When Meghan Cali posted a critical comment on her former employer’s Instagram in June, she didn’t expect to actually hear back.
Cali wanted to chide the popular children’s clothing company Hanna Andersson for putting out a statement on anti-racism she felt didn’t go nearly far enough amid the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the US. She also accused the company of having a glaring diversity problem and called on CEO Mike Edwards to resign.
“If Hanna truly wants to live up to their mission to support ALL moms…their white male CEO should step down immediately and the company should seek to replace him with a woman of color,” Cali wrote.
About two hours after posting her critical comment, Cali received a LinkedIn notification. It was a message from Edwards himself, and he was angry.
“You do not know anything about me, our culture, our brand values,” Edwards wrote in his message. “Your comments are as racist as I have seen. Our parents expect Hanna to represent everyone and provide positive energy — not to be a political site.”
“If you don’t apologize,” he wrote, “we’re going to war.”
Cali had never met Edwards — she worked in marketing at the company until October 2018, while he came on as CEO in April 2019 after leaving his role as CEO of eBags — but his message left her stunned. “I obviously knew that Hanna doesn’t have a great track record as far as diversity, but…I thought my comment was fair,” Cali told BuzzFeed News. “So I was really shocked that the company would respond in the way that it did, and that the CEO would personally reach out and basically harass me.”
The heated exchange was not out of the ordinary for Edwards, according to three current and six former employees who told BuzzFeed News he has a reputation for rebuking staff members who disagree with him and that the company has a culture that does not give enough value to racial diversity.
Hanna Andersson, a Portland, Oregon-based company, has specialized in colorful, Scandinavian-inspired cotton clothing for children and babies since 1983. Originally founded by a Swedish mother, who left the company in 2007, the company has garnered praise for donating to children’s philanthropies and implementing forward-thinking policies for parents in the workplace.
But beneath the wholesome image, Hanna Andersson has a dark side that has developed in recent years, current and former employees said. While the company does frequently use nonwhite models, employees say it’s not being done enough, and that nonwhite models are not given the same prominence.
All those who were interviewed by BuzzFeed News said they could only recall one or two Black people working in the corporate office at any given time. The company confirmed there are currently no Black people among its 139 corporate employees. (A media strategist hired by the company suggested this was due partly to the demographics of Portland.) Employees also said the leadership team — which Edwards confirmed is entirely white — has been known to push back against those who call upon the company to do better when it comes to diversity and representation.
“[Edwards] is an incredibly fragile person, [and] he’ll lash out at anything,” said former Hanna Andersson copywriter Benjamin Kessler.
In a Zoom interview with BuzzFeed News on Friday, Edwards laid out steps the company is taking to improve diversity, including establishing a committee for inclusiveness, giving employees extra days off to be involved in community causes and vote on Election Day, hiring an external diversity consultant, and making charitable donations to the NAACP. “We can be better,” he said, but he insisted diversity was a valued principle.
“Our position has always been that we are both diverse and inclusive of all families, all races, all colors, all orientations,” he said, “and that continues.”
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At a company town hall meeting at the end of January, Kessler, the former copywriter, had found himself summoning the courage to raise his hand. The 30-year-old had worked at Hanna Andersson for one year, but he felt uncomfortable with what he saw as a lack of diversity in the brand’s image. “I raised my hand and I said I would love to see a greater amount of diversity in our marketing, because we’ve always featured people of color in our marketing not as much as we feature white people,” Kessler recalled to BuzzFeed News.
The question did not go over well with Edwards. In an email viewed by BuzzFeed News, Edwards, who is white, told Kessler his comments at the meeting were “insulting for the many leadership working for positive change and growth.”
“While I find it insulting that you don’t think we value diversity, you clearly don’t understand or appreciate the backgrounds of your leadership team,” Edwards wrote. “You have a choice: engage and appreciate where I am taking the company or we can reach an agreement for you to leave immediately.”
Kessler said he was forced to apologize to company executives, including Edwards, and was told he could lose his job if he didn’t.
One current employee, who asked — like others in this story — to remain anonymous to protect her employment, told BuzzFeed News that Kessler had told her about being forced to apologize and showed her the emails Edwards sent, which she described as “baffling” and “super inappropriate.”
Kessler did apologize out of fear of losing his job, but he was laid off less than two months later, in between two larger rounds of layoffs at the company. He was not given a reason why his layoff occurred separately from the two rounds, he said, which left him wondering whether his outspokenness had put a target on his back.
Edwards declined to talk about the allegations from Kessler or Cali, saying he could not speak about personnel issues, but he did say, “Ben [Kessler] and I had constructive discussions.” Edwards added that the company was forced to lay off more than 700 employees this year, bringing the total workforce down to 266 people. He insisted he had never “lashed out” at any employee who had raised concerns about diversity.
“I know you’ve talked to nine people but we have 200 and some people now left in the company and I’d say they beg to differ,” he said.
But Kessler is not the only employee to feel disturbed by what they say is a lack of diversity in the company’s advertisements, which they believe stem from the company’s overwhelmingly white leadership team.
One former employee from the creative department said diversity was treated as a box to check, and photos of nonwhite models were rarely given the same spotlight that white ones were.
“We knew when we could and could not use diversity in our advertising and catalog and dot com,” she said. “If there was a Facebook carousel and we wanted to use a photo of a family of color, it was going to be like the third or fourth photo.”
The former employee, who left a few months before Edwards came in as CEO and asked (like many interviewed for this story) to not be named out of fear of retribution, said issues with racism at the company predate his leadership. While designing the catalog and website for their holiday pajama collection in 2018, the former employee said an executive had objected to a photo of a Black family being used as the cover. “She would just come in and say, ‘You can’t have that family on the cover, they don’t reflect our main customer’ — which is basically saying you can’t put a Black family on the cover because 99% of our customers are white and they don’t want to see it,” she said. “It was pretty blatant statements and moves by her to make sure our primary photography was white families, no matter how beautiful the photograph.”
Both this former employee and a second former employee told BuzzFeed News that the photos featuring a Black family in a best-selling print with reindeers for the 2018 catalog were reshot with a white family due to concerns from management. “The family wasn’t ‘Hanna’ enough,” said the first former employee.
“Senior leadership…decided to reshoot the entire campaign because it was ‘too much diversity,'” said the second former employee. “They literally said ‘too much diversity’…and they said that they don’t want to look like they’re pandering.”
The original photo was used in at least one email campaign, said this second employee. It shows a Black man and a Black woman with braids holding three children.
The company provided an image to BuzzFeed News that they said served as the cover of the 2018 catalog, showing five families of different races. The Black man and two of the children wearing the reindeer print are the same models used in the email campaign photo, but the Black woman has been replaced on the cover by another model who does not have braids.
Edwards said he could not comment about the 2018 catalog as he was not at the company at the time. But, he said, he had spoken with others who had worked on it and who told him the allegations were “simply not true.”
Edwards added that the 2019 catalog was “all about diversity.” The cover on that catalog provided by the company to BuzzFeed News featured a white mother and daughter on the cover, but several Black, Asian, and interracial families inside.
“We certainly became much more committed to it after George [Floyd]’s death,” Edwards said. “We had always been committed to it.”
According to a review of Hanna Andersson’s Instagram posts since Floyd’s death in May, about half of the models used are white, with the other half being models of other races. But this is a significant increase from the start of the year. Between January and March, about twice as many white parents and children appeared on the Instagram account than nonwhite ones.
“The creative department certainly strives to include diversity in the photography,” said Kessler, “but it’s simply not replicated in the company itself.”
In early June, as nationwide protests against police brutality broke out sparked by Floyd’s killing, brands flooded Instagram with statements acknowledging systemic racism, vowing to improve company diversity, and pledging donations to Black Lives Matter causes.
But unlike other brands, Hanna Andersson appeared to play coy at first. On May 31 — as heated demonstrations roiled cities across the country leaving cars burned, stores looted, and police using tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful demonstrators — the company seemed to respond to the chaos by posting an image to its Instagram account featuring a white father and daughter and the hashtag #SoftIsStrong.
“We are teaching our children to be soft in a world that can be very hard,” the caption read. “Imagine the world we can have if we teach our children that kindness matters, above all other things.”
The post was flooded with comments from users decrying what they said was a tone-deaf message that ignored the racial reckoning sweeping the US. “Your silence says a lot,” wrote one person. “What in Aryan nonsense,” asked another.
“I’m disgusted to see you use such superficial messaging without using your platform to promote change,” wrote one commenter. “I’ve always supported your brand with my children, but I’m disgusted that you aren’t able to even say the words Black Lives Matter.”
Edwards told BuzzFeed News the #SoftIsStrong campaign had been in the works for months as part of corporate messaging tied to the pandemic. He insisted the company received “some, but not a lot” of criticism for the photo, but he did not regret that the post went up that weekend. “This was just part of a campaign,” he said. “It was not representative of how we felt.”
“You can’t judge us with one Instagram post,” he added. “We were barely able to keep up with what’s happening in the country.”
As the comments continued to flow about the Instagram post, it was five days before the company posted again. This time, on June 5, it was a message from Edwards announcing a $100,000 donation to the NAACP. “We stand against racism and we need to do a better job driving real change,” he said.
But Edwards’ words, in Cali’s opinion, didn’t go nearly far enough in addressing racism — particularly because of the company’s own lack of diversity in the corporate ranks. The former marketing employee was still outraged by the company’s post from earlier that week.
“To post such a tone-deaf statement was not entirely unexpected, but I was absolutely shocked and disgusted by the choice to pair it with a white, blonde-haired family,” Cali wrote. “I know for a fact there there are images of Black families they could have chosen to use here, so the choice to use a white family was a conscious one. This is not just tone-deaf, this is actively racist.”
In anger, she wrote a comment on Edwards’ message calling on him to resign and be replaced with a woman of color. Two hours later, Cali was shocked to see Edwards had found her on LinkedIn and messaged her, calling her racist for her comment and threatening to contact her company to get her fired.
Cali was shaken by what she said was a message containing deep-seated personal animosity from a company leader unable to accept criticism. “I thought, What’s going to come from this?” she asked. “This guy is threatening my job. Especially during these times, I can’t afford to not have a job. It was a lot for what I thought was a pretty fair and truthful comment expressing my opinions.”
Edwards did contact an executive at her new company, she said, but Cali did not face any disciplinary action for her comments.
After that, Edwards blocked Cali on LinkedIn and she hasn’t heard from him since. She said her Instagram comment, along with critical ones from other users, were deleted.
Edwards declined to talk to BuzzFeed News about his LinkedIn messages other than to say, “If I reach out to anyone on any matter, it’s to seek an understanding.”
And despite his message to Cali saying that Hanna Andersson customers did not expect the company to “be a political site,” he told BuzzFeed News he did not believe supporting the Black Lives Matter movement was a political act. “Black Lives Matter is a cause that we believe in,” he said. “We believe in diversity and inclusiveness. We actively support it with our actions. All of our content we develop as a company, whether it’s social or other, is in the spirit of embracing diverse families globally.”
Cali’s views on the company’s Instagram post being insufficient are shared by some current employees. One employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said she tried to get the company to take a stronger public stance through her role on the diversity committee.
After she asked a question about it at a town hall on June 11, Edwards sent her an email, saying we “have [to] respect each other[s] views” and that he must “make balanced decisions for all the associates, investors and customers.”
The employee continued her push, sharing with Edwards screenshots of the many comments on the Instagram post of customers criticizing the company for not speaking up more clearly and boldly. She also attached screenshots of praise other companies had received for taking a stand.
Edwards replied that the company had been monitoring communications data for any “negative response” to the BLM controversy but insisted that it had been “extremely small.”
“I am all about the data,” he wrote, “and near term this is not the expectation of the Hanna brand.”
Edwards told BuzzFeed News diversity was an important issue to him personally due to his childhood growing up in West Philadelphia, where he went to a school where the majority of the students were Black. He pointed out he had previously been honored by the the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, with an award.
“Can I always improve as a leader?” he asked. “You bet. Am I open to the feedback? You bet.”
“We’re not perfect,” he added, “but we strive to do the right thing every day.”
After BuzzFeed News contacted Hanna Andersson this week for comment on this story, management sent out a diversity and inclusion survey asking employees if they felt the company was committed to such principles. One question asked if staff were “confident leadership will continue to support diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
On Friday evening, hours after his interview, Edwards sent an email to BuzzFeed News. The message had no subject line or text, but attached a photo showing an elaborate chocolate-frosted cake with a greeting card reading “Stay Cool.” Inside the card was a handwritten message, ostensibly from the all-white VPs on his executive team to Edwards, praising his leadership. “If you have the urge to go online,” the card read, “…eat cake!” ●
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