Corporate harassment training is often defined by mandatory annual workshops, stock photo-ridden curricula and, often, outdated scenarios. Harvard graduates Roxanne Petraeus and Anne Solmssen think there’s a business in doing better than that.
The duo co-founded Ethena, a software-as-a-service startup that sells anti-harassment training software that is more comprehensive and flexible than the status quo.
Ethena sends "nudges," or personalized short-form bits of training content, to employees throughout the year. One nudge could be about office dating, and a few weeks later, another nudge could be about mentorship.
Each month a user would get either an e-mail or Slack notification saying it is time to train. Then the user would go to a browser-based app and take a lesson, which depends on your managerial status, state of residence and other factors. The sessions would then be five to 10 minutes.
The distributed approach takes away the ability for an employee to front-load hours of training on their first week. Instead, Ethena’s consistent check-ins are aiming at a difficult metric to track: comprehension within compliance training.
“The reason we do that is because in the adult learning base it is pretty emphatic that repetition is crucial,” Petraeus said.
This format also gives the company a chance to adapt its content to the world users are living in. Ethena’s content has to follow a certain curriculum based on state law, but, it can add its own flavor. For example, when COVID-19 became a serious threat, Ethena was able to send users training in regards to online harassment and cyberbullying. Old curricula might not account for what Zoom harassment might look like.
Petraeus said of the examples users see in the software, "it makes no sense to have Jim and Jan go to a bar if that’s not the environment we are in."
Ethena also works as a replacement for in-person anti-harassment workshops during COVID-19 and resulting shelter-in-place orders. As offices continue to remain shut down, companies need to find new ways to talk about issues that are not going away.
Efficacy of anti-harassment training is hard to track with numbers. If a company tried to measure Ethena’s efficacy with data around the number of harassment reports filed before and after the software was used, it presumes that victims are choosing to report in the first place. Victims, for a variety of reasons, often don’t report due to fear of retaliation or inaction.
For the co-founders, a lack of hard data about whether their software works meant that they had to find another way to pitch to customers.
“It would be really irresponsible to just kind of bank on ‘everyone will believe in this mission with us,’ ” said Petraeus. “We read the newspaper; that will not happen.”
Instead, the co-founders think that sweeping training regulations and legal obligations might be what force companies to onboard more intensive software.
“We keep companies in a legally, very safe position because their employees are always sort of ahead of what they need to stay compliant with state regulations,” Solmssen said. “We’re able to become a part of the fabric of everyday thinking and behavior for employees.”
Long term, Ethena is working with a peer-reviewed journal to see if effective anti-harassment training can be related to higher retention rates in companies.
The company envisions early adopters to be small companies that are scaling. It charges companies per seat, which comes out to $4 per employee per month, and $48 per employee per year.
Petraeus and Solmssen piloted the program in November 2019 and launched in January. Today, the startup told TechCrunch they have raised $2 million in seed funding led by GSV, with participation from Homebrew, Village Global and more. It has 50 customers.