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People

Coronavirus led this company to cut diversity staff. The protests prompted a reversal.

Thumbtack says it will invest more in remedying inequities — and start by hiring a new head of D&I again.

A protester holds up a sign at the George Floyd memorial

Worldwide demonstrations against police brutality are also putting pressure on companies to do more to promote diversity and inclusion.

Photo: Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Thumbtack's co-founder Marco Zappacosta published a blog post on Friday. Like many tech CEOs, he took a stand "against injustice, racism and hate." Included was a pledge that his services marketplace would make practical changes, including recruiting black employees — the company currently has none in senior leadership — and hiring a new head of diversity, equity and inclusion.

But some of Thumbtack's promises weren't new initiatives, but rather reversals of course, a sign of rapidly changing priorities in the tech industry as a racial injustice crisis layers on top of a disease outbreak.

Until March, the company had a head of diversity and inclusion, as well as a D&I team member focused on recruiting. But Thumbtack laid them off along with 30% of the workforce. Now, in the wake of a Minneapolis police officer's killing of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations, Thumbtack says it will invest more in remedying inequities — and start by hiring a new head of D&I again.

"As the business has bounced back from the effects of COVID-19, which caused us to lay off one-third of our employees, a new Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is the only new position that has been approved," a Thumbtack spokesperson said. "We are intentionally making this our first before any others as part of a plan to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive team."

It's an about-face for the company, but not an entirely unexpected one. Diversity and inclusion efforts were already threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, as Protocol reported last month. With protests continuing around the country, many companies are waking to the realization they have a lot of work to do.

The venture capital community in particular, where black investors make up only 3% of all venture partners, is under pressure to diversify firm partnerships and invest in more founders from underrepresented groups. In the last week, firms have rolled out initiatives from increased office hours for black and Latinx founders to new funds, like SoftBank's $100 million opportunity growth fund, that are investing in underrepresented groups.

Before Thumbtack's announcement, the company's previous head of diversity and inclusion, Alex Lahmeyer, posted on LinkedIn that he had seen the number of D&I roles decline over the last few weeks.

"Frankly, I'm scared. Not for my own job search, but for the future of strategic, corporate DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] work that we saw being placed on a pedestal just a few months ago," he wrote. "While it doesn't surprise me, I'm upset that companies use DEI programs for PR strategy and then slash them like they're deadweight."

Lahmeyer told Protocol he doesn't plan to return to his former employer. "Thumbtack informed the former D&I team that a headcount would be reinstated, but I'm not interested in returning," he said in a statement.

But the tech industry's approach to diversity could be changing. Companies including Medallia, GitHub and The Infatuation have advertised D&I-related job opportunities in the past week.

Work opportunities have also rebounded for diversity and inclusion consultants, said Will McNeil, CEO of Black Tech Jobs, a recruiting platform. "We have seen a surge," he said. "Some due to our marketing and our Coffee, Tech & Opportunity event, but much of it has been pushed by the events on the ground related to police brutality and the protests. There has been a push to action."

McNeil is hopeful he can bring back staff members he had to furlough after clients started dropping at the beginning of the pandemic. "We are looking to do that in the next week or so," he said. "And we may have to hire some contract workers, too. I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

Update: A statement from Alex Lahmeyer was added shortly after publication.

Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.

Turning your stories into images.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Politics

In 2020, COVID-19 derailed the privacy debate

From biometric monitoring to unregulated contact tracing, the crisis opened up new privacy vulnerabilities that regulators did little to address.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, says the COVID-19 pandemic has become a "cash grab" for surveillance tech companies.

Photo: Lianhao Qu/Unsplash

As the coronavirus began its inexorable spread across the United States last spring, Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worried the virus would bring with it another scourge: mass surveillance.

"A lot of really bad ideas were being advanced here in the U.S. and a lot of really bad ideas were being actually implemented in foreign countries," Schwartz said.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
People

The year our personal lives took center stage at work

2020's blurring of professional and personal boundaries exacerbated disparities, humanized leaders and put personal values front and center.

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work.

Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images

For those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs and privileged enough to be able to work from home, our whole selves were bared at work this year. Our homes and faces were blown up for virtual inspection. Our children's demands and crises filled our working hours, and our working mothers became schoolteachers and housewives, whether they wanted to or not. Our illnesses became vital public information, and our tragedies shared. Our work lives ate into our social lives until there was no boundary between them.

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work. Remote work might be the most sexy 2020 trend, but for the CEOs and leaders I spoke with, the de-professionalization of work could be the most important effect on a personal level. It's the one that has caused the most harm to women in the workplace and destroyed work-life balance for basically everyone. It's also what has contributed to the majority of work-from-home Americans being more satisfied with their work lives than they were before, mostly because they feel more connected to their families, they're able to set their own schedules and they're more comfortable at home, according to a Morning Consult poll. While we can't know exactly how many and who will be going back to the office just yet, as long as there is some kind of flexible work schedule, people's personal lives will be part of their work lives and vice versa.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Protocol | Enterprise

How Christian Klein’s reboot of SAP’s strategy is working out

The pandemic wasn't kind to the company. But the way it's working with the major COVID-19 vaccine makers is a model for what comes next.

Christian Klein became SAP's sole CEO in April.

Photo: Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Christian Klein took over as SAP's sole CEO in April. It wasn't an ideal time to take the helm of an organization that sells expensive enterprise software.

As the spread of COVID-19 forced corporations everywhere to cut costs, one of the first places they looked was IT budgets. Specifically, companies around the world trimmed spending on back-end products, such as those offered by SAP, many of which still run via on-premise data centers.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Politics

Congress is unleashing the FTC on COVID-19 scammers

The second stimulus package will expand the FTC's authority to penalize companies promoting fake information and faulty products.

The FTC will finally have the authority to immediately fine scammers touting fake COVID-19 treatments and lies about pandemic government benefits.

Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

The FTC will finally have the authority to fine scammers touting fake COVID-19 treatments and lies about pandemic government benefits, thanks to new language in the economic stimulus package set to pass on Monday.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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