George Floyd protests

Reckoning at Philly tech company Azavea, where VP faced few consequences after using N-word

Last year’s Black Lives Matter statement resurfaced the 2016 incident.

Azavea headquarters are at 990 Spring Garden St. in Philadelphia

Azavea headquarters are at 990 Spring Garden St. in Philadelphia

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Vanessa Paige was just 23 years old when she endured the most traumatic moment of her professional career. It happened at Azavea, a Philadelphia tech company known for its commitment to social impact.

In a work meeting organized by founder and CEO Robert Cheetham, his wife Rachel Cheetham-Richard, who was also Azavea vice president, repeatedly used the word “nigger.” Paige was a junior hire, a role she’d held for just about three months at the time. Out of six in the meeting, she was the only Black person.

“I, too, was called ‘nigger,’ Vanessa,'” Paige recalled Cheetham-Richard telling her, “but I don’t wear being a woman of color on my sleeve like you do.” According to Paige and others, Cheetham-Richard, who is of French and Vietnamese heritage, later repeated the slur.

“[Rachel] just said a lot of evil, awful shit to us,” Paige, now 29, said in a recent interview, moved to tears as she recalled the meeting. “Everybody was really upset. My coworker … was crying. People were yelling, and it was just really bad.”

CEO Cheetham told Billy Penn the company took the 2016 incident seriously and launched an independent investigation the same year “to thoroughly examine the charges.”

“While the investigation found no wrongdoing in our hiring practices, it found significant issues with how we had handled the situation and communicated the findings to our staff,” Cheetham said in an emailed statement. “By not fully addressing our former colleagues’ concerns with the seriousness and respect they deserved, Azavea failed to live up to both our values and our desire to create a safe and welcoming workplace.”

People involved say the company has taken steps over the past five years to prevent things like the meeting from happening again. But for Paige, some former Azavea executives, and other ex-employees familiar with the incident, the gradual changes felt like too little, too late.

The events that precipitated the contentious meeting were relatively innocuous, Paige and other former staffers said. They described feeling that Azavea’s hiring process had some holes. After noticing potential unconscious bias in the process, they went to leadership with hopes of reforming the protocol, according to interviews and documents reviewed by Billy Penn.

At the time, the small but growing company hadn’t yet expanded its HR operation, and ex-employees said it was run almost solely by Cheetham-Richard. Met by the suggestion that hiring protocols might need to be reviewed, her husband held a meeting — the one that devolved into shouts and slurs.

Paige didn’t leave the company right away, though she was very disturbed by the meeting and immediate response. She was diagnosed with a tumor and said she stayed at the company to keep her health insurance. In January 2017 she took a six-month medical leave, and formally departed for a new job in 2018.

It was more than two years later, as the push for racial equity gained once-in-a-generation momentum during summer 2020, that Paige noticed Azavea had issued a public statement in support of Black Lives Matter.

“I was just like, fuck no,” Paige recounted in an interview. “There’s zero way that you can say these things and then have this very, very dark past with racism that you did absolutely nothing about.”

She contacted Karissa Justice, who had become Azavea HR director, sparking a snowball of events that ignited internal calls for Cheetham’s resignation, according to people who worked there. In emails obtained by Billy Penn, Paige and another person who had been in the 2016 meeting pushed Azavea for what they called reparations. They sought, among other things, a formal apology from the company via founder Cheetham, and monetary compensation.

Justice eventually did email an apology on behalf of the company, and through a lawyer, Azavea offered Paige and the other ex-employee $15,000 each. As part of the settlement, the lawyer asked them to itemize “out of pocket expenses” incurred as a result of the incident, which Paige felt was offensive. “You should not ever have the people who are victims of your violence doing this work,” she said.

Neither Paige nor her colleague accepted the settlement. Cheetham-Richard stayed on as Azavea’s VP until July 1, 2020, Cheetham said in an email. She remains a company shareholder. Through her husband, Cheetham-Richard declined to comment for this story.

Aside from Cheetham, everyone involved in the 2016 meeting has since left the company. According to interviews, Azavea’s website, and LinkedIn, staff member Adele Zhang left in 2017, manager Jeremy Heffner left in 2018, and Justice and another executive, Chip Hitchens, departed in late 2020.

Several ex-staffers who spoke with Billy Penn, some on the condition of anonymity, cited Azavea’s handling of this incident in their decision to leave.

The average person may not have heard of Azavea, but the Callowhill-headquartered software company that specializes in applied mapping and geospatial data has been described as stalwart in the local tech scene. Clients include the City of Philadelphia, the Clean Air Council, the World Bank, and NASA, according to its website.

Azavea is a certified B-corp — one of only 22 in the entire city — which means it’s driven by an anti-harm mission and meets social and environmental impact metrics as defined by a global nonprofit called B Lab. These aspects, juxtaposed with what ex-staff interviewed by Billy Penn described as an inexcusable and repeated failure of leadership to adequately address racism, left people profoundly disillusioned.

“It definitely was one of the reasons [that] kind of pushed me to become a lawyer,” said an ex-employee who asked to remain anonymous because of a new job. “I remember thinking, ‘If this is the best that corporate America is going to be [then] corporate America is broken.”

A suggestion to reform hiring practices gets turned into a scolding

Founded in 2001, Azavea specializes in geographic information systems, mapping data, and building web tools for research and analysis. Its products include Cicero, an elections database designed to support civic engagement, and OpenTreeMap, which is used to analyze urban forests. Azavea has contracts with the City of Philadelphia, including for a tool designed to help mitigate the effects of climate change caused by large commercial buildings.

Five years after its founding, it had only a dozen employees. It grew over the years, oscillating between 30 and 70 staff members, before landing at a staff of around 50, where it stands today.

Despite the growth, Azavea long maintained a flat company hierarchy. In 2016, most of the staff were product engineers, with Cheetham, Cheetham-Richard, and an operations director the only management positions above them, according to former employees.

Cheetham, at the top, was seen as a relatively accessible CEO. Former Azavea employees who spoke to Billy Penn admired his commitment to the company’s mission. Staff surveys showed people generally felt positive, and proud of the company’s commitment to “make the world better,” according to Justice, the staffer who became HR director.

Working at Azavea was full of perks, former employees said. They were allowed to spend 10% of their time on a project of their choosing, for example. They were given the option for things like Japanese lessons at the company’s expense, and having a college degree was not a prerequisite to advance at the company, according to ex-employees.

Paige joined Azavea in February 2016 as a fellow with Venture For America, an organization that connects recent grads with startups. She became part of a small team working on HunchLab, a predictive crime mapping tool that won a contract with the Chicago Police Department. Azavea sold HunchLab in 2018.

In a 2019 blog post, Cheetham wrote that Azavea sold HunchLab because the company didn’t have resources to invest in proper marketing and sales for the product, and acknowledged predictive policing has racist roots.

When HunchLab was looking for a fourth junior hire, VP Cheetham-Richard pre-screened candidates, ex-workers familiar with the situation told Billy Penn.

At a career fair, Paige said she and her colleague became uncomfortable when Cheetham-Richard dismissed a gender nonconforming person of color by suggesting the person “wasn’t a good fit.” Paige felt other good people of color were dismissed similarly by Cheetham-Richard, while white candidates received better feedback.

The pair took those feelings back to their manager, Jeremy Heffner. He said he then looked at Azavea’s candidate portal and learned that several women candidates and candidates of color had applied but not advanced, according to interviews and documents.

“We found these discrepancies with the hiring process,” Paige said. “What we’re asking for are very basic things, like having two people review resumes.”

Heffner, who was project manager for HunchLab at the time, called Azavea’s workplace culture in general “pretty amazing.” But he took his team’s concerns seriously, and said he met with CEO Cheetham about them.

It’s not unusual for married couples to manage small businesses, but the situation can sometimes present problems. A recent Daily Beast report about entertainment trade mag TheWrap owner Sharon Waxman, for example, described staff feeling like they had nowhere to go because Waxman’s husband ran HR.

While Waxman’s reputation at TheWrap was an iron-fisted showrunner, Cheetham at Azavea was seen as down-to-earth and approachable. Still, Heffner said Cheetham became defensive when met with concerns about his wife’s potential unconscious bias, and insisted on having her present during a meeting to discuss the issue.

So on May 24, 2016, in a conference room inside Azavea’s open-concept Spring Garden office, with six people including Paige and Heffner present, the meeting went down. During the conversation, ex-staffers said, Cheetham-Richard used the N-word in an attempt to defend herself against what she thought were accusations of racism.

Cheetham-Richard used the slur at least twice, Heffner said, though Paige recalls hearing the word again and again. Paige said she shut down. Heffner compared the incident to a car crash he couldn’t look away from.

As the meeting continued, Cheetham went line-by-line through a seven-page memo that defended hiring decisions made by Cheetham-Richard and reprimanded the others for leveling “accusations of discrimination against a colleague… based on scant evidence,” said others who were present. An electronic version of the memo, obtained by Billy Penn, was eventually distributed.

In the memo, Cheetham turned the accusations back on the staff members who’d raised concerns, saying that Heffner, and Paige and their colleague “breached … trust, and I don’t know if it can be repaired.”

Four years later, a reckoning and some action

Paige was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, she said, and began therapy as a result of the incident. “To me, this is deeply, deeply traumatizing,” she told Billy Penn. “This is the lowest point of my career. [It] made me feel so small, and belittled me in such a way.”

Today, Azavea has a dedicated human resources professional, as well as two VPs. It has also updated its hiring practices based on the post-meeting investigation, according to interviews with Cheetham and other former staff.

But in the days and weeks after Azavea’s only VP threw around the N-word in a 2016 meeting, few remedies were made apparent.

Paige and colleague Heffner both began working remotely on days Cheetham-Richard would be in the office, so they wouldn’t have to run into her, but said Cheetham-Richard violated that agreement many times. (At one point, Paige said the VP tried to give her a hug — not something she wanted.) The arrangement also isolated the HunchLab team from the rest of an otherwise collaborative company, the workers said.

Involved parties called on Cheetham to launch the independent investigation, which generated a report that was not widely shared. No employee involved in the 2016 meeting who spoke to Billy Penn ever saw the report, they said, and leadership never acknowledged to the rest of Azavea staff what had happened.

Until last June, when Paige saw the Black Lives Matter post.

Still seething from how she’d been treated, she had made a point to check if Azavea had come out with a statement, as many companies were doing. Upon reading it, she texted her former colleague Justice, who was still with the company, saying she was “disgusted and triggered by this disingenuous statement.”

Justice, leading Azavea HR at the time, organized meetings with the executive team to address the company’s perceived failure to adequately deal with the 2016 incident. A few things happened as a result:

  • Cheetham-Richard resigned as VP
  • Some other Azavea executives called on Cheetham to step down as CEO, former staff said in interviews
  • Azavea began a COO search via an executive search firm
  • The company engaged a consultant to work with its internal DEI committee, which Paige helped create when she was employed by Azavea
  • Justice emailed a direct apology to Paige and another colleague
  • The company held a staff meeting in July 2020 explaining the 2016 incident

Cheetham said that as of mid-October, the company had made offers to two COO candidates. He disputes that his fellow executives asked him to resign, but said they “recommended that I take steps” to eventually relinquish his day-to-day operations role.

He also claimed the COO search was part of a succession plan that began after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. However, an email from an attorney on behalf of Azavea, reviewed by Billy Penn, lists the COO search as a “remedial action” taken as a result of the incident.

A detailed memo distributed at the 2020 staff meeting stops short of revealing that Cheetham-Richard used the “N-word,” casting Cheetham’s “adversarial” 2016 letter and “Cheetham-Richard’s conduct” as the primary issues.

According to the memo, after the 2016 incident Cheetham disciplined himself by giving himself a “needs improvement” performance review, sending himself to an anti-discrimination workshop, and cutting off his raises and bonus for two years.

“You cannot have a company where the CEO thinks that the only reason that he is under any type of fire is because he wrote an inflammatory memo,” Paige said.

Meanwhile, back in 2016 Cheetham-Richard was suspended by her husband from handling employee complaints and had her responsibilities reduced, the memo states, with Cheetham removing her from the hiring process. When this was happening in real time, however, documents reviewed by Billy Penn suggest the company allowed Cheetham-Richard to make it seem like she took these steps of her own volition. In a company-wide email, she suggested she was stepping back from administrative and hiring duties by choice, to “explore next steps on a new path.”

The 2020 memo also revealed the initial 2016 investigation called on Cheetham to make a formal public apology — something that didn’t happen until last year.

What Paige called the lowest point of her career ultimately shifted her entire professional trajectory. She became a DEI specialist.

“I changed my career path. Now I’m a diversity equity inclusion and belonging manager,” Paige said, “because I was like, this can’t happen again.”

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