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November 21, 2018
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Diversity

Airbnb ends forced arbitration days after Google, Facebook did the same

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The Google employee walkout on Nov. 1 is leaving a lasting impact on the tech industry.

In the immediate aftermath of the walkout, which saw thousands of Googlers across the globe protest the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment and misconduct claims, the search giant said it would put an end to its policy of forced arbitration for employees claiming workplace harassment. Facebook followed suit, announcing the next day that it would allow its employees to pursue claims of sexual harassment in court.

Today, Airbnb and eBay confirmed to TechCrunch they too would no longer require sexual harassment claims to be settled through private arbitration. Their announcements emerged as a result of a BuzzFeed News article exploring which tech companies were updating their policies in light of the Google protest.

Thousands of Google employees protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment & misconduct allegations on Nov. 1.

“We are a company who believes that in the 21st Century it is important to continually consider and reconsider the best ways to support our employees and strengthen our workplace,” a spokesperson for Airbnb said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “From the beginning, we have sought to build a culture of integrity and respect, and today’s changes are just one more step to drive belonging and integrity in our workplace.”

Here’s what eBay had to say about its decision: “eBay takes great pride in fostering an inclusive culture that allows employees to feel comfortable and encouraged to report any workplace issues. We’ve adjusted our existing employee policy regarding sexual harassment claims to better reflect and encourage eBay’s values of being open, honest and direct.”

According to BuzzFeed, Pinterest, Oath, Twitter, Reddit and others have never required mandatory arbitration. Uber, Lyft and Microsoft each put an end to forced arbitration in the last year.

Arbitration is a private method of solving a dispute without a judge, jury or right to an appeal. Companies that require forced arbitration waive their employees right to sue and to participate in a class action lawsuit.

Google walkout organizers aren’t satisfied with CEO’s response

Throwing out its policy of forced arbitration was one of the five demands disgruntled employees had for Google. In a Medium post last week, the walkout organizers commended Google’s decision to end forced arbitration while emphasizing the company’s failure to address all of their demands.

…”The response ignored several of the core demands — like elevating the diversity officer and employee representation on the board — and troublingly erased those focused on racism, discrimination, and the structural inequity built into the modern day Jim Crow class system that separates ‘full time’ employees from contract workers. Contract workers make up more than half of Google’s workforce, and perform essential roles across the company, but receive few of the benefits associated with tech company employment. They are also largely people of color, immigrants, and people from working class backgrounds.”

Google employees began crafting a plan for a company-wide walkout in late October, days after a bombshell New York Times investigation revealed Google had given Android co-creator Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package despite multiple relationships with other Google  staffers and accusations of sexual misconduct.

Rubin, for his part, has said that the NYT’s story contained “numerous inaccuracies.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Alibaba made a smart screen to help blind people shop and it costs next to nothing

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Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth.

When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features.

Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass.

Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants.

Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative Damo Academy has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens.

Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”.

“It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible.

Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba

“We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.”

Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims.

Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through.

At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps.

But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback.

“Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process.

There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around 13 million visually impaired people in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are rarely seen in public, as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out.

One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.)

Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores.

Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many merely pander to the government’s demand (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact.

“The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.

News Source = techcrunch.com

81% of VC firms don’t have a single black investor — BLCK VC wants to change that

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Venture capital has a diversity problem.

BLCK VC, a new organization founded by Storm Ventures associate Frederik Groce and NEA associate Sydney Sykes meant to connect, engage and advance black venture capitalists, is ready for a new era in the industry.

Their mission: Turn 200 black investors into 400 black investors by 2024.

“We think of ourselves as an organization formed by black VCs for blacks VCs to increase the representation of black investors,” Sykes told TechCrunch.

“You can look around and say ‘well, I know five black VCs,’ but you can also say this firm does not have a single black VC, they may not even have a single underrepresented minority … We want to make firms reckon with the fact that there is a racial diversity problem; there is a lack of black VCs and every firm should really care about it.”

BLCK VC has been at work since the beginning of 2018, building and expanding a network of black investors in the San Francisco area, Los Angeles and New York. They seek to provide a community for black investors, a space for honest conversations and questions, and a resource for VC firms looking to make more diverse hires. Today at AfroTech, the organization is taking the wraps off its plan to diversify the VC industry.

“There’s an incredible need to ensure there are resources in place so people don’t churn out of the community; getting people in the door is only half the battle,” Groce told TechCrunch. “This is us saying ‘hey, get involved.’ It’s time to broaden and give others access to what we are doing. It takes a village if we really want to see things start to shift.”

According to data collected by Richard Kerby, a partner at Equal Ventures, 81 percent of VC firms don’t have a single black investor. Roughly 50 percent of black investors in the industry are at the associate level, or the lowest level at a firm; only 2 percent of black investors are partners at a firm.

“It takes a village if we really want to see things start to shift,” BLCK VC co-chair Frederik Groce told TechCrunch.

The lack of representation, especially in powerful positions, has made it difficult for black aspiring investors to enter the industry, as well as for black investors to stay in VC.

“VC, more than a lot of industries, is very network driven in the way that they hire,” Sykes said. “The network started 40 or 50 years ago with a lot of white men who had the wealth at the time to invest in companies. As VC has grown, a lot of the people who started it hired people they knew, there wasn’t an effort to recruit from outside of their network. That has made VC this very homogenous industry.”

Aside from Kerby’s data and a Harvard Business School study on diversity in innovation, there is limited data available on black VCs and funding for black founders. Digitalundivided‘s research arm ProjectDiane is one of the few organizations to report on funding for black female founders, for example. According to its latest report, black women have raised just .0006 percent of all tech venture funding since 2009.

BLCK VC’s board includes Adina Tecklu, a venture investor at Canaan Partners; Brian Hollins, a growth equity investor at Goldman Sachs; Earnest Sweat, an investment manager at Prologis Ventures; and Elliott Robinson, a partner at M12 Ventures.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Spot launches chatbot for HR departments to address harassment and discrimination

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Spot, the chatbot that enables individuals to document and report harassment and discrimination, has launched a tool for human resources departments. This version enables HR departments to manage and track anonymous reports of harassment and discrimination, and follow up on those reports.

Spot relies on memory science and artificial intelligence to address harassment and discrimination at work. Using the chatbot, employees can anonymously document inappropriate behavior, the ability for HR workers to follow-up, the ability to export reports as signed, time-stamped PDFs and more. Employees can, of course, choose to use their name if they’d like.

“Spot places companies in the best possible position to build a healthy work culture,” Spot co-founder Dr. Julia Shaw said in a statement. “By taking an evidence-based approach to help break down the barriers to reporting harassment and discrimination, Spot allows companies to provide timely, transparent, and unbiased responses and mitigate the negative consequences of harassment.”

For small teams (up to 100 people), Spot costs $800 per year. For larger companies, Spot offers additional tools — like custom follow-up questions, single sign-on for admins, group email and Slack notifications, and charges $2 per person per month.

Spot is part of the All Turtles startup studio, which was created by Evernote co-founder Phil Libin. Dr. Shaw’s other co-founders include Daniel Nicolae and Dylan Marriott.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google launches voice assistant app to help people with limited mobility use their phones

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Google just introduced a new Android app to better enable people with limited mobility to use their phones. Called Voice Access, the app offers people a hands-free way to use apps, write and edit text and, of course, talk to the Google Assistant.

It’s designed to make it easier to control specific functions like clicking a button, and scrolling and navigating app screens. Currently, the app is only available in English, but Google is working on additional languages.

Google created the app in service of people with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and spinal cord injuries, but recognizes that the tool can also be helpful for people whose hands are tied with other tasks.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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