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Open Letter to Steve Troyer

Hi Steve,

I blocked you last night on LinkedIn, because I found your comments, your choice of language, and your refusal to engage in dialogue regarding issues of ableism, hatred, discrimination, and blatant bias towards individuals with mental illness to be triggering, especially in light of my family’s history.

In my work, I have encountered more than a dozen individuals with a past history of depression or other mood disorders.

One of these individuals was my former system administrator. He had a job as a VP at a very large financial organization (Wells Fargo, if you really want to know) but was not fulfilled by the work. That is why he worked part-time for the company I founded, Yesexactly.com. Later, he worked as a security consultant for my nonprofit initiative, Givingmap.org, while employed as a security engineer by another large, well-known, and prestigious international finance organization. On several occasions he spoke openly to me about the difference that medication had made in his life. This person was also a nonconformist in some ways, and extremely paranoid about the government.

He once made a remark to me during a video conference that was extremely inappropriate. Later he claimed that he had been drinking and that was the explanation. Regardless it was not something that I as his boss could easily forget. It put a strain on our working relationship from that point forward.

I could have chosen to let him go then, but it was only one infraction and we had worked together for almost eight years.

More to the point, I did not see his behavior as a symptom. Sometimes people make poor choices. You cannot chalk up every stupid or antisocial behavior as the result of a diagnosis, even when you know that a person has a diagnosis. In our exit interview a few months later, he apologized for his actions.

I saw my system administrator as a whole person — somebody who was extremely talented and competent, but who struggled with mental health issues and perhaps also family issues. I believe this individual would have benefited from an environment where he could share his disability more openly, without fear of losing opportunities in the workplace. The problem is that a word like “stigma” erases the experience of individuals like my former sysadmin who are able to work and live a full life.

“Ableism” is a better word to use than stigma (although in many instances, these words are used interchangeably) because it makes clear that bias and discrimination against people with mental illness is not acceptable.

This in no way diminishes your brother’s experience. Nor do I mean to cast aspersions on your compassionate actions toward him.

But it is the experience of only one segment of individuals with mood disorders and other psychiatric conditions. Talking about mental illness without talking about ableism or the need to combat bias is, in my opinion, tantamount to hate speech. I learned the importance of this distinction through conversations on an online Facebook Group (Reimagining Recovery) that was later removed by its founder, Molly Indrelie. It truly resonated with me. I wish I had more of a platform to share what I have learned.

You are of course welcome to agree or disagree. The important thing is that we have dialogue around these issues.

Lucky Numbers

Just over 14 years ago, on July 7, 2007, my life changed forever. What happened?

A microburst.

7.7.7

In the space of fifteen minutes, an unusual weather pattern took down three trees in the backyard of our home in Charlotte, North Carolina. One of them landed on a neighbor’s truck.

It seemed like every other summer thunderstorm. We didn’t even lose power. Until we ventured outside and saw the damage. Until we talked to the neighbors. Who were not happy, to say the least.

I generally avoid trying to befriend or even casually get to know my neighbors, and these people were the reason why. They seemed like the ultimate cool couple: the guy was a musician (although he worked for a bank) and his wife was a freelance photographer. She had accompanied me on my regular restaurant review column, to Meskerem, the new Ethiopian place in town. We had hung out a little bit socially and I was hoping they would get to be our new “couple friends,” in our neighborhood, instead of a 40-minute freeway drive away, like my in-laws and most of the book club that formed our core social group.

She was livid at the demise of her pickup truck.

“You should have taken better care of your trees!” she told me.

What could I say? They were alive and healthy. Until they weren’t.

One of the unique features of the property, and one of the reasons we’d bought it, was the patch of forest at the back of the lot, bordering on a stream and a right-of-way. In theory, we could have built an artists’ studio or a mother-in-law apartment out there. In practice, we were happy to just let the woods be woods.

That was the last time I talked to those neighbors. After that, they built a spite fence (homemade, out of chicken wire) to divide our properties. I was left to deal with the insurance claim situation — and the expense and logistics of removing the debris. My husband was a busy corporate lawyer. I managed all of our finances, all of the taxes, all of the household issues — from ascertaining that the copper wire had been stolen out of our exterior HVAC units and getting it replaced to putting pressure on the Kingsdown Mattress Company to fulfill their warranty after documenting that our California King pillowtop mattress had sagged measurably in the middle (the dreaded “taco” effect).

I did all of this cheerfully, until 7/7/7.

I used to read a lot into the significance of that date.

Now, not so much.

The angry neighbors. My feelings of isolation and abandonment. My husband’s affair.

I wanted to believe that there was a higher purpose in our separation — that everything happened for a reason.

If you are a recruiter or a prospective employer, this is the reason that my Career in Tech didn’t really get started until Age 32. Up until that time, I was freelancing and homemaking — expecting to be a full-time mom, announcement in the next family holiday newsletter.

Sometimes plans don’t go as expected. I always thought there was beauty, meaning, and purpose behind that. Maybe there still is. I don’t know. Maybe my husband was meant to be with the woman he left me for. She was beautiful. Jet black hair. Trim physique. Yale Law School grad. A coworker. Also married. She lured him with a Margaret Atwood novel. My command of Dan Simmons and William Gibson could not compete.

The affair started a few months earlier, while they were traveling in Alabama together, on business. The hotel accidentally sent them the “couples package” — roses, wine, and chocolates — even though they were were staying in separate rooms.

Ten or eleven years ago I would have told you that everything happens for a reason. That I was destined to be an entrepreneur. Or raise children with somebody else. Now I really don’t believe in destiny — or if I do, it’s not the type that you can read from a three-digit sequence.

Now I think we find our meaning and purpose elsewhere. Namely, in how we react.

The wisdom to know what we can change and what we can’t. The courage to act if we can.

That’s the only meaning that endures, after the acid bath of time has stripped away the rest. I think somebody made that into a poem. I think they called it the Desiderata.

Partner Jealousy Is a Problem.

Sexism is old news. Nothing special, right? We know what women are supposed to do. We are supposed to stick together. We’re supposed to have each other’s backs. But what happens when other women don’t do their part? What happens when our sisters betray us?

Some would accuse me of falling into the “Cool Girl Trap” because I have male friends. Huffington Post defines this conundrum as “the one who goes out of her way to say that she gets along with men better than women. The one who considers herself one of the guys.”

The problem with this rhetorical “trap” is that not all of us fall neatly into the gender binary. What is wrong with liking kickboxing, fast cars, and electric guitar? I consider myself genderfluid — which means I possess some stereotypically male traits as well as traits culturally accepted as female.

To be clear, I think sexism is less of a problem than racism. But it is still a huge problem. In 2021, women make 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes (NBC News).  I work in the male-dominated tech industry, which brings unique challenges. One of these challenges is gender presentation.

I generally present as “femme,” or feminine. This makes me a target of partner jealousy — a situation that occurs when men’s wives or girlfriends act as gatekeepers, controlling access to women that they see as a threat.

On one occasion, I was trying to recruit a male programmer for my new company. I wanted to share a demo that contained proprietary information, but he insisted that his girlfriend attend too. The end result was that the demo didn’t happen.

Many men allow their significant others to police their relationships and forbid them from getting too close to other women. This arrangement is known colloquially as being under “lock and key.”

In theory, this should be no problem for women in business. We should simply connect with other women and kick ass.

Sort of like that Ghostbusters remake. Or something.

The problem is, separate but equal is not equal.

I had a prominent mentor and member of the tech investing community beg off from advising me because, he said, “Most of the entrepreneurs I work with are older dads, like me.”

COVID-19 and school closures have increased our isolation, as more women stay at home and take on increased responsibility for housework and childcare. “Cosmos with the Girls” and “Craft Night” become distant memories instead of something helping us get through our week.

Partner jealousy can affect both men and women. All that I can say is that I prefer to believe in a world where people trust each other — and see each other as people first, and sexual objects second or not at all. My personal belief is that if you can’t trust your partner, you shouldn’t be with them at all.

I do not say this lightly.

I lost my husband to infidelity more than a decade ago. He was tall and handsome, a Harvard Law grad, and a “catch” by anyone’s estimation. He always had more female friends than guy friends. Many of these were colleagues at his firm or friends from college. We planned backpacking trips in the Sierras with our mutual female friends. Another single female college friend, who is now married and a rabbi, flew to North Carolina one spring to visit us. These friendships were part of the tapestry of our community. I wouldn’t give them up for anything.

Rigid gender apartheid demarcations are a great way to isolate people and keep them from finding genuine common ground. Partner jealousy and mistrust of other women keeps women isolated and focused on the basic survival tasks of caring for themselves, their elders, their children, and in many cases their husbands or boyfriends. We are not taught to look beyond gender or to recognize each other’s basic humanity.

Trust, boundaries, and clear expectations are what form the ties that last. This holds true for business and creative partnerships as well as dating and romance. I want to envision a world where all people are free to interact with each other as equals.

“Divide and conquer” won’t work on women for much longer. We’re too smart to keep being fooled.

Prayers for Sinead O’Connor


“Sinead O’Connor hospitalized, days after teenage son’s death”

“Sinéad O’Connor has been admitted to the hospital, one week after her 17-year-old son was found dead. The “Nothing Compares 2 U” singer told fans on Thursday night that she was heading to hospital to receive help after sharing in a series of disturbing Twitter posts that she planned to take her own life…” Read full story on CNN

Not only is Sinead O’Connor an artist and a mother, she is an outspoken critic of misuse of power, institutionalized racism, and fascism. Take a moment to listen to her song:

I first heard “Black Boys on Mopeds” performed by Katrina, Nerissa, and Dave Nields at a live in-store performance in a Borders Bookstore in Farmington, Connecticut. It was an unforgettable moment. The Nields were a regional favorite and I had gone to a few of their concerts and stopped to talk with them and buy a CD. They knew me by sight. Not so with a megastar.

There is no way that this message will reach Sinead O’ Connor and I am saddened by that. But if I could, I would ask her to please stay in this world—in this universe—because we need artists just as much we need programmers and scientists. Sinead, yours has always been one of the loudest voices in the fight against authoritarian, fascist, and evil regimes.

Stay with us, if you possibly can.