Pedro Alves is the founder and CEO of Ople.AI, a software startup that provides an automated machine learning platform to empower business users with predictive analytics.
The machine learning and AI-powered tools being deployed in response to COVID-19 arguably improve certain human activities and provide essential insights needed to make certain personal or professional decisions; however, they also highlight a few pervasive challenges faced by both machines and the humans that create them.
Nevertheless, the progress seen in AI/machine learning leading up to and during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored. This global economic and public health crisis brings with it a unique opportunity for updates and innovation in modeling, so long as certain underlying principles are followed.
Here are four industry truths (note: this is not an exhaustive list) my colleagues and I have found that matter in any design climate, but especially during a global pandemic climate.
Some success can be attributed to chance, rather than reasoning
When a big group of people is collectively working on a problem, success may become more likely. Looking at historic examples like the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, there were several analysts credited with predicting the crisis. This may seem miraculous to some until you consider that more than 200,000 people were working in Wall Street, each of them making their own predictions. It then becomes less of a miracle and more of a statistically probable outcome. With this many individuals simultaneously working on modeling and predictions, it was highly likely someone would get it right by chance.
Similarly, with COVID-19 there are a lot of people involved, from statistical modelers and data scientists to vaccine specialists, and there is also an overwhelming eagerness to find solutions and concrete data-based answers. Following appropriate statistical rigor, coupled with machine learning and AI, can improve these models and decrease the chances of false predictions that arrive from too many predictions being made.
Automation can help in maintaining productivity if used wisely
During a crisis, time-management is essential. Automation technology can be used not only as part of the crisis solution, but also as a tool for monitoring productivity and contributions of team members working on the solution. For modeling, automation can also greatly improve the speed of results. Every second a piece of software can perform automation for a model, it allows a data scientist (or even a medical scientist) to conduct other more important tasks. User-friendly platforms in the market now give more people, like business analysts, access to predictions from custom machine learning models.
Devsquad founder and CEO Phil Alves is an expert entrepreneur with more than 15 years of experience in the tech industry leading product development teams for multiple clients.
Software developers are some of the most in-demand workers on the planet. Not only that, they’re complex creatures with unique demands in terms of how they define job fulfillment. With demand for developers on the rise (the number of jobs in the field is expected to grow by 22% over the next decade), companies are under pressure to do everything they can to attract and retain talent.
First and foremost — above salary — employers must ensure that product teams are made up of developers who feel creatively stimulated and intellectually challenged. Without work that they feel passionate about, high-quality programmers won’t just become bored and potentially seek opportunities elsewhere, the standard of work will inevitably drop. In one survey, 68% of developers said learning new things is the most important element of a job.
The worst thing for a developer to discover about a new job is that they’re the most experienced person in the room and there’s little room for their own growth.
Yet with only 32% of developers feeling “very satisfied” with their jobs, there’s scope for you to position yourself as a company that prioritizes the development of its developers, and attract and retain top talent. So, how exactly can you ensure that your team stays stimulated and creatively engaged?
Allow time for personal projects
78% of developers see coding as a hobby — and the best developers are the ones who have a true passion for software development, in and out of the workplace. This means they often have their own personal passions within the space, be it working with specific languages or platforms, or building certain kinds of applications.
Back in their 2004 IPO letter, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote:
We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. [This] empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.
At DevSquad, we’ve adopted a similar approach. We have an “open Friday” policy where developers are able to learn and enhance their skills through personal projects. As long as the skills being gained contribute to work we are doing in other areas, the developers can devote that time to whatever they please, whether that’s contributing to open-source projects or building a personal product. In fact, 65% of professional developers on Stack Overflow contribute to open-source projects once a year or more, so it’s likely that this is a keen interest within your development team too.
Not only does this provide a creative outlet for developers, the company also gains from the continuously expanding skillset that comes as a result.
Provide opportunities to learn and teach
One of the most demotivating things for software developers is work that’s either too difficult or too easy. Too easy, and developers get bored; too hard, and morale can dip as a project seems insurmountable. Within our team, we remain hyperaware of the difficulty levels of the project or task at hand and the level of experience of the developers involved.
Alex Zajaczkowski was just months into her role at Toast, a restaurant point-of-sale software company, when she was let go during COVID-19 layoffs. Toast, last valued at $5 billion, cut 50% of its staff through layoffs and furloughs.
Zajaczkowski said she started applying for jobs within a week.
“I think I got on the boat a little bit quicker than others because I wanted that security a little bit faster,” she said. She and former Toast colleagues formed a Slack to communicate about layoffs, their job searches and what lay ahead. Toast created an opt-in spreadsheet for recruiters that listed laid-off employees.
The sheet brought Zajaczkowski to Stavvy, an online mortgage startup also based in Boston, for an interview. Today, a majority of Stavvy’s team are ex-Toasters, including Zajaczkowski.
“I think one of the benefits of recruiting from an organization that is sort of an iconic Boston company, is that you know what the hiring practices are,” Ligris said. “There’s been a level of vetting that has occurred.”
Stavvy’s onboarding of former Toast employees suggests that the layoffs which rocked startups in March could be an opportunity for smaller startups to scoop up star talent that already has chemistry. While acqui-hiring is not a new concept, it has new weight in an environment reeling from mass layoffs and a shift to remote-first work.
Stavvy co-founders Kosta Ligris and Josh Feinblum, though, say hiring a pod of employees can backfire without proper diligence.
Andrés Vior is the VP and country manager for Argentina at intive. A computer engineer who graduated from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), he is also a member of the Chamber of Software and Computer Services Companies of Argentina (CESSI).
In June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily suspending work visas for H-1B holders, which includes skilled workers like software developers.
While nearshoring was an option before the virus struck, the urgency to nearshore due to the visa ban, combined with the remote revolution taking place, has meant companies are reconsidering it as a solution. As a result, the suspension presents an opportunity for companies to bring on board software development capabilities from abroad.
Nearshoring is a way to hire teams in locations that share similar time zones and are easily accessible. Nearshoring also enables U.S. companies to utilize services from close locations, where the talent, working conditions, and salaries are more favorable. In fact, it can save businesses up to 80% on costs, while providing employees with flexibility, autonomy and better career development pathways.
Not only is nearshoring a pragmatic response to the visa ban, it has the potential to be a long-term hiring alternative for businesses. Here’s how:
Laying the groundwork for remote teams
Amid the pandemic, demand for developers has remained high, no doubt due to companies needing teams to build, maintain and optimize digital platforms as they transition to online services. The visa ban means that businesses in foreign markets can help meet such demand, particularly as tech talent from other countries comes with a fresh, different skill set that empowers companies to solve problems in new ways.
In a more connected world, businesses and individuals can reap the benefits of U.S. opportunities — top technology stack, access to exciting companies and world-class research — without having to actually live in the country. In this respect, nearshoring means foreign teams have the best of both worlds: the comfort of home and ties to an international powerhouse.
The remote shift is demonstrating that teams can function well at a distance; some studies have even revealed that employee productivity and happiness benefit from remote work. In the global remote shift, nearshoring is being seen as an accepted and advantageous model. Companies that opt to nearshore in response to the visa ban can take advantage of the changing tides and use this time to lay the groundwork for best practices within remote teams. For instance, by devising policies for things like communication, tracking progress, vacation and development plans according to the new conditions and specific mission statements. As a result, businesses can seamlessly build professional partnerships.
Another advantage of nearshoring is that the flexible teams contribute to a ready-to-scale model for startups. By having development partners located in different countries, companies can network on a wider level and grow faster among local markets. Rather than start from scratch when expanding, nearshoring gives companies a presence — no matter how small — across regions, which can later be built upon.
Attracting fresh investment
Similar to having a readiness to scale, the H-1B visa suspension positions nearshoring as a viable way to strategically partner with foreign development studios. In contrast to offshoring, nearshored businesses are often more vested in the projects they work on because they share time zones and are thus able to work more closely and with greater agility. Within startups, such agility is essential to continuously test, iterate and pivot products or services. Outsourced teams often have defined outputs to achieve, while freelancers are split across several projects, so aren’t completely ingrained in companies’ visions.
With nearshoring, startups can target partners that have experience in a particular area of business or with a specific tech feature and accelerate their time to market. Instead of building systems from zero, they can launch into version 2.0 because the wider choice of experts means there’s a higher chance of partnering with teams who already understand how the industry functions. Nearshore partners also have vast knowledge across industrial fields at a level that is impossible for direct hires to have. Companies therefore don’t have to tackle the difficulty of curating a great team, because nearshore partners are an already solid pairing.
When it comes to funding, this synchronicity, agility and preparedness indicates that a startup has momentum. For investors, nearshoring shows that the company has on-the-ground insights about potential markets to disrupt, and that the business model can thrive using remote teams. As the world braces itself to go fully digital, startups that have already adopted remote processes that catalyze growth will no doubt catch the attention of investors.
Promoting greater diversity in teams
Latin America is a clear choice for U.S. businesses looking to nearshore. The region’s proximity, increasing internet penetration, and impressive number of highly skilled developers are all a significant draw.
It’s also worth noting that diversity plays a core role in nearshoring. Currently within tech, Hispanic workers are noticeably underrepresented, making up a mere 16.7% of jobs. Despite the physical distance, nearshoring in Latin America can bring people from different social and economic backgrounds into companies, boosting their visibility in industries as a whole, and setting a firm foundation for equality.
Moreover, nearshoring accelerates diversity in a manner that isn’t disruptive. Foreign team members don’t have to sacrifice their home, friends and family to further their professional career. Relocating to the U.S. can be daunting for people who haven’t previously worked abroad, especially when factoring the change in living costs and new culture norms. Nearshoring means teams can work from locations they’re familiar with, so need less time to get up to speed on business processes. They additionally have the emotional support of their social circles nearby, which in the current climate is important for employees’ personal and professional wellbeing.
Leveraging the right partnership
Research is key to successfully find a nearshore company, and startups don’t always have the time and resources to conduct an in-depth analysis of locations and their ecosystems. The most practical manner to nearshore the right talent is with a nearshoring partner that is responsible for scouting, vetting and communicating with foreign developers.
To find an appropriate partner, ensure that they have previous experience in your industry and positive testimonials from startups in your location. They should also have a clear presence in the regions they operate in; try checking online for their press releases, events they sponsor and general content that validates they are active and respected.
Once you’ve found an appropriate nearshore partner, rely on them to know what teams in your preferred locations need in terms of culture. Nearshore partners will essentially be your development partner — you can leverage them to be your whole Research and Development department. They can guide you on the tech side of your business, advise you on the right team at the right time, give you direction on stack and methodology, and curate the right environment for the team to be productive. In contrast, hiring freelancers comes with risks because you won’t necessarily know the specific needs of the location they’re in. Be aware — if there’s a cultural disconnect, you risk not finding a partner, but a vendor that’s buying into a superficial version of your startup, as opposed to your real startup vision.
Once you’ve settled on a well-fitting nearshoring partner, ensure you have detailed contracts with all team members, as well as nondisclosure agreements. Nearshoring requires a level of mutual trust, however, at such an early stage of your company’s lifecycle, you need to know that your processes and data will not be revealed to competitors. Check that your nearshore partner’s financial status is secure and sufficient for a long-term model. Correspondingly, service level agreements will set the parameters for job responsibilities and deliverables. After all the formalities are covered, you can focus on curating fruitful, long-term relationships.
Acclimatizing in the new normal
The COVID-19 crisis has made recruitment a remote-dominated sphere. Traditional modes of hiring are being reassessed, and companies are realizing that teams don’t have to be in an office to be productive. In fact, not having to cover visa and administration fees for foreign employees is much more cost-effective for companies.
As time passes and businesses develop habits best-suited to remote work, nearshoring will become increasingly popular. People are prioritizing joining teams where their career development, well-being and ethics are protected, all of which nearshoring can offer with the added benefit of not completely upheaving workers’ lives.
Startups who embrace nearshoring early on could find themselves competing with top tech firms that struggle because of recruiting limitations. With the end of the pandemic unknown, and thus no hard deadline for the visa ban, tech companies have to look at alternative modes of building teams. Startups have the advantage of revising their remote product development approach without disturbing workflows too severely. They are also known for pioneering fairer and more innovative workplaces that are enticing for a broader scope of employees.
Nearshoring is mutually beneficial because developers don’t have to give up their culture for a great employment opportunity, and businesses can reap the benefits of diversification. Ultimately, the H-1B visa suspension could stimulate true globalization in tech, where companies can achieve their best performance using global resources.
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.
Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.
“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”
I work in people ops in tech. Restrictions and conditions placed on visas and green cards seem to be continuously changing.
What’s the latest for tech, such as H-1Bs and other nonimmigrant visas?
—Strong in San Francisco
And what a summer it’s been! Fortunately there’s a bunch of great news in immigration this week. I’d love to dive in to new State Department exceptions that apply for new H-1B visas at embassies and consulates around the world. This will help a lot of tech companies whose H-1B employees got stuck outside the U.S. on trips for “visa stamping” (consular interviews) earlier this year.
Before we get into that though, I wanted to share some additional and recent top immigration highlights: First, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is restarting interviews (our team just handled several naturalization interviews remotely for clients across the country) and it looks like green cards will be scheduled again soon. Second, USCIS announced that it is canceling plans to furlough more than 13,000 employees next week, thereby averting a massive slowdown of visa and green card processing. Third, for those Dreamers out there and the tech companies who love them, USCIS is starting to accept some DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) renewals and work permit applications.
The emergence, and now seemingly extended presence, of the novel coronavirus health pandemic has made remote working into a pretty standard part of office life for so-called knowledge workers. Today, a startup that has built a labor marketplace to help companies source and develop teams of remote developers is announcing some funding as to looks to double down on the opportunity and new demand resulting from that.
Turing, which helps source, vet and ultimately connect developers with tech companies that need them for either short- or long-term engagements, is today announcing that it has picked up $14 million in seed funding.
The gap in the market that Turing is addressing is two-fold: companies need to hire more developers but are facing tight competition (and high rates) for finding qualified people in their immediate vicinity; and on the other side, there are talented developers living in many more places than just the world’s biggest tech centers who may not want to or cannot (especially right now) relocate to live elsewhere and are unable to connect with the right opportunities.
“Talent is universal, but opportunities are not,” CEO and co-founder Jonathan Siddharth said in an interview. He and his co-founder Vijay Krishnan (CTO) are both from India and relocated to the Valley for school (both have post-graduate degrees at Stanford) and eventually work, but know all too well that there are plenty more talented people who don’t. “We love that we can take Silicon Valley outside of the area and to have all of them participate in it while still helping local communities grow.”
The funding is notable for a couple of reasons. One is the calibre of the investors. It’s being led by Foundation Capital, with individuals participating including Adam D’Angelo (the first CTO at Facebook and also the co-founder of Quora); Cyan Banister of Banister Capital; Ashu Gard of Foundation; and Beerud Sheth, the founder of another labor marketplace, Upwork (formerly known as Elance). Other backers include executives from Google, Facebook and Amazon that are preferring not to be named right now.
Two is that it’s coming on the back of some significant growth for the company. Since coming out in general availability a year ago, Turing has gone from $17,000 to $10 million in annualised revenue, CEO Johnathan Siddharth said in an interview. The company now has some 150,000 developers spanning 140 countries on its books, who are taking on roles at a range of seniority levels at startups that include Lambda School, VillageMD, Ohi Technologies, Nexxus Events and others.
Everything is distributed
Siddharth and his co-founder and Vijay Krishnan (CTO) were most recently entrepreneurs in residence at Foundation Capital, a stopping-over point after their previous startup, content discovery app Rover, was acquired by Revcontent (a recommendation platform that competes against the likes of Taboola and Outbrain). But Siddharth said that they got the idea for the startup before then, when they were still building Rover.
“Our last company was essentially built on a remote team, and we ran it like that for eight years,” he said, describing the distributed workforce they had developed. “All our competitors in Palo Alto and the wider area were burning through tons of cash, and it’s only worse now. Salaries have skyrocketed.”
As with other areas like e-commerce and the shift to cloud-based architectures, the idea of building a company around a distributed workforce has also drastically accelerated since the arrival and stubborn persistence of the coronavirus pandemic, Siddharth said. “We knew where the world was headed, but in the last six months there’s been an even more dramatic shift,” he said. “If I looked at Facebook and Google working from home, I would have thought I was dreaming. I knew startups would make the shift but didn’t think larger companies would.”
Other talent recruitment platforms have identified the disparity between the global distribution of the talent pool of engineers, and the fact that the companies that want to employ them are relatively concentrated in specific geographical areas. They include the likes of Andela sourcing developers specifically in African markets; Terminal for helping build remote teams (not just individual developers); Triplebyte for building innovative ways of evaluating developers and then connecting them with jobs that fit their expertise; and more established platforms like Upwork and Fiverr.
And then there are companies like LinkedIn, which has built an impressively large “work graph” comprised of hundreds of millions of people around the world, but is still trying to figure out how best to focus that for specific verticals and job opportunities. It has launched its own learning hub, and a number of tools to improve how people identify and improve their skills to match them better with employment opportunities (critical because LinkedIn’s business model is heavily built around recruitment services). You could see how it might also potentially dabble in more structured evaluations to better match people up — or potentially try to integrate with or simply acquire companies like Turing that have already built them.
For now, Turing is building what Siddharth describes as a “talent cloud” and he believes that it’s distinct from others tackling the same market in a couple of ways.
The first is around how it vets developers and matches them with opportunities, by way of a platform that Turing has built that includes not just tests of a person’s skills but practical applications similar to those the engineer would be expected to work on in an actual gig.
“We use data science to evaluate developers at scale,” Siddharth said, noting that it’s not just about individuals but how they work in clusters and teams. He said that those that are particularly good at solving specific issues in their groups will often be deployed en masse across different businesses.
Another is around how they help companies feel secure around their infrastructure. Employees are contractors for Turing, which pays them after Turing gets paid by the vendor. But given that sometimes engagements are short and companies will be keen to protect their IP, Turing has built a “sandbox”, a secure environment on a virtual machine where its contractors work on code that cannot be removed as soon as the engagement ends. The sandbox also means Turing and the company can oversee and manage how work is progressing.
A third difference is in how Turing sees its longer-term role as a middle-man. While engineers and developers that it works with are essentially working for clients via Turing as an agency, Siddharth noted that it’s already been the case that several people have crossed over from being “temps” and contractors into taking full-time roles with the vendors, cutting Turing out of the equation altogether. (It gets a fee in that case, it seems.)
Given how big the talent pool is, this doesn’t seem to be an issue for the company, and if anything, fits Turing’s wider ambitions to help bridge that gap between talented people, wherever they live, and interesting job opportunities. “We encourage that,” Siddharth said. “It’s just more Turing evangelists. We want alums everywhere.”
You’d imagine that, as companies become even more decentralised and accustomed to the idea of even their previously in-office employees working from anywhere, the likelihood of crossing over from remote contractor to remote full-timer might become even more common.
And in any case, it’s to the benefit of the company that it continues to bring more people into its marketplace, since the engine that it has built continues to get more sophisticated as more engineers go through it.
“Turing’s Machine Learning system for developer vetting and matching helps accurately predict the probability of a collaboration succeeding, which helps Turing make high-quality match recommendations,” said Krishnan. “Recent fast growth has resulted in more performance data, which has in turn led to rapid improvements in Turing’s vetting and matching accuracy. The result has been even faster growth in both the number of developers on the platform and the number of customers.”
The current state of the market has really turned the idea of “technology hub” on its head, and it’s about time that we see more startups emerging that also push the concept of how to extend that to talent hubs, which now live in the cloud, not in a specific location.
“When the Indian outsourcing and IT revolution was in its infancy, I predicted that the market would grow 100X over the next decade. People thought I was crazy at the time and, in retrospect, my prediction seems like a gross underestimation,” said Garg at Foundation Capital. “I feel the same way about Turing. We are creating a new category around remote and distributed work. The future of work is remote, and we’re just getting started.”
Investors are betting on the automation of human resources management in China. We reported last year that Moka, one of the key players in the space, secured roughly $27 million for its Series B led by Hillhouse Capital. This week, the startup announced closing a Series B+ at over 100 million yuan ($14.4 million), lifting its total raise for the B round to 300 million yuan ($43.2 million).
The startup declined to disclose its investors in the latest round, saying the proceeds will go towards recruitment, product innovation and business expansion. GGV Capital invested in its Series A round.
Chinese investors have in recent years shifted more attention to enterprise-facing products as the consumer tech market becomes crammed. Moka makes software to aid HR managers’ day-to-day operations, from posting job openings, discovering potential candidates, to managing current staff. For instance, Moka will alert the HR manager when employees update their resumes, a sign that they could be sniffing out new opportunities.
Moka’s newly appointed CEO Li Guoxing, a former engineer at Facebook
As the new round closed, Moka also appointed its co-founder Li Guoxing as its new chief executive officer. The five-year-old Beijing-based startup was founded by Li, a Facebook veteran, and Zhao Oulun, who was previously the CEO of the company. Zhao worked at the car-sharing service Turo in San Francisco before returning to China.
The new CEO claimed that Moka acquires users at two-third of the industry average cost, with subscription renewal rate for its software-as-a-service hovering above 100%. “The future of business competition definitely lies in the fight for talent,” he said. “So hiring will surely become a company strategy in the future.”
As of June, Moka had accumulated over 700 paid clients, from tech giants like Xiaomi, Didi, Arm China, Shopee, Alibaba, to fast-food giants Burger King and McDonald’s. Its team of 300 staff operates out of five major cities in China.
Triplebyte, a technical recruiting platform that emphasizes a candidate’s skills rather than background, has incubated nonprofit ColorStack, which aims to increase the number of Black and Latinx people enrolled in computer science programs.
ColorStack, a mentorship-driven community of Black and Latinx engineering students, officially launched in May, but got its bearings at Cornell, where founder Jehron Petty successfully worked to triple Black and Latinx enrollment in the school’s computer science program within three years. Now, as ColorStack, the goal is to produce similar outcomes at additional schools throughout the country.
Currently, ColorStack’s community consists of more than 600 students across more than 250 schools.
“The main source of impact we can drive is getting them to persist through the major,” Petty (pictured below) told TechCrunch.
Image Credits: Jehron Petty
From there, Petty leans on other organizations, such as dev/color, which looks to get Black and Latinx folks into careers at tech companies.
“What we’re solving for them is this next level of growth — where the next set of engineers they support come from,” Petty said.
For Triplebyte, its general mission operative is to increase access to opportunities. When the company first launched, a major goal was to have a significant impact on diversity in terms of race and gender, TripleByte co-founder and CEO Ammon Bartram told TechCrunch.
“One-and-a-half years in, I was surprised and unhappy to see that, in terms of race and gender, our results looked pretty much identical to startups. We had a big impact on socioeconomic opportunity, but the big identity categories of race and gender were in the same depressing ratios of Silicon Valley’s traditional ratio.”
Bartram said he began talking to his advisors about the issue and that’s when Y Combinator CEO and partner Michael Seibel, who is a board member at Triplebyte, encouraged Bartram to think outside of the box. Seibel encouraged Bartram to treat the problem like a startup and to try new things, Bartram said.
Triplebyte considered things like sponsoring Grace Hopper, or bringing in a head of diversity, “but the truth of the matter is, the majority of larger companies do these things but the percentage of Black and Latinx engineers has barely increased over the years,” Bartram said.
“The status quo is broken and not working,” Bartram said. “People have done great work but it’s still not working.”
This is how Triplebyte found its way to ColorStack. What stood out about them was the success they were already having.
“It can be a bleak field — diversity and inclusion,” Bartram said. “But the mentorship role model, with people who look like them, has a huge impact on people choosing a mentor, staying involved and not leaving.”
Through the incubation, ColorStack will remain independent while also not having to worry about funding. Additionally, Triplebyte pays Petty a salary and provided ColorStack with operating funds for two years.
“If it goes well, we might extend it,” Bartram said. “My goal here is for Jeron to succeed. There’s lots of synergy between what we’re doing. We’re a for-profit company but we’re pretty mission driven. I’m doing this because I want to do something more impactful than the work I did in the past. Success would be ColorStack having an impact and doing the work that worked at Cornell and duplicating that at even 10% of the colleges out there. That’s a huge increase in representation of Black and brown folks in engineering.”
Rae Witte is a New York-based freelance journalist covering music, style, sneakers, art and dating, and how they intersect with tech. You can find her writing on i-D, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Forbes, among others.
“What happens after a company gets called out?” he asked over the phone. “Do you know what happens to the people in-house that come forward?”
A Black male engineer at a fashion tech company who wished to remain anonymous was telling me how he’d been passed over for promotions white counterparts later received after they’d pursued risky and unsuccessful projects. At one point, he said management tasked him with doing recon on a superior who made disparaging comments about women because his subordinates were uncomfortable reporting it directly to HR.
When human resources eventually took up the matter, the engineer said his participation was used against him.
More recently, his company brought furloughed employees back and managers promoted a younger, white subordinate over him. When he asked about the move, his direct supervisor said he was too aggressive and needed to be more of a role model to be considered in the future.
In the absence of industry leadership, there’s no blueprint to remedy institutional problems like these. The lack of substantial progress toward true representation, diversity and inclusion across several industries illustrates what hasn’t worked.
Audrey Gelman, former CEO of women-focused co-working/community space The Wing, stepped down in June following a virtual employee walkout. Three months earlier, a New York Times exposé interviewed 26 former and current employees there who described systemic discrimination and mistreatment. At the time, about 40% of its executive staff consisted of women of color, the article reported.
In a public apology, staffs of Bon Appétit and Epicurious acknowledged that they had “been complicit with a culture we don’t agree with and are committed to change.”
Removing one problematic employee doesn’t upend company culture or help someone who’s been denied an opportunity. But with so much at stake when it comes to employing Instagram-ready branding, the lane is wide open for companies to meet the moment when it comes to doing the right thing.
A 2017 report by the Ascend Foundation found few Asian, Black and Latinx people were represented in leadership pipelines, and at that point, the numbers were actually getting worse. Seemingly, in an effort for transparency and accountability to do better, 17 tech companies shared diversity statistics and their plans to improve with Business Insider in June 2020. The numbers were staggering, especially for an initiative supposedly prioritized industry-wide in 2014:
Underrepresented minorities like Black and Latinx people still only make up single-digit percentages of the workforce at many major tech companies. When you look at the leadership statistics, the numbers are even bleaker.
While tech’s shortcomings show up clearly in a longstanding lack of diversity, companies in other industries polished their brands sufficiently to skate by — until COVID-19 and the call for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder called for lasting change.
In response to the internal turmoil at Adidas, the brand originally pledged to invest $20 million into Black communities in the U.S. over the next four years, increasing it to $120 million and releasing an outline of what they plan to do internally, Footwear News reported.
On June 30, Karen Parkin stepped down from her role as Adidas’ global head of HR in mutual agreement with the brand. In an all-employee meeting in August 2019, she reportedly described concerns about racism as “noise” that only Americans deal with. She’d been with the brand for 23 years.
So, what really happens after the companies are called out? Often, the bare minimum. While the perpetrators of the injustice may endure backlash, abusers in corporate structures are often shifted into other roles.
Tiffany Wines, a former social media and editorial staffer at media/entertainment company Complex, posted an open letter to Twitter on June 19 alleging that Black women at the outlet were mistreated, sharing a story in which she claimed to have ingested marijuana brownies left in an office that was billed as a drug-free environment. Wines said she blacked out and accused superiors of covering up the incident after she reported it.
Her decision to speak up prompted other former employees to share stories alleging misogyny, racism, sexual assault and protection of abusers. One anonymous editor said she was asked if she would be comfortable with a workplace that had a “locker room culture” during a 2010 interview. (She did not end up working there.)
Complex Media Group put out a statement four days later on its corporate Twitter account, which had approximately 100 followers — as opposed to its main account, which has 2.3 million followers.
“We believe Complex Networks is a great place to work, but it is by no means perfect,” read the statement. “It’s our passion for our brands, communities, colleagues, and the belief that a safe and inclusive workplace should be the expectation for everyone.” It went on to state that they’ve taken immediate action, but it’s unclear if anyone has been terminated. [Complex is co-owned by Verizon Media, TechCrunch’s parent company.]
Members of the fashion community have formed multiple groups to combat systemic racism, establish accountability and advance Black people in the industry.
Set to launch in July 2020, The Black In Fashion Council, founded by Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and fashion publicist Sandrine Charles, works to advance Black individuals in fashion and beauty.
The Kelly Initiative is comprised of 250 Black fashion professionals hoping to blaze equitable inroads, and they’ve publicly addressed the Council of Fashion Designers of America in a letter accusing them of “exploitative cultures of prejudice, tokenism and employment discrimination to thrive.”
Co-founders of True To Size, Jazerai Allen-Lord and Mazin Melegy, an extension of the New York-based branding agency Crush & Lovely, started offering their Check The Fit solutions to the brands they were working with in 2019. The initiative is an audit process created to align in-house teams and ensure sufficient representation is in place for brands’ storytelling.
Check The Fit determines who the consumer is, what the internal team’s history is with that demographic and the message they’re trying to communicate to them, and how the team engage’s with that subject matter in everyday life and in the office. Melegy says, “that look inward is a step that is overlooked almost everywhere.”
“At most companies, we’ve seen a lack of coherence within the organization, because each department’s director is approaching the problem from a siloed perspective. We were able to bring 15 leaders across departments together, distill through a list of concerns, find points of leverage and agree on a common goal. It was noted that it was the first time they were able to feel unified in their mission and felt prepared to move forward,” Lord says of their work with Reebok last year.
Brooklyn-based retailer Aurora James established the 15 Percent Pledge campaign, which urges retailers to have merchandise that reflects today’s demographics: 15% of the population should represent 15% of the shelves.
During the melee that transpired largely on Twitter and Instagram only to attempt to be reconciled in boardrooms, one Condé Nast employee and ally has been suspended. On June 12, Bon Appétit video editor Matt Hunziker tweeted, “Why would we hire someone who’s not racist when we could simply [checks industry handbook] uhh hire a racist and provide them with anti-racism training…” As his colleagues shared an outpouring of support online, a Condé Nast representative said in a statement, “There have been many concerns raised about Matt that the company is obligated to investigate and he has been suspended until we reach a resolution.”
Simply reading through accusers’ first-person accounts, it often seems like these stories end up on public forums because little to nothing is done in favor of the people who step forward. The protection has consistently been of the company.
The Black engineer I spoke to escalated his concerns to his company’s CEO and said the executive was unaware of the allegations and seemed deeply concerned.
Seeing someone who seemed genuinely invested in doing the right thing “obviously, means a lot,” he said.
“But at the same time, I’m still really concerned knowing the broader environment of the company, and it’s never just one person.”
A few months back, Google announced plans to reopen some U.S. offices after the July 4th holiday. But the best-laid plans, and all of that. Things have obviously not been going great in terms of the United States’ battle with COVID-19, and Google once again finds itself proceeding on the side of caution.
As was first reported by Bloomberg, Google has since confirmed with TechCrunch that it will be pushing back reopening at least until September 7, after the Labor Day holiday in the States. Along with other tech giants like Facebook, Google has noted that it will continue to offer employees the option of working from home through the remainder of the year.
It’s a smart choice, as many no doubt still feel uncomfortable returning to an office situation — not to mention questions around the public transit that many use to get there. Twitter, meanwhile, made waves in May by announcing that employees would be allowed to indefinitely work remotely.
Yesterday, the United States reported more than 47,000 new COVID-19 cases, marking the biggest single-day spike since the beginning of the pandemic.
Arizona, Florida and Texas have all become epicenters as many other states have seen their own increases in recent weeks. Reopening plans have been put on hold or rolled back in many locales, amid increased concern over the virus’s continued spread. It seems likely that other big tech companies will delay their own reopening plans. In most cases, shifting back to the office simply isn’t worth the risk.