Forgive vs. Forget: When Moving On Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Feeling Better

Artwork via Louisa Cannell

Pranavi Balaji* was excited for her latest opportunity — building a startup from the ground up — but ended up being treated more like a cog in a wheel than a whole person building a company. After years of contributing to her employer’s success and building the company as if it was her own, she left due to the horrible treatment she had to deal with. After the fact, the leadership team removed her from the company’s narrative to the point where there was no trace of her efforts. Even after she moved on, the trauma of that type of treatment doesn’t easily go away.

The perfect fit at a new company

Pranavi moved to Toronto in 2009 and began working as a waitress with no tech or start-up experience. Over the next several years she began to grow her knowledge base exponentially, first by taking a job at a boutique social media marketing agency, eventually moving into private equity, and even starting her own eCommerce business. After completing a brand turnaround project for a private equity investor, the CEO and co-founder of a small eCommerce company in Toronto reached out to her about a new position they had available. Specifically, the role involved running a Shopify store within an eCommerce agency as an in-house brand. Given Pranavi’s experience in both marketing and business development, the role was a clear fit.

Since the company was just getting started, Pranavi was the only full-time hire and was told to ‘grow the company like her own. Although hired initially as a growth marketer, Pranavi ended up doing everything — she even built fulfillment, logistics, and customer service systems. Within two years, she helped the company profitably hit over $1 million in revenue. Although her workload kept increasing and she kept making the business significant amounts of money, Pranavi was still the only full-time employee, working upwards of 60 hours a week, with no support or help on the horizon.

All the work, none of the equity

After working endlessly to build the business, Pranavi reached the conclusion that if she was expected to treat the company as her own then she deserved equity, just as an owner would receive. Knowing the company’s affinity for ‘scrappy’ business deals — for example, the co-founders had a handshake agreement — she decided it was best to get something in writing.

When Pranavi brought this to the attention of the co-founders, however, their response was callous and dismissive. Despite all her hard work and success, she’d cultivated for the business, they responded to her request simply by saying they could have hired two people at half her salary each and gotten the same results.

“It was as if I wasn’t a real human who made real sacrifices for the company’s success,” said Pranavi. “Even a ‘let me think about it’ then rejection would have been more compassionate and humane.”

Although disheartened by this reaction, Pranavi had already put so much of herself into the company that she kept on working as if nothing had happened. Eventually, the co-founders did offer her a consolation prize of an Apple gift card and a slight raise, but it hardly made up for the treatment she had previously received. They also made promises of stock options, but that never actually happened.

“They showed more compassion for software issues than for me”

Unfortunately about a month after this disappointing experience, Pranavi’s dad got sick, so she moved home to be with him. When she requested time off to care for her father, she was once again met with a cold and callous response. Unlike last time, however, this reaction to her father’s illness was the last straw, and it forced Pranavi to accept that although she had put everything into this company, it was time to move on.

“This made it super clear I was not valued or seen as a human being,” said Pranavi.

To add insult to injury, following the heartless response to her request for time off, Pranavi did eventually see some compassion from the CEO. Unfortunately, though, this was only in regards to a software issue she was having. The dichotomy of emotion (or lack thereof) towards her personal crisis vs. a simple issue of needing to order more software was the final push that forced Pranavi to hand in her resignation, simply stating that she was leaving for ‘personal reasons.’

Still upsetting years later

Although she is now working for a great company, Pranavi is still processing the damage caused by her previous job. The trauma of being treated as less than human continues to have a lasting effect on her, even four years later. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that despite being one of the main contributors to her old company’s success, she has been completely removed from the narrative and they don’t acknowledge any of the work she did or the role she played. As a result, Pranavi often finds herself forgetting everything she did for them, and even sometimes feels the need to check old pictures and remind herself that people witnessed her work and all her effort.

“I look at old pictures to prove: I was there, I did the work, and no one can take that away from me,” she said.

* names changed to protect anonymity.

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