Running a queer dating startup amid a pandemic and racial justice uprising

The events of the past few months have shaken the lives of everyone, but especially Black people in the U.S. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted members of the Black community while police violence has recently claimed the lives of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others. 

Two weeks ago, two Black transgender women, Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells were murdered. In light of their deaths, activists took to the streets to protest the violence Black trans women face. Two days after Floyd’s killing, McDade, a Black trans man was shot and killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida. 

In light of Pride month coinciding with one of the biggest racial justice movements of the century amid a pandemic, TechCrunch caught up with Robyn Exton, founder of queer dating app Her, to see how her company is navigating this unprecedented moment. 

Exton and I had a wide-ranging conversation including navigating COVID-19 as a dating startup, how sheltering in place has affected product development, shifting the focus of what is historically a month centered around LGBTQ people to include racial justice work and putting purpose back into Pride month.

“Pride exists because there is inequality within our world and within our community and still there is no clear focus on what it is we should be fighting for as a community,” Exton says. “It almost feels like since equal marriage was passed, there’s a range of topics but no clear voice saying this is what everyone should focus on right now. And then obviously everything changed after George Floyd’s murder. Over the course of the following weekend, we canceled pretty much everything that was going out that talked still about Pride as a celebration. Especially for Black people within our community, in that moment of so much trauma, it felt completely wrong to talk about Pride just in general.”

Worldwide, Pride events have been canceled as a result of the pandemic. But it gives people and corporations time to reflect on what kind of presence they want to have in next year’s Pride celebrations.

Google employees demand company stop selling tech to police

A growing group of more than 1,666 Google employees is demanding Google stop selling its technology to police departments, TechCrunch has learned.

“We’re disappointed to know that Google is still selling to police forces, and advertises its connection with police forces as somehow progressive, and seeks more expansive sales rather than severing ties with police and joining the millions who want to defang and defund these institutions,” employees wrote in a letter to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. “Why help the institutions responsible for the knee on George Floyd’s neck to be more effective organizationally? Not only that, but the same Clarkstown police force being advertised by Google as a success story has been sued multiple times for illegal surveillance of Black Lives Matter organizers.”

Google, for example, has publicized how Clarkstown Police Department uses G Suite for sharing information and digital evidence. Meanwhile, Google is also a partner and donor to the Seattle police foundation and its venture capital arm, GV, has invested in startups working on artificial intelligence technology for police.

“We’re committed to work that makes a meaningful difference to combat systemic racism, and our employees have made over 500 product suggestions in recent weeks, which we are reviewing,” a Google spokesperson told TechCrunch. “On this one, we were the first major company to decide, years ago, to not make facial recognition commercially available and we have very clear AI Principles that prohibit its use or sale for surveillance. We have longstanding terms of use for generally available computing platforms like Gmail, GSuite and Google Cloud Platform, and these products will remain available for Governments and local authorities, including police departments, to use.”

In the letter, employees go on to say they want to be proud of the company they work for. They also want Google to speak to their values, the letter says.

“The racist legacy of police across the United States goes all the way back to its roots, when police forces emerged to protect the wealth gotten from slavery and genocide,” the letter states. “We have a long way to go to address the full legacy of racism but to begin with — we should not be in the business of profiting from racist policing. We should not be in the business of criminalizing Black existence while we chant that Black Lives Matter. We, the undersigned Googlers, call on you to stop making our technology available to police forces.” 

Google employees have been able to successfully pressure the company to drop contracts in the past. After employees petitioned Google to stop working on Project Maven, Google decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon for that project. Then, in October 2018, Google dropped out of the running for JEDI, the big cloud computing contract with the Pentagon.

Google is not the only tech company that has contracted with police departments and other law enforcement agencies. Salesforce, for example, has long held a contract with Customs and Border Protection, despite protest from employees and others.

Some positive change, however, has occurred. Earlier this month, IBM said it would no longer sell its facial recognition technology, which has become a tool for policing and mass surveillance. Meanwhile, Microsoft recently said it won’t sell facial recognition technology to police without federal regulation and Amazon halted police use of its facial recognition tech for one year. These were direct responses to the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.

In response to Floyd’s death, Pichai noted in an email to employees that “Our Black community is hurting, and many of us are searching for ways to stand up for what we believe, and reach out to people we love to show solidarity.”

He also outlined how Google will give $12 million to racial justice organizations. Since then, Pichai has elaborated on Google’s commitments to racial justice. Internally, for example, Google committed to improving diverse representation at the leadership level by 30% by 2025.

“We want Google to take real steps to help dismantle racism,” employees wrote. “We as a society have moved past the point where saying Black Lives Matter is enough, we need to show it in our thinking, in our words and in our actions that Black lives do matter to us.”

Startups Tortoise, Swiftmile are combining their tech to solve scooter chaos

Sidewalk congestion is a major pain point for cities, and fully-charged scooters for riders are no guarantee. Those are the two main selling points of micromobility docking startup Swiftmile and remote-controlled scooter repositioning startup Tortoise, respectively. Today, Swiftmile and Tortoise announced a partnership to solve those problems.

These are incredibly complementary services,” Tortoise co-founder and President Dmitry Shevelenko told TechCrunch. “Swiftmile provides the ideal destination and origin for repositioning. So riders can have the experience that dockless enables, they can leave the scooter wherever their destination is and using Tortoise, can drive to nearest Swiftmile station to dock and charge.”

Swiftmile has already deployed hundreds of its charging stations in cities like Austin and Berlin. Later this month, Swiftmile will deploy a Spin-branded dock in San Francisco. Swiftmile charges scooter operators by the minute, but not to exceed a certain amount, depending on the market. Initially, the docking system will be open to all operators in order to show them how it works and how beneficial it can be. After a certain period of time, Swiftmile will only charge its customers’ scooters.

Tortoise, which launched in October, does not make its own scooters. Instead, Tortoise sells its software to customers, which need to install about $100 worth of equipment on each scooter in order to run Tortoise’s software. That includes two phone cameras, a piece of radar, a processor and a motor. If it’s a two-wheeled vehicle, Tortoise requires the addition of robotic training wheels. All of this is included in the reference design Tortoise provides to operators.

Given the volume of micromobility operators in the space today, Tortoise aims to make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed. Using autonomous technology in tandem with remote human intervention, Tortoise’s software enables operators to remotely relocate their scooters and bikes to places where riders need them, or, where operators need them to be recharged. On an empty sidewalk, Tortoise may employ autonomous technologies while it may rely on humans to remotely control the vehicle on a highly trafficked city block.

“Cities say they need 21st-century infrastructure,” Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche told TechCrunch. “This creates that where we have these hubs centered around Swiftmile and Tortoise can come and park and charge. It’s exactly what the cities want.”

The plan is to aggressively launch this partnership wherever Tortoise operates. Currently, however, Tortoise only operates in Peachtree Corners, Georgia in partnership with GoX. Shevelenko says he hopes to launch in partnership with Swiftmile in Peachtree Corners as soon as possible. Ideally, the first pilot will be this summer, he said.

“The technology is ready and the solutions work together,” he said. “We want cities to know this is available and the tech is ready and mature.”

After Peachtree Corners, Tortoise and Swiftmile have their eyes set on San Jose. Tortoise, however, is not yet disclosing its vehicle partner.

“But Swiftmile and Tortoise have the same set of customers, in general,” Shevelenko said. “The bulk of the Swiftmile business is selling directly to scooter operators and they’re our customer as well. We have this joint shared customer.”

 

San Francisco DA sues DoorDash for classifying delivery workers as independent contractors

DoorDash is facing a lawsuit from San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin for “illegally misclassifying employees as independent contractors,” Boudin tweeted today. In the complaint, Boudin argues DoorDash misclassified its workers and in doing so, engages in unfair labor practices.

“Misclassifying workers deprives them of the labor law safeguards to which they are entitled, denying workers minimum wage and overtime pay, unemployment insurance and protection from discrimination, among other things,” Boudin said in a press release. “[…] Now, more than ever, with the COVID pandemic, we must protect our workers, especially those essential workers who are delivering food to us each and every day.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, DoorDash pointed to how its supported its workers throughout the pandemic by providing them with safety equipment, telemedicine and more.

“Today’s action seeks to disrupt the essential services Dashers provide, stripping hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, parents, retirees and other Californians of valuable work opportunities, depriving local restaurants of desperately needed revenue, and making it more difficult for consumers to receive prepared food, groceries, and other essentials safely and reliably,” DoorDash Global Head of Public Policy Max Rettig said in a statement. “We will fight to continue providing Dashers the flexible earning opportunities they say they want in these challenging times.”

This suit comes as gig worker rights groups have urged companies like DoorDash, Uber, Lyft and Instacart to abide by AB-5. AB-5, which went into law earlier this year, outlines what type of worker can and cannot be classified as an independent contractor.

The law codifies the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors.

According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and is regularly engaged in work of some independently established trade or other similar business. In the suit, Boudin describes how DoorDash does not meet the standards put forth by the ABC test.

“DoorDash’s misclassification of its Dashers was no mistake, but instead a calculated decision made to reduce the costs of doing business at the expense of the very workers providing the company’s core service of delivery: the delivery of merchandise from merchants to customer,” the suit states.

The suit seeks for DoorDash to stop classifying its workers as independent contractors and be fined up to $2,500 for each violation, as well as up to $2,500 for each violation against a senior citizen or disabled person.

DoorDash, along with Uber, Lyft, Postmates and Instacart, are funding a ballot measure that would seek to make it legal for them to classify workers as independent contractors. Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft are facing a misclassification lawsuit from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with city attorneys from Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

That suit argues Uber and Lyft are depriving workers of the right to minimum wage, overtime, access to paid sick leave, disability insurance and unemployment insurance. The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of San Francisco, seeks $2,500 in penalties for each violation, possibly per driver, under the California Unfair Competition Law, and another $2,500 for violations against senior citizens or people with disabilities.

Facebook’s chief diversity officer will now report directly to Sheryl Sandberg

Amid a heavier focus on race, diversity and inclusion in light of the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, Facebook is making its chief diversity officer, Maxine Williams, report directly to COO Sheryl Sandberg, Sandberg wrote in a memo to Facebook employees today. Before, Williams reported to VP of Human Resources Janelle Gale.

“We are expanding Maxine’s role and putting Diversity & Inclusion at the heart of our ongoing management team discussions and processes – at the heart of all we do,” Sandberg wrote in the memo.

This is certainly a step up for Williams on the chain of command, but it falls short of having her report directly to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Diversity advocates for years have been calling for heads of diversity to report directly to the CEO. Many companies, however, have yet to do that. More often, tech companies have their heads of diversity report into the head of HR.

As we’ve noted before, heads of diversity and inclusion are oftentimes not in a position where they are set up to effect real change. As Project Include co-founder and CEO Ellen Pao told me last June, “they’re not empowered and they don’t have the team or the authority and there’s no metric that they can push people toward and hold people accountable to. They’re in this weird role where a lot of it is external facing.”

Beyond putting Williams in a position where she will hopefully have a better seat at the table, Facebook says it will encourage employees to engage in a day of learning on Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. More specifically, it acknowledges the day in which slaves in Galveston, Texas became aware of their freedom on June 19, 1865.

“This Juneteenth, Facebook will commemorate the ending of slavery in America with a day dedicated to learning,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We are canceling all meetings so everyone can take an entire day to learn about the history, experience and issues that Black Americans still face. Our goal is to learn more so that we can do more.”

This comes days after Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey declared Juneteenth a company-wide holiday. Unlike Twitter and Square, Facebook employees will not have Juneteenth as an official holiday but will instead be encouraged to use it as a day of learning and attend educational sessions.

Earlier this month, Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout in protest of the company’s inaction around President Donald Trump’s post that incited violence.

Amid protests in Minneapolis against the police killing of Floyd, Trump posted on both Twitter and Facebook that, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter’s response was to apply a notice to his tweet, stating that it violated Twitter’s rules about glorifying violence. Facebook, however, took a different approach. Its response was to do nothing.

Zuckerberg explained that the company’s policy “allows discussion around state use of force, although I think today’s situation raises important questions about what potential limits of that discussion should be.” Additionally, Zuckerberg said, “we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”

Facebook’s track record on race has not been great over the years. But that’s not to say no progress has been made. Last June, Williams pointed to how Facebook has increased the number of Black women by 25x and Black men by 10x over the last five years.

“There has been a lot of change,” Williams told me at the time. “Has there been as much as we want? No. And I certainly think we have the issue of when we started focusing on D&I in a very deliberate way. The company was already nine years old with thousands of people working here. The biggest takeaway is that the later you start, the harder it is.”

Currently, Facebook is just 3.8% Black, 5.2 Latinx in the U.S., and 3.1% two or more races, according to its most recent diversity report.

Facebook employees stage virtual walkout in protest of company’s stance on Trump posts

Some Facebook employees are virtually walking out today to challenge the company’s lack of response to President Donald Trump’s posts pertaining to protests in light of the murder of George Floyd. Employees participating in the protest requested time off and then added an out-of-office response to their emails notifying senders they are protesting, The New York Times reports.

Last week, amid protests in Minneapolis against the police killing Floyd, and unarmed black man, Trump posted on both Twitter and Facebook that, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

As The Washington Post reported, there is a racially-charged history behind that phrase. In the sixties, a white police chief used that same phrase during civil unrest in black neighborhoods in Miami. Trump, however, claims to have not known that.

Twitter’s response was to apply a notice to his tweet, stating that it violated Twitter’s rules about glorifying violence.

Facebook, however, took a different approach. Its response was to do nothing.

On Friday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained that the company’s policy “allows discussion around state use of force, although I think today’s situation raises important questions about what potential limits of that discussion should be.” Additionally, Zuckerberg said “we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”

In addition to the protest today, employees have circulated petitions that call for Facebook to add more diversity to its ranks, while others have threatened to resign if Zuckerberg does not reverse his stance.

“We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership. As we face additional difficult decisions around content ahead, we’ll continue seeking their honest feedback.”

Developing…

6 VCs share their bets on the future of work

As tech companies like Twitter and Facebook gear up for longer-term remote work solutions, the future of work is becoming one of the more exciting opportunities in venture capital, Charles River Ventures general partner Saar Gur told TechCrunch.

And as loneliness mounts with shelter-in-place orders implemented in various forms across the world, investors are looking for products and services that foster true connection among a distributed workforce, as well as a distributed society.

But the future of work doesn’t just entail spinning up home offices. It also involves gig workers, freelancers, hiring tools, tools for workplace organizing and automation. The last couple of years have particularly brought tech organizing to the forefront. Whether it was the Google walkout in 2018 or gig workers’ ongoing actions against companies like Uber, Lyft and Instacart for better pay and protections, there are many opportunities to help workers better organize and achieve their goals.

Below, we’ve gathered insights from:

Saar Gur, Charles River Ventures 

What are you most excited about in the future of work?

Future of work is one of the most exciting opportunities in venture.  

Pre-COVID, few tech companies were fully remote. While it seems obvious in retrospect, the building blocks for fully remote technology companies now exist (e.g. high-speed internet, SaaS and the cloud, reliable video streaming, real-time documents, etc.). And while SIP may be temporary, we feel the TAM of fully remote companies will grow significantly and produce a number of exciting investment opportunities.

I don’t think we have fully grokked what it means to run a company digitally. Today, most processes like interviewing, meetings and performance/activity tracking still live in the world of atoms versus bits. As an example, imagine every meeting is recorded, transcribed and searchable — how would that transform how we work?   

There is an opportunity to re-imagine how we work. And we are excited about products that solve meaningful problems in the areas of productivity, brainstorming, communication tools, workflows and more. We also see a lot of potential in infrastructure required to facilitate remote and global teams.

We are also excited by companies that are enabling new types of work. Companies like Etsy (founded 2005), Shopify (2004), TaskTabbit (2008), Uber (2009), DoorDash (2013) and Patreon (2013) have helped create a new workforce of entrepreneurs. But many of these companies are over a decade old and we fully expect a new wave of companies that give more power to the individual.

Tier brings integrated helmets to electric scooters

European mobility operator Tier has become the first major electric scooter company to integrate helmets into vehicles. The foldable helmets fit inside a box attached to the scooter below the handlebars.

This month, Tier plans to deploy 200 scooters equipped with helmets in Paris and Berlin. Over the summer, Tier will deploy an additional 5,000 helmet-equipped scooters.

Earlier this year, JAMA Surgery published a study showing electric scooter injuries have nearly tripled in the last four years. Of those who participated in the study, less than 5% of riders were wearing a helmet, which led to one-third of those surveyed suffering a head injury.

Additionally, given concerns about COVID-19, Tier is experimenting with an anti-bacterial, self-disinfecting handlebar technology from Protexus. Tier is testing these handlebars in Paris and Bordeaux.

It’s worth noting that Wheels, a pedal-less e-bike operator, has implemented both of these features. Though, it’s for the good of the public for as many operators as possible to use this playbook. In December, Wheels deployed a smart helmet system for its bikes that lock into the rear fender and can sense when riders are wearing a helmet. In March, Wheels began making e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers available to consumers for weekly or monthly rentals.

Tier, founded in 2018, has raised $131 million in funding to date. In February, the startup extended its Series B round to over $100 million. Days later, Tier announced the acquisition of Coup’s electric moped scooters in order to start its own shared moped service. Tier, which is based in Berlin, currently operates in 55 cities across 11 countries.

Uber lays off another 3,000 employees

Uber is laying off another 3,000 employees, the Wall Street Journal first reported. Uber is also closing 45 offices, and rethinking its approach in areas like freight and autonomous vehicle technology.

“I knew that I had to make a hard decision, not because we are a public company, or to protect or stock price, or to please our Board or investors,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote to employees today in a memo, viewed by TechCrunch . “I had to make this decision because our very future as an essential service for the cities of the world — our being there for millions of people and businesses who rely on us — demands it. We must establish ourselves as a self-sustaining enterprise that no longer relies on new capital or investors to keep growing, expanding, and innovating.”

As part of the layoffs, Uber is expected to pay up to $145 million to employees via severance and other benefits, and up to $80 million in order to shut down offices, according to a filing with the SEC.

This comes just weeks after Uber laid off 3,700 employees in order to save about $1 billion in costs. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Uber has laid off about 25% of its workforce.

Rides have been hit hard amid the coronavirus. More specifically, rides are down about 80%, according to the company. Food delivery, however, has been hot. In Q1, Uber Eats experienced major growth with gross bookings of $4.68 billion, up 52% from that same quarter one year ago.

“I will caution that while Eats growth is accelerating, the business today doesn’t come close to covering our expenses,” Khosrowshahi wrote in the memo today. “I have every belief that the moves we are making will get Eats to profitability, just as we did with Rides, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Meanwhile, Uber is in talks to buy GrubHub to beef up its food delivery business, UberEats, according to The WSJ and Bloomberg. Uber first approached Grubhhub earlier this year with an offer, but the two companies are still in talks, according to the WSJ. A Bloomberg report says the deal could be finalized sometime this month. Khosrowshahi. however, did not mention this deal in the memo today.

In an attempt to organize more around its core offering, Uber is shutting down Incubator after less than one year of launch. It’s also shutting down AI Labs and looking into alternatives for Uber Works, a service Uber launched in October to match workers with shifts.

Those not affected in these layoffs are drivers, which are not currently classified as employees but rather independent contractors. Still, many drivers have continued to be vocal amid the coronavirus pandemic, demanding better protections and benefits. Last week, rideshare drivers staged a caravan protest to demand Uber comply with AB  pay into the state’s unemployment insurance fund and drop the ballot initiative it proposed along with Lyft and DoorDash that aims to keep gig workers classified as independent contractors.

Uber commits $50 million to safety supplies for drivers

Uber says it has committed $50 million to procure and providing safety supplies to drivers. Those supplies will include things like face masks, sanitizer, gloves and disinfectant, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi announced on a press call today.

Uber says it has secured more than 23 million masks for drivers and delivery people throughout the world. So far, Uber says it has distributed about 5 million masks to drivers. It has shipped some supplies directly to people’s homes and is also offering reimbursements to people in certain countries. Earlier this month, Uber said it would begin requiring drivers and riders to wear masks or face coverings during rides.

This comes after drivers have been demanding the company does more to support them during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, about 100 drivers staged a caravan protest to Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco to demand the company comply with gig worker protections law AB-5. Drivers I spoke with ahead of the protest also said they wanted Uber to spend more money to protect them.

Instead of spending millions on the anti-AB-5 ballot initiative, driver Mekela Edwards told me she wished Uber would use that money to better support drivers during the pandemic. Uber has spent at least $30 million on the initiative, while Lyft and DoorDash have also spent at least $30 million.

“That’s money they could be spending to support us,” she said. “We enjoy the work we do. We just want to be respected and appreciated like any worker should be.”

In addition to the financial commitment, Uber announced other safety precautions, like driver mask verification using selfie technology beginning on Monday. If a driver sees that the person they’re about to pick up isn’t wearing a mask, they can easily reject the ride, specify why, and not face any repercussions. For both drivers and riders, they are able to report if someone took their mask off during the ride.

While Uber Pool is still out of commission, Uber will make some changes to UberX. To better protect the driver, UberX will only allow a maximum of three people in the car, and they must all sit in the back seat.

More details available here: https://www.uber.com/newsroom/your-second-first-trip/