Home AEC Transwestern Startup Stories: Kafi Payne – Gravitational

Transwestern Startup Stories: Kafi Payne – Gravitational

Oakland, Gravitational, Transwestern, Seattle

By Victor Valenzuela 

This series profiles innovative companies and how they are adapting to the challenges of Bay Area Shelter-In-Place orders in the wake of COVID-19. 

Gravitational is an open-source software startup founded in 2015. Headquartered in Oakland, CA, with an office at 1611 Telegraph Ave., the company also has offices in Seattle, WA and Toronto, Canada. Its mission is to make software run by itself, everywhere. Designed for engineers, with security and deployment needs in mind, Gravitation delivers solutions to customers from Samsung and Nasdaq to Splunk and Snowflake. 

Director of Human Resources, Kafi Payne, discussed the importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in their growth strategy, particularly in the wake of COVID-19.  

Valenzuela. What does a typical day look like as a Head of People during the COVID-19 crisis?

Payne. I’ve been Director of Human Resources for about eight months and it’s interesting being in a new company and a new industry during COVID-19. There was a steep learning curve and then coronavirus hit and upended everything. During COVID-19 I’ve done a lot of thinking about mental health, as well as issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Not just on a surface level, but how we can be consciously and intentionally anti-racist instead of just really nice and not racist, but still perpetuating systems of inequities. With all those things, it’s been a constantly shifting role.

Valenzuela. Speaking of DEI, it’s a major issue right now in our country. You mentioned being anti-racist and very intentional, how has this evolved inside Gravitational over the past few weeks?

Payne. With everything going on in the world, it forces us to pay attention and question if we’re doing enough. And it was clear to everybody, we aren’t doing enough. We know we can do much better and will do much better. Our organization has a bias towards action: what’s the problem, fix it, now it’s over. Addressing diversity issues doesn’t work quite like that — these issues are complex. There’s a lot of learning that needs to take place and I want to build the foundation in terms of collective learning and understanding about issues of racism, sexism, etc., and how equity and privilege factor in. It won’t always be a comfortable conversation, but we want to shift practices, not only in terms of hiring, promotion and compensation, but also in the kinds of language we use from a technical perspective. Shifting from slave-master vocabulary in a technical sense and thinking of other language to replace that. We can’t just throw a band-aid on this and have an immediate fix.

Valenzuela. What are some recommendations you have in terms of addressing DEI?

Payne. That’s important because companies look at their peers to see what others are doing and what the standard is. A push for me has been to collaborate with other companies. To affect meaningful change, we can’t be the only ones being proactive. So, I would say let’s not do this in isolation. There needs to be collaboration and different perspectives, both within a company and across companies. I want to work with other companies to make a commitment to change and keep each other accountable.

Valenzuela. How do you go about recruiting the right talent?

Payne. In a fast-moving tech startup, you want the best folks – our CEO calls them purple squirrels. These are people that fit our values and culture, that are super smart, are biased towards action and think creatively. Being considerate of overall diversity and inclusion takes this to another level. We want creative minds who will push back, ask questions, and bring different perspectives. In the interview/hiring process we’re mindful of implicit bias. For example, if this person went to the same school, or that person is from the same city where I’m from. So we’re paying attention to all those things throughout and particularly in key areas where candidates get weeded out.

Valenzuela. How has recruiting changed during COVID-19? Have you onboarded people remotely?

Payne. Before the pandemic, we were hiring aggressively and on track to double the number of team members by end of year. That changed dramatically and we had a hiring freeze. Now we’re ramping up that recruiting again, so it’s both exciting and daunting. We’re taking the time to revamp our systems to align with our values and master some of the tools that are useful in the hiring process to be ready for that influx again. We’re also trying to deepen relationships with our partners. For example, we have a partnership with Ada Developers Academy that focuses on gender diversity in tech and recruits from groups who are underrepresented. So, it’s given us an incredible opportunity during this time.

Valenzuela. When you go back to being more aggressive in hiring, will your criteria change in terms of geography due to remote work?

Payne. We’ve always had remote team members in multiple countries, but having the entire company work from home in a period of 24 hours has definitely shifted our perspective. We still have an office in Oakland, but we’re more location agnostic. We’re really paying attention to how we develop junior developers/staff members without them being able to onboard in person. It can be a challenge for new team members, especially those who are younger. It’s one thing if you’re onboarding with years of leadership experience and you feel comfortable and empowered to make mistakes and ask direct questions, but when you’re new to a career and an employer, you might be a little bit more timid. That can be exacerbated by having to work remotely, so it’s on us to make sure we’re creating systems that allow new team members to thrive.

Valenzuela. What are some of the protocols that you’ve implemented to address that?

Payne. We’ve tried to implement systems to work more efficiently, and to ensure folks stay connected virtually. We want to ensure that everyone is feeling productive and feeling included. The biggest thing is making sure that important items are easily accessible from a single source. For example, there are Slack pages for everything, to try and be very specific around different topics for folks to stay engaged. In terms of staying connected, we’ve done Zoom virtual happy hours, game nights, etc., and made sure virtual events include breakout rooms so it isn’t just thirty people in one room not being able to have a coherent conversation. We’re now thinking about outdoor events that are COVID-19 safe, like everyone going to a drive-in movie in their respective cars – but at least being able to see each other.

Valenzuela. How do you think the viewpoint of physical office space might change going forward?

Payne. We surveyed our employees and found that folks that previously worked in the office are excited about returning to the office, and expect the office to have restrictions if we do reopen, but those same people don’t want to return to an office with restrictions. It seems counterintuitive, but it makes sense. People would love to see their colleagues in person but aren’t excited about an office that may only be half full at most, with a lot of restrictions. What’s the point of returning if it’s not fun? Having said that we do want to give people the choice. If you choose to work from home, we absolutely support that, and we want to give you the tools and resources to do the best job. We also recognize that there are situations where your home may not be the best place to work. I have two teenagers which seems like it’d be easy but not always. It’s cute when a toddler or a puppy accidentally find their way into a Zoom meeting, but when I have to stop a Zoom meeting to tell two teenagers to stop fighting it doesn’t feel as cute! I’m not the only one in that situation and it can be frustrating. We’re trying to be empathetic and come up with solutions for everyone.

Victor Valenzuela is a Vice President at Transwestern, focusing on the Oakland market. He represents tenants from the finance, technology, legal, and healthcare industries by helping them evaluate their office facilities strategy on a local and national level. He and his team also provide strategic commercial real estate services for owners on East Bay projects. Throughout his career, Victor has been involved in over 120 leasing and disposition transactions with an aggregate deal value of over $113 million.


Transwestern Real Estate Services (TRS) adds value for investors, owners and occupiers of all commercial property types through a comprehensive perspective and by providing solutions grounded in sound market intelligence. Part of the Transwestern companies, the firm applies a consultative approach to Agency Leasing, Asset Services, Occupier Solutions, Capital Markets, and Research & Investment Analytics. 

The privately held Transwestern companies have been delivering a higher level of personalized service and innovative real estate solutions since 1978. An integrated approach formed from fresh ideas drives value for clients across commercial real estate services, development, investment management and opportunistic programs for high-net-worth investors. The firm operates through 34 U.S. offices and global alliances with BNP Paribas Real Estate and Devencore.

About Gravitational
Gravitational was founded out of frustration with the ever-escalating complexity of building and running software in the cloud. We believe that applications should be easy to deploy and run on any computing device anywhere, with minimal oversight. Our solutions allow engineers to erase security and deployment boundaries between networks and cloud providers in order to securely deploy and access their applications anywhere on this planet. Organizations all over the world use our open-source products to securely deliver code into production, even in the most restricted and regulated environments.