VCs, Entrepreneurs See Midwestern Cities as Potential Startup Hubs

VCs, Entrepreneurs See Midwestern Cities as Potential Startup Hubs

Once the industrial base of the US, the Midwest has struggled in the high-tech era to capture the talent-driven growth enjoyed by coastal cities like Boston and San Francisco, but the region’s fortunes are changing fast. In the past year or so, a burgeoning Midwestern tech scene has begun attracting more attention from venture capitalists and Silicon Valley giants, with many local startups and big-company expansions focusing on the middle-skill roles for which the tech sector’s demand is insatiable, but that are still in short supply nationwide. These “mid-tech” or “new-collar” jobs are described as a 21st century analog to the factory jobs of the past—and as such, a promising path to revival for the industrial Midwest.

High-tech industries including major international firms have been making some big bets in the region: The Indian IT services and business process outsourcing giant Infosys is planning a sprawling campus near Indianapolis, which aims to create 3,000 new jobs within five years, while the Taiwanese multinational Foxconn Technology Group made a deal with the Wisconsin state government last year to build a display panel factory there, which will see the company invest as much as $10 billion and hire as many as 13,000 people. Several midwestern cities are on the list of finalists in the competition to host Amazon’s second headquarters, though Detroit, for example, didn’t make the cut, partly due to a lack of readily available talent.

Yet “mid-tech” companies and regional outposts of tech giants are just one side of the Midwest’s high-tech renaissance. Over the weekend, VentureBeat reporter Anna Hensel took a look at the growing community of AI and machine learning startups in the heartland:

“The real benefit of artificial intelligence is the application to traditional problems and products that the world needs, and the really successful companies have that domain knowledge that they can understand how to apply this technology,” [Chris Olsen, a partner at Columbus, Ohio VC firm Drive Capital,] told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “We see more of those domain experts in these industries [with] massive chunks of GDP that exist here in the Midwest.”

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Some Tech Companies See Value in Benefits Equality for Contractors

Some Tech Companies See Value in Benefits Equality for Contractors

The online polling company SurveyMonkey made headlines earlier this year when it revealed that it had begun offering “gold standard” medical, dental, and vision benefits, identical to those of its regular full-time employees, to its independent contractor workforce in January. The company was inspired to do so by its employees, many of whom pointed out in a benefits survey that while their benefits were excellent, they thought it unfair that they were unavailable to the company’s janitorial and catering staff.

Last week, Fast Company’s Eillie Anzilotti took a closer look at SurveyMonkey’s decision to equalize benefits, considering the change in the context of growing awareness of the impact this form of inequality has on the army of contractors who manage facilities for Silicon Valley tech companies and many other white-collar firms in the US. SurveyMonkey is committed to making benefits equality work, primarily as a statement of its values, Chief People Officer Becky Cantieri told Fast Company:

“We have expectations for ourselves that we use our platform to contribute positively to the industry,” Cantieri says. The prevailing independent contractor model in Silicon Valley leads to “two groups working literally side by side, who have a very similar impact on the day to day experience of working at the company, but are treated very differently,” she adds. It’s still an unusual arrangement in the tech world, so SurveyMonkey has been slow to scale it to its other offices outside of San Mateo, as they want to ensure they’ve ironed out the kinks, but they intend to do so going forward: This open enrollment season, they will bring expanded benefits to contract workers at the Portland office.

She also checks in with Managed by Q, a platform for part-time janitorial, maintenance, and clerical workers, whose founder Dan Teran decided in 2014 to classify workers on the platform as employees, not contractors, and offer them benefits including health insurance, paid leave, a 401(k) plan, and even equity. “Even though it may seem like a higher cost up front, we believed that the overall value of doing so would be higher than us just saying it’s not worth investing in our employees,” Maria Dunn, Managed by Q’s director of people, tells Anzilotti. The extra costs imposed by Teran’s decision isn’t hobbling the startup’s growth: Managed by Q has raised over $76 million so far and is turning a profit. It recently announced that it was acquiring the office space planning and project management service NVS, broadening its portfolio of services and potentially gaining new clients.

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Alphabet Shareholders Vote Down Proposal to Tie Executive Pay to Diversity

Alphabet Shareholders Vote Down Proposal to Tie Executive Pay to Diversity

Investors in Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, voted down all proposed resolutions at on Wednesday’s shareholder meeting, including one that would have made the compensation of senior executives partly dependent on the company making progress toward specific diversity and inclusion goals. The proposal was opposed by Alphabet management, Reuters reported on Wednesday, which sank the resolution as insiders have effective voting control of the company. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin hold supervoting shares in Alphabet that enable them to defeat any shareholder resolution they don’t approve of. Google insists that its existing commitments to diversity are sufficient:

Eileen Naughton, who leads Google’s HR operations, said the company remains committed to an internal goal to reach “market supply” representation of women and minorities by 2020, which could help bring hiring in line with the diversity of the candidate pool.

Another resolution aimed at getting Google to provide investors more information about its efforts to moderate user-generated content on the platforms it owns, including YouTube, was also voted down on Wednesday.

The proposal related to diversity was put forward by the activist investment fund Zevin Asset Management and supported by a group of Google employees who have expressed concern about how committed the company really is to being an inclusive environment for everyone who works there. One of those employees, engineer Irene Knapp, addressed Wednesday’s shareholder meeting with a statement that stressed the urgency of addressing ongoing problems in Google’s culture:

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Microsoft to Acquire GitHub, Making Waves in Developer Community

Microsoft to Acquire GitHub, Making Waves in Developer Community

Microsoft announced on Monday that it was buying the software development platform GitHub for $7.5 billion worth of Microsoft stock in a deal expected to close later this year:

GitHub will retain its developer-first ethos and will operate independently to provide an open platform for all developers in all industries. Developers will continue to be able to use the programming languages, tools and operating systems of their choice for their projects — and will still be able to deploy their code to any operating system, any cloud and any device. Microsoft Corporate Vice President Nat Friedman, founder of Xamarin and an open source veteran, will assume the role of GitHub CEO. GitHub’s current CEO, Chris Wanstrath, will become a Microsoft technical fellow, reporting to Executive Vice President Scott Guthrie, to work on strategic software initiatives.

Ten-year-old GitHub, based in San Francisco, is widely used among software developers to share and collaborate on code. In earlier years, Bloomberg’s Dina Bass and Eric Newcomer note, Microsoft leaders were hostile toward open-source projects like those being shared on GitHub, with co-founder Bill Gates and former CEO Steve Ballmer encouraging developers to build proprietary software for their company. Current CEO Satya Nadella has taken a notably more positive line on open source, making GitHub a more natural addition to the way the software giant currently operates. In that context, Tom Warren writes at the Verge, “it’s easy to imagine why Microsoft would want to acquire GitHub”:

Microsoft killed its own GitHub competitor, Codeplex, in December and is now the top contributor to GitHub, Microsoft now has more than 1,000 employees actively pushing code to GitHub repositories. Its popularity among developers could see Microsoft earn some much-needed trust and respect from developers. In bigger enterprises and slower moving businesses, the fact Microsoft has acquired GitHub will make it more trusted to use for projects and source control, simply because Microsoft is already trusted across many software and services by these companies.

In a blog post discussing the acquisition, Nadella insists the move is all about empowering developers:

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Google Investors and Employees Propose Tying Executive Compensation to Diversity Goals

Google Investors and Employees Propose Tying Executive Compensation to Diversity Goals

A group of Google employees has teamed up with activist investors in the tech giant’s parent company, Alphabet, to push a proposal at a June 6 shareholder meeting that would make executive compensation at Google contingent on the company meeting certain diversity goals, Kate Conger reported at Gizmodo last week. Alphabet opposes the resolution and has recommended a vote against it:

Google and Alphabet have maintained that they aren’t experiencing a diversity crisis but are rather dealing with complaints from a few disgruntled employees. A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the shareholder proposals, but the company also argued in its proxy statement that the proposal wouldn’t have any meaningful impact, even if it were approved, because Alphabet CEO Larry Page receives a base salary of only $1 per year and is not compensated based on performance.

But Zevin Asset Management, the investment firm that drafted the proposal, says that it’s intended to apply to all of the company’s executives, not just Page. “Anyone whose compensation is reviewed in the proxy, people like Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], we are thinking about them, too,” said Pat Miguel Tomaino, the director of socially responsible investing at Zevin. “If this proposal gets a high vote and the board moves to implement it, we expect they would implement it for the people for whom it’s relevant.” In focusing its response solely on Page’s compensation, Alphabet is avoiding the bigger issues at stake, Tomaino added.

Although Google maintains that it is a leader in diversity and inclusion among Silicon Valley tech companies, it has faced scrutiny in the past year over its slow progress toward diversity goals and allegations of discriminating against women in pay and promotions. A pay equity audit demanded by another activist investor, Arjuna Capital, failed to satisfy Arjuna’s questions and compel it to withdraw a resolution demanding that the company report on the risks it faces from emerging public policies on gender pay equity.

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UK Manufacturers, Tech, and Finance Fear Access to Talent Post-Brexit

UK Manufacturers, Tech, and Finance Fear Access to Talent Post-Brexit

With less than a year to go before the March 2019 deadline for finalizing a deal for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, three separate reports have come out in the past week highlighting continued anxiety among employers in key sectors about their ability to meet their labor needs in a post-Brexit environment.

First, Tech Nation 2018, the UK’s annual government report on the country’s tech sector, identified access to talent, cost of living, and Brexit as the main challenges cited by the tech community in the country’s key tech hubs of London and Cambridge. Mike Butcher at TechCrunch criticizes what he sees as the government’s attempt to downplay the elephant in the room, arguing that the report “has been heavily spun to de-emphasise the effects of Brexit on the UK tech industry”—which he says will be severe when considering the impact Brexit will have on British tech companies’ other major concerns:

In the rest of the country, access to talent was cited as the most common challenge – affecting 83% of the UK’s regional tech clusters. Access a funding was a top 3 challenge in 49% of clusters and bad transport links were also cited. Funding is clearly also Brexit-related, given that funding from the European Investment Fund has collapsed since the Brexit vote. The European Investment Bank has slashed deals with UK VCs and private equity groups by more than two-thirds, with no equivalent funding from the UK government in sight. …

However, you probably won’t get that impression from the way the report is being pitched to the media … Instead, the report is filled with heady statistics about the UK’s booming tech industry. The report also makes absolutely no mention of the effect of the UK leaving the EU’s Digital Single Market.

Another report, released on Monday by TheCityUK, an organization that promotes the UK as a global financial center, warns that losing access to European talent will have a harsh impact on the finance industry. That report, prepared in partnership with EY, urges the government to reform immigration policies to allow the sector to maintain access to a pan-European talent pool, arguing that hiring European talent after Brexit through the existing mechanisms for non-European immigrants will increase the City’s costs for hiring international staff by 300 percent. “Simply applying the current immigration system for non-European citizens to European citizens after Brexit will not work,” TheCityUK’s Chief Executive Miles Celic said in a statement carried by Reuters. In response to uncertainty over the future of UK immigration law, banks have already begun preparing to shift staff from London to other European financial centers like Frankfurt to handle their continental business.

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Uber and Lyft End Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment and Assault Claims

Uber and Lyft End Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment and Assault Claims

Uber announced on Tuesday that it would no longer require employees, drivers, or customers who experience sexual harassment on the job or while using the ride-sharing service to adjudicate their claims in arbitration proceedings. Coming in response to pressure from former employees and customers, the change will allow alleged victims of sexual harassment in the US to pursue claims against the company in court. Uber will also no longer bind accusers to confidentiality requirements as a condition of receiving a settlement on the company, though it will continue to keep financial details of such settlements confidential.

In a blog post, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer Tony West said the company would also publish a public safety transparency report including data on sexual assaults and other incidents that take place on its platform.

Hours after Uber’s announcement, Lyft also announced that it was waiving its standard arbitration agreement for sexual assault claims and would no longer impose confidentiality requirements on alleged victims of sex crimes, Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan reported later on Tuesday. Lyft also intends to release a safety report on sexual assault complaints it receives on its platform; Lyft COO Jon McNeil wrote on Twitter later Tuesday afternoon that his company would be happy to work together with Uber on this reporting project.

West said Uber had made its decision in the interest of transparency, but also acknowledged the risk the company was taking in being more open about these allegations (albeit a risk mitigated to some extent by the participation of its chief competitor):

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