Powerbitches first met Cynthia Medina Carson, our November Salon speaker and the founder and CEO of WAGER, at our Feminist Entrepreneurs roundtable in May. We were immediately impressed by her business savvy, and excited by what WAGER represented as part of a growing group of businesses building interventions to help close the gender pay gap.
A former HR consultant, Cynthia created WAGER after one too many times sitting across the table from a would-be employee who had no idea what they were worth. A believer in the power of transparency, she wanted to give people the data they needed to advocate for a salary that reflected their skills and experiences - and level the playing field for women and people of color in the process.
Join Cynthia and Powerbitches founder Rachel Hills in Brooklyn on November 7th for an intimate and interactive dinner party discussing her experiences building a business, the role of transparency in closing the gender pay gap, and how we can advocate for ourselves financially as business owners and freelancers. Click here for more information and to secure your tickets.
Powerbitches: Tell us the story of how you came to create WAGER.
Cynthia Medina Carson: I’ve always cared about the question, “Is society working well for the individual?” whether in the private or public sector. At 12 years old, I raised my hand during a school event and announced, “I want to work in government.” I served in the Peace Corps teaching women how to start micro-businesses and continued to work in public policy. When I had children and had to rethink the amount of international travel I did, I asked myself, “How can I be an executive with flexibility and work with people?” So I started working for startups in San Francisco in recruiting, and from there went to work with Nielson as a technical recruiter.
Sitting across the table from people in a position where I could coach them to advocate for themselves, I felt like I could literally see all the things we know cause the gender pay gap: not abstractly, but actually. I met people who couldn’t assert themselves, people who didn’t have the information they needed such as the market rate for a role, people who when asked their salary requirements just said, “Whatever you want to pay.” It felt wrong. I wanted to have an intelligent conversation with the person across from me, but my job was to hide the salary information for the role. In February 2018, I came home frustrated and said to my husband, “I wish we could reveal everyone’s salaries for 24 hours and see what all the fuss is about.”
In June of that year I sent an email to my network asking, who wanted to talk about their salaries? The response I received was overwhelming and I ended up doing a couple of hundred pairings over six months, and launched WAGER in January 2019. I’ve always been good at advocating for others, but one thing I’ve learned in the process of launching WAGER is the importance of trusting and advocating for myself. Before I launched, I remember wondering, “do I have enough data yet to start this business?” I had 200 matches at that point. A friend laughed and told me a guy would have been going out and pitching investors when he had 10.
“I’ve always been good at advocating for others, but one thing I’ve learned in the process of launching WAGER is the importance of trusting and advocating for myself.” - Cynthia Medina Carson
PB: How does WAGER work? How do you match people for conversations?
CMC: Because I’m a former recruiter, I’m pretty good at reading between the lines what people actually do versus what they say they do. Some people will look at a profile with similar titles and think they’re a great match for a conversation, but I can tell it would be horrible. I see people’s personalities in their resumes or their bios and can get a sense of where they are going in life. We then take the two complementary profiles and set them up for a transparent salary conversation. It’s highly analog and time consuming, but it’s life changing for a person who doesn’t know their worth. This analog phase has been hard but rich with data. It’s informed our products and our approach to expansion. We know that as a society, we assign a lot of our worth to the digits on a paycheck. Instead of using it as a data point, it becomes who we are. Matching two professionals to share insight empowers them to detach themselves from that number and go out and find the one that’s a better fit. This is particularly critical for those who’ve been out of the workforce or have a non-traditional background.
We are working on creating a technical solution using the data we’ve collected from the pairs we’ve matched to inform the AI that will eventually do the matching. It’s a very sensitive topic, so you still need the human touch confirming the matches are appropriate for the situation, provide excellent customer service to clients and spread the word as to why salary transparency is so important. Over time, we can use feedback to teach machines to use/follow algorithms that are guided by data. Machine learning algorithms use training sets of real-world data to infer models that are more accurate and sophisticated than humans could develop on their own.
PB: What role does WAGER’s work play in closing the gender pay gap?
CMC: We try to be pretty gender, age, and experience neutral in the way we talk about what we do. Our work is for everyone who wants to engage with it. That said, the people who are accessing our products are largely women in their 30s and 40s who have reached director level and above. They realize they’re earning less than their male peers, and say, “Wait a minute, I’m mad now.” I’m not disappointed with where I’m at in life, but I’m getting angry at watching people pass me by.
Talking about salary has always been considered taboo. However, the reality is that the secrecy surrounding salaries typically benefits the organization more than the employees. It benefits those who negotiate more aggressively or know how to navigate the intricacies of an industry or culture. It also benefits those with access to information. I was the first in my family to go to college. I had no sense of how to navigate corporate culture, let alone advocate for raises. When pay is transparent, organizations must be able to justify each employee’s salary and raises. “Just because” isn’t an answer.
PB: That makes sense, since we know the gender pay gap actually gets bigger the more senior you are in an organization.
CMC: It’s also a period when there’s so much change happening in women’s lives. They’re getting married, having babies, getting divorced. They’re becoming breadwinners for their families, and they want to take the leap and know their worth in the market.
The WAGER conversations are really just one step of what I’m truly trying to achieve. Individual transparency is one thing, but you also need transparency on a systemic level. We’re working with companies’ Employee Resource Groups and teaching them how to talk about money in a very collaborative way. We’re teaching employees how to start conversations about money, negotiate raises, and advocate for themselves in a professional setting. We’re inviting management into the conversation so they can hear their employees’ concerns and the impact that a lack of transparency is having on their business.
We are in the early stages of creating a salary depot where people will share their crowdsourced salaries into one searchable database. I’ve had conversations with members of the Tech Workers Coalition, which organizes workers in the tech industry, to help me build a Minimum Viable Product and get others onboard.
PB: I’m really glad to hear you’re taking that approach, because the gender pay gap isn’t just a matter of women not asking. It’s about really deeply embedded structural inequalities. I wonder though, what’s the motivation for employers in being more open about pay?
CMC: Employees increasingly want transparency when it comes to pay. People are moving between jobs a lot more, and for employers there’s the question of how do you get people to stay? Employees need to know you care about their well-being. Millennials get a bad rap for their workplace demands, but I commend their determination of making the workplace a give and take relationship. You have to make an investment in keeping employees, and salary transparency is one way to do that.
Companies are fearful of transparency but it makes sense for them to dive right in. They don’t have to follow a radical format such as some progressive companies who post the salaries of their employees online. Most companies practice partial transparency such as posting salary ranges on job descriptions or creating pay bands and levels for employees. These bands can help workers understand how they fit into a company and the potential growth within the role.
The reality is, if we wanted to end the pay gap now, we could. If everyone committed to it, it would happen.
PB: The isn’t the first business you’ve built. Before you started WAGER, you ran your own recruitment consultancy, Medina Talent. What did you learn from that experience that you brought to WAGER?
I learned that the way I viewed the world had value. That having a high Emotional Quotient can be the anchor for a company, and as a woman we are told that these skills are not market worthy. Stepping out on your own really feels like you’re stepping off a ledge. So having customers and people compensate me to analyze their work and grow their talent was a natural step to moving into the advocacy we’re practicing with WAGER. I learned that I had power.
As a Latina, I grew up surrounded by a lot of strong women (I have over 29 aunts and uncles) and speaking frankly, loudly, and with love, was a key skill. However this same frankness could be intimidating to people who were used to using four sentences to say something I could say with three words. I often felt like an outsider in groups, yet would find people asked me for advice one on one. At Medina Talent, where I focused on organization and people development, companies paid me to speak truth to them, and that was very empowering.
“There are a lot of formulas in the world about how business should be executed, and most of them are based on the approach and pace of white male entrepreneurs. I think it’s important to start to build companies through a different lens.” - Cynthia Medina Carson
There are a lot of formulas in the world about how business should be executed, and most of them are based on the approach and pace of white male entrepreneurs. I think it’s important to start to build companies through a different lens. We’ve got to be comfortable knowing that your formula for success might not be the same formula as VC’s. It might be something different, and you’ve got to be okay with that.
PB: You’re running an upcoming digital workshop series for freelancers. How do the challenges for freelancers and employees differ when it comes to pay and rates information?
CMC: A 2017 report by Upwork predicted that by 2027, the majority of the US workforce will be freelancing in some capacity. However, there’s very little infrastructure for freelancers to understand their worth. It’s very important that we address the needs of freelancers in terms of information. If women and people of color are disadvantaged when it comes to negotiating pay in a traditional workplace, they are going to be a fish out of water in a freelance setting. The lack of information is a whole different universe.
We created this webinar series for individuals who wanted to engage with WAGER but did not know if their non-salaried position made them a good fit for our services. We’re partnering with a freelance agency from Raleigh, North Carolina, who bring another perspective of the needs and struggles of Freelancers. Over these three webinars we will be disseminating a wide range of information regarding setting and negotiating rates, as well as sharing a custom created rate calculator which will help freelancers calculate their desired hourly rate by working their way backwards from what they want to be earning in a week or a month, and transforming that to an hourly rate.
PB: What about challenges in pricing your work in a way that compensates yourself and the people who work for you fairly when you’re running your own company?
CMC: Know that if you are running a business and people are willing to pay for your services, that is what you need to focus on. I had to take a step back and think, “What would I pay a Harvard educated woman, who’s been a recruiter and executive, to teach me how to make 50k more in salary?” You have to say, I am putting a product into the world that I want to get paid for. Often, we’re waiting for people to say, “You’re worth X,” and once they do that you will charge that. That will never happen. When you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t have anyone else who can do that for you. You have to be your own advocate.
Right now I’m focused on creating a pipeline, knowing what I need to create every month to get the balance sheet where it needs to be. I know my worth and I know what WAGER is worth to a client. As a business which helps others to advocate for themselves, It's important to charge a fair fee for our services - I don’t want to be the person who gave everything away and was left with nothing for myself. If anyone complains about paying for professional services, they’re not the client for your business.
Cynthia Medina Carson will be in conversation with Powerbitches founder Rachel Hills at our next Salon, on November 7th in Brooklyn. Click here for more information and to secure your tickets.