America’s technology industry, radiating brilliance and profitability from its Silicon Valley home base, was until recently a shining beacon of what made America great: Science, progress, entrepreneurship. But public opinion has swung against big tech amazingly fast and far; negative views doubled between 2015 and 2019 from 17% to 34%. The list of concerns is long and includes privacy, treatment of workers, marketplace fairness, the carnage among ad-supported publications and the poisoning of public discourse.
But there’s one big issue behind all of these: An industry ravenous for growth, profit and power, that has failed at treating its employees, its customers and the inhabitants of society at large as human beings. Bear in mind that products, companies and ecosystems are built by people, for people. They reflect the values of the society around them, and right now, America’s values are in a troubled state.
We both have a lot of respect and affection for the United States, birthplace of the microprocessor and the electric guitar. We could have pursued our tech careers there, but we’ve declined repeated invitations and chosen to stay at home here in Canada . If you want to build technology to be harnessed for equity, diversity and social advancement of the many, rather than freedom and inclusion for the few, we think Canada is a good place to do it.
U.S. big tech is correctly seen as having too much money, too much power and too little accountability. Those at the top clearly see the best effects of their innovations, but rarely the social costs. They make great things — but they also disrupt lives, invade privacy and abuse their platforms.
We both came of age at a time when tech aspired to something better, and so did some of today’s tech giants. Four big tech CEOs recently testified in front of Congress. They were grilled about alleged antitrust abuses, although many of us watching were thinking about other ills associated with some of these companies: tax avoidance, privacy breaches, data mining, surveillance, censorship, the spread of false news, toxic byproducts, disregard for employee welfare.
But the industry’s problem isn’t really the products themselves — or the people who build them. Tech workers tend to be dramatically more progressive than the companies they work for, as Facebook staff showed in their recent walkout over President Donald Trump’s posts.
Big tech’s problem is that it amplifies the issues Americans are struggling with more broadly. That includes economic polarization, which is echoed in big-tech financial statements, and the race politics that prevent tech (among other industries) from being more inclusive to minorities and talented immigrants.
We’re particularly struck by the Trump administration’s recent moves to deny opportunities to H-1B visa holders. Coming after several years of family separations, visa bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it seems almost calculated to send IT experts, engineers, programmers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and future leaders from around the world — the kind of talented newcomers who built America’s current prosperity — fleeing to more receptive shores.
One of those shores is Canada’s; that’s where we live and work. Our country has long courted immigration, but it’s turned around its longstanding brain-drain problem in recent years with policies designed to scoop up talented people who feel uncomfortable or unwanted in America. We have an immigration program, the Global Talent Stream, that helps innovative companies fast-track foreign workers with specialized skills. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Vancouver have been leading North America in tech job creation during the Trump years, fuelled by outposts of the big international tech companies but also by scaled-up domestic firms that do things the Canadian way, such as enterprise software developer OpenText (one of us is a co-founder) and e-commerce giant Shopify.
But it’s not just about policy; it’s about underlying values. Canada is exceptionally comfortable with diversity, in theory (as expressed in immigration policy) and practice (just walk down a street in Vancouver or Toronto). We’re not perfect, but we have been competently led and reasonably successful in recognizing the issues we need to deal with. And our social contract is more cooperative and inclusive.
Yes, that means public health care with no copays, but it also means more emphasis on sustainability, corporate responsibility and a more collaborative strain of capitalism. Our federal and provincial governments have mostly been applauded for their gusher of stimulative wage subsidies and grants meant to sustain small businesses and tech talent during the pandemic, whereas Washington’s response now appears to have been formulated in part to funnel public money to elites.
American big tech today feels morally adrift, which leads to losing out on talented people who want to live the values Silicon Valley used to stand for — not just wealth, freedom and the few, but inclusivity, diversity and the many. Canada is just one alternative to the U.S. model, but it’s the alternative we know best and the one just across the border, with loads of technology job openings.
It wouldn’t surprise us if more tech refugees find themselves voting with their feet.
When big platforms have carved out large swaths of the delivery market, the best thing for an upstart company to do is to specialize.
For Chowbus, that meant building a food-delivery business that finds restaurants whose cuisines specialize in regional cuisines from Northern and Southern China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
It’s a strategy that has now netted the company $33 million in financing led by the Silicon Valley-based investment firm Altos Ventures and New York’s Left Lane Capital. Hyde Park Angels, Fika Ventures, FJ Labs and Silicon Valley Bank also participated in the round.
Founded four years ago in Chicago by Suyu Zhang and Linxin Wen, the company said that its goal was to connect people with authentic Asian food that’s not easy to find on delivery apps. Over the past year, the company touted significant growth in its business, a traction that can be reflected in its decision to bring on the former chief operating officer of Jump Bikes, Kenny Tsai, as its chief operating officer, and Jieying Zheng, a former Groupon product leader as its head of product.
“When we say we’re true partners to the restaurants we work with, we mean it. By eliminating hidden fees, helping them showcase their best dishes, and other efforts we make on their behalf, we really go the extra mile to help our restaurant partners succeed,” said Wen, Chowbus’ chief executive, in a statement. “We only succeed if they do.”
And seemingly, Chowbus is succeeding. The company raised $4 million in its first round of institutional funding just last year and its rise has been precipitous since then.
The Chicago-based company said it would use its new funding to expand to more cities across the US and add new products like a “dine-in” feature allowing diners to order and pay for their meals on their phone for a contactless experience at restaurants in cities that have flattened the curve of COVID-19 infections and are now reopening.
Chowbus pitches its lack of hidden fees and footprint across 20 cities in North America including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, and many other cities across North America. In Los Angeles, the company offers menus in Mandarin and Cantonese and allows its users to bundle dishes from multiple restaurants in a single delivery.
Other companies are experimenting with specialization as a way to differentiate from the major delivery services that are on the market. Black and Mobile, which launched in Philadelphia but is in the process of expanding across the country, is a delivery service focused on Black-owned restaurants and food stores.
Founded by David Cabello, Black and Mobile was started in 2017 by the 22 year-old college dropout. The company launched its first operations outside of Atlanta earlier this month and is available on iOS.
“The market is experiencing a permanent shift from offline to online ordering, a trend that Chowbus is actively driving,” said Harley Miller, Managing Partner at Left Lane Capital . “Focusing on this large and loyal constituency with a vertical-approach to supporting Asian restaurants and food purveyors has allowed Chowbus to differentiate itself on both sides of the marketplace. The capital efficiency with which they have operated, relative to the scale achieved, is extraordinarily impressive, and not something we often see.”
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.”
“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.
Dear Sophie: I’m graduating this fall with a Bachelor’s degree in molecular and cell biology. I hope to find a way to maintain my F-1 status to graduate. After graduation, I’m planning on applying for OPT. I really want to work at a biotech startup. What options do I have to remain in the U.S. after OPT ends?
—Bright-Eyed in Berkeley
Stay the course — you’re almost at the finish line. Even with everything going on, if you can maintain your F-1 status for the last semester, you should still be able to get OPT and STEM OPT and possibly a green card. As you know, OPT enables international students on F-1 visas to work for 12 months in their field of study after completing at least one academic year of studies. Like you, most students choose to wait to begin OPT after graduation. Many companies are starting to take the pledge to support international students.
Nearly 40 million Americans are unemployed, and a recent study that examined more than 66,000 tech job layoffs found that sales and customer success roles are most vulnerable amid COVID-19. In response, some quarters of Silicon Valley are abuzz about a long-standing technology: reskilling, or training individuals to adopt an entirely new skillset or career for employment.
As millions look for a way to reenter the workforce, the question arises: Who really benefits from reskilling technology?
That depends on how you look at it, said Jomayra Herrera, a senior associate at Cowboy Ventures. Reskilling for a well-networked manager looks a lot different than it does for someone who doesn’t have as much leverage, and the vast majority of people fall into the latter. Not everyone has a friend at Google or Twitter to help them skip the online application and get right to the decision-makers.
Beyond the accessibility offered by live online classes, she pointed to the difference between assets and opportunities.
“You can give someone access to something, but it’s not true access unless they have the tools and structure to really engage with it,” Herrera said. In other words, how useful is content around reskilling if the company doesn’t support job placement post-training.
Herrera said companies must give individuals opportunities to test skills with real work and navigate the career path. Her mother, who did not go to college and speaks English as a second language, is looking to pursue training online. Before she can proceed, however, she has to surmount hurdles like language support, resume creation, job search and other challenges.
All of a sudden, content feels like a commodity, regardless of if it has active and social learning components. It’s part of the reason that MOOCs (massive open online courses) feel so stale.
Udacity, for example, was almost out of cash in 2018 and laid off more than half of its team in the past two years, according to The New York Times. Now, like other edtech companies, it is facing surges in usage.