In 2014, Gabriella Sanchez went out to lunch the week she started her first full-time job in graphic design. She had just joined Ban.do, an up-and-coming millennial lifestyle and accessories brand in Los Angeles, cofounded and run by Jen Gotch.
As the small team, Gotch included, waited to be served, a Black couple entered the restaurant.
“Once they passed, [Gotch] changed her voice and started talking in a very racist accent...like an accent from the old, racist movies where people wore blackface,” Sanchez told BuzzFeed News.
The table immediately got uncomfortable, Sanchez said, and one of the other women asked Gotch why she was talking like that.
“Jen made a joke of it and said that it was her ‘plantation accent,’” Sanchez said.
Earlier this month, Gotch announced she was resigning from Ban.do after Sanchez and other former employees detailed on Instagram incidents of alleged racist and toxic behavior they witnessed while working at the company.
Employees wrote under their real names and anonymously to a new account, bando_anonymous, to share their claims. The moments they detailed included a Mexican employee recounting being told she didn’t represent the company’s core customer because she was “more street,” another employee saying she was told she dressed like a “chola,” and an Asian American employee recalling being told by a manager that a potential POC hire didn’t “look like she fit into the culture.”
Gotch also got heat for saying, on Instagram stories, that she would not talk about racial justice because she advocates for mental health.
“The first step toward change is recognizing that I have been part of the problem at ban.do, a company I built and a company I love,” Gotch said. Ban.do also released a “comprehensive plan” to fix racial issues in its workplace, including more diversity in the ranks. Gotch has since deleted her Instagram account, where she had more than 200,000 followers.
The ugliness of those accusations — and more shared by seven former and current employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News — stand in stark contrast to the image Ban.do has carefully cultivated. On Instagram, Ban.do’s office seems to be a millennial woman’s paradise. The fun, lighthearted stationery, accessories, and clothing company preaches mental health advocacy and women’s empowerment, complete with a picture-perfect millennial-pink Hollywood “penthouse” headquarters and an Instagram-famous boss.
“It was just so toxic,” said Hanna Teklu, a former director at the company and the only Black employee at Ban.do during her tenure, told BuzzFeed News. The workplace didn’t embrace mental health internally as it did externally, she said, calling her experience there “so traumatizing.”
Teklu and the other former and current employees said the public allegations against Gotch are only the tip of the iceberg of what they experienced working at Ban.do under its parent company, Kentucky-based Lifeguard Press. There was the time when employees intended to hire a model who is a person of color for a post — but instead, the photo shoot turned lily-white, the employees said. One employee overheard a coworker say one of the mantras of the parent company’s sales team was “all sales matter.” There was the employee who discovered that, despite Ban.do saying it championed empowered women, her benefits with parent company Lifeguard Press did not cover the medically necessary termination of her wanted pregnancy in its healthcare plan. And despite Ban.do’s public-facing appearance of a place where women thrived, former employees said their voices were often ignored by the executives at the parent company, who they called “a group of white men in Kentucky.”
“They don't practice what they preach. They hide behind messages of inclusivity, but internally foster an environment based on racism, anti-feminism, and a mean girls attitude,” one former employee, Rachel Gannon, told BuzzFeed News.
Gotch didn’t return requests for comment. In response to the allegations described in this piece, the owners of both Ban.do and Lifeguard Press said they are “incredibly sorry that knowingly or unknowingly people have been hurt by their time at ban.do.” A spokesperson for Lifeguard Press and Ban.do said the accounts posted on Instagram were “horrifying and eye-opening.”
“We are beyond grateful and indebted to the employees who stood in protest and demanded change,” owners Todd and Kim Ferrier said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “We are committed to creating a workplace and environment that is a safe space for everyone. While we personally and unequivocally disavow all forms of racism, prejudice, discrimination, sizeism, xenophobia, homophobia, bias and intolerance, we need to make sure our business also reflects that.”
The company hired a new president in early 2019, when Gotch stepped away from many of the day-to-day operations, and a Lifeguard Press and Ban.do spokesperson pointedly added that many of the issues described in this piece occurred before 2018.
The spokesperson said that since her resignation on June 9, Gotch “has no further affiliation or position at ban.do.”
“We are sorry and apologize to anyone that was made to feel marginalized or discriminated against by former leadership,” the spokesperson said. “The incidents have only furthered our commitment to make radical, positive change at ban.do tied to creating a more diverse, inclusive and safe environment for all employees.”
Teklu joined Ban.do in November 2016, as the director of digital marketing and communications. “It just seemed like the happiest place to work,” she said. “They were all about fun, being yourself, female empowerment.”
“Within one month, I just realized it was all a sham,” she said.
Browsing Ban.do’s website is like drifting through a fever dream of Instagram aesthetics and women’s empowerment mantras commodified for the masses. In Ban.do’s world, self-care is just a flower-printed yoga mat or a croissant-shaped stress ball away. The company’s motto is: “We exist to help you be your best,” and it seems like Ban.do really just wants us all to be the self-actualized, centered, powerful woman of our dreams.
You can proudly announce your mental health diagnosis through a nameplate necklace that spells out “anxiety,” “depression,” or “bipolar” (proceeds go to a mental health nonprofit) or decorate your home with candles declaring yourself an “introvert” or remind you that you have debt — at $32, it says you will “forget all about student loans (for a few minutes) when you light this candle.” You can upend outdated workplace attitudes by sporting a T-shirt that reads, “I cry at work,” while carrying a planner that reminds you to “say yes, and sometimes no.”
Gotch, who founded Ban.do with a partner in 2008, served as both the brand’s chief creative officer and its muse.
“When she was her best, she brought creativity out of people,” Teklu said. “Her essence is the brand, her persona is a part of the brand, and her voice is part of the brand.”
Gotch’s persona is part influencer, part #girlboss, and part mental health guru. On Instagram, she told her nearly 250,000 followers that women can be themselves and do it all, and that mental health issues — she is open about her bipolar 2 diagnosis — can be an asset, not a liability. Her account is loaded with cute things, bright colors, flowers, videos of herself dancing unbridled with joy, videos of her panic attacks. That’s the premise of Gotch’s book, The Upside of Being Down: How Mental Health Struggles Led to My Greatest Successes in Work and Life, which became a New York Times bestseller earlier this year.
That commodification of both the #selfcare and #girlboss movements is what has helped make Ban.do so successful, according to a Los Angeles Times profile of Gotch last year. Her friendships with Instagram cool girls like Busy Philipps and Kelly Oxford have only cemented her It girl status, so much so that women stop to take selfies with her on the street, the Times reported.
But the former and current employees called this a facade Ban.do perpetuated on Instagram. The reality, they said, was starkly different.
To start, they said it was clear that diversity was a huge problem for the brand, but that neither Gotch nor her former style director and “right hand” Kelly Edmonson, would do anything about it. Sanchez said that when she worked at Ban.do, she experienced “overt and covert racism...truly on a daily basis.” Edmonson didn’t return a request for comment.
After the incident at the restaurant, she said Gotch pointed her out in the office and said to others, “I don’t think Gabby likes us.” She said she quickly realized what type of environment she was in. “Which I think is a problem that a lot of women of color, Black women as well, have to do, which is walk this fine line of how do you make a living, be able to pay rent, and still move through the world when there’s a lot of racism in all of our structures,” she said. Sanchez said the experience was so stressful she began to get migraines, which she hasn’t gotten before or since.
Former employee Gannon said she witnessed incidents like “artwork illustrations featuring Black people being dropped from our assortment so they would not alienate our customer, and Jen asking for skin tones in illustrations to be lightened.”
She and Brent Peters, who joined Ban.do in 2016 as a photography production coordinator, recounted an open casting call the brand did on Instagram for models in 2017.
“There was a line of beautiful, diverse personalities and color representing our customer base wrapped around the block,” Peters said. “I remember maybe a dozen people that would have been amazing to work with, and a great opportunity for a win in diversity that many of us were fighting for.”
However, he said Edmonson pulled him into an office later and made comments such as “I don’t understand these continuing conversations” and “What’s wrong with someone beautiful and white?”
“Two weeks later, we had a thin, white, cisgender editorial shoot,” he said.
In her viral post, Sanchez shared 2017 emails from both Gotch and Edmonson responding to, as Gotch put it, “the ongoing concern of diversity in our photography.”
Edmonson wrote that while diversity is a “hot topic,” casting models is “an incredibly layered process.”
“Above all, I look at personality and a symmetrical body,” she wrote, saying she tries to avoid “super broad shoulders, long necks, etc.”
Gannon said the diversity issue was so apparent, it hurt business. In her role working in the company’s e-commerce buying and merchandising department, she would contact Black-owned brands asking to carry their products on Ban.do’s website.
“The brands were vocal about the reason why,” Gannon wrote on Instagram. “There were no Black women on our website. How could we carry products by Black makers and artists and have them modeled by a white woman?”
One Black artist, Kristina Bing, confirmed to BuzzFeed News she declined to sell her pottery at Ban.do because of this reason.
“It’s too complicated to consider diversity because the brand is just a reflection on Jen,” Teklu said. “If you don’t look like her, if you don’t act like her, if you don’t think like she does, then it’s just not the brand.”
Teklu said she often felt tokenized as the only Black employee in the office. She has spent much of her life in mostly white environments, but said, “When I was at Ban.do, I felt different.”
“Even though I’ve been used to working in predominantly white places and working for white companies, I never felt that bad before I worked at Ban.do,” she said, adding, “I always felt like they hired me and it was like: ‘We did it. We have her in and we don’t give a shit about her anymore and we don't actually want her to be effective. We just got our Black employee.’”
A spokesperson for Ban.do and Lifeguard Press called Teklu “a valued employee and if she was ever made to feel otherwise, we are terribly and gravely sorry.”
Some employees felt a disconnect between Ban.do’s outward-facing values and how they were treated in deeply personal ways, like Jillian Hennessy, who worked at ban.do for a year and a half as its director of new business development. In 2017, she found out she was pregnant. She said she was shocked when her bosses told her that she would need to “make up the hours in the office” or take vacation days for the doctor’s appointments, even though she was a salaried employee.
“It was just stressing me out,” she said. “Because you want to feel supported.”
In the second trimester, Hennessy learned the fetus had chromosomal abnormalities and there was a 99% chance of miscarriage. Under advice from her doctor, she made the “very awful decision” to terminate the pregnancy. While her coworkers were supportive and rallied around her at the office, Hennessy said she was shocked when she got the bill from her procedure. Her insurance, since it was based out of Kentucky, did not cover it, the insurance company told her.
In Kentucky, private insurers are prohibited from covering abortion unless the life of the mother is in danger, and individuals have the option of buying “an optional rider at an additional cost,” according to the reproductive rights nonprofit the Guttmacher Institute.
Hennessy couldn’t believe it. She lived in California, not Kentucky. She worked for a company based in California. “How do I work for this company that is [about] female empowerment, and all of these followers are feminists...and this isn’t covered by our insurance? This has to be a mistake,” she said.
The entire ordeal took about a year, Hennessy said, and she found herself constantly having to talk about and relive the experience of her terminated pregnancy by getting documentation together for the insurance company. Eventually, her last appeal to the insurance company got denied and she said she had to pay $4,500 out of pocket. “It made every post about female empowerment and mental health seem like a lie to me,” she said.
The spokesperson for Ban.do and Lifeguard Press claimed that the company did “escalate” Hennessy’s issue to the insurance company, but “ultimately, the insurance company makes the final decision in accordance with the medical plan coverage and state law.”
“Lifeguard Press reevaluates health care coverage and policy regularly and works to choose a plan that gives the best and most comprehensive coverage as possible,” the spokesperson said.
Hennessy’s insurance was based out of Kentucky because that’s where Ban.do’s parent company, Lifeguard Press, is located. Lifeguard, a manufacturer that designs accessories for Kate Spade, Vera Bradley, and Lilly Pulitzer, acquired Ban.do in 2012.
In a series of emails over several months, Hennessy pleaded with a human resources manager for Lifeguard Press and ban.do to help work with the insurance company to get the procedure covered. After the final denial by the insurance company, Hennessy sent an email in September 2018 to the HR manager for Lifeguard Press and ban.do, and Lifeguard Press’s president, David Coffey; owner, Todd Ferrier; and chief financial officer, Michael Whitehouse.
“I really hope my situation inspires you to take a look at the policy and consider purchasing a rider to cover instances like mine in the future,” Hennessy wrote. “For ban.do, a company that tells a story of personal health, mental health and is so female positive... I am speechless that this has happened.”
She said none of them wrote her back.
Teklu said she reported to three people: Gotch, Lifeguard Press and Ban.do’s former chief operating officer Lana Hansen, and David Scifres, the vice president of marketing and e-commerce. Gannon reported to Scifres and Whitehouse.
“When I started working at Ban.do, I was shocked and confused to see that one of my bosses — the person with final say on our website presence (a site that’s geared toward millennial women) — was a middle-aged white man in Kentucky,” Teklu said, “but I decided to stay open-minded.”
The relationship between Lifeguard Press and Ban.do has never been a secret. Gotch dedicates a section of her book to describing how and why she decided to sell the business to Lifeguard Press, calling the Ferriers the “perfect fit” for a parent company. Gotch also discusses being relieved that she could focus on the creative side of the business after the sale, saying she had become close friends with Coffey, who she describes as Ban.do’s CEO.
“On paper we’re an unlikely pair—he’s a conservative Southern businessman, I’m, well, I’m me—but we balance each other out in a way that ultimately serves the business and the brand well,” she writes.
But Teklu said she felt “bullied” and belittled by men in the corporate office, who would make decisions unilaterally. “It just didn’t seem like they had any respect for females, our voice, what we had to offer, you’re just completely powerless,” she said, adding, “It was honestly an emotionally damaging environment.”
In response to the allegations of its work environment by Teklu and others, a spokesperson for Lifeguard Press and Ban.do said executives at Lifeguard Press “never knowingly meant to undermine, belittle or silence the ban.do staff.”
Several people who spoke to BuzzFeed News employees said it also became clear that the public values that Ban.do claimed to espouse were not upheld behind the scenes. Peters said that in one of the first interactions he had with representatives from Lifeguard Press, he overheard a conversation in which a member of the parent company’s leadership team said, “Women are easy to sell to — just put something shiny in front of them. Men, though, are smart.” Peters said he overheard the comments while in the kitchen after a meeting.
Gannon said the parent company refused to let Ban.do “talk about politics or anything ‘controversial,’” like posting about the Women's March. Instead, she said, the company held an Instagram “artist takeover rather than post anything political.” A spokesperson for Lifeguard Press and Ban.do disputed this, telling BuzzFeed News that the Ban.do team was allowed to post about the march on the company’s Instagram stories, saying that the Ferriers “hold all women in the highest regard.”
“Like many consumer facing brands, political affiliations were something ban.do didn’t proactively promote but both the Ferriers and LGP were happy to have ban.do vehemently support and advocate for causes tied to female empowerment and mental health,” the spokesperson said.
They added that “as ban.do is ultimately a business, they tried to avoid political statements that might alienate certain customers but focused on bringing awareness to social causes that aligned with the brand.”
“It’s easy to make certain assumptions about a company based in Kentucky, but it is worth noting that the Ferriers are lifelong Democrats,” the spokesperson said.
And Teklu told her a coworker angrily revealed a mantra the Kentucky sales team repeated on calls.
“Their mantra is ‘all sales matter’ to mock ‘Black lives matter,’” Teklu said. “That’s a company that, it’s blatant, they dont give a shit.” Another employee also told BuzzFeed News they heard the saying, and that its intent was to mock BLM, and the claim was also posted on the bando_anonymous Instagram account. The spokesperson for Lifeguard Press and Ban.do said the company is investigating this claim, saying they “condemn any statements made to mock Black Lives Matter or the fight for diversity and equality.”
One of the most jarring disconnects between Ban.do’s public and internal values, the former employees told BuzzFeed News, is how the company handled mental illness. While Gotch has made a career telling women to embrace their mental health struggles without shame, the young women who worked for her faced guilt trips for routine mental health tasks such as taking a personal or sick day, Teklu said.
“We’re launching these necklaces that say ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ on them, and Jen is a mental health advocate, but we can’t take care of our bodies and our minds,” Teklu said, adding, “Jen was allowed to deal with mental health issues, but no one else is.”
Gannon agreed that behind the scenes, the company fell short on mental health.
“Our insurance didn’t really cover mental health stuff,” she said, adding that employees were annoyed that their insurance didn’t cover therapy. In response to this claim, the Lifeguard Press and Ban.do spokesperson said the current company health plan “provides access to mental health benefits” and the “costs associated with the visits depend on the plan selected by the employee.”
Just a month into Teklu’s tenure at Ban.do, her cousin died by suicide. She was devastated and hoped her new employer, who preached mental health advocacy, would understand if she took some time off.
Instead, Teklu said, “they did not care at all.” The only response she got was that the company had no bereavement policy, so she would need to take a sick or vacation day for time off. (The spokesperson for both companies said the “current leadership team was not aware of any instance where bereavement leave was denied” and Ban.do now offers two bereavement days a year.) But even more shocking for Teklu was the reaction from Gotch, who she worked closely with: silence.
“That’s the kind of company Ban.do is,” she said.
In the weeks since Gotch resigned, Lifeguard Press has appeared to distance itself from the brand. Mentions of Ban.do, once called the parent company’s “sparkly sister” in news reports, have vanished from its website, and curiously the Lifeguard Press has deleted all of its social media accounts.
In a statement on its website, Lifeguard Press calls Ban.do a company that it had “invested in” — when, in 2012, the company’s leadership said it actually acquired Ban.do outright. Lifeguard Press acknowledged to BuzzFeed News that the Ferriers own both companies, but said they are “separate LLCs” that “share resources.”
“It’s so important that people understand Lifeguard Press is not just an investor that shares resources with Ban.do,” Gannon said. “They are responsible as much as Jen and they must be held accountable.”
The spokesperson for both companies said Lifeguard Press brought in a new president for Ban.do in 2019, with the goal of having “ban.do move towards autonomy.”
“The Ferriers fully condemn racism and injustice and promote and wholly believe in a diverse and inclusive world and want those values to be reflected in the companies they own,” the spokesperson said. “They publicly recognize and apologize for the role that they may have played by not proactively focusing on diversity throughout the organization. Moving forward with both businesses they are making every effort to rectify this issue along with many of the other important issues raised in recent weeks.”
Two current employees at Ban.do, who asked to remain anonymous, said more than half of the workplace staged a walkout on June 8 to call for more changes at the retailer. The former and current staff think that Gotch’s resignation is unlikely to spark any real change, calling instead for Lifeguard Press’s leadership to take more accountability.
Both companies are promising publicly to make changes, with Lifeguard Press implementing several actions steps including donating money to “organizations aligned with BIPOC and BLM advocacy,” starting an internal speaker series with diverse voices, and reviewing its internal guidelines to “push our corporate culture in the right direction to support unity, diversity and inclusivity.” Ban.do is also implementing similar programs.
“Lifeguard Press is a family owned business and relationships matter to us,” the company said in a statement. “We want our employees and customers to feel seen and heard and know they too are family. Lifeguard Press fully condemns racism and injustice and promotes an environment of inclusivity.”
After watching protests rock the country and thousands speak out about their own experiences with racism, Teklu decided to reach out to Gotch directly on June 4 via text and email to let her know how working at Ban.do made her feel as a Black woman.
“While it's disappointing to see the racist and unkind words and actions that have been exposed recently by previous employees, I am hopeful that things can change,” Teklu wrote in the email. “I am hopeful because I remember how inspired, excited and grateful I felt when I was hired. You were a lightning rod that sparked so much energy, creativity and positivity and I believe that committing to a diverse, inclusive workplace (with zero tolerance for prejudice) will harness all the goodness at the heart of ban.do.”
Gotch never replied.