My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change

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The “necessary and incisive” (Roxane Gay) account of the discrimination case that “has blown open a conversation about the status of women” in the workplace (The New York Times)


In 2015, Ellen K. Pao sued a powerhouse Silicon Valley venture capital firm, calling out workplace discrimination and retaliation against women and other underrepresented groups. Her suit rocked the tech world—and exposed its toxic culture and its homogeneity. Her message overcame negative PR attacks that took aim at her professional conduct and her personal life, and she won widespread public support—Time hailed her as “the face of change.” Though Pao lost her suit, she revolutionized the conversation at tech offices, in the media, and around the world. In Reset, she tells her full story for the first time.

The daughter of immigrants, Pao was taught that through hard work she could achieve her dreams. She earned multiple Ivy League degrees, worked at top startups, and in 2005 was recruited by Kleiner Perkins, arguably the world’s leading venture capital firm at the time. In many ways, she did everything right, and yet she and other women and people of color were excluded from success—cut out of decisive meetings and email discussions, uninvited to CEO dinners and lavish networking trips, and had their work undercut or appropriated by male executives. It was time for a system reset.

After Kleiner, Pao became CEO of reddit, where she took forceful action to change the status quo for the company and its product. She banned revenge porn and unauthorized nude photos—an action other large media sites later followed—and shut down parts of reddit over online harassment. She and seven other women tech leaders formed Project Include, an award-winning nonprofit for accelerating diversity and inclusion in tech. In her book, Pao shines a light on troubling issues that plague today’s workplace and lays out practical, inspiring, and achievable goals for a better future.

Ellen K. Pao’s Reset is a rallying cry—the story of a whistleblower who aims to empower everyone struggling to be heard, in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Praise for Reset

“Necessary and incisive . . . As Ellen Pao detailed her experiences, while also communicating her passion for the work men often impeded her from doing, I was nothing short of infuriated. It was great to see a highly accomplished woman of color speaking out like this, and hopefully this book will encourage more women to come forward, give voice to their experiences in the workplace, and contribute to meaningful change.”—Roxane Gay

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Reset

Chapter 1

From China to Maplewood

I grew up firmly believing the world was a meritocracy. That’s how I was raised, and it carried me a long way. My parents grew up in China. They studied hard to get scholarships to graduate schools in the United States, where they found solid, stable jobs, worked with smart people, and raised their three children to continue the cycle of achievement. By the time I left home to take on the world, I was confident that my strong values and work ethic could help me overcome any challenges. For a long time they did.

My parents modeled ambition and resilience for us, having fled China for Taiwan in the 1940s during the Chinese Civil War. Both their families lost a great deal, having been much wealthier in peacetime China than in postwar Taiwan, and my parents had to work hard for everything they got. They studied engineering and looked for the best opportunities. When President John F. Kennedy opened up immigration to scientists who could help launch U.S. rockets to the moon, my parents seized the chance and came over as part of the Kennedy space program.

My father went to Princeton for his PhD in mechanical and aeronautical engineering. He was a nerd who loved Star Wars. He was a nonconformist, constantly reading, debating, and evolving. When he was studying to get into college, he was so focused that he forgot to eat and was hospitalized for exhaustion. I have some of that same intensity.

My mother was one of the first women to earn a PhD in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania. With her, what you see is what you get. She doesn’t have a hidden agenda, she doesn’t brag or exaggerate, and she doesn’t know how to pretend, so she’s genuine and straightforward almost to a fault. (I think I get that from her, too, for better and for worse.) My mom is so curious that she’s never bored. She can have and enjoy a conversation with anyone in the world. When I learned recently that she’d been her high school class president back in Taiwan, I wasn’t surprised.

My parents first met on a blind date set up by mutual friends. They were in grad school at the time, and my dad drove his red Corvair down from Princeton to Philadelphia to meet my mom. They quickly fell in love and were married within six months. Over the next five years, they had three children. When my father started teaching math at NYU, we settled in Maplewood, New Jersey, for the good schools, the space, and the privacy.

To my parents, America was a land of boundless potential; any experience of exclusion could be solved like an engineering problem. When they had first arrived in the United States, they didn’t feel all that welcomed by the main group of grad students, so they ended up bonding with other Chinese students and Jewish students. None of them had much money—­they often cooked together and shared dinner. They also shared a belief that a great education would help them succeed. Even if my parents felt like outsiders, they believed that if they kept their heads down and worked hard, they could achieve their goals here in the United States—­and indeed they both forged excellent careers.

My mother worked most of her career at Bell Labs, where she became a star, joining one of the most hardcore, respected research teams there. Bell Labs was the research arm of the corporate giant AT&T. It was also close to our house, and the job allowed her to control her hours and keep our family her top priority. She came home every day at 5:30 p.m. to make us dinner. She took care of the household, for a while even sewing our clothes. She focused on the important stuff: She didn’t over-­parent the three of us but would talk to us about values on the car ride to school. If we had a birthday, she would spend her time making our favorite dinner rather than baking cupcakes for our class; she was the mom who would send us into school with a giant bag of candy bars instead. Other mothers may have scoffed, but their kids loved it.

My mother’s devotion to our family meant she only took on local projects with predictable hours, which I’m sure must have impacted her career trajectory, but I never heard her complain. Instead, she pushed herself harder. And she would travel when it was essential to a project. During those trips, she would lecture us by phone and my dad would take care of us. He knew how to prepare three foods—­scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, and delivery pizza—­so for a week or two at a time that was our diet.

My dad was a born professor. He loved to teach, to do research, to be a part of intellectual discussions. After Princeton, he spent most of his career at NYU’s Courant Institute, with stints at Brown, MIT, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Usually he was close by, and when he taught at MIT for a semester, we visited him often.

Together, my parents encouraged our interest in math and science from a very early age. I can recall the exact moment I fell in love with learning how things work: at age four, after playing with a toy electric train with dying batteries. Seeing and understanding how something could go from working to not working and back again seemed to me like magic. I took apart toys and puzzles and put them back together for the rest of my childhood. Whenever they saw me tinkering, my parents would boast that I was going to be an engineer.

My love for engineering grew after our family got our first home computer in the early 1980s—­a Sinclair ZX mail-­order kit that you put together yourself. My dad followed the tech world closely, and both my parents pushed us all to learn how to code at age twelve. I loved figuring out how to write a short program that could flash my name—­“ELLEN!”—­on the screen in colors of my own choosing. As I became more proficient, my mom brought home a battered copy of The C Programming Language book, the now-­iconic coding bible written by her coworkers, and gave me access to the servers at her office. At age thirteen, I was taking the train into the city to take computer classes at NYU. It was thrilling and inspiring and sparked a love for technology that still drives me today.

My parents were firm believers in the power of education to help us get ahead. Growing up, we never had a lot of extra money, because my parents were always saving for college. My mother taught us that hard work in school would result in rewards for the rest of our lives. That had been the way her life went: She’d won a merit scholarship to a private boarding school in Taipei. That led to a top college in Taiwan and then graduate school in the United States. My father also studied intensely for the college entrance exams in Taipei. What college you went to and what major you studied were solely determined by those test scores. He aced the test and went to the most prestigious college in Taiwan. For my parents, life was simple: If you studied and worked hard and did your best, you got ahead—­end of story. Discrimination and exclusion were a reality, but for them such obstacles could be overcome by working twice as hard, learning twice as much, and being twice as persistent.

When we first moved to Maplewood, it wasn’t a very diverse community. It was a mostly white, mostly middle-­class, safe small town where you said hi to everyone you saw on the street. My sisters and I were the only Asian kids in the suburb. At their first parent-­teacher conference, my parents were told by a kindergarten teacher to stop speaking Chinese at home if they wanted their daughters to do well in school. My parents took that advice to heart, raising us girls to be American-­sounding and -­acting as much as possible.

In spite of how much we tried to assimilate, though, there were the occasional dumb jokes or worse, with schoolmates calling us “Japs” and “Chinks.” Some people assumed my sisters and I were triplets because to them we looked exactly the same. While these moments made us feel like unwelcome outsiders, generally speaking, they were rare; most of the time there was harmony in Maplewood, and my sisters and I flourished there together.

My parents taught us by example to always have one another’s back. We thought of our family as a team, with all of us rising or falling together. My sisters and I were always encouraging each other to do more and do our best. If my younger sister had a big homework assignment due the next day, the entire family would stay home that night—­no dinner out, no fun activities—­to be alongside her as she worked. We never complained about it, because it was just what we expected from each other.

My older sister was the leader and scout. She was very protective, she’s very friendly, and she is one of the most loyal people you’ll ever meet. We called my younger sister “the silver-­tongued devil” growing up; she’s a sweet-­talker, with an artistic temperament. I was the middle child, the most dutiful of my parents’ three dutiful daughters. Of course we bickered sometimes but only over silly things. One of the biggest arguments I can remember us having was when my older sister rushed home to tell my parents about a good grade I’d gotten before I had the chance.

There were moments during my childhood education when I was reminded that somehow, being Asian and the daughter of immigrants, I wouldn’t always fit in. While I liked school and did well, sometimes teachers would make assumptions about me because of how I looked. I worked hard and got straight A’s. The one time I got a B+, for a fifth-­grade report, I went to talk to my teacher. She’d given me the lower grade, she said, because she thought I’d plagiarized it. (Shouldn’t I get an F if she thought I’d copied it? I wondered.) My parents didn’t speak perfect English, so the teacher’s expectations of my writing were not high. Never having copied in my life, I convinced her I deserved the A and left the meeting with my 4.0 restored, but not thinking so highly of that teacher.

I went into the college-­application process feeling confident, but I learned that certain assumptions might conspire to hold me back. My Harvard alumni interviewer predicted (wrongly) that in spite of all my hard work and extracurricular activities, I probably wouldn’t get in. Acceptance, he explained, was almost impossible for Asians from Northern New Jersey, regardless of qualifications. Harvard had an informal quota. “Too bad.” He shrugged.

In other words, he was telling me that being Asian would be a liability—­enough to outweigh all the hard work, all the perfect grades. I wondered why, even if it were true, the interviewer would say that to me in such a casual way: Oh, well. The system is rigged against you and your lifelong dream! Better luck next life!

While my parents taught us to keep our heads down and work hard, they also believed that sometimes you have to take a stand. My dad had a very strong sense of right and wrong and of looking out for the underdog; we never had a favorite sports team—­we just always rooted for whoever was losing. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, when gay people were being ostracized because of paranoia and ignorance, my dad made a point of visiting and shaking hands with our new gay neighbors. At summer camp, I knew he’d be proud of me when I stood up to a boy who called my younger sister a “Chink.”

My childhood had been simple: Work hard, respect others, obey my parents, support my sisters. But then tragedy suddenly struck our family. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1987, my younger sister and I were home from high school and our older sister was away at college. I hit the play button on the answering machine and heard a message from my father’s second-­opinion doctor. She divulged enough information that I was able to confirm what I’d begun to suspect: He was very sick.

My parents eventually confessed: His stomach issues were more serious than we’d thought; he had cancer. They had tried to keep it from us so we wouldn’t worry, but they seemed distraught. A week later, he went in for surgery and the surgeon told them everything was fine. My father continued to work for a little while, even though he was clearly not fine at all. We looked everywhere for a solution, and he drifted in and out of different hospitals and home, but soon he was back in the hospital for good. I was a senior in high school and had my driver’s license by that point, so I would take my younger sister to visit him every day. I spent afternoons and evenings by his side, and he started to talk as though he wouldn’t be alive too much longer. He shared advice, and we recorded it on tape. He talked about values and his hopes for us. “I know you’ll get into every school you apply to,” he said from his hospital bed, “but I want you to stay in New Jersey so you’ll be close to home and can help your mother.”

That was a dark time. My family is generally very stoic. We don’t have any self-­pity. My father did everything he was told to do by the doctors—­and then some. He tried Chinese herbal medicines and even rubbed garlic, which he detested the smell of, onto his stomach. He did radiation therapy and ingested all the pills his doctors prescribed to prolong his life. My mother basically lived in the hospital with him. She would come home to make us dinner and then go back to the hospital to spend the night. My mother looked so gaunt and had such big bags under her eyes that some doctors assumed she was a patient, too. Some nights, instead of going straight home from the hospital, I would drive my sister around the quiet streets downtown to delay arriving back to our empty house for as long as possible.

My father’s surgery failed; the cancer had already spread throughout his digestive tract. During the brief times when he was home with us, I’d do my homework and talk to him at night. He had coughing fits, and I talked through those, too. He stayed positive. He didn’t seem scared. Eventually he was unable to eat anything; yet still he didn’t complain. He later convinced the doctors to let him swallow a bite of watermelon, even though they knew it would come right back up. He wanted to show us it was possible to enjoy life even to its endpoint. I watched him cherish that moment, tasting the watermelon, savoring it.

He died in April, several days after his last taste of watermelon and only two and a half months after that initial phone call. We were all by his side at the hospital when he passed. We stood there together for a long time, in shock. We had watched his health decline rapidly, and he had tried to prepare us, but it was still unfathomable and surreal. Even watching him die, I found it hard to imagine the world without him. It was difficult to accept that this was actually the end.

- About the author -

Ellen K. Pao is a diversity and inclusion activist, venture capitalist, former CEO of Reddit, and co-founder of the award-winning diversity and inclusion nonprofit Project Include. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Lenny, and Recode. She has earned an electrical engineering degree from Princeton and law and business degrees from Harvard. Her efforts to call attention to workplace discrimination have led to the term “Pao effect.”

More from Ellen Pao


My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change



— Published by Spiegel & Grau —