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Black Girls Code sues former CEO and founder Kimberly Bryant for ‘hijacking’ website

The lawsuit comes amid turmoil over the founder’s firing this month.
Kimberly Bryant speaks at the SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 8, 2019, in Austin, Texas.
Kimberly Bryant speaks at the SXSW Conference and Festivals in Austin, Texas, on March 8, 2019.Sean Mathis / Getty Images for SXSW file

Black Girls Code, a nonprofit company that promotes technology education among Black young girls, is suing its founder and former CEO Kimberly Bryant for “unlawful hijacking” of the company’s website after she was removed from her position by the board earlier this month. 

The lawsuit, filed in California on Aug. 22, accuses Bryant of taking a series of “inappropriate actions” after she was terminated, including shuttering the organization’s website, which now redirects users to a press release titled “Save Black Girls Code,” according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by NBC News. 

“Days after her termination, Bryant caused administrative credentials to be used to hijack BGC’s website,” the lawsuit states, “… which displayed a self-serving press release that discloses BGC’s confidential and privileged information.” 

In a statement to NBC News, Bryant said the most recent allegations "are without merit" and she plans to "vigorously defend herself against them."

The lawsuit adds to the ongoing turmoil in the organization after Bryant was fired in early August after more than a decade in the post. Bryant is seeking to be reinstated as CEO and board member, and is also asking for unspecified compensatory damages, according to the lawsuit.  

Following her removal, Bryant filed an amended federal lawsuit on Aug. 11 accusing board members of defamation, retaliation and wrongful termination from her position as CEO, according to court documents obtained by NBC News. In the lawsuit, she alleges that she was wrongfully removed and excluded from Black Girls Code, and she also claims the organization’s board members wrongfully gained access to her Wells Fargo account, which Bryant opened in January 2012 for Black Girls Code as an unincorporated sole proprietorship.

According to Bryant’s lawsuit, Hiles “became more active in her role as a director” when Black Girls Code’s donations began to increase. Bryant alleges that “Hiles sought to capitalize on BGC’s growth and increased funding for her own personal gain.” 

“It is certainly our intention and my intention as the founder of this organization … that I be rightfully put back in place,” Bryant told NBC News on a phone call Thursday. “It pains me deeply.” 

A spokesperson for Black Girls Code denied allegations of theft from the Wells Fargo account.

“Ms. Bryant’s claim about the Wells Fargo account is wrong. It is not her personal account,” a Black Girls Code spokesperson wrote in an email to NBC News. “Donations made to BGC belong to the organization, not to Ms. Bryant personally.” 

Bryant further described her removal as a culmination of bad actors entering the organization with “self-serving motives” to benefit from the resources of Black Girls Code.

Heather Hiles, a board member named in the suit, denied those allegations. 

“I have zero intention or desire to take over this organization,” Hiles, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns, told NBC News. “Never in a million years have I thought of enriching myself through Black Girls Code…I don’t know why I became a bad actor other than I care about how our employees, current and former, were treated.” 

A spokesperson for Black Girls Code declined to comment on behalf of the other board members named in the lawsuit.

As Bryant seeks to have her position restored, she said she also worries about the organization’s future under the current board. She says that to protect her legacy, the board she herself appointed must be removed. 

“They are not good representatives of this organization, which was meant to support and uplift young Black girls,” she said. “The decision and the events that transpired on Friday were devastating.” 

Black Girls Code, a multimillion dollar nonprofit founded in 2011 by Bryant, was created to address the lack of representation of Black women and girls in the tech field. However, the company found itself embroiled in controversy when allegations of Bryant creating a toxic work environment began floating around last year, according to the lawsuit that Bryant filed. Then, in December 2021, Bryant was put on administrative paid leave to review complaints against her, according to the lawsuit filed by Black Girls Code. According to TechCrunch, two former employees said they resigned from the organization because of Bryant’s leadership style, which they said was “rooted in fear.” 

Bryant’s removal follows at least three years of high turnover in the organization. 

“There are people that resigned without having other jobs because they could not handle the toxic work environment anymore,” Hiles said. “People were experiencing bad treatment and we couldn’t just ignore that.” 

In December, the board hired a private investigator to look into these allegations, including that Bryant misgendered a nonbinary staff member, the statement said. According to Bryant’s suit, an investigation found that these claims were unsubstantiated.

Hiles said Bryant’s comments about the investigation are false, but declined to go into further detail about the results of the report, citing pending litigation. 

Aniesia Williams, a former adviser of Black Girls Code for six years, said the attacks targeting the ousted CEO appear personal. Williams said Bryant always demanded excellence from staff members and that it was not outside the norm of a corporate job. 

“Yes, she demanded a lot, but what other Black founder doesn’t?” said Williams, who is also the founder of AW+CO. “Especially, when we have the lives of these young ladies … and she’s trying to prepare them for the future.”

Williams said that Bryant’s firing shows the double standard within the tech field. 

“It’s a shame that we as Black women are not allowed to fail up. Our white counterparts are able to do that and they do it all the time,” she said. “Running a $40 million organization there’s always room for opportunity to do things better … so not giving Kimberly that opportunity to be able to grow inside of the feedback from the investigation — it’s just a loss.” 

Bryant said that, like other companies, Black Girls Code was not exempt from the “great resignation,” or to some degree the wave of employees leaving their jobs due to challenges with company culture. According to the lawsuit, Black Girls Code hired a consultant to address inequities in the organization. However, she denied accusations that she fostered a hostile workplace. 

“I have not engaged in any toxic workforce activity and certainly no wrongdoing,” she said. “The issues that we were dealing with culturally [were] not just because of me, they were systemic issues.” 

On Aug. 12, Bryant tweeted that she was wrongfully removed from her position as leader. In another tweet, she accused the organization of not paying her severance, providing health care assistance or banked vacation time. A spokesperson for Black Girls Code said Bryant was “paid her accrued vacation in accordance with California law.”

On Aug. 23, a spokesperson for Black Girls Code said they were prepared to negotiate with Bryant, but she allegedly "declined to participate in a mediation or otherwise to engage in any discussions.”

The statement comes after the organization declined to comment on whether Bryant received severance or health care coverage.

A spokesperson for Black Girls Code also defended Bryant’s removal from the organization. 

“The Board’s decision was made following the conclusion of the previously disclosed investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct against her,” a Black Girls Code spokesperson wrote in an email to NBC News. “The Board believes the decision to remove Ms. Bryant as CEO and as a board member is in the best interests of the organization, the girls it serves, its employees, and its donors. BGC has been focusing its efforts on moving forward and expanding on the success of the organization since its inception.” 

In wake of her removal, Bryant said she is seeking justice and for her reputation to be restored by being reinstated.

“When we see bad actors in the tech space, we have to call that out,” she said. “We cannot allow these individuals … with ill intent to steal these dreams from Black girls all over the world.” 

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