Stephanie Lampkin is the founder and CEO of Blendoor, a tech start-up that takes the unconscious bias out of job hiring through creating blind applications. Lampkin has a degree in engineering and began coding when she was only a teenager. She prefers to work through the night, and holds all of her pitch meetings on the same day. She has no interest in drinking Soylent and she hopes to some day have her own Oprah moment. She wants to hold companies accountable for their hiring processes. Here’s how she gets it all done.
On what it’s like to run a company whose primary objective is encouraging diversity in tech:
Right now at Blendoor, our focus is on fundraising. I’m in this position where I’ve become sort of a spokeswoman, as an African-American woman in tech, so I’m doing a lot of interviews about Blendoor and what we’re trying to achieve. I’m also talking to investors and angel groups. Last Thursday, for example, I had calls and meetings with some of our customers. I’m meeting with Microsoft to ask how we can contribute value. We really want to disrupt the way companies think about fair and equal practices, to get people to think more about unconscious bias.
For each company we work with, we create the software where you can look at candidates without bias. We’re going to score you on how you’ve been doing before. We’re going to create accountability at these companies. If companies are hiring based on whether a candidate is a “cultural fit,” that’s not a fair hiring practice. It’s not based on merit.
On why she holds all her pitch meetings on one day:
Everything is a pretty-well-oiled machine right now. I love having all my pitch meetings on the same day, so I only schedule them on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The benefit of doing it like that is that the pitch gets better every meeting. You’re getting feedback each time, so you can weed out all the fluff and rambling. The other days I spend working on research and product development. I’m either researching other companies, partners, or investors, and my hands are in the product development, so I’m making sure that my engineers are on top of things. And I do some planning and development myself.
On why it’s important for her company to remain in San Francisco:
We’re in this major tech hub. Though most of us are remote — my engineer is in St. Maarten and I have biz-dev in Cambridge — we meet up once a quarter. That isn’t necessarily cost efficient, but I think our location is optimal. I can walk to half of the meetings I have to go to, and since we’re focusing on tech clients to start, the ecosystem is strong here. But I’ve made a concerted effort to get a feel for all the different tech ecosystems across the country, too. I spent a month in Boulder, and I go to Austin every year.
Being in a tech-centered city is helpful because tech companies are the ones having a lot of conversations around diversity right now. A lot of companies are getting heat and lawsuits around their diversity numbers. You’ll see start-ups doing things just as a PR move, which at this point, we’re fine to capitalize on. Ultimately, we want to have an impact on tech and have these incidents be a case study moving forward. While we’re staying focused on tech companies at the moment, we anticipate rolling out to other industries next quarter. We’re still going to focus on big household names, but then we’ll branch out to start-ups.
On what it’s like being a queer black woman CEO in Silicon Valley:
It depends on who I’m pitching to, but if it’s the chief of diversity at a company, they’re very welcoming. When it comes to pitching investors, it’s a whole different ball game. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of the craziest comments. When I first moved out here, two years ago, I pitched to an all-male panel. One of the men on the panel said something like, “This diversity thing, are you really solving a problem? Because I don’t see color when I hire.” There is an inherent defensiveness that a lot of cisgender straight white men exhibit when I talk to them about my company. They are afraid they’ll be deemed as racist or that they can’t be “color-blind.” Everybody has unconscious bias. It’s not a sexism thing, it’s not a racism thing, it’s a human thing. My company wants to enable better hiring decisions. That seems to resonate with them. When we go into the ageism bias in hiring, that helps when I’m pitching to white men.
The thing that I come up against that is always unspoken is the fact that a lot of these men haven’t seen a black woman create a product that leads to a billion-dollar valuation. They look at me and they don’t see success. I understand it, I come against the same sort of bias in fundraising. But someone has to break through. You have to have the Jackie Robinson. And anyway, I wouldn’t want to work with an investor who doesn’t get it. It’s not a good fit for me either.
The most rewarding thing about my job is being the Amelia Earhart of tech. There have been no examples of a black woman building a product, engineering a product, and making it a billion-dollar company. Even just physically being here in S.F., I’m representative of something people haven’t seen before.
On her unorthodox work schedule and her lack of routine:
I have never been a routine kind of person. I don’t even brush my teeth every day at the same. At 32, I think it just is what it is. There are some times when I go in the office by nine and I’ll stay till nine in the evening. Sometimes I’ll go in the office at 6 p.m. and stay until 8 a.m. the next morning. I prefer working while everyone else is sleeping. I think that comes from a coding background. That’s usually when I’m most productive. I show up in the office as people are leaving, and I can come and go as I please.
But I’m a habitual power-napper. I’ll take a few hourlong naps on a beanbag or under a desk. I don’t drink coffee, and I very occasionally will drink a Red Bull. I’m not a Soylent girl, either. That stuff is really weird. Instead, for sustenance, I’ll go and buy a ton of fresh veggies and then take my Magic Bullet with me wherever I go. I’ll have spinach with kale and strawberries and blackberries — it’s super cheap and I’ll use it all the time. If I’m doing a one-week coding sprint, I’ll stock up on raw veggies and that will be my go-to.
I have a lot of stress, all the time, but I do everything intentionally. Work hard, play harder, is definitely my story. We were in Utah for Sundance a few weeks ago. I’ll be here in Trinidad for Carnivale. The three weeks leading up to vacation are just intense hard-core 18-to-20 hour days. I try to take some form of vacation once a month, whether it’s a weekend, going somewhere in Central California. Sometimes I’ll go up to Portland for a meeting and spend the weekend camping. I grew up with a very travel-centric family —hiking, skiing, mountain biking, white-water rafting.
On why she likes to hire people who are smarter than she is:
I’m a hands-off type of boss, so I try to hire people who I think are super, super capable and who are smarter than me. I can tell that everyone is really inspired by how hard that I work, and the mission of the company, and that’s why it’s important to have people working under me who have the same belief in our success, who are equally self-motivated.
On what she plans to do after someday selling her company:
My “Oprah billionaire status goal” is to get into the education space, whether in charter schools or boarding schools that focus on underrepresented minorities. All of the women in my family are the product of integration so they went to predominately white schools, so they were maybe one of maybe ten black kids in their schools. All of them went to college. But my male cousins, none of them went to college. I’m fascinated by the social dynamics in early childhood education. I would love to be in a position where I could affect that. There are a lot of social dynamics around how black boys are treated as early as kindergarten or first grade. They’re being told that they’re disruptive for doing the same things that white boys do. You see the drop-off in their self-esteem. I’m really considering how I can get involved in fixing that in the future.