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May 24, 2019
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Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

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Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview “On The Internet of Women,” Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira’s personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay “The Internet of Women,” that I thought made it such a kind of, I’d call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally “female.” This isn’t just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a “softer” skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t “work,” [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they’re also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

Meet Projector, collaborative design software for the Instagram age

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Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures bonded with Trevor O’Brien in prison. The pair, Suster was quick to clarify, were on site at a correctional facility in 2016 to teach inmates about entrepreneurship as part of a workshop hosted by Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization focused on addressing the issue of mass incarceration.

They hit it off, sharing perspectives on life and work, Suster recounted to TechCrunch. So when O’Brien, a former director of product management at Twitter, mentioned he was in the early days of building a startup, Suster listened.

Three years later, O’Brien is ready to talk about the idea that captured the attention of the Bird, FabFitFun and Ring investor. It’s called Projector.

It’s the brainchild of a product veteran (O’Brien) and a gaming industry engineer turned Twitter’s vice president of engineering (Projector co-founder Jeremy Gordan), a combination that has given way to an experiential and well-designed platform. Projector is browser-based, real-time collaborative design software tailored for creative teams that feels and looks like a mix of PowerPoint, Google Docs and Instagram . Though it’s still months away from a full-scale public launch, the team recently began inviting potential users to test the product for bugs.

We want to reimagine visual communication in the workplace by building these easier to use tools and giving creative powers to the non-designers who have great stories to tell and who want to make a difference,” O’Brien told TechCrunch. “They want change to happen and they need to be empowered with the right kinds of tools.”

Today, Projector is a lean team of 13 employees based in downtown San Francisco. They’ve kept quiet since late 2016 despite closing two rounds of venture capital funding. The first, a $4 million seed round, was led by Upfront’s Suster, as you may have guessed. The second, a $9 million Series A, was led by Mayfield in 2018. Hunter Walk of Homebrew, Jess Verrilli of #Angels and Nancy Duarte of Duarte, Inc. are also investors in the business, among others.

O’Brien leads Projector as chief executive officer alongside co-founder and chief technology officer Gordon. Years ago, O’Brien was pursuing a PhD in computer graphics and information visualization at Brown University when he was recruited to Google’s competitive associate product manager program. He dropped out of Brown and began a career in tech that would include stints at YouTube, Twitter, Coda and, finally, his very own business.

O’Brien and Gordan crossed paths at Twitter in 2013 and quickly realized a shared history in the gaming industry. O’Brien had spent one year as an engineer at a games startup called Mad Doc Software, while Gordon had served as the chief technology officer at Sega Studios. Gordan left Twitter in 2014 and joined Redpoint Ventures as an entrepreneur-in-residence before O’Brien pitched him on an idea that would become Projector.

Projector co-founders Jeremy Gordan (left), Twitter’s former vice president of engineering, and Trevor O’Brien, Twitter’s former director of product management

“We knew we wanted to create a creative platform but we didn’t want to create another creative platform for purely self-expression, we wanted to do something that was a bit more purposeful,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, we just wanted to see good ideas succeed. And with all of those good ideas, succeeding typically starts with them being presented well to their audience.”

Initially, Projector is targeting employees within creative organizations and marketing firms, who are frequently tasked with creating visually compelling presentations. The tool suite is free for now and will be until it’s been sufficiently tested for bugs and has fully found its footing. O’Brien says he’s not sure just yet how the team will monetize Projector, but predicts they’ll adopt Slack’s per user monthly subscription pricing model.

As original and user-friendly as it may be, Projector is up against great competition right out of the gate. In the startup landscape, it’s got Canva, a graphic design platform valued at $2.5 billion earlier this week with a $70 million financing. On the old-guard, it’s got Adobe, which sells a widely used suite of visual communication and graphic design tools. Not to mention Prezi, Figma and, of course, Microsoft’s PowerPoint, which is total crap but still used by millions of people.

There are many tools scratching at the surface, but there’s not one visual communications tool that wins them all,” Suster said of his investment in Projector.

Projector is still in its very early days. The company currently has just two integrations: Unsplash for free stock images and Giphy for GIFs. O’Brien would eventually like to incorporate iconography, typography and sound to liven up Projector’s visual presentation capabilities.

The ultimate goal, aside from generally improving workplace storytelling, is to make crafting presentations fun, because shouldn’t a corporate slideshow or even a startup’s pitch be as entertaining as scrolling through your Instagram feed?

“We wanted to try to create something that doesn’t feel like work,” O’Brien said.

Throw out your diary, Jour is a new app for guided journaling

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Since Jour, a new app for private and portable journaling, dropped on the App Store two months ago, it’s racked up 80,000 users. No paid marketing or public announcements. Just organic interest in discovering a better way of journaling than pen to paper.

“We can reinvent and redesign what we call journaling and the journal,” Jour co-founder and chief executive officer Maxime Germain told TechCrunch. “If we do it right, it will go mainstream.”

New York-based Jour has raised a $1.8 million seed round from True Ventures’ Kevin Rose. Similar to the meditation apps that have skyrocketed in popularity recently, Jour’s audio-guided sequences are meant to facilitate the journaling process and encourage writers to mindfully reflect and record their lives. With its seed funding, Jour will expand its library of audio sessions and written questions meant to spark inspiration.

“Meditation apps have shown there are some self-care habits we can use in our life to feel better, to feel less anxious,” Germain, a French native who relocated to New York seven years ago, said. “But the journal is a way to capture moments and people’s authentic selves. It’s all the stuff you might not be sharing on social media.”

Jour, at its core, is an app battling mental illness. The business joins a number of other well-being apps and venture-backed startups targeting the mental health crisis. From brick-and-mortar therapy clinics to chat apps to emotional wellness assistants, venture capitalists are waking up to the emotional struggles rampant across the globe.

“Ten years ago when I first started using meditation apps I think there was a certain type of stigma; like you need help so you’re meditating,” True Venture’s Rose, a founder of Digg, Oak, a guided meditation app, and Zero, an app for tracking intermittent fasting, told TechCrunch. “Now, it’s just crossed over to the mainstream.”

“I’m hopeful we are finally getting to a point where we can have open conversations about mental health,” Rose added.

Jour co-founders (from left to right) Maxime Germain, Justin Bureau and Bobby Giangeruso

As Jour deals with an influx of new users, it’s keeping the entire app and all of its features free, though eventually, the team plans to add a paywall to some of the guided content. As for anyone concerned about the safety of your anxieties, hopes and dreams, Jour’s founding team, which includes Germain, Bobby Giangeruso and Justin Bureau, built the app with zero-knowledge encryption.

“I would feel very uncomfortable if the rest of the people on my team could read my most intimate thoughts,” Germain explained. “We built [Jour] with an encryption key that stays on the phone, all the data is encrypted with that key and if you lose that key we can’t recover the entries that we save on the servers. Only you have access to that key, it’s stored on the phone, it encrypts the data and even if the data is compromised we can’t get it.”

Phew. The last thing we need today is our diaries getting hacked.

The Exit: Getaround’s $300M roadtrip

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In August of last year, Getaround scored $300 million from Softbank. Eight months later they handed that same amount to Drivy, a Parisian peer-to-peer car rental service that was Getaround’s ticket to tapping into European markets.

Both companies shared similar visions for the future of car ownership, they were about the same size, both were flirting with expanding beyond their home market, but only one had the power of the Vision Fund behind it.

The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. [Have feedback? Shoot me an email at lucas@techcrunch.com] 

Alven Capital’s Jeremy Uzan

Alven Capital partner Jeremy Uzan first invested in Drivy’s seed round in 2013. Uzan joined Index Ventures co-leading a $2 million round that valued the company at less than $10 million. The firms would later join forces again for the company’s $8.3 million Series A.

I chatted at length with Uzan about what lies ahead for the Drive team, what Paris’s startup scene is still in desperate need of, and how Softbank’s power is becoming even more impossible to ignore.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Getting the checkbook

Lucas Matney: So before we dive into this acquisition, tell me a little bit about how you got to the point where you were writing these checks in the first place.

Jeremy Uzan: So, I studied computer science and business and then spent three years as a tech banker. I was actually in a very small investment banking boutique in Paris helping young startups to raise their Series A rounds. They were all French companies, my first deal was with the YouTube competitor DailyMotion.

Sam Altman’s leap of faith

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Earlier this year, founder-investor Sam Altman left his high-profile role as the president of Y Combinator to become the CEO of OpenAI, an AI research center at its outset that founded by some of the most prominent people in the tech industry in late 2015. The idea: to ensure that artificial intelligence is “developed in a way that is safe and is beneficial to humanity,” as one of those founders, Elon Musk, said back then to the New York Times.

The move is intriguing for many reasons, including that artificial general intelligence — or the ability for machines to be as smart as humans — does not yet exist, with even AI’s top researchers far from clear about when it might. Under the leadership Altman, OpenAI has also restructured as a for-profit company with some caveats, saying it will “need to invest billions of dollars in upcoming years into large-scale cloud compute, attracting and retaining talented people, and building AI supercomputers.”

Whether OpenAI is able to attract so much funding is an open question, but our guess is that it will, if for no reason other than Altman himself — a force of nature who easily charmed a crowd during an extended stage interview with this editor Thursday night, in a talk that covered everything from YC’s evolution to Altman’s current work at OpenAI.

On YC, for example, we discussed that “ramen profitable” was once the goal but that a newer goal seems to be to graduate from the popular accelerator program with millions of dollars in venture funding, if not tens of millions of dollars. (“If I could control the market — obviously the free market is going to do its thing — I would not have YC companies raise the amounts of money they raise or at the valuations they do,” Altman told attendees at the small industry event. “I do think it is, on net, bad for the startups.”)

Altman was also candid when asked personal and occasionally corny questions, even offering up a story about the strong relationship he has long enjoyed with mom, who happened to be in town for the event. Not only did he say that she remains one of a small handful of people who he “absolutely” trusts, but he acknowledged that it has become harder over time to get unvarnished feedback from people outside that small circle. “You get to some point in your career where people are afraid to offend you or say something you might not want to hear. I’m definitely aware that I get stuff filtered and planned out ahead of time at this point.”

Certainly, Altman is given more rope than most.  Not only was this evidenced in the way that Altman ran Y Combinator for five years — essentially supersizing it time and again — but it’s plain from the way he discusses OpenAI that his current thinking is no less audacious. Indeed, much of what Altman said Thursday night would be considered pure insanity coming from someone else. Coming from Altman, it merely drew raised brows.

Asked for example, how OpenAI plans to make money (we wondered if it might license some of its work), Altman answered that the “honest answer is we have no idea. We have never made any revenue. We have no current plans to make revenue. We have no idea how we may one day generate revenue.”

Continued Altman, “We’ve made a soft promise to investors that, ‘Once we build a generally intelligent system, that basically we will ask it to figure out a way to make an investment return for you.’” When the crowd erupted with laughter (it wasn’t immediately obvious that he was serious), Altman himself offered that it sounds like an episode of “Silicon Valley,” but he added, “You can laugh. It’s all right. But it really is what I actually believe.”

We also asked what it means that, under Altman’s leadership, OpenAI has become a “capped profit” company, with the promise of giving investors up to 100 times their return before giving away excess profit to the rest of the world. We noted that 100x is a very high bar — so high in fact that most investors investing in plain-old for-profit companies seldom get close to a 100x return. For example, Sequoia Capital, the only institutional investor in WhatsApp, reportedly saw 50 times the $60 million it had invested in the company when it sold to Facebook for $22 billion, a stunning return.

But Altman not only pushed back on the idea the idea that “capped profit” is a bit of marketing brilliance, he doubled down on why it makes sense. Specifically, he said that the opportunity with artificial general intelligence is so incomprehensibly enormous that if OpenAI manages to crack this particular nut, it could “maybe capture the light cone of all future value in the universe, and that’s for sure not okay for one group of investors to have.”

Before we parted ways, we also shared with Altman various criticisms by AI researchers who we’d interviewed ahead of our sit-down and who’d complained that, among other things, OpenAI seeks out attention for qualitative and not foundational leaps in already proven work, and that its very mission of discovering a path to “safe” artificial general intelligence needlessly raises alarms and makes their research harder.

Altman absorbed and responded to each point. He wasn’t entirely dismissive of them, either, saying of OpenAI’s alarmist bent, for example, that he does have “some sympathy for that argument.”

Still, Altman insisted there’s a better argument to be made for thinking about — and talking with the media about — the potential societal consequences of AI, no matter how aggravating some may find it. “The same people who say OpenAI is fear mongering or whatever are the same ones who are saying, ‘Shouldn’t Facebook have thought about this before they did it?’ This is us trying to think about it before we do it.”

You can check out the full interview below. The first half of our chat is largely centered on his Altman’s career at YC, where he remains chairman. We begin discussing OpenAI in greater detail around the 26-minute mark.

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