On Power with Jordan Sale, Founder of 81cents

Jordan Sale is a brilliant, critical thinker who has applied herself to closing the wage gap for women and people of color. Her company 81cents works with individuals to review their compensation offers and run reports using curated feedback from local hiring managers who are specifically selected to review a candidate’s offer based on matching expertise. Each report includes a negotiation plan of action and tactics to use. Their average user sees a 17% salary jump as a result of using the platform. We caught up recently while she drove out to the Grand Canyon on an impromptu road trip and discussed her views on power, opportunity, and committed allyship.

What does power mean to you?

That’s such a big question. I grew up with a sort of conventional, basic definition of power, which is it’s about authority, and it’s about control that’s acquired through conventional means. It’s acquired by going to good schools, being a leader in a company, being a CEO, having a graduate degree, or a doctor in front of your name, or something like that. That’s sort of how I thought about power for a long time. Now I realize that power is so much more nuanced than that. And it is ingrained in every interaction we have with every person we meet, and that we also often hold a lot of power ourselves that we don’t necessarily tap into, or that we don’t let ourselves tap into. And it’s something that comes from really seeing yourself fully, and seeing yourself as a person who has it. And then, I think, once you have it it’s a part of everything you do. But you have to believe that you have it first, in order to use it.

How do you see this view of power as different in comparison with the rest of the world?

My first definition of power is reflective of how the world sees it, or at least how the world sees it tied to certain institutions. It’s really tied to business, and capitalism, and prestige and I mean, I would be lying if I said that wasn’t true to a certain extent. What sort of power does a person who’s been falsely imprisoned or over sentenced, what kind of power do they have compared to the kind of power that a judge who’s risen through the ranks has? Arguably, that judge does have more power. So I can’t say that the world’s definition of power is wrong. Because it’s not wrong. It’s true. That’s what it is. But I certainly think it’s not the way it should be. And I do still think the first step to changing that is to remind people that they have power within them.

There’s this idea of power that, if you have it then somebody else doesn’t, right. That you’re either above or below.

Yeah. Is there only a finite amount of power? And if I have more, do you have less? I don’t know that I buy that. That doesn’t seem true, but within certain institutions it kind of works that way. The more power the police have, the less power individual citizens have — seemingly. The more power a judge has, the less power a person who has been accused of something might have. The more power a CEO has, potentially the less power their employees have, unless they choose to give some of it away. So power might be kind of finite within systems, but on a more individual level, my having power doesn’t mean you can’t have it too.

Yet, I feel I would be totally insensitive if I tried to say that everyone has as much power as they need to have. “It’s just within them and they haven’t tapped into it.” I don’t think that’s a fair thing to say in the current world we live in. Because that’s not true. A lot of people don’t have power that would benefit from it or, more accurately, have been hurt from their lack of it. But the optimist in me wants the other version to be true. And maybe, if enough of us believed that we have power within us, maybe we can start to change the way that bigger system operates.

I’m going to shift a little bit to 81cents and the work you’re doing. How does that fit into your view of power?

81cents was not about believing that I didn’t have power, or had the power to change the system. Initially it was that I was tired of hearing about the wage gaps that impact women and individuals of color. I didn’t see enough being done about it and I wanted to see if I could do something. And I tend to be a bit impatient, so I also wanted to do something quickly. I was less concerned with finding the perfect solution and more concerned with going quickly. I sort of looked at it, as ‘maybe I can make some sort of dent and I’d rather make a bunch of small dents than wait around trying to find the silver bullet that solves the whole thing

That’s an incredibly powerful statement. There’s a lot of power behind that conviction and belief, which makes me think about how much of power is: “get it done”.

I started 81cents while I was at Berkeley. There’s a really strong networking system of support there for people who want to start companies. I’m living and working in an age where it’s cool to be a female founder and people want to support that, at least on the surface level. There were a lot of opportunities to find funding and find internships because my idea was important and good. And also because I was a female founder, and that felt really good in a lot of ways. I had enough power from the system around me, the world around me gave me enough power too. I mean, it wasn’t “here’s a check, build whatever you want, sell a big vision, yada yada”, there was for sure skepticism. And I don’t know how much of that had to do with gender, but there was so much opportunity there at the same time.

How was that? How have you experienced “the dance” of the opportunity that’s available as a woman entrepreneur vs the oppressions and microaggressions that also exist?

The first six months or so I cared a lot about like, am I doing things by the book and telling the big story, am I building VC connections? Am I putting this thing on the path to be big and tech enabled and yada yada yada? And I think that was because I felt I had to do that to be taken seriously, because there’s this tendency to want to call female founded businesses in industries that focus on women, that aren’t deeply technical, “lifestyle businesses” — unless you can raise venture. And I really hated that idea. So I put a lot of pressure on myself to think I have to hit a really, really, really high, potentially like impossible, mark.

Then I had an experience where I was talking to a white male VC about the space. And he was like, you know, I’m just worried about the market size because this is a really universal problem. And by focusing on just women, you’re cutting your market in half. And it took everything in my power, kind of pun intended, to not start laughing right on the spot. Are you kidding? Every single adult or about every single adult has a job. Every single adult thinks about money. Every single adult given an easy way to make more would want to make more — generalizations, sure, but just about true. And women are such a massive and underserved part of the financial services industry. I thought it was a really funny and clearly gendered sort of way of looking at things, and also potentially a reflection of me not pitching a big enough vision.

We’ve had this conversation before, though, is it you or is it what you’re getting from the other? You don’t know, because you’re walking in there with a vagina or feminine gender presentation. This is the tricky thing about being a woman or a person of color in these situations. You don’t have anybody else’s lived experience; what you can only control is how you present yourself, but you’re never sure, was I dismissed or put down because of discrimination or because of something I did?

Yeah. I don’t know. I tend to not spend a lot of time thinking I am a victim of systemic oppression because I feel like I’ve had so many opportunities that have outweighed those differences, and yet it’s also because I don’t know anyone else’s lived experience. I can never really figure out what caused a particular sort of outcome.

My gendered thinking is I tend to be really, really critical of myself and be like, “Oh, well, I wasn’t confident enough, I didn’t pitch big enough.” I doubt myself. I am the one that’s in my way. That’s how I receive it, when something doesn’t work out, I go into that critical place. I don’t go to, “the system failed me”.

It’s tricky, because looking at it as if the system failed you, from a macro sense there are things you can do to take actions towards that. But at the very moment there’s not much you can do with that information. You just have to keep going. Which comes back to what the lived experiences are for people who are locked out of opportunity. And one of the things that we’ve discussed a bit before too is how you’re working on being a strong ally to people less privileged than yourself.

I feel like I’ve come a really long way in regards to that. I started 81cents not thinking that much about who had more or less power besides that, as a woman, I didn’t have as much as a man. I did not take an intersectional view of it. I didn’t think as much as I could have about how race impacted things. I really just thought about it in terms of gender. And looking back it was the wrong place to start from. I blame my inherent discomfort with that. I blame my privilege for not forcing me to confront that sooner. I blame my impulsiveness that I wanted to start something so soon.

That being said, I’m extremely grateful to 81cents because the way in which I’ve gotten to understand how race and other factors beyond gender impact pay inequity and our general existences have been much deeper with 81cents as a vehicle for interacting with that. My network has become so much more diverse as a result of 81cents. I’ve heard so many firsthand experiences at this point from people of color, women of color, about their experiences in the workplace, how the system has worked for them and the places that it’s failed them. And it’s made me think back to so many moments in my life where I had a chance to be a strong ally and I didn’t take it because I was scared, because I was uncomfortable, because I didn’t know how. The way I think about it now is intersectionality needs to be infused into our business and specifically increasing racial diversity and pay parity within tech. We need to have a bigger view of this than we’ve had, give it every ounce of energy that we can give, every resource that we have; we need to use it and direct it towards this.

We have like 3,500 people who are in the 81 cents orbit in some way. A lot of them hold a lot of power; a lot of the advisors on our platform are in leadership positions within tech and they are white dudes. Would 81cents be the first time they’re hearing about the pay gap that individuals of color face? No. But can we do more, can we connect them to the BIPOC organizations we partner with, and can we directly connect them to the people of color who come to us, looking for support? Yeah, absolutely. We have an obligation to be active, to push things forward, to use what we have, which is this really strong network to help people get to the next level in their career or to help people start to close the gaps that they suffer from. And it’s not just a one time thing because, quite frankly, there’s so much research that shows that gaps get closed and then they get open again. That is how the natural order works at this point. We have an obligation to not just help people close the gap once, but help ensure that they stay closed or close them again when they inevitably open.

Thank you. Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m in period of my life where I’m looking inwards more and realizing how much of a better person I can be, and how much more I can do, if I take responsibility and recognize that I have control over my own self and my own happiness, and also that I have the ability to really make an impact in other people’s lives. I want to coerce everyone in my life to look inside and recognize how much power they do have, how much control they do have, and how much we can all do for one another.

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