If you work for someone else, you likely know the drill: in comes that annual email reminding you that it’s time for unconscious bias or sexual harassment training, and if you could please finish up this mandatory module by this date, that would be terrific.
The email — not to mention the programming itself — is straight out of “Office Space.” Little surprise that when Anne Solmssen, a Harvard-trained computer scientist, happened to call a friend recently who was clicking through his own company-sponsored training program, his answer to how it was going was, “It’s more interesting when I have baseball on.”
Solmssen has some other ideas about how to make sexual harassment training far more interesting and less “cringe-worthy.” Indeed, she recently joined forces with Roxanne Petraeus, another Harvard grad, to create Ethena, a software-as-a-service startup that’s promising customizable training delivered in bite-size segments that caters to individuals based on how much they already know about sexual harassment in the workplace. The software will also be sector-specific when it’s released more widely in the first quarter of next year.
The company first came together this past summer led by Petraeus, who joined the U.S. Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to help defray the cost of her Ivy League education and wound up spending seven years in the U.S. Army, including as a civil affairs officer, before co-founding an online meals marketplace, then spending a year with McKinsey & Co. to get a better handle on how businesses are run.
Petraeus says that across her experience, and particularly in the Army, she had “great leaders who were super thoughtful” about sexual harassment training, “who cared about their [reports’] development goals and what was happening in their personal lives, and brought out the best in their people, rather than making them feel less than or marginalized.”
Still, she was aware that from an institutional standpoint, most harassment training is not thoughtful, that it’s a matter of checking boxes on an annual basis to ensure compliance with different state laws, depending on where an organization is headquartered. She marveled that so much of the content employees are being forced to consume seems “designed for a 1980s law firm.”
Solmssen was meanwhile working for a venture-backed public safety software company, Mark43. She was getting along just fine, too, but when a friend put the two in touch on the hunch that their engineering talent and vision could amount to something, that instinct proved right.
“I’d been working for Mark43 for four years, and I wasn’t particularly interested in starting a business,” Solmssen says. “But I fell in love with Roxanne and this idea, and I came to this thinking that someone needs to make [this training process] better. We’re still using the tools and technologies that we’ve had since 1997.”
So how is what they’re building different than what’s currently available? In lots of ways, seemingly. For starters, Ethena doesn’t want employees to “knock it out all at once” in an hour or two of training at the end of each year. Instead, it’s creating what it calls monthly “nudges” that deliver relevant studies and questions on a monthly basis — information that can then be used in an all-hands meeting, for example, helping to reinforce its goals.
It’s also focused on sending content and questions to people that’s iterative and that evolves based on how an individual responds. A new hire might answer very differently than a sponsor of other women within an organization, for example. It’s a stark contrast to to the black-and-white scenarios that every employee is typically presented. (Think: “Judy and Brian go to a bar after work.”)
These subtleties are a significant development, argues Petraeus, because “traditional training implicitly tells employees that going to spending time together outside of work is bad for mentorship. It’s why you hear things like, ‘I just hired my first female analyst; can I get into an Uber with her when we’re traveling?’ ” Turning every mixed-gender occasion into a potential minefield is “not the message we should be conveying.”
Yet it’s a message that’s being absorbed. According to a survey conducted earlier this year by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey, 60% of managers who are men are now uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone or socializing together. That’s a 32% jump from a year ago. According to that same survey, senior-level men are now 12 times more hesitant to have one-on-one meetings with junior women, nine times more hesitant to travel together and six times more hesitant to have work dinners together.
Even the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission thinks sexual harassment training has gone wrong somewhere, noting that it hasn’t worked as a prevention tool in part because it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability. Indeed, a few years ago, a task force studying harassment in the workplace on behalf of the EEOC concluded that “effective training cannot occur in a vacuum – it must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top.” Similarly, it added, “one size does not fit all: training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace and different cohorts of employees.”
Toward that end, and with compliance in mind, Ethena is also modernizing the content it delivers, including as it pertains to dating at work, which definitely happens; and inclusivity around pregnant colleagues, who are often subtly marginalized; and transgender colleagues, who can also find themselves feeling either misunderstood or overlooked by current sexual harassment training materials.
There’s also a heavy focus on analytics. If 60% of employees don’t know about a company’s policies around office dating, for example, or employees in an outfit’s marketing department appear to know less about an organization’s values than other departments, it will flag these things so managers can take preventative action. (“Say there’s a new manager in the LA office where employees seem to be answering less consistently,” suggests Solmssen. “We can provide additional training to get that person up to speed.”)
For Petraeus — who is the daughter-in-law of retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus — the overarching goal is to kill off mandatory yearly training where the takeaway for many employees, the fundamental standard, is, “Can I go to jail for this comment?”
It’s too soon to say if Ethena will be successful. It’s only halfway through a pilot training program at the moment. But Solmssen and Petraeus are strong pitchmen, and they say their software will be available beginning in the first quarter of next year for $ 4 per employee per month, which is on a par with other e-learning programs.
The startup has also won the support of early backers who’ve already given the months-old outfit $ 850,000 to start hiring. Among those investors: Neo, a venture fund started last year by serial entrepreneur Ali Partovi; Village Global; and Jane VC, which is a fund focused on women-led startups.
Numerous angel investors have also written Ethena a check, including Reshma Saujani, who is the founder of the organization Girls Who Code, and a handful of military veterans.
As for the last group, “they’re not a group that’s typically represented in startup ventures,” observes Petraeus, “but in terms of leadership and thinking about how to get a diverse team oriented around the same goal,” they’re hard to match.