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June 17, 2019
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Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is developing visual cues to indicate when their tech is monitoring you

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Alphabet’s subsidiary focused on urban tech development, Sidewalk Labs, is now trying to reinvent signage for smart cities. These signs aren’t to direct the flow of traffic, or to point the way to urban landmarks — they’re designed to let citizens know when they’re being monitored.

The proposal is part of a push by the company to acclimate people to the technologies that it’s deploying in cities like New York and Toronto.

Globally, competition for contracts to deploy sensors, data management and predictive technologies in cities can run into the tens of millions, if not billions of dollars, and Sidewalk Labs knows this better than most. Because its projects are among the most ambitious deployments of sensing and networking technologies for smart cities, the company has also faced the most public criticism.

So at least partially in an attempt to blunt attacks from critics, the company is proposing to make its surveillance and monitoring efforts more transparent.

“Digital technology is all around us, but often invisible. Consider: on any one urban excursion (your commute, perhaps), you could encounter CCTVs, traffic cameras, transit card readers, bike lane counters, Wi-Fi access points, occupancy sensors that open doors — potentially all on the same block,” writes Jacqueline Lu, whose title is “assistant director of the public realm” at Sidewalk Labs.

Lu notes that while the technologies can be useful, there’s little transparency around the data these technologies are collecting, who the data is being collected by and what the data is collected for.

Cities like Boston and London already indicate when technology is being used in the urban environment, but Sidewalk Labs convened a group of designers and urban planners to come up with a system for signage that would make the technology being used even more public for citizens going about their day.

Image courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

Back in 2013, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission called for the development of these types of indicators when it issued a call for mobile privacy disclosures. But that seems to have resulted in companies just drafting reams of jargon-filled disclosures that obscured more than they revealed.

At Sidewalk, the goal is transparency, say the authors of the company’s suggested plan.

“We strongly believe that people should know how and why data is being collected and used in the public realm, and we also believe that design and technology can meaningfully facilitate this understanding. For these reasons, we embarked on a collaborative project to imagine what digital transparency in the public realm could be like,” writes Lu and her co-authors Principal Designer Patrick Keenan and Legal Associate Chelsey Colbert.

As an example, Sidewalk showed off potential designs for signage that would alert people to the presence of the company’s Numina technology.

That tech monitors traffic patterns by recording, anonymizing and transmitting data from sensors using digital recording and algorithmically enhanced software to track movement in an area. These sensors are installed on light poles and transmit data wirelessly.

At the very least, the technology can’t be any worse than the innocuously intended cameras that are monitoring public spaces already (and can be turned into surveillance tools easily).

The hexagonal designs indicate the purpose of the technology, the company deploying it, the reason for its use, whether or not the tech is collecting sensitive information and a QR code that can be scanned to find out more information.

The issue with experiments like these in the public sphere is that there’s no easy way to opt out of them. Sidewalk Lab’s Toronto project is both an astounding feat of design and the apotheosis of surveillance capitalism.

Once these decisions are made to cede public space to the private sector, or sacrifice privacy for security (or simply better information about a location for the sake of convenience), they’re somewhat difficult to unwind. As with most of the salient issues with technology today, it’s about unintended consequences.

Information about a technology’s deployment isn’t enough if the relevant parties haven’t thought through the ramifications of that technology’s use.

Tufts expelled a student for grade hacking. She claims innocence

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As she sat in the airport with a one-way ticket in her hand, Tiffany Filler wondered how she would pick up the pieces of her life, with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt and nothing to show for it.

A day earlier, she was expelled from Tufts University veterinary school. As a Canadian, her visa was no longer valid and she was told by the school to leave the U.S. “as soon as possible.” That night, her plane departed the U.S. for her native Toronto, leaving any prospect of her becoming a veterinarian behind.

Filler, 24, was accused of an elaborate months-long scheme involving stealing and using university logins to break into the student records system, view answers, and alter her own and other students’ grades.

The case Tufts presented seems compelling, if not entirely believable.

There’s just one problem: In almost every instance that the school accused Filler of hacking, she was elsewhere with proof of her whereabouts or an eyewitness account and without the laptop she’s accused of using. She has alibis: fellow students who testified to her whereabouts; photos with metadata putting her miles away at the time of the alleged hacks; and a sleep tracker that showed she was asleep during others.

Tufts is either right or it expelled an innocent student on shoddy evidence four months before she was set to graduate.

– – –

Guilty until proven innocent

Tiffany Filler always wanted to be a vet.

Ever since she was a teenager, she set her sights on her future career. With almost four years under her belt at Tufts, which is regarded as one of the best schools for veterinary medicine in North America, she could have written her ticket to any practice. Her friends hold her in high regard, telling me that she is honest and hardworking. She kept her head down, earning cumulative grade point averages of 3.9 for her masters and 3.5 for her doctorate.

For a time, she was even featured on the homepage of Tufts’ vet school. She was a model final-year student.

Tufts didn’t see it that way.

Filler was called into a meeting on the main campus on August 22 where the university told her of an investigation. She had “no idea” about the specifics of the hacking allegations, she told me on a phone call, until October 18 when she was pulled out of her shift, still in her bloodied medical scrubs, to face the accusations from the ethics and grievance committee.

For three hours, she faced eight senior academics, including one who is said to be a victim of her alleged hacks. The allegations read like a court docket, but Filler said she went in knowing nothing that she could use to defend herself.

Tufts said she stole a librarian’s password to assign a mysteriously created user account, “Scott Shaw,” with a higher level of system and network access. Filler allegedly used it to look up faculty accounts and reset passwords by swapping out the email address to one she’s accused of controlling, or in some cases obtaining passwords and bypassing the school’s two-factor authentication system by exploiting a loophole that simply didn’t require a second security check, which the school has since fixed.

Tufts accused Filler of using this extensive system access to systematically log in as “Scott Shaw” to obtain answers for tests, taking the tests under her own account, said to be traced from either her computer — based off a unique identifier, known as a MAC address — and the network she allegedly used, either the campus’s wireless network or her off-campus residence. When her grades went up, sometimes other students’ grades went down, the school said.

In other cases, she’s alleged to have broken into the accounts of several assessors in order to alter existing grades or post entirely new ones.

Tiffany Filler, left, with her mother in a 2017 photo at Tufts University.

The bulk of the evidence came from Tufts’ IT department, which said each incident was “well supported” from log files and database records. The evidence pointed to her computer over a period of several months, the department told the committee.

“I thought due process was going to be followed,” said Filler, in a call. “I thought it was innocent until proven guilty until I was told ‘you’re guilty unless you can prove it.’”

Like any private university, Tufts can discipline — even expel — a student for almost any reason.

“Universities can operate like shadow criminal justice systems — without any of the protections or powers of a criminal court,” said Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research at FIRE, a rights group for America’s colleges and universities. “They’re without any of the due process protections for someone accused of something serious, and without any of the powers like subpoenas that you’d need to gather all of the technical evidence.”

Students face an uphill battle in defense of any charges of wrongdoing. As was the case with Filler, many students aren’t given time to prepare for hearings, have no right to an attorney, and are not given any or all of the evidence. Some of the broader charges, such as professional misconduct or ethical violations, are even harder to fight. Grade hacking is one such example — and one of the most serious offenses in academia. Where students have been expelled, many have also faced prosecution and the prospect of serving time in prison on federal computer hacking charges.

Harris reviewed documents we provided outlining the university’s allegations and Filler’s appeal.

“It’s troubling when I read her appeal,” said Harris. “It looks as though [the school has] a lot of information in their sole possession that she might try to use to prove her innocent, and she wasn’t given access to that evidence.”

Access to the university’s evidence, she said, was “critical” to due process protections that students should be given, especially when facing suspension or expulsion.

A month later, the committee served a unanimous vote that Filler was the hacker and recommended her expulsion.

– – –

A RAT in the room

What few facts Filler and Tufts could agree on is that there almost certainly was a hacker. They just disagreed on who the hacker was.

Struggling for answers and convinced her MacBook Air — the source of the alleged hacks — was itself compromised, she paid for someone through freelance marketplace Fiverr to scan her computer. Within minutes, several malicious files were found, chief among which were two remote access trojans — or RATs — commonly used by jilted or jealous lovers to spy on their exes’ webcams and remotely control their computers over the internet. The scan found two: Coldroot and CrossRAT. The former is easily deployed, and the other is highly advanced malware, said to be linked to the Lebanese government.

Evidence of a RAT might suggest someone had remote control of her computer without her knowledge. But existence of both on the same machine, experts say, is unlikely if not entirely implausible.

Thomas Reed, director of Mac and Mobile at Malwarebytes, the same software used to scan Filler’s computer, confirmed the detections but said there was no conclusive evidence to show the malware was functional.

“The Coldroot infection was just the app and was missing the launch daemon that would have been key to keeping it running,” said Reed.

Even if it were functional, how could the hacker have framed her? Could Filler have paid someone to hack her grades? If she paid someone to hack her grades, why implicate her — and potentially the hacker — by using her computer? Filler said she was not cautious about her own cybersecurity — insofar that she pinned her password to a corkboard in her room. Could this have been a stitch-up? Was someone in her house trying to frame her?

The landlord told me a staff resident at Tufts veterinary school, who has since left the house, “has bad feelings” and “anger” toward Filler. The former housemate may have motive but no discernible means. We reached out to the former housemate for comment but did not hear back, and therefore are not naming the person.

Filler took her computer to an Apple Store, claiming the “mouse was acting on its own and the green light for the camera started turning on,” she said. The support staff backed up her files but wiped her computer, along with any evidence of malicious software beyond a handful of screenshots she took as part of the dossier of evidence she submitted in her appeal.

It didn’t convince the grievance committee of possible malicious interference.

“Feedback from [IT] indicated that these issues with her computer were in no way related to the alleged allegations,” said Angie Warner, the committee’s acting chair, in an email we’ve seen, recommending Filler’s expulsion. Citing an unnamed IT staffer, the department claimed with “high degree of certainty” that it was “highly unlikely” that the grade changes were “performed by malicious software or persons without detailed and extensive hacking ability.”

Unable to prove who was behind the remote access malware — or even if it was active — she turned back to fighting her defense.

– – –

‘Why wait?’

It took more than a month before Filler would get the specific times of the alleged hacks, revealing down to the second when each breach happened

Filler thought she could convince the committee that she wasn’t the hacker, but later learned that the timings “did not factor” into the deliberations of the grievance committee, wrote Tufts’ veterinary school dean Joyce Knoll in an email dated December 21.

But Filler said she could in all but a handful of cases provide evidence showing that she was not at her computer.

In one of the first allegations of hacking, Filler was in a packed lecture room, with her laptop open, surrounded by her fellow vet school colleagues both besides and behind her. We spoke to several students who knew Filler — none wanted to be named for fear of retribution from Tufts — who wrote letters to testify in Filler’s defense.

All of the students we spoke to said they were never approached by Tufts to confirm or scrutinize their accounts. Two other classmates who saw Filler’s computer screen during the lecture told me they saw nothing suspicious — only her email or the lecture slides.

Another time Filler is accused of hacking, she was on rounds with other doctors, residents and students to discuss patients in their care. One student said Filler was “with the entire rotation group and the residents, without any access to a computer” for two hours.

For another accusation, Filler was out for dinner in a neighboring town. “She did not have her laptop with her,” said one of the fellow student who was with Filler at dinner. The other students sent letters to Tufts in her defense. Tufts said on that occasion, her computer — eight miles away from the restaurant — was allegedly used to access another staff member’s login and tried to bypass the two-factor authentication, using an iPhone 5S, a model Filler doesn’t own. Filler has an iPhone 6. (We asked an IT systems administrator at another company about Duo audit logs: They said if a device not enrolled with Duo tried to enter a valid username and password but couldn’t get past the two-factor prompt, the administrator would only see the device’s software version and not see the device type. A Duo spokesperson confirmed that the system does not collect device names.)

Filler, who wears a Xiaomi fitness and sleep tracker, said the tracker’s records showed she was asleep in most, but not all of the times she’s accused of hacking. She allowed TechCrunch to access the data in her cloud-stored account, which confirmed her accounts.

The list of accusations included a flurry of activity from her computer at her residence, Tufts said took place between 1am and 2am on June 27, 2018 — during which her fitness tracker shows she was asleep — and from 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on June 28, 2018.

But Filler was 70 miles away visiting the Mark Twain House in neighboring Hartford, Connecticut. She took two photos of her visit — one of her in the house, and another of her standing outside.

We asked Jake Williams, a former NSA hacker who founded cybersecurity and digital forensics firm Rendition Infosec, to examine the metadata embedded in the photos. The photos, taken from her iPhone, contained a matching date and time for the alleged hack, as well as a set of coordinates putting her at the Mark Twain House.

While photo metadata can be modified, Williams said the signs he expected to see for metadata modification weren’t there. “There is no evidence that these were modified,” he said.

Yet none of it was good enough to keep her enrolled at Tufts. In a letter on January 16 affirming her expulsion, Knoll rejected the evidence.

“Date stamps are easy to edit,” said Knoll. “In fact, the photos you shared with me clearly include an ‘edit’ button in the upper corner for this exact purpose,” she wrote, referring to the iPhone software’s native photo editing feature. “Why wait until after you’d been informed that you were going to be expelled to show me months’ old photos?” she said.

“My decision is final,” said her letter. Filler was expelled.

Filler’s final expulsion letter. (Image: supplied)

– – –

The little things

Filler is back home in Toronto. As her class is preparing to graduate without her in May, Tufts has already emailed her to begin reclaiming her loans.

News of Filler’s expulsion was not unexpected given the drawn-out length of the investigation, but many were stunned by the result, according to the students we spoke to. From the time of the initial investigation, many believed Filler would not escape the trap of “guilty until proven innocent.”

“I do not believe Tiffany received fair treatment,” said one student. “As a private institution, it seems like we have few protections [or] ways of recourse. If they could do this to Tiffany, they could do it to any of us.”

TechCrunch sent Tufts a list of 19 questions prior to publication — including if the university hired qualified forensics specialists to investigate, and if law enforcement was contacted and whether the school plans to press criminal charges for the alleged hacking.

“Due to student privacy concerns, we are not able to discuss disciplinary matters involving any current or former student of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University,” said Tara Pettinato, a Tufts spokesperson. “We take seriously our responsibility to ensure our students’ privacy, to maintain the highest standards of academic integrity, and to adhere to our policies and processes, which are designed to be fair and equitable to all students.”

We asked if the university would answer our questions if Filler waived her right to privacy. The spokesperson said the school “is obligated to follow federal law and its own standards and practices relating to privacy,” and would not discuss disciplinary matters involving any current or former student.

The spokesperson declined to comment further.

But even the little things don’t add up.

Tufts never said how it obtained her IP address. Her landlord told me Tufts never asked for it, let alone confirmed it was accurate. Courts have thrown out cases that rely on them as evidence when others share the same network. MAC addresses can identify devices but can be easily spoofed. Filler owns an iPhone 6, not an iPhone 5S, as claimed by Tufts. And her computer name was different to what Tufts said.

And how did she allegedly get access to the “Scott Shaw” password in the first place?

Warner, the committee chair, said in a letter that the school “does not know” how the initial librarian’s account was compromised, and that it was “irrelevant” if Filler even created the “Scott Shaw” account.

Many accounts were breached as part of this apparent elaborate scheme to alter grades, but there is no evidence Tufts hired any forensics experts to investigate. Did the IT department investigate with an inherent confirmation bias to try to find evidence that connected Filler’s account with the suspicious activity, or were the allegations constructed after Filler was identified as a suspect? And why did the university take months from the first alleged hack to move to protect user accounts with two-factor authentication, and not sooner?

“The data they are looking at doesn’t support the conclusions they’ve drawn,” said Williams, following his analysis of the case. “It’s entirely possible that the data they’re relying on — is far from normal or necessary burdens of evidence that you would use for an adverse action like this.

“They did DIY forensics,” he continued. “And they opened themselves up to legal exposure by doing the investigation themselves.”

Not every story has a clear ending. This is one of them. As much as you would want answers reading this far into the story, we do, too.

But we know two things for certain. First, Tufts expelled a student months before she was set to graduate based on a broken system of academic-led, non-technical committees forced to rely on weak evidence from IT technicians who had discernible qualifications in digital forensics. And second, it doesn’t have to say why.

Or as one student said: “We got her side of the story, and Tufts was not transparent.”

Extra Crunch members — join our conference call on Tuesday, March 12 at 11AM PST / 2PM EST with host Zack Whittaker. He’ll discuss the story’s developments and take your questions. Not a member yet? Learn more about Extra Crunch and try it free.

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Helping children overcome their mobility challenges, Trexo Robotics gets a Y Combinator boost

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Manmeet Maggu and Rahul Udasi didn’t know it when they met at the University of Waterloo eleven years ago, but the bond that the two forged in late night study sessions as roommates in the UW Place dorm has helped power their work building an exoskeleton that allows children with disabilities to walk.

The fruit of that labor is Trexo Robotics, which will graduate as part of the latest batch of Y Combinator’s winter 2019 cohort.

In the three years since Udasi and Maggu launched their company, Trexo has gone through the Techstars accelerator program in New York and raised $720,000 in seed funding. But the roots of the company extend back to Maggu’s senior year at Waterloo, when he learned that his nephew in India had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

The disease, which affects millions around the world and at least 500,000 children in the U.S. alone, was not something that Maggu had known much about. But with the diagnosis of his nephew, he began to learn.

We started looking at what cerebral palsy is and what it would mean to him,” says Maggu. “For him it meant that he would spend his entire life in the wheelchair and I knew the tremendous negative health effects associated with sitting.”

At first, the family looked at ways to encourage the child to walk outside of physical therapy, with no results.

“Initially we were like, let’s buy him a robotics system or an exoskeleton, but after looking around we saw that there was nothing out there,” says Maggu.

That’s when Maggu determined that he would make the development of the exoskeleton the focus of his senior design thesis, back in 2012.

Trexo co-founders Manmeet Maggu and Rahul Udasi (Image courtesy of Trexo Robotics)

“After that everybody went our own ways but I couldn’t stop working on this,” Maggu recalls. “I kept working on this on the side. I was just working in my apartment doing design, doing 3D printing there.”

By that time, Maggu and Udasi had gone their separate ways. Maggu worked on the project on the side while pursuing his career in the technology industry. He worked at Blackberry and Qualcomm, but kept in touch with his college friend, Udasi, had worked for a spell at Willow Garage and a few other robotics companies, before returning to Canada to study for a masters degree in robotics at the University of Toronto.

Maggu had also returned to Toronto to work on a masters in business administration.

But throughout that time, using a low-end printer that he bought for $600, Maggu kept prototyping. Then, when the two were living together, Maggu would ask Udasi, the robotics expert, for his help.

By 2017 the two men had developed a functioning prototype and flown to India to give it to their first test patient — Maggu’s nephew.

“The first time we tried it it didn’t work,” says Maggu. “But my brother has a factory in India in Delhi, so we made some more modifications and tried it out again and I watched my nephew try to walk with the device for the first time.”

After progressing through the Techstars accelerator and raising its seed round, Trexo now has around six versions of its exoskeletons in private homes and hospitals. The company is conducting a clinical study at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and has four paying customers in Canada.

These are still devices that aren’t affordable for most Americans — not by a longshot. Trexo is pursuing a direct-to-consumer approach that would see their technology selling for $899 per month through a lease model with a $1,000 down payment and financing for 36 months. Customers can also lease the product for $999 with at least a required 12 month lease period or they can buy a Trexo exoskeleton for $29,900.

The company is marketing the device as an exercise and therapy device, which means that it can avoid some of the regulatory requirements to bring the product to market under the current regulations from the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees medical devices.

Maggu and Udasi ultimately see Trexo tackling more than just treatment for children with mobility issues. Indeed, Maggu sees opportunities for the company to begin developing products for elder care as well.

“We view this as much more of a consumer product,” says Maggu. “We strongly believe that wearable robotic systems are going to play a huge role in the future to come.”

Why Silicon Valley needs more visas

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When I hear protesters shout, “Immigrants are welcome here!” at the San Francisco immigration office near my startup’s headquarters, I think about how simple a phrase that is for a topic that is so nuanced, especially for me as an immigrant entrepreneur.

Growing up in Brazil, I am less familiar with the nuances of the American debate on immigration legislation, but I know that immigrants here add a lot of jobs and stimulate the local economy. As an immigrant entrepreneur, I’ve tried to check all of those boxes, and really prove my value to this country.

My tech startup Brex has achieved a lot in a short period of time, a feat which is underscored by receiving a $1 billion dollar valuation in just one year. But we didn’t achieve that high level of growth in spite of being founded by immigrants, but because of it. The key to our growth and to working towards building a global brand is our international talent pool, without it, we could never have gotten to where we are today.

So beyond Brex, what do the most successful Silicon Valley startups have in common? They’re also run by immigrants. In fact, not only are 57% of the Bay Area’s STEM tech workers immigrants, they also make up 25% of business founders in the US. You can trace the immigrant entrepreneurial streak in Silicon Valley from the founders of SUN Microsystems and Google to the Valley’s most notorious Twitter User, Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Immigrants not only built the first microchips in Silicon Valley, but they built these companies into the tech titans that they are known as today. After all, more than 50% of billion dollar startups are founded by immigrants, and many of those startups were founded by immigrants on H-1B visas.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/jvoves

While it might sound counterintuitive, immigrants create more jobs and make our economy stronger. Research from the National Foundation of American Policy (NFAP) has shown that immigrant-founded billion-dollar companies doubled their number of employees over the past two years. According to the research, “WeWork went from 1,200 to 6,000 employees between 2016 and 2018, Houzz increased from 800 to 1,800 employees the last two years, while Cloudflare went from 225 to 715 employees.”

We’ve seen the same growth at Brex. In just one year we hired 70 employees and invested over $6 million dollars in creating local jobs. Our startup is not alone, as Inc. recently reported, “50 immigrant-founded unicorn startups have a combined value of $248 billion, according to the report [by NFAP], and have created an average of 1,200 jobs each.”

One of the fundamental drivers of our success is our international workforce. Many of our key-hires are from all over Latin America, spanning from Uruguay to Mexico. In fact, 42% of our workforce is made up of immigrants and another 6% are made up of children of immigrants. Plenty of research shows that diverse teams are more productive and work together better, but that’s only part of the reason why you should bet on an international workforce. When you’re working with the best and brightest from every country, it inspires you to bring forth your most creative ideas, collaborate, and push yourself beyond your comfort zone. It motivates you to be your best.

With all of the positive contributions immigrants bring to this country, you’d think we’d have less restrictive immigration policies. However, that’s not the case. One of the biggest challenges that I face is hiring experienced, qualified engineers and designers to continue innovating in a fast-paced, competitive market.

This is a universal challenge in the tech industry. For the past 10 years, software engineers have been the #1 most difficult job to fill in the United States. Business owners are willing to pay 10-20 percent above the market rate for top talent and engineers. Yet, we’re still projected to have a shortage of two million engineering jobs in the US by 2022. How can you lead the charge of innovation if you don’t have the talent to do it?

What makes matters worse is that there are so few opportunities and types of visas for qualified immigrants. This is limiting job growth, knowledge-sharing, and technological breakthroughs in this country. And we risk losing top talent to other nations if we don’t loosen our restrictive visa laws.

H1-B visa applications fell this year, and at the same time, these visas have become harder to obtain and it has become more expensive to acquire international talent. This isn’t the time to abandon the international talent pool, but to invest in highly specialized workers that can give your startup a competitive advantage.

Already, there’s been a dramatic spike in engineering talent moving to Canada, with a 40% uptick in 2017. Toronto, Berlin, and Singapore are fastly becoming burgeoning tech hubs, and many fear (rightfully) that they will soon outpace the US in growth, talent, and developing the latest technologies.

This year, U.S. based tech companies generated $351 billion of revenue in 2018. The U.S. can’t afford to miss out on this huge revenue source. And, according to Harvard Business School Professor William R. Kerr and the author of The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society, “Today’s knowledge economy dictates that your ability to attract, develop, and integrate smart minds governs how prosperous you will be.”

Immigrants have made Silicon Valley the powerhouse that it is today, and severely limiting highly-skilled immigration benefits no-one. Immigrants have helped the U.S. build one of the best tech hubs in the world— now is the time for startups to invest in international talent so that our technology, economy, and local communities can continue to thrive.

Shopify opens its first brick-and-mortar space in Los Angeles

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Shopify, the provider of payment and logistics management software and services for retailers, has opened its first physical storefront in Los Angeles.

The first brick and mortar location for the Toronto-based company, is nestled in a warren of downtown Los Angeles boutique shops in a complex known as the Row DTLA.

For Shopify, Los Angeles is the ideal place to debut a physical storefront showing off the company’s new line of hardware products and the array of services it provides to businesses ranging from newly opened startups to $900 million juggernauts like the Kylie Cosmetics brand.

The city is one of the most dense conglomerations of Shopify customers with over 10,000 merchants using the company’s technologies in the greater Los Angeles area. 400 of those retailers have each earned over $1 million in gross merchandise volume.

In the Los Angeles space, which looks similar to an Apple store, patrons can expect to see demonstrations and tutorials of how Shopify’s tools and features work. Showrooms displaying the work that Shopify does with some of its close partners will also show how business owners can turn their product visions into actual businesses.

Like Apple, Shopify is staffing its store with experts on the platform who can walk new customers or would-be customers through whatever troubleshooting they may need. While also serving as a space to promote large and small vendors using its payment and supply management solution.

“Our new space in downtown LA is a physical manifestation of our dedication and commitment to making commerce better for everyone. We’re thrilled to be able to take our proven educational, support, and community initiatives and put them to work in an always-on capacity,” said Satish Kanwar, VP of Product at Shopify, in a statement. “We know that making more resources available to entrepreneurs, especially early on, makes them far more likely to succeed, and we’re happy to now be offering that through a brick-and-mortar experience in LA.”

Kanwar and Shopify chief operating officer, Harley Finkelstein, envision the new Los Angeles space as another way to support new and emerging retailers looking for tips on how to build their business in the best possible way.

“The path to being your own boss doesn’t need to be lonely or isolating,” said Finkelstein, in a statement. “With Shopify LA we wanted to create a hub where business owners can find support, inspiration, and community. Most importantly, entrepreneurs at all stages and of all sizes can learn together, have first access to our newest products, and propel their entrepreneurial dreams.”

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