“We are a movement of people deeply committed to the humanity and dignity of Black women,” one of the letters says. “That commitment applies to all people in this movement, and the actions of the Black Girls Code board fail to reflect that. Nor do they reflect or respect the immeasurable amount of work that it has taken to elevate Black Girls Code to its position in our industry today.”
The former BGC staffers who spoke with Insider were split on whether Bryant should be reinstated. Several said they thought Bryant should be permanently removed.
“The board really did what needed to be done,” one ex-employee said. “I truly want the students to get the best programming possible, and I don’t think that’s going to happen if she gets reinstated in any way, shape, or form.”
Another, Charles M. Anderson, said Bryant could have a constructive future role.
“If Kimberly can just allow herself to be the face and let someone else handle the business side, the organization can grow phenomenally,” Anderson said.
Bryant, meanwhile, is defiant. She told Insider she believed the investigation would vindicate her.
“To be clear, my work with Black Girls Code is not over,” she said in a statement shared on Twitter on December 30. “I am committed to addressing the current challenges within the organization to elevate the culture and continue to prepare Black girls to rise and thrive as future leaders of the technology industry.”
Having worked for 33 years with over 700 nonprofit boards I think April Joyner’s riveting article requires the veteran nonprofit executive to have to do too much reading between the lines. I’ll get to that in a minute. I will also avoid assigning motives to either Bryant or Hiles. None of us can comprehend the complexities of a person’s heart or how they make decisions.
However, I can comment on THE RESULTS of their actions and have spent hours reading article after article about the Black Girls Code debacle. Here’s my observations:
Kimberly Bryant is a STRONG CEO:
She is an enterprising nonprofit founder who saves and transforms lives
Her passion and skills created exponential growth in programs and revenue
She “learned on the job” how to improve financial protocols (there is no indication of maleficence)
She holds staff accountable for results and performance. “Facts” don’t care about your “feelings.”
She considers a donor’s “need to give” ahead of Black Girls Code’s “need to receive.”
Simply put, Kimberly Bryant is a 21st century nonprofit hero.
Heather Hiles is a BOARD MEMBER:
Here’s what your contemporaries have to say about BOARD MEMBERS:
“God first made idiots (that was for practice) then He made boards.” ~ Mark Twain
“There is one thing all boards have in common…they do not function.” ~ Peter Drucker
“Ninety-five percent (of boards) are not doing what they are legally, morally, and ethically supposed to do.” ~ Harold Geneen
“Boards have been largely irrelevant throughout most of the twentieth century.” ~ James Gillies
“Effective governance by a board of trustees is a relatively rare and unnatural act. Trustees are often little more than high-powered, well-intentioned people engaged in low-level activities.” ~ Thomas Holland
“Board members are usually intelligent and experienced persons as individuals. Yet boards, as groups, are mediocre. Boards tend to be, in fact, incompetent groups of competent individuals.” ~ John Carver
To many times I’ve watched founders make a simple, tragic and avoidable mistake…a mistake over which they had complete control.
ANYONE WANT TO GUESS WHAT MISTAKE? The answer is only five words!
Louis Fawcett, NANOE’s President, often asks the question, “Have you ever seen an individual board member engage in ORGANIZATIONAL TERRORISM?If so, use properly written bylaws to mitigate against such atrocities.”
Boardsmanship is not Governance. Don’t kid yourselves. UNPAID BOARD MEMBERS DON’T GOVERN. Actual governance occurs when a person (with a full-time salary) supported by various paid staff (the formation of a government) is empowered to perform the daily tasks of decision-making and oversight. Strong CEOs GOVERN!
Boardsmanship is not Visioning. VISION is the way MISSION is achieved and is never the responsibility of the board because the board isn’t being paid to accomplish it. STRONG CEOs ARE TRUSTED TO CREATE VISION. (I agree that board members hold their compensated leader accountable to achieve MISSION.) Here’s what you do. Hire a strong CEO who has a history of designing VISION that accomplishes MISSION in ways you never dreamed possible. Believe me, strong CEOs are already doing it their way even if they feel the need to label their activities as “BOARD VISION.”
Boardsmanship is not Policy-Making. Hire a CEO whose depth of experience and formal education has already equipped them as a management expert. The right CEO has been properly trained to oversee the creation of policies that work. Board Members never write policy anyway. Someone else does the heavy-lifting and they rubber stamp it.
Boardsmanship is not Volunteerism: Eliminate the special events committee. Eliminate the fundraising committee. Eliminate the public relations committee. Eliminate the strategic planning committee. (Here’s a good rule of thumb – remove everything from your by-laws that’s not related to IRS compliance.) Re-assemble these groups as volunteers (non-board members) who serve you directly. For example, a group of social workers is assembled to serve the program director, or a campaign cabinet comprised of community volunteers is built to advance fundraising. You now have individuals in their sweet spots, who are no longer saddled with arcane tasks.
Boardsmanship is not Management: Board members have no authority over the day-to-day operations of a nonprofit UNLESS there’s a written directive recorded in board meeting minutes with a motion, second and full vote. Members cannot unilaterally exercise power. Nor can committees. Conversely, board members actually need to receive permission from the CEO if they intend to act on behalf of the nonprofit in a manner that could affect daily operations. Real board members certainly don’t entertain communications from disgruntled staff.
Proper Bylaws ENSURE BOARD SUCCESS:
OK, OK…WHAT IS GREAT BOARDSMANSHIP?
Great boards do two things. They provide…ADVICE & ACCOUNTABILITY
The STRONG CEO is named chair of the nominations committee and fills these SIX POSITIONS (yes, you only need six):
Business Expert (Chair) Entrepreneur
Program Expert (Secretary) Specific
Finance Expert (Treasurer) Accountant
Legal Expert (Member) Lawyer
Communications Expert (Member) PR/Marketer
Nonprofit Expert (Member) Consultant
THAT’S IT! However, don’t forget, working group theory states that any “working group” with more than seven people is no longer a group that works!
Here are their ten ADVICE & ACCOUNTABILITY functions:
Comply with IRS Regulations
Hire strong Chief Executive Officer
Provide CEO advice (privately as individual experts)
Approve Meeting Agenda
Approve and Amend By-Laws
Choose Third Party to Perform Independent Financial Audit (Review findings as group in board meetings)
Choose Third Party to Perform Independent Program Audit (Review findings as group in board meetings)
Attend Three Meetings per Year with Recorded Minutes
Support the CEOs Vision (not the boards vision)
Let me ask you a question. Have you been successful in enterprise? What would have happened if your fellow board members were put in charge of running YOUR business? Would they have been helpful, harmful, or no help at all? I think I know your answer.
Hmmm? Then why do it to nonprofit CEOs?
Why do it to Kimberly Bryant?
I love boards that work. I’m grateful for the brilliant leaders (who know more than me) who spend their volunteer time in service to boards of directors. Why am I thankful? Because they give me the latitude to achieve success while reserving the right to hire/fire me based on my performance. Each year they use third party experts to see if I’ve kept my promise to grow programs and monies. They require me to achieve significant impact as they provide ADVICE & ACCOUNTABILITY.
If Kimberly Bryant – Heather Hiles – Founders Beware of Board Members resonated with you watch NANOE’s “Are Nonprofit Boards Broken for Good?” on YouTube below.
Kimberly Bryant & Heather Hiles – Founders vs. Board Members was first posted at NANOE News
Kimberly Bryant & Heather Hiles – Founders vs. Board Members was partially excerpted from April Joyner’s article at Business Insider titled, Inside the Power Struggle at Black Girls Code.
Kimberly Bryant & Heather Hiles – Founders vs. Board Members was partially excerpted from Jimmy LaRose’s book RE-IMAGINING PHILANTHROPY.
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