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Human Capital: Doing away with the NDA



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There’s some new legislation that hopes to prevent the use of non-disclosure agreements in workplace situations involving all forms of discrimination and harassment. That would be huge for the tech industry, where NDAs have become commonplace in severance agreements.

Meanwhile, All Raise, Coursera and Niantic announced some new initiatives designed to increase diversity in tech.

I’ve also included an early look of a story I’m working on about the pipeline myth. Lots more to discuss so let’s get to it.

New legislation seeks to get rid of NDAs in cases of harassment or discrimination

Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest employee who alleged racial and gender discrimination at the company, is co-leading new legislation with California State Senator Connie Leyva and others to empower those who experience workplace discrimination and/or harassment. The Silenced No More Act (SB 331) would prevent the use of non-disclosure agreements in workplace situations involving all forms of discrimination and harassment.

“It was a legal gamble,” Ozoma told TechCrunch about coming forward with claims of both racial and gender discrimination, despite having signed an NDA. Pinterest could’ve decided to sue both Ozoma and Banks, Ozoma said, but that would’ve required the company to admit wrongdoing.

Meredith Whittaker, faculty director at AI Now and Google walkout co-organizer on SB 331

I also caught up with Whittaker, who said this type of legislation is absolutely necessary:

From a structural perspective, it’s really evident we’re not going to change toxic, discriminatory tech environments without naming the problems. We have decades of failed DEI PR, decades of people blaming the pipeline and decades of brilliant people like Ifeoma, Aerica and Timnit being harassed and pushed out of these environments. And oftentimes, people aren’t able to speak about their experiences so that the deep toxicity of these environments — the way it’s built into the structural operating procedures of these companies and workplaces — doesn’t get aired.

Musings on the pipeline problem

My conversation with Whittaker led to me being introduced to Dr. Joy Lisi Rankin, a research lead for gender, race and power in artificial intelligence at the AI Now Institute. She’s actively researching the history of the pipeline problem and took some time to chat with me about it. I’m not done with the story yet, but here’s a little teaser:

The very high-level view is, people have been talking about a pipeline problem in some form since the seventies,” Rankin told me. “And before that, often, it was like a quote, manpower problem, by focusing on who has PhDs or master’s degrees in a field or who has elite jobs in a field. But that focus is always on individuals. It’s on tracking people, not institutions and not structures. So this is why I think it continues to be a convenient excuse for a host of sins, because talking about a pipeline makes it seem as if all things are equal in the United States, and we just have to find a way to keep people in. But the truth is, when we think about a STEM pipeline, we don’t talk about the fact that education in the United States is by no means equal from birth onwards.

Ex-Salesforce manager alleges microaggressions and inequity

Cynthia Perry, a former design research senior manager at Salesforce who left earlier this month, posted her resignation letter on LinkedIn that detailed her negative treatment at the company. In it, Perry, a Black woman, alleges she experienced “countless microaggressions and inequity” during her time there.

Ultimately, Perry said she left her job because she had been “Gaslit, manipulated, bullied, neglected, and mostly unsupported” by folks she chose not to name.

Salesforce provided the following statement to TechCrunch:

For privacy reasons, we can’t comment on individual employee matters but Equality is one of our highest values and we have been dedicated to its advancement both inside and outside of our company since we were founded almost 22 years ago.

All Raise aims to increase diversity at the board level

Despite recent efforts to improve diversity at the board level, the number of Black, brown and women board members is still low. All Raise is looking to fix that with the recent launch of Board Xcelerate. Already, its 90-day search process has resulted in the placement of five independent board members.

Here’s the gist of the program:

We start by talking with investors, talent partners, and CEOs who want to fill their open independent board seats. Then, we kick off a fast, 90-day closed search process through a pool of talent sourced from our own network and an external advisory committee, supported and executed by a retained executive search firm. Finally, we connect the companies and candidates to interview and determine the best fit.

Coursera makes some Black History Month commitments 

Ed tech company Coursera partnered with Howard University, a historically Black university, to beef up its social justice content on the online platform. Coursera also partnered with Facebook to provide scholarships to Black folks who would like to learn more about social media marketing. Lastly, Coursera partnered with non-profit Black Girls Code to offer up to 2,000 young Black girls free access to the Coursera catalog.

Niantic launches Black Developers Initiative

Niantic, the augmented reality company behind Pokemon Go, launched a new initiative to fund new projects from Black game developers. The Black Developers Initiative aims to not only fund those projects, but also offer resources and mentorship to Black game and AR developers.

Alphabet Workers Union has its first win

Last week, AWU filed a complaint with the NLRB alleging Google contract workers were silenced about pay and that the company fired a worker for speaking out about it. Now, the worker in question, Shannon Wait, is back at work. 

“Shannon’s back at work b/c she had a union to turn to when she was illegally suspended,” AWU said in a tweet. “She came to us, we raised hell, & a week later, she’s back.”

Amazon warehouse worker union vote begins 

Earlier this week, Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama began voting to decide whether or not they will unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The beginning of the vote came shortly after the National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon’s attempt to delay the vote.

By unionizing, Amazon workers hope to gain the right to collectively bargain over their working conditions, like safety standards, pay, breaks and other issues. Unionizing would also enable workers to potentially become “just cause” employees versus at-will, depending on how the negotiations go.

Mail-in voting ends March 29, with the NLRB set to begin counting ballots the following day on a virtual platform.

The latest in Prop 22 battles

Despite the CA Supreme Court rejecting to hear the lawsuit challenging Prop 22’s constitutionality, the Service Employees International Union filed a similar suit in a lower court, the Alameda County Superior Court.

Meanwhile, the CA Supreme Court rejected Uber and Lyft’s request for it to review a lower court’s decision about whether they misclassified their drivers as independent contractors. The decision in question stated that drivers should be classified as employees, but then Prop 22 passed and made it so, moving forward, Uber and Lyft are legally able to classify their drivers as independent contractors.

TechCrunch Sessions: Justice agenda is out!

We released the agenda for the upcoming Justice event on March 3. We’re pumped to be able to host Backstage Capital founder and Managing Partner Arlan Hamilton, Gig Workers Collective’s Vanessa Bain, Alphabet Workers Union Executive Chair Parul Koul, Color of Change President Rashad Robinson, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and others.

Tickets are just $5. 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system



An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks



As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.



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Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India



Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

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