Ariella Steinhorn doesn’t just help her clients—victims of toxic work environments and racist, sexist, and otherwise terrible bosses—speak truth to power. She gives them a megaphone.
As founder and CEO of Lioness, Steinhorn, SOC/BA ’15, and her business partner, President Amber Scorah, arm whistleblowing clients—on whom employers can train all their resources: wealth, influence, and, increasingly, nondisclosure agreements (NDAs)—with an equally potent weapon. Storytelling.
“I started my career in corporate PR; I got to see what narrative could do for powerful people and powerful institutions,” says Steinhorn, who has experienced workplace harassment herself. “I wanted to democratize PR and storytelling to help people who felt like they had been muzzled. Companies care about their reputations, and powerful people care about their legacies. Sometimes they respond more to a PR crisis than a law crisis. You need that external pressure to shock them into changing their ways.”
Since 2019, Lioness has worked with hundreds of people, meticulously vetting and corroborating the details of their accounts of workplace misconduct, connecting them with employment attorneys to untangle the terms of NDAs, and flipping through an extensive Rolodex of reporters to help place op-eds in the New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, and more. The New York-based company’s services are free, bankrolled by paid public relations work for corporate clients and nonprofits.
“It initially started as a bit of a whisper network,” Steinhorn says of Lioness, which was born out of her grandmother’s maiden name—Lyons. “We would get encrypted messages on ProtonMail or Signal. But once we began raising our profile [including a June 2021 story in the New York Times] and talking about NDAs, we discovered there was a huge appetite for an intermediary between journalists and people with a story to tell.”
NDAs emerged in the 1970s as private companies—particularly tech firms—sought to dig a moat around their algorithms, designs, and other proprietary information. But a decade later, NDAs began to seep into some muddy waters, encompassing not just trade secrets but anything that might hurt the company, including misconduct, abuse, and ethics violations. Today, more than one-third of US workers are bound by an NDA, according to the Vanderbilt Law Review.
The agreements came into sharp relief in 2017, when the New York Times published its Pulitzer Prize–winning exposé on film producer and serial predator Harvey Weinstein, whose lawyers pressured his victims to sign NDAs in exchange for a sum of money and their silence. But in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and #MeToo—which grew from a spark on Twitter into an international firestorm that’s brought down a plethora of powerful, poorly behaved men—NDAs aren’t as bulletproof as they once were, Steinhorn says.
“If someone breaks their NDA, the company could sue them and force them to cover the firm’s legal fees. Most companies won’t do that because the potential backlash would be a PR nightmare.”
But it’s still a risk—one that Lioness has mitigated in the most innovative way.
On September 16, the company published on their website a 3,000-word piece by an anonymous woman alleging misconduct by New Age guru Deepak Chopra in the late ’90s. Steinhorn and Scorah minted into the Ethereum blockchain a page from the woman’s diary, written in 1998 amid the alleged abuse. Proceeds from the sale of the NFT, or nonfungible token, will benefit a legal fund to protect the author, Lioness, and future whistleblowers. It marks the first time that NFTs—which exploded in 2021, with many selling for more than $1 million—have been used to harness the power of activism.
“Ariella is one of the most creative people I know,” Scorah says. “But what is remarkable about her is that she puts all her creativity into figuring out how to help other people and shift culture in ways it needs to be shifted.”
Steinhorn has always been “a blend of optimism, risk-taking, nonconformity, and fearlessness,” says her father, School of Communication professor Leonard Steinhorn. “From her earliest days Ariella always followed her own path. The expectations of others were far less important than the expectations she set for herself, and she was never shy about seeking adventure, experience, and even risk.
“Taking on big challenges or institutions is nothing new to her, and her intrinsic optimism fuels her belief that justice can in the end prevail—which is the oxygen anyone doing her work needs to keep on poking at power.”
No one is shielded from Steinhorn’s changemaking, culture-shifting crusade—not even one of the world’s most powerful men.
On September 30, Lioness published an open letter from 21 current and former Blue Origin employees, alleging that Jeff Bezos’s commercial space company has fostered a culture that “ignores the plight of our planet, turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs.”
“That’s not the world we should be creating here on Earth,” they write, “and certainly not as our springboard to a better one.”
On the day the essay went live, its only named author, Alexandra Abrams, former head of Blue Origin employee communications, appeared on CBS Mornings to explain why she was compelled to break her NDA and go public. “I’ve gotten far enough away from it that I’m not afraid enough to let them silence me anymore,” she said.
For Steinhorn, success isn’t measured entirely in clicks and media hits—although, as with any PR gig, those metrics are important. (The Blue Origin piece, which boasts more than 106,000 views so far, was picked up by Bloomberg, Newsweek, the New York Times, and Business Insider, among dozens of other major outlets.) Success is also, as in Abrams’s case, being heard.
“A lot of people we work with have tried to make changes in their personal lives or their work lives. They’ve operated within the system. Sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t, and they realize they need to use storytelling to go outside of that system,” Steinhorn says. “It’s incredibly gratifying to help people reclaim their power and agency.”
They are Lioness. Hear them roar.