To ensure inclusivity, the Biden administration must double down on AI development initiatives

The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) issued a report last month delivering an uncomfortable public message: America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era. It leads to two key questions that demand our immediate response: Will the U.S. continue to be a global superpower if it falls behind in AI development and deployment? And what can we do to change this trajectory?

Left unchecked, seemingly neutral artificial intelligence (AI) tools can and will perpetuate inequalities and, in effect, automate discrimination. Tech-enabled harms have already surfaced in credit decisions, health care services, and advertising.

To prevent this recurrence and growth at scale, the Biden administration must clarify current laws pertaining to AI and machine learning models — both in terms of how we will evaluate use by private actors and how we will govern AI usage within our government systems.

The administration has put a strong foot forward, from key appointments in the tech space to issuing an Executive Order on the first day in office that established an Equitable Data Working Group. This has comforted skeptics concerned both about the U.S. commitment to AI development and to ensuring equity in the digital space.

But that will be fleeting unless the administration shows strong resolve in making AI funding a reality and establishing leaders and structures necessary to safeguard its development and use.

Need for clarity on priorities

There has been a seismic shift at the federal level in AI policy and in stated commitments to equality in tech. A number of high profile appointments by the Biden administration — from Dr. Alondra Nelson as Deputy of OSTP, to Tim Wu at the NEC, to (our former senior advisor) Kurt Campbell at the NSC — signal that significant attention will be paid to inclusive AI development by experts on the inside.

The NSCAI final report includes recommendations that could prove critical to enabling better foundations for inclusive AI development, such as creating new talent pipelines through a U.S. Digital Service Academy to train current and future employees.

The report also recommends establishing a new Technology Competitiveness Council led by the Vice President. This could prove essential in ensuring that the nation’s commitment to AI leadership remains a priority at the highest levels. It makes good sense to have the administration’s leadership on AI spearheaded by VP Harris in light of her strategic partnership with the President, her tech policy savvy and her focus on civil rights.

The U.S. needs to lead by example

We know AI is powerful in its ability to create efficiencies, such as plowing through thousands of resumes to identify potentially suitable candidates. But it can also scale discrimination, such as the Amazon hiring tool that prioritized male candidates or “digital redlining” of credit based on race.

The Biden administration should issue an Executive Order (EO) to agencies inviting ideation on ways AI can improve government operations. The EO should also mandate checks on AI used by the USG to ensure it’s not spreading discriminatory outcomes unintentionally.

For instance, there must be a routine schedule in place where AI systems are evaluated to ensure embedded, harmful biases are not resulting in recommendations that are discriminatory or inconsistent with our democratic, inclusive values — and reevaluated routinely given that AI is constantly iterating and learning new patterns.

Putting a responsible AI governance system in place is particularly critical in the U.S. Government, which is required to offer due process protection when denying certain benefits. For instance, when AI is used to determine allocation of Medicaid benefits, and such benefits are modified or denied based on an algorithm, the government must be able to explain that outcome, aptly termed technological due process.

If decisions are delegated to automated systems without explainability, guidelines and human oversight, we find ourselves in the untenable situation where this basic constitutional right is being denied.

Likewise, the administration has immense power to ensure that AI safeguards by key corporate players are in place through its procurement power. Federal contract spending was expected to exceed $600 billion in fiscal 2020, even before including pandemic economic stimulus funds. The USG could effectuate tremendous impact by issuing a checklist for federal procurement of AI systems — this would ensure the government’s process is both rigorous and universally applied, including relevant civil rights considerations.

Protection from discrimination stemming from AI systems

The government holds another powerful lever to protect us from AI harms: its investigative and prosecutorial authority. An Executive Order instructing agencies to clarify applicability of current laws and regulations (e.g., ADA, Fair Housing, Fair Lending, Civil Rights Act, etc.) when determinations are reliant on AI-powered systems could result in a global reckoning. Companies operating in the U.S. would have unquestionable motivation to check their AI systems for harms against protected classes.

Low-income individuals are disproportionately vulnerable to many of the negative effects of AI. This is especially apparent with regard to credit and loan creation, because they are less likely to have access to traditional financial products or the ability to obtain high scores based on traditional frameworks. This then becomes the data used to create AI systems that automate such decisions.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) can play a pivotal role in holding financial institutions accountable for discriminatory lending processes that result from reliance on discriminatory AI systems. The mandate of an EO would be a forcing function for statements on how AI-enabled systems will be evaluated, putting companies on notice and better protecting the public with clear expectations on AI use.

There is a clear path to liability when an individual acts in a discriminatory way and a due process violation when a public benefit is denied arbitrarily, without explanation. Theoretically, these liabilities and rights would transfer with ease when an AI system is involved, but a review of agency action and legal precedent (or rather, the lack thereof) indicates otherwise.

The administration is off to a good start, such as rolling back a proposed HUD rule that would have made legal challenges against discriminatory AI essentially unattainable. Next, federal agencies with investigative or prosecutorial authority should clarify which AI practices would fall under their review and current laws would be applicable — for instance, HUD for illegal housing discrimination; CFPB on AI used in credit lending; and the Department of Labor on AI used in determinations made in hiring, evaluations and terminations.

Such action would have the added benefit of establishing a useful precedent for plaintiff actions in complaints.

The Biden administration has taken encouraging first steps signaling its intent to ensure inclusive, less discriminatory AI. However, it must put its own house in order by directing that federal agencies require the development, acquisition and use of AI — internally and by those it does business with — is done in a manner that protects privacy, civil rights, civil liberties, and American values.

#artificial-intelligence, #biden-administration, #column, #consumer-financial-protection-bureau, #department-of-labor, #government, #machine-learning, #opinion, #policy, #united-states

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Dear Sophie: How can I get my startup off the ground and visit the US?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie,

I’m a female entrepreneur who created my first startup a few months ago.

Once my startup gets off the ground — and as COVID-19 gets under control — I’d like to visit the United States to test the market and meet with investors. Which visas would allow me to do that?

—Noteworthy in Nairobi

Dear Noteworthy:

Congratulations on founding your startup! There are many ways to engage with the U.S. startup ecosystem, and you can start now, even before you physically come to the United States.

I recommend doing some research into the programs and resources offered to entrepreneurs like you through the U.S. Embassy and Consulates near you in your home country. I recently interviewed Lilly Wahl-Tuco, a foreign service officer who has worked for the U.S. Department of State for 15 years, on my podcast.

Wahl-Tuco discussed some of the State Department resources — including programs, competitions and grants — made available by U.S. embassies and consulates for entrepreneurs living in the area.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

Serving as the first Environment, Science, Technology and Health (ESTH) officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2015, Wahl-Tuco was tasked with energizing the entrepreneurs of Bosnia. After she traveled around the country, visiting every incubator and meeting several entrepreneurs, Wahl-Tuco said she was surprised that most of the people she talked with didn’t know about the resources that the U.S. government offers through its embassies.

She recommends that entrepreneurs reach out, network and do online research to figure out what’s offered their country or even if other foreign embassies offer resources and programs aimed at entrepreneurs.

Wahl-Tuco also suggested that entrepreneurs reach out to their local U.S. Embassy. For example, you can contact the U.S. Embassy in Kenya to find out if you can discuss your startup and business plan with an ESTH officer (if there is one) or someone else there. Connecting with embassy staff can open up many opportunities.

#africa, #column, #diversity, #ec-column, #entrepreneurship, #female-entrepreneurs, #global-entrepreneurship, #h-1b-visa, #international-entrepreneur-rule, #lawyers, #sophie-alcorn, #startup-ecosystem, #startup-visa, #startups, #verified-experts

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‘Conscience laws’ endanger patients and contradict health tech’s core values

Recent laws allowing healthcare providers to refuse care because of conscientious beliefs and denying care to transgender individuals might not seem like an issue for the tech industry at first blush, but these types of legislation directly contradict the core values of health tech.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson last month signed into law S.B. 289, known as the “Medical Ethics and Diversity Act,” which allows anyone who provides healthcare services — not just doctors — to refuse to give non-emergency care if they believe the care goes against their conscience.

Arkansas is one of several states in the U.S. that have been pushing laws like this over the past several years. These “conscience laws” are harmful to all patients — particularly LGBTQ individuals, women and rural citizens — especially because over 40% of available hospital beds are controlled by Catholic institutions in some states.

While disguised as a safeguard that prevents doctors from having to participate in medical services that are at odds with their religious beliefs, these laws go far beyond that and should be repealed.

While disguised as a safeguard that prevents doctors from having to participate in medical services that are at odds with their religious beliefs, these laws go far beyond that and should be repealed.

“Non-emergency” service is open to interpretation

The Arkansas legislation is one giant slippery slope. Even beyond the direct effects that the law would have on reproductive rights and the LGBTQ community, it leaves open questions about the many different services that medical professionals could decline simply by saying it goes against their conscience.

Broadly letting healthcare providers decide which services they will perform based on religion, ethics or conscience essentially eliminates protections patients have under federal anti-discrimination regulations.

What constitutes an “emergency” to one doctor or EMT may be deemed a “non-emergency” by another. By allowing medical professionals to avoid performing some services, the bill can be interpreted as allowing anyone involved in the provision of healthcare services to avoid performing any kind of service, as long as they say they believed it wasn’t an emergency at the time.

The law also allows individuals to refuse to refer patients to someone who would provide the desired service for them. This places an undue burden on patients with physical or mental health issues and causes delays in treatment as the patient searches for an alternate provider. In cases of health and life-threatening issues, for example, women have been refused treatment at Catholic medical institutions and forced to ride to the closest emergency care center.

The health tech community is working to improve the health of all

The Arkansas law runs counter to the values of the businesses that are working hard to develop and improve medical technologies. Health tech startups at their core are fighting to provide more and better services to more patients — whether it’s by building platforms to make healthcare accessible to all, developing specific medical devices to improve the quality of service or researching new treatments and vaccines.

Imagine developing a vaccine for a global pandemic and then allowing doctors the right to refuse to administer it because it’s open to interpretation whether the virus represents an emergency to specific people. Or imagine a hospital pharmacist who deliberately tries to spoil hundreds of vaccine doses because of the conspiracy theories he believes. Laws like the one in Arkansas open up the healthcare system to abuse by conspiracy theorists, and it is already the case that many wellness providers are basing their advice and services on QAnon falsehoods.

The health tech community is not just developing medications and devices for patients whose beliefs are similar to their own. Equally, medical professionals should not be making it harder for people to get needed medical care based on personal feelings. On the contrary, the ultimate goal of health tech businesses and healthcare providers alike should be a singular focus on improving the quality of care for all.

“Medical ethics” and anti-LGBTQ laws are unethical

As the health tech community continues to work tirelessly to bring new solutions to the marketplace to improve the health of everyone, it must also stand against laws like this, which threaten to eradicate the important gains that have been made in enhancing the lives and health of patients.

The Arkansas law — and others like it — place the burden of finding appropriate care on the patient instead of on the medical community, where it belongs. These laws must be repealed.

#arkansas, #column, #diversity, #health, #healthcare, #healthcare-industry, #healthtech, #lgbtq, #medicine, #opinion, #tc, #united-states

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4 ways martech will shift in 2021

The tidal wave of growth is upon us — an unprecedented economic boom that will manifest later this year, bringing significant investments, acquisitions, and customer growth. But most tech companies and startups are not adequately prepared to capitalize on the opportunity that lies ahead.

Here’s how marketing in tech will shift — and what you need to know to reach more customers and accelerate growth in 2021.

First and foremost, differentiation is going to be imperative. It’s already hard enough to stand out and get noticed, and it’s about to get much more difficult as new companies emerge and investments and budgets balloon in the latter half of the year. Virtually all major companies are increasing budgets to pre-pandemic levels, but will delay those investments until the second half of the year. This will result in an increased intensity of competition that will drown out any undifferentiated players.

The second half of 2021 will bring incredible growth, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time.

Additionally, tech companies need to be mindful not to ignore the most important part of the ecosystem: people. Technology will only take you so far, and it’s not going to be enough to survive the competition. Marketing is about people, including your customers, team, partners, investors, and the broader community.

Understanding who your people are and how you can use their help to build a strong foundation and drive exponential growth is essential.

Tactically, the most successful tech companies will embrace video and experimentation in their marketing — two components that will catapult them ahead of the competition.

Ignoring these predictions, backed by empirical evidence, will be detrimental and devastating. Fasten your seatbelts: 2021 is going to be a turbo-charged year of growth opportunities for marketing in tech.

Differentiation is crucial

The explosion of tech companies and startups seeking to be the next big thing isn’t over yet. However, many of them are indistinguishable from each other and lack a compelling value proposition. Just one look at the websites of new and existing tech companies will reveal a proliferation of buzzwords and conceptual illustrations, leaving them all looking and sounding alike.

The tech companies that succeed are those that embrace one of the fundamentals of effective marketing — positioning.

In the ’80s, Al Ries and Jack Trout published Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind and coined the term, which documented the best-known approach to standing out in a noisy marketplace. As the market heats up, companies will realize the need to sharpen their positioning and dial in their focus to break through the noise.

To get attention and build traction, companies need to establish a position they can own. The “mashup method: (Netflix but for coding lessons) is not real positioning; it’s simply a lazy gimmick.

It is imperative to identify who your ideal customer is and not just who could use your product. Focusing on a segment of the market rather than the whole is, perhaps counterintuitively, the most effective approach to capturing the larger market.

#column, #ec-column, #ec-news-analysis, #enterprise, #entrepreneurship, #marketing, #product-marketing, #stripe

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Flawed data is putting people with disabilities at risk

Data isn’t abstract — it has a direct impact on people’s lives.

In 2019, an AI-powered delivery robot momentarily blocked a wheelchair user from safely accessing the curb when crossing a busy road. Speaking about the incident, the person noted how “it’s important that the development of technologies [doesn’t put] disabled people on the line as collateral”.

Alongside other minority groups, people with disabilities have long been harmed by flawed data and data tools. Disabilities are diverse, nuanced, and dynamic; they don’t fit within the formulaic structure of AI, which is programmed to find patterns and form groups. Because AI treats any outlier data as ‘noise’ and disregards it, too often people with disabilities are excluded from its conclusions.

Take for example the case of Elaine Herzberg, who was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber SUV in 2018. At the time of the collision, Herzberg was pushing a bicycle, which meant Uber’s system struggled to categorize her and flitted between labeling her as a ‘vehicle,’ ‘bicycle,’ and ‘other.’ The tragedy raised many questions for people with disabilities: would a person in a wheelchair or a scooter be at risk of the same fatal misclassification?

We need a new way of collecting and processing data. ‘Data’ ranges from personal information, user feedback, resumes, multimedia, user metrics, and much more, and it’s constantly being used to optimize our software. However, it’s not done so with the understanding of the spectrum of nefarious ways that it can and is used in the wrong hands, or when principles are not applied to each touchpoint of building.

Our products are long overdue for a new, fairer data framework to ensure that data is managed with people with disabilities in mind. If it isn’t, people with disabilities will face more friction, and dangers, in a day-to-day life that is increasingly dependent on digital tools.

Misinformed data hampers the building of good tools

Products that lack accessibility might not stop people with disabilities from leaving their homes, but they can stop them from accessing pivot points of life like quality healthcare, education, and on-demand deliveries.

Our tools are a product of their environment. They reflect their creators’ world view and subjective lens. For too long, the same groups of people have been overseeing faulty data systems. It’s a closed loop, where underlying biases are perpetuated and groups that were already invisible remain unseen. But as data progresses, that loop becomes a snowball. We’re dealing with machine-learning models — if they’re taught long enough that ‘not being X’ (read: white, able-bodied, cisgendered) means not being ‘normal’, they will evolve by building on that foundation.

Data is interlinked in ways that are invisible to us. It’s not enough to say that your algorithm won’t exclude people with registered disabilities. Biases are present in other sets of data. For example, in the United States it’s illegal to refuse someone a mortgage loan because they’re Black. But by basing the process heavily on credit scores — which have inherent biases detrimental to people of color — banks indirectly exclude that segment of society.

For people with disabilities, indirectly biased data could potentially be: frequency of physical activity or number of hours commuted per week. Here’s a concrete example of how indirect bias translates to software: If a hiring algorithm studies candidates’ facial movements during a video interview, a person with a cognitive disability or mobility impairment will experience different barriers than a fully able-bodied applicant.

The problem also stems from people with disabilities not being viewed as part of businesses’ target market. When companies are in the early stage of brainstorming their ideal users, people’s disabilities often don’t figure, especially when they’re less noticeable — like mental health illness. That means the initial user data used to iterate products or services doesn’t come from these individuals. In fact, 56% of organizations still don’t routinely test their digital products among people with disabilities.

If tech companies proactively included individuals with disabilities on their teams, it’s far more likely that their target market would be more representative. In addition, all tech workers need to be aware of and factor in the visible and invisible exclusions in their data. It’s no simple task, and we need to collaborate on this. Ideally, we’ll have more frequent conversations, forums and knowledge-sharing on how to eliminate indirect bias from the data we use daily.

We need an ethical stress test for data

We test our products all the time — on usability, engagement, and even logo preferences. We know which colors perform better to convert paying customers, and the words that resonate most with people, so why aren’t we setting a bar for data ethics?

Ultimately, the responsibility of creating ethical tech does not just lie at the top. Those laying the brickwork for a product day after day are also liable. It was the Volkswagen engineer (not the company CEO) who was sent to jail for developing a device that enabled cars to evade US pollution rules.

Engineers, designers, product managers: we all have to acknowledge the data in front of us and think about why we collect it and how we collect it. That means dissecting the data we’re requesting and analyzing what our motivations are. Does it always make sense to ask about someone’s disabilities, sex or race? How does having this information benefit the end user?

At Stark, we’ve developed a five-point framework to run when designing and building any kind of software, service or tech. We have to address:

  1. What data we’re collecting
  2. Why we’re collecting it
  3. How it will be used (and how it can be misused)
  4. Simulate IFTTT: ‘if this, then that.’ Explain possible scenarios in which the data can be used nefariously, and alternate solutions. For instance, how users can be impacted by an at-scale data breach? What happens if this private information becomes public to their family and friends?
  5. Ship or trash the idea

If we can only explain our data using vague terminology and unclear expectations, or by stretching the truth, we shouldn’t be allowed to have that data. The framework forces us to break down data in the most simple manner; and if we can’t, it’s because we’re not yet equipped to handle it responsibly.

Innovation has to include people with disabilities

Complex data technology is entering new sectors all the time, from vaccine development to robotaxis. Any bias against individuals with disabilities in these sectors stops them from accessing the most cutting-edge products and services. As we become more dependent on tech in every niche of our lives, there’s greater room for exclusion in how we carry out everyday activities.

This is all about forward thinking and baking inclusion into your product at the start. Money and/or experience aren’t limiting factors here — changing your thought process and development journey is free, it’s just a conscious pivot in a better direction. And while the upfront cost may be a heavy lift, the profits you’d lose from not tapping into these markets, or because you end up retrofitting your product down the line, far outweigh that initial expense. This is especially true for enterprise-level companies that won’t be able to access academia or governmental contracts without being compliant.

So early-stage companies, integrate accessibility principles into your product development and gather user data to constantly reinforce those principles. Sharing data across your onboarding, sales, and design teams will give you a more complete picture of where your users are experiencing difficulties. Later-stage companies should carry out a self-assessment to determine where those principles are lacking in their product, and harness historical data and new user feedback to generate a fix.

An overhaul of AI and data isn’t just about adapting businesses’ framework. We still need the people at the helm to be more diverse. The fields remain overwhelmingly male and white, and in tech, there are numerous first-hand accounts of exclusion and bias towards people with disabilities. Until the teams curating data tools are themselves more diverse, nations’ growth will continue to be stifled, and people with disabilities will be some of the hardest-hit casualties.

#accessibility, #artificial-intelligence, #cat-noone, #column, #data, #diversity, #ethics, #opinion, #tc

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Time-strapped IT teams can use low-code software to drive quick growth

Many emerging and mature organizations survive or die based on their ability to scale. Scale quicker. Scale cheaper. Scale right.

Typically the IT team bears that burden — on top of countless other demands. IT teams move mountains for their organizations while scaling the tech platform as fast as possible, putting out the latest infrastructure fire and responding to countless day-to-day requests.

The most helpful gift any chief information officer or chief technology officer can give their IT teams is more time. Many people think that means adding another team member. Maybe it does in some cases (if you can find a developer in this tough job market), but giving my team Boomi’s low-code integration platform was one of the best strategic moves for HealthBridge.

The best time to use low-code is when you need to add something to your organization that isn’t unique or doesn’t drive significant business value.

As the least skilled coder on the team, low-code let me develop and deliver four customer-centric self-service portals a year ahead of schedule while my team focused on building and scaling our revenue-driving, custom platform by hand-writing code.

Low-code is quickly becoming commonplace and a popular topic among IT decision-makers. Over the last few years, the market has exploded. Gartner expects it to total $13.8 billion in 2021. That means low-code technology, which we’ve been hearing about for years, is ready for widespread adoption. Today, low-code enables you to streamline (and scale) everything from integration to artificial intelligence.

It’s a secret only some organizations are clued in on, but it’s a great way to scale fast, save on resources and give your team more time. Here’s how.

When to use low-code and when to write code

The best time to use low-code is when you need to add something to your organization that isn’t unique or doesn’t drive significant business value.

For instance, a customer portal is not unique; don’t waste time hand-coding it.

While it’s certainly an extremely helpful feature for our customers, it’s unlikely to drive significant shareholder or investor value. However, it’s key for scaling. Using low-code for a must-have but undifferentiated feature will allow your team to work on more important projects while scaling.

When we started working on the timeline for a customer portal project at HealthBridge, we estimated it would take several sprints per portal to develop, but more pressing development work kept pushing it down the list in our backlog. Waiting a year for a basic feature didn’t seem reasonable to me, so we looked for a workaround.

#boomi, #chief-information-officer, #cloud-computing, #column, #developer, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-column, #information-technology, #low-code, #software-development, #startups

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Business continuity planning is a necessity for your fund and portfolio

Just shy of a year ago, I sent an email to our global fund manager partners and to our direct portfolio CEOs titled “Only the decisive survive.” At that time, not many outside of China were concerned about COVID-19. However, I was obsessed.

Hearing stories from fund manager friends with operations in China, I knew things were worse than what the Chinese press were telling the world. And I live only five miles south of the location of the first COVID death in the U.S. The pandemic was accelerating exponentially, and I wanted to get all of our partners to open their eyes to the risks and prepare as well as they could.

I’m not writing with that level of intensity or urgency this time, but I am concerned. We all need to be taking precautionary measures, not just in light of COVID, but to ensure our firms can continue to thrive when faced with unexpected tragedy.

We all need to be taking precautionary measures, not just in light of COVID, but to ensure our firms can continue to thrive when faced with unexpected tragedy.

My partner Susana invested in 90 funds over 20 years — she’s seen everything from motorcycle accidents to depression take out fund managers and CEOs. Life works that way sometimes, and it’s not always someone else. It’s the “What happens if I get hit by a bus scenario?” In this case, the bus happens to be a global pandemic.

One of our funds in Asia recently reported COVID cases in three CEOs among their 23 companies. While developed market infections and deaths are trending down, many countries are seeing serious new outbreaks, and some, like Brazil, are doing badly.

Pandemic forecasting site IHME predicts a growing caseload across sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and Pacific regions. The LAC region is trending down overall, but some countries, including Colombia, are expected to experience a second (or third) wave of infections.

As the Economist said in mid-February, “Coronavirus is not done with humanity yet.”

Planning for your fund

A month or so ago, we were trying to move forward with an investment in a fund in Africa with whom we had been speaking and doing due diligence for a few months. They went radio silent for over two weeks. We didn’t know whether to be miffed, concerned for their health, or what.

#backup, #business-growth, #collaboration, #column, #covid-19, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #partner-fund-management, #private-equity, #venture-capital, #will-poole

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Data scientists: Bring the narrative to the forefront

By 2025, 463 exabytes of data will be created each day, according to some estimates. (For perspective, one exabyte of storage could hold 50,000 years of DVD-quality video.) It’s now easier than ever to translate physical and digital actions into data, and businesses of all types have raced to amass as much data as possible in order to gain a competitive edge.

However, in our collective infatuation with data (and obtaining more of it), what’s often overlooked is the role that storytelling plays in extracting real value from data.

The reality is that data by itself is insufficient to really influence human behavior. Whether the goal is to improve a business’ bottom line or convince people to stay home amid a pandemic, it’s the narrative that compels action, rather than the numbers alone. As more data is collected and analyzed, communication and storytelling will become even more integral in the data science discipline because of their role in separating the signal from the noise.

Data alone doesn’t spur innovation — rather, it’s data-driven storytelling that helps uncover hidden trends, powers personalization, and streamlines processes.

Yet this can be an area where data scientists struggle. In Anaconda’s 2020 State of Data Science survey of more than 2,300 data scientists, nearly a quarter of respondents said that their data science or machine learning (ML) teams lacked communication skills. This may be one reason why roughly 40% of respondents said they were able to effectively demonstrate business impact “only sometimes” or “almost never.”

The best data practitioners must be as skilled in storytelling as they are in coding and deploying models — and yes, this extends beyond creating visualizations to accompany reports. Here are some recommendations for how data scientists can situate their results within larger contextual narratives.

Make the abstract more tangible

Ever-growing datasets help machine learning models better understand the scope of a problem space, but more data does not necessarily help with human comprehension. Even for the most left-brain of thinkers, it’s not in our nature to understand large abstract numbers or things like marginal improvements in accuracy. This is why it’s important to include points of reference in your storytelling that make data tangible.

For example, throughout the pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with countless statistics around case counts, death rates, positivity rates, and more. While all of this data is important, tools like interactive maps and conversations around reproduction numbers are more effective than massive data dumps in terms of providing context, conveying risk, and, consequently, helping change behaviors as needed. In working with numbers, data practitioners have a responsibility to provide the necessary structure so that the data can be understood by the intended audience.

#column, #computing, #data, #data-management, #data-visualization, #developer, #ec-column, #ec-consumer-applications, #ec-enterprise-applications, #enterprise, #machine-learning, #peter-wang, #startups, #storytelling

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Enterprise security attackers are one password away from your worst day

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, then one might say the cybersecurity industry is insane.

Criminals continue to innovate with highly sophisticated attack methods, but many security organizations still use the same technological approaches they did 10 years ago. The world has changed, but cybersecurity hasn’t kept pace.

Distributed systems, with people and data everywhere, mean the perimeter has disappeared. And the hackers couldn’t be more excited. The same technology approaches, like correlation rules, manual processes, and reviewing alerts in isolation, do little more than remedy symptoms while hardly addressing the underlying problem.

Credentials are supposed to be the front gates of the castle, but as the SOC is failing to change, it is failing to detect. The cybersecurity industry must rethink its strategy to analyze how credentials are used and stop breaches before they become bigger problems.

It’s all about the credentials

Compromised credentials have long been a primary attack vector, but the problem has only grown worse in the mid-pandemic world. The acceleration of remote work has increased the attack footprint as organizations struggle to secure their network while employees work from unsecured connections. In April 2020, the FBI said that cybersecurity attacks reported to the organization grew by 400% compared to before the pandemic. Just imagine where that number is now in early 2021.

It only takes one compromised account for an attacker to enter the active directory and create their own credentials. In such an environment, all user accounts should be considered as potentially compromised.

Nearly all of the hundreds of breach reports I’ve read have involved compromised credentials. More than 80% of hacking breaches are now enabled by brute force or the use of lost or stolen credentials, according to the 2020 Data Breach Investigations Report. The most effective and commonly-used strategy is credential stuffing attacks, where digital adversaries break in, exploit the environment, then move laterally to gain higher-level access.

#column, #computer-security, #credential-stuffing, #crime, #cyberattack, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #data-breach, #ec-column, #ec-cybersecurity, #encryption, #enterprise, #fireeye, #national-security-agency, #phishing, #security, #solarwinds

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Reform the US low-income broadband program by rebuilding Lifeline

“If you build it, they will come” is a mantra that’s been repeated for more than three decades to embolden action. The line from “Field of Dreams” is a powerful saying, but I might add one word: “If you build it well, they will come.”

America’s Lifeline program, a monthly subsidy designed to help low-income families afford critical communications services, was created with the best intentions. The original goal was to achieve universal telephone service, but it has fallen far short of achieving its potential as the Federal Communications Commission has attempted to convert it to a broadband-centric program.

The FCC’s Universal Service Administrative Company estimates that only 26% of the families that are eligible for Lifeline currently participate in the program. That means that nearly three out of four low-income consumers are missing out on a benefit for which they qualify. But that doesn’t mean the program should be abandoned, as the Biden administration’s newly released infrastructure plan suggests.

Now is the right opportunity to complete the transformation of Lifeline to broadband and expand its utilization by increasing the benefit to a level commensurate with the broadband marketplace and making the benefit directly available to end users.

Rather, now is the right opportunity to complete the transformation of Lifeline to broadband and expand its utilization by increasing the benefit to a level commensurate with the broadband marketplace and making the benefit directly available to end users. Instead, the White House fact sheet on the plan recommends price controls for internet access services with a phaseout of subsidies for low-income subscribers. That is a flawed policy prescription.

If maintaining America’s global competitiveness, building broadband infrastructure in high-cost rural areas, and maintaining the nation’s rapid deployment of 5G wireless services are national goals, the government should not set prices for internet access.

Forcing artificially low prices in the quest for broadband affordability would leave internet service providers with insufficient revenues to continue to meet the nation’s communications infrastructure needs with robust innovation and investment.

Instead, targeted changes to the Lifeline program could dramatically increase its participation rate, helping to realize the goal of connecting Americans most in need with the phone and broadband services that in today’s world have become essential to employment, education, healthcare and access to government resources.

To start, Lifeline program participation should be made much easier. Today, individuals seeking the benefit must go through a process of self-enrollment. Implementing “coordinated enrollment” — through which individuals would automatically be enrolled in Lifeline when they qualify for certain other government assistance benefits, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) and Medicaid — would help to address the severe program underutilization.

Because multiple government programs serve the same constituency, a single qualification process for enrollment in all applicable programs would generate government efficiencies and reach Americans who are missing out.

Speaking before the American Enterprise Institute back in 2014, former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said, “In most states, to enroll in federal benefit programs administered by state agencies, consumers already must gather their income-related documentation, and for some programs, go through a face-to-face interview. Allowing customers to enroll in Lifeline at the same time as they apply for other government benefits would provide a better experience for consumers and streamline our efforts.”

Second, the use of the Lifeline benefit can be made far simpler for consumers if the subsidy is provided directly to them via an electronic Lifeline benefit card account — like the SNAP program’s electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. Not only would a Lifeline benefit card make participation in the program more convenient, but low-income

Americans would then be able to shop among the various providers and select the carrier and the precise service(s) that best suits their needs. The flexibility of greater consumer choice would be an encouragement for more program sign-ups.

And, the current Lifeline subsidy amount — $9.25 per month — isn’t enough to pay for a broadband subscription. For the subsidy to be truly meaningful, an increase in the monthly benefit is needed. Last December, Congress passed the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit to provide low-income Americans up to a $50 per month discount ($75 per month on tribal lands) to offset the cost of broadband connectivity during the pandemic. After the emergency benefit runs out, a monthly benefit adequate to defray the cost of a broadband subscription will be needed.

In order to support more than a $9.25 monthly benefit, the funding source for the Lifeline program must also be reimagined. Currently, the program relies on the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which is financed through a “tax” on traditional long-distance and international telephone services.

As greater use is made of the web for voice communications, coupled with less use of traditional telephones, the tax rate has increased to compensate for the shrinking revenues associated with landline phone services. A decade ago, the tax, known as the “contribution factor,” was 15.5%, but it’s now more than double that at an unsustainable 33.4%. Without changes, the problem will only worsen.

It’s easy to see that the financing of a broadband benefit should no longer be tied to a dying technology. Instead, funding for the Lifeline program could come from a “tax” shared across the entire internet ecosystem, including the edge providers that depend on broadband to reach their customers, or from direct congressional appropriations for the Lifeline program.

These reforms are realistic and straightforward. Rather than burn the program down, it’s time to rebuild Lifeline to ensure that it fulfills its original intention and reaches America’s neediest.

#biden-administration, #broadband, #column, #digital-divide, #federal-communications-commission, #government, #internet-access, #internet-service-providers, #opinion, #policy

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How startups can ensure CCPA and GDPR compliance in 2021

Data is the most valuable asset for any business in 2021. If your business is online and collecting customer personal information, your business is dealing in data, which means data privacy compliance regulations will apply to everyone — no matter the company’s size.

Small startups might not think the world’s strictest data privacy laws — the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — apply to them, but it’s important to enact best data management practices before a legal situation arises.

Data compliance is not only critical to a company’s daily functions; if done wrong or not done at all, it can be quite costly for companies of all sizes.

For example, failing to comply with the GDPR can result in legal fines of €20 million or 4% of annual revenue. Under the CCPA, fines can also escalate quickly, to the tune of $2,500 to $7,500 per person whose data is exposed during a data breach.

If the data of 1,000 customers is compromised in a cybersecurity incident, that would add up to $7.5 million. The company can also be sued in class action claims or suffer reputational damage, resulting in lost business costs.

It is also important to recognize some benefits of good data management. If a company takes a proactive approach to data privacy, it may mitigate the impact of a data breach, which the government can take into consideration when assessing legal fines. In addition, companies can benefit from business insights, reduced storage costs and increased employee productivity, which can all make a big impact on the company’s bottom line.

Challenges of data compliance for startups

Data compliance is not only critical to a company’s daily functions; if done wrong or not done at all, it can be quite costly for companies of all sizes. For example, Vodafone Spain was recently fined $9.72 million under GDPR data protection failures, and enforcement trackers show schools, associations, municipalities, homeowners associations and more are also receiving fines.

GDPR regulators have issued $332.4 million in fines since the law was enacted almost two years ago and are being more aggressive with enforcement. While California’s attorney general started CCPA enforcement on July 1, 2020, the newly passed California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) only recently created a state agency to more effectively enforce compliance for any company storing information of residents in California, a major hub of U.S. startups.

That is why in this age, data privacy compliance is key to a successful business. Unfortunately, many startups are at a disadvantage for many reasons, including:

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Billion-dollar B2B: cloud-first enterprise tech behemoths have massive potential

More than half a decade ago, my Battery Ventures partner Neeraj Agrawal penned a widely read post offering advice for enterprise-software companies hoping to reach $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

His playbook, dubbed “T2D3” — for “triple, triple, double, double, double,” referring to the stages at which a software company’s revenue should multiply — helped many high-growth startups index their growth. It also highlighted the broader explosion in industry value creation stemming from the transition of on-premise software to the cloud.

Fast forward to today, and many of T2D3’s insights are still relevant. But now it’s time to update T2D3 to account for some of the tectonic changes shaping a broader universe of B2B tech — and pushing companies to grow at rates we’ve never seen before.

One of the biggest factors driving billion-dollar B2Bs is a simple but important shift in how organizations buy enterprise technology today.

I call this new paradigm “billion-dollar B2B.” It refers to the forces shaping a new class of cloud-first, enterprise-tech behemoths with the potential to reach $1 billion in ARR — and achieve market capitalizations in excess of $50 billion or even $100 billion.

In the past several years, we’ve seen a pioneering group of B2B standouts — Twilio, Shopify, Atlassian, Okta, Coupa*, MongoDB and Zscaler, for example — approach or exceed the $1 billion revenue mark and see their market capitalizations surge 10 times or more from their IPOs to the present day (as of March 31), according to CapIQ data.

More recently, iconic companies like data giant Snowflake and video-conferencing mainstay Zoom came out of the IPO gate at even higher valuations. Zoom, with 2020 revenue of just under $883 million, is now worth close to $100 billion, per CapIQ data.

Graphic showing market cap at IPO and market cap today of various companies.

Image Credits: Battery Ventures via FactSet. Note that market data is current as of April 3, 2021.

In the wings are other B2B super-unicorns like Databricks* and UiPath, which have each raised private financing rounds at valuations of more than $20 billion, per public reports, which is unprecedented in the software industry.

#b2b, #battery-ventures, #cloud-applications, #column, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-column, #ec-market-map, #enterprise-software, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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Do you fit the mold for the next generation of values-driven VCs?

More individuals than ever are donning the investor cap. Almost a fifth of U.S. equity trading in 2020 was driven by mom-and-pop investors — up from around 15% in the previous year. With such impressive returns to be made, many are deciding to set up a full-fledged investment business.

With the fundraising world becoming more democratic and accessible, we should help people find the right path to setting up a venture capital firm and also make sure the right people are entering the VC sphere. Startups are changing, and any new investment manager will have to adapt to the shifting landscape. VCs today have to provide more than money to get the best portfolio, and they must have a strong focus on impact to get the best institutional investors into their funds.

Startup investors can be the financial backbone for mass disruption. That’s why, at Founder Institute, we believe in the need for more VCs with strong values: Because they will prop up the companies that will build a brighter future for humanity. We’re not the only ones — our first “accelerator for ethical VCs” was oversubscribed.

VCs today have to provide more than money to get the best portfolio, and they must have a strong focus on impact to get the best institutional investors into their funds.

So if you want to lead your own VC fund in 2021, here are the main questions aspiring investors need to ask themselves.

Are you doing this for the right reasons?

Investing in startups is not just about making money. In selecting the startups that will become future industry leaders, VCs have a lot more power than most to do good (or harm). If you’re only interested in money, you likely won’t go too far. Identifying the greatest businesses means seeing beyond their capital into the longevity of their vision, their real-life impact on society, and how much consumers will love or hate them.

After all: Most startup founders pour their blood, sweat and tears into building a business not just to make money, but also to make an impact on the world and build products that align with their mission. Any new venture capitalist looking to attract the best founders needs to think about the vision and mission of their fund in the same terms.

Although VC firms have been slow on the uptake when it comes to environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, there are signs that times are changing. Some firms are forming a community around implementing ESG, not only because of the external impact but because it furthers their business goals. To help accelerate this trend, we asked our VC Lab participants to take The Mensarius Oath (Latin for “banker” or “financier”), a professional code of conduct for finance professionals to create an ethical, prosperous and healthy world.

What value do you bring to the table?

The number of VCs are growing and the industry is increasingly becoming concentrated. This means that simply offering large sums of money won’t get you traction with the best startups. Founders are looking for value over volume — they usually want mission alignment, connections, value-added services and industry expertise more than a blank check.

Remember that the best founders get to choose their VCs from a menu of options, not the other way around. To convince them that you’re the right match, you’ll need a proven track record in the same industry (or transferable experience from another industry) and referrals from credible people. You’ll also need a strong value proposition or niche that sets you apart from other funds. For example, Untapped Capital invests in “unexpected” and “undernetworked” founders, while R42 Group invests in AI and longevity-focused businesses.

If you don’t think you’ve got the profile to offer value to founders just yet, it’s worth taking some time to lay out exactly who you are. That is: what you hope to achieve as a fund manager, the vision you have for your portfolio companies and how you alone can help them get there.

What’s your secret sauce?

As a new VC fund without historical data points, limited partners (LPs) will naturally be cautious to invest in your fund. So, you have to build a brand that tells your story and proves your reputation.

Go back to the basics and pinpoint exactly what your strengths are. If you’re having trouble finding inspiration, use statements like, “I can get the best deal because I have X,” or, “I help grow my portfolio companies by X” to get the ball rolling. Be wary of saying that the amount of money you have is your strength — at this stage, your bank balance isn’t your competitive edge. Focus instead on what makes you unique, credible and relevant. Having a high number of strategic contacts, extensive industry experience or a backsheet of successful exits could be your secret ingredients. For extra guidance, check out this resource my team put together to help fund managers consolidate their niche in an “investment thesis.”

Once you have a list, choose your top three strengths and write a followup sentence detailing how each of them can be enriched by your network and expertise. Ideally, share these with a test group (friends, family or fellow entrepreneurs) and ask them which is the most compelling. If there’s a general consensus toward one point, you know to make that a large chunk of your VC fund’s thesis.

Do you have a solid network?

Who you know is just as important as what you know, and the most prominent VCs tend to be in the middle of a flow of information and people. Your network tells founders that you’re respected and reassures them that they will probably be brought into the fold to connect with future mentors, customers, investors or hires.

If you’re a thought leader, the alumni of a well-known company like Uber or PayPal, or if you’ve started a community around an emerging vertical, you’re more likely to form a positive deal flow. But this status and these relationships have to be established before you launch your fund — if you try to network from zero, you’ll be spinning too many plates and won’t have the social proof to back yourself up.

Don’t just rely on your gut to tell you whether your network is satisfactory. Map out your personal ecosystem, sorting people based on familiarity (close contacts or acquaintances) and defining characteristics (consumers, finance, ex-CEOs, etc.). That “map” can be as basic as an Excel sheet with a column for each category, or you could use more attractive visual tools like Canva — great for sharing with your future team and encouraging them to fill any network gaps.

What size fund do you want to launch?

A VC fund runs like any other business — you have to develop a vision, recruit a team, form an entity, raise money, deliver value and report to stakeholders. To kick things off, you need to consider what size fund you want, and then secure significant commitments from LPs — at least 10% of your total fund. LPs can be corporations, entrepreneurs, government agencies and other funds.

Also keep in mind that most LPs will want you to personally invest at least 1% of the total fund size so that you have “skin in the game.”

For that reason especially, it’s best to start small, somewhere between $5 million and $20 million, and use this “training fund” to demonstrate returns and create a launchpad for bigger raises to follow.

Can you help founders from launch to exit?

Your partnership with companies will be for the long haul, so you can’t rely just on offering value when you wire the money. Founders need consistent support across the full startup lifecycle, meaning you need to be conscious not to overpromise and fail to deliver. Think of the startups you’d most like to work with: How could you help them now? How could you help them in the future? And how could you help them exit?

You can take a skills-centric approach, where you reserve different resources and connections based on marketing, hiring, fundraising and culture-creation that can be applied as the startup grows. Alternatively, you might want to make sprint-like plans, where you check in with founders on a repeating basis and iterate the support you offer based on their progress. Whatever way you chose to structure your support, ensure that you’re realistic about what you can bring to the table, your availability, preferred involvement and how you’ll document it.

The future of VC will be driven by venture capitalists with strong values who have built funds with the new needs of founders in mind. VC may once have been exclusive and mysterious, but 2021 could be the year VC becomes a more open and fair space for businesses and investors alike.

#column, #entrepreneurship, #esg, #ethics, #finance, #money, #private-equity, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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For startups choosing a platform, a decision looms: Build or buy?

Everyone warns you not to build on top of someone else’s platform.

When I first started in VC more than 10 years ago, I was told never to invest in a company building on top of another company’s platform. Dependence on a platform makes you susceptible to failure and caps the return on your investment because you have no control over API access, pricing changes and end-customer data, among other legitimate concerns.

I am sure many of you recall Facebook shutting down its API access back in 2015, or the uproar Apple caused when it decided to change the commission it was charging app developers in 2020.

Put simply, founders can no longer avoid the decision around platform dependency.

Salesforce in many ways paved the way for large enterprise platform companies, being the first dedicated SaaS company to surpass $10 billion in annual revenue supported by its open application development marketplace. Salesforce’s success has given rise to dominant platforms in other verticals, and for founders starting companies, there is no avoiding that platform decision these days.

Some points to consider:

  • Over 4,000 fintech companies, including several unicorns, have built their platforms on top of Plaid.
  • Recruiters may complain about the cost, but 95% still utilize LinkedIn.
  • More than 20,000 companies trust Segment to be their system of record for customer data.
  • Shopify powers over 1 million businesses across the globe.
  • Epic has the medical records of nearly 50% of the U.S. population.

What does this mean for founders who decide to build on top of another platform?

Increase speed to market

PostScript, an SMS/MMS marketing platform for commerce brands, built its platform on Shopify, giving it immediate access to over 1 million brands and a direct customer acquisition funnel. That has allowed PostScript to capture 3,500 of its own customers and successfully close a $35 million Series B in March 2021.

Ability to focus on core functionality

Varo, one of the fastest-growing neobanks, started in 2015 with the principle that a bank could put customers’ interests first and be profitable. But in order to deliver on its mission, it needed to understand where its customers were spending their money. By partnering with Plaid, Varo enabled more than 176,000 of its users to connect their Varo account to outside apps and services, allowing Varo to focus on its core mission to provide more relevant financial products and services.

Gain credibility by association

#column, #customer-relationship-management, #developer, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #platforms, #startups

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Building customer-first relationships in a privacy-first world is critical

In business today, many believe that consumer privacy and business results are mutually exclusive — to excel in one area is to lack in the other. Consumer privacy is seen by many in the technology industry as an area to be managed.

But the truth is, the companies who champion privacy will be better positioned to win in all areas. This is especially true as the digital industry continues to undergo tectonic shifts in privacy — both in government regulation and browser updates.

By the end of 2022, all major browsers will have phased out third-party cookies — the tracking codes placed on a visitor’s computer generated by another website other than your own. Additionally, mobile device makers are limiting identifiers allowed on their devices and applications. Across industry verticals, the global enterprise ecosystem now faces a critical moment in which digital advertising will be forever changed.

Up until now, consumers have enjoyed a mostly free internet experience, but as publishers adjust to a cookie-less world, they could see more paywalls and less free content.

They may also see a decrease in the creation of new free apps, mobile gaming, and other ad-supported content unless businesses find new ways to authenticate users and maintain a value exchange of free content for personalized advertising.

When consumers authenticate themselves to brands and sites, they create revenue streams for publishers as well as the opportunity to receive discounts, first-looks, and other specially tailored experiences from brands.

To protect consumer data, companies need to architect internal systems around data custodianship versus acting from a sense of data entitlement. While this is a challenging and massive ongoing evolution, the benefits of starting now are enormous.

Putting privacy front and center creates a sustainable digital ecosystem that enables better advertising and drives business results. There are four steps to consider when building for tomorrow’s privacy-centric world:

Transparency is key

As we collectively look to redesign how companies interact with and think about consumers, we should first recognize that putting people first means putting transparency first. When people trust a brand or publishers’ intentions, they are more willing to share their data and identity.

This process, where consumers authenticate themselves — or actively share their phone number, email or other form of identity — in exchange for free content or another form of value, allows brands and publishers to get closer to them.

#advertising-tech, #column, #consumer-privacy, #digital-advertising, #ec-column, #ec-marketing-tech, #identity-management, #marketing, #media, #online-advertising, #operating-system, #privacy, #targeted-advertising

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Dear Sophie: How can I get an H-1B without the lottery?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

For the past few years, our company has put very promising candidates into the annual H-1B lottery. None of them have been selected — and none of them meet the requirements for other work visas like an O-1A.

We lost out again in this year’s H-1B lottery. Are there any other ways we can obtain H-1Bs for our team members?

— Soldiering On in Sunnyvale

Dear Soldiering:

Thank you for your timely question — you are not alone! Many employers face the same frustration given that the number of H-1B visas the government issues each year is capped at 85,000, while typically more than twice that number are sought by employers annually.

At my Silicon Valley immigration law firm, we’ve been delighted for the opportunity to collaborate with the nonprofit Open Avenues Foundation to support private companies with a Plan B: a cap-exempt, concurrent H-1B for their employees, without needing to go through the H-1B lottery.

It’s a timely, predictable solution that supports teams whether the beneficiary is currently outside or inside the United States.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

I recently interviewed Danielle Goldman, co-founder and executive director of Open Avenues, on my podcast. Through the Global Talent Fellowship program, the foundation offers a unique solution for employers like you to have a Plan B for H-1Bs: It’s possible to obtain an H-1B visa for an existing or prospective employee without going through the H-1B lottery process — or the randomness and timing restrictions that come with it. Goldman refers to the program as “innovation within legislation.”

So how does that work? Well, first off, you should know that four categories of employers are exempt from the annual H-1B lottery, meaning they can apply for an H-1B visa at any time of year and their pool of H-1B visas is not capped. The four categories of employers that are eligible for cap-exempt H-1Bs include:

#column, #diversity, #ec-column, #green-card, #h-1b, #h-1b-visa, #immigration-law, #lawyers, #sophie-alcorn, #united-states, #verified-experts

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Tech talent can thrive in the public sector but government must invest in it

Building, scaling and launching new tools and products is the lifeblood of the technology sector. When we consider these concepts today, many think of Big Tech and flashy startups, known for their industry dominance or new technologies that impact our everyday lives. But long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for these innovations, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

Long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for innovation, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

As an industry, we’ve developed a notion that working in government, the place where the groundwork was laid for the digital assistants we use every day, is now far less appealing than working in the private sector. The immense salary differential is often cited as the overwhelming reason workers prefer to work in the private sphere.

But the hard truth is the private sector brings far more value than just higher compensation to employees. Look no further than the boom in the tech sector during the pandemic to understand why it’s so attractive. A company like Zoom, already established and successful in its own right for years, found itself in a situation where it had to serve an exponentially growing and diverse user base in a short period of time. It quickly confronted a slew of infrastructure and user experience pivots on its way to becoming a staple of work-from-home culture — and succeeded.

That innate ability to work fast to deliver for consumers and innovate at what feels like a moment’s notice is what really draws talent. Compare that to the government’s tech environment, where decreased funding and partisan oversight slow the pace of work, or, worse, can get in the way of exploring or implementing new ideas entirely.

One look (literally, see our graph below) at the trends around R&D spending in the private and government sectors also paints a clear picture of where future innovations will come from if we don’t change the equation.

Chart of Facebook R&D spending vs. DARPA annual budget

Image Credits: Josh Mendelsohn/Hangar

Look no further than the U.S. government’s own (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment. The agency aimed to provide a thorough analysis of burgeoning issues in science and technology, exposing many public services to a new age of innovation and implementation. Amid a period of downsizing by a newly Republican-led Congress, the OTA was defunded in 1995 with a peak annual budget of just $35.1 million (adjusted for 2019 dollars). The authoritative body on the importance of technology to the government was deemed duplicative and unnecessary. Despite numerous calls for its reinstatement, it has since remained shuttered.

Despite dwindling public sector investment and lackluster political action, the problems that technology is poised to help solve haven’t gone away or even eased up.

From the COVID pandemic to worsening natural disasters and growing societal inequities, public leaders have a responsibility to solve the pressing issues we face today. That responsibility should breed a desire to continuously iterate for the sake of constituents and quality of life, much in the same way private tech caters to the product, user and bottom line.

My own experiences in government have shaped my career and approach to building new technologies more than my time in Silicon Valley. There are plenty of tangible parallels to the private sector that can attract driven and passionate tech workers, but the responsibility of giving government work realistic consideration doesn’t just fall at the feet of talent. The governments that we depend on must invest more capital and pay closer attention to the tech community.

Tech workers want an environment where they can thrive and get to see their work in action, whoever the end user may be. They don’t want to feel hamstrung by the threat of decreased funding or the red tape that comes as a result of government partisanship. Replicating the unimpeded focus of Silicon Valley’s brightest examples is a must if we’re serious about drawing talented individuals into government or public-sector-focused work.

A great example of these ideas in action is one of the most beloved government agencies, NASA. Its continued funding has produced technologies developed for space exploration that are now commonplace in our lives, such as scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam and water filters. These use cases came much later on, only after millions of dollars were invested without knowing what would result.

NASA has continued to bolster its ability to stay nimble and evolve at a rapid pace by partnering with private companies. For talent in the tech sphere, the ability to leverage outside resources in this way, without compromising the product or work, is a boon for ideation and iteration.

One can also point to the agency when considering the importance of keeping technology research and innovation as apolitical as possible. It’s one of the few widely known public entities to prosper on the back of bipartisan support. Unfortunately, politicians typically do all of us a disservice, particularly tech workers in government, when they too closely connect themselves or their parties to a particular program or platform. It hinders innovation — and the ensuing mudslinging can detract from talented individuals jumping into government service.

There is no shortage of extremely capable tech workers who want to help solve the biggest issues facing society. Will we give them the legitimate space and opportunity to conquer those problems? There’s been some indication that we can. These ambitious and forward-looking efforts matter today more than ever and show all of us in the tech ecosystem that there’s a place in government for tech talent to grow and flourish.

#column, #congress, #covid-19, #federal-government, #innovation, #opinion, #silicon-valley, #tc, #united-states

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From pickup basketball to market domination: My wild ride with Coupang

A month ago, Coupang arrived on Wall Street with a bang. The South Korean e-commerce giant — buoyed by $12 billion in 2020 revenue — raised $4.55 billion in its IPO and hit a valuation as high as $109 billion. It is the biggest U.S. IPO of the year so far, and the largest from an Asian company since Alibaba’s.

But long before founder Bom Kim rang the bell, I knew him as a fellow founder on the hunt for a good idea. We stayed in touch as he formed his vision for what would become Coupang, and I built it alongside him as an investor and board member.

As a board member, I’ve observed a brief quiet period following the IPO. But now I want to share how exactly our paths intersected, largely because Bom exemplifies what founders should aspire to and should seek: big risks, dogged determination, and obsessive responsiveness to the market.

Bom fearlessly turned down an acquisition offer from then-market-leader Groupon, ferociously learned what he didn’t know, made a daring pivot even after becoming a billion-dollar company, and iteratively built a vision for end-to-end market dominance.

Why I like talking to founders early

In 2008, I met Bom while playing a weekend game of pickup basketball at Stuyvesant High School. We realized we had a mutual acquaintance through my recently-sold startup, Community Connect Inc. He told me about the magazine he had sold and his search for a next move. So we agreed to meet up for lunch and go over some of his ideas.

To be honest, I don’t remember any of those early ideas, probably because they weren’t very good. But I really liked Bom. Even as I was crapping on his ideas, I could tell he was sharp from how he processed my feedback. It was obvious he was super smart and definitely worth keeping in touch with, which we continued to do even after he relocated to go to HBS.

I soon began investing in and incubating businesses, starting mostly with my own capital. When I got a call from an executive recruiter working for a company in Chicago called Groupon — who told me they were at a $50 million run rate in only a few months — I became fascinated with their model and started talking to some of the investors, former employees, and merchants.

Inspired, and as a new parent, I decided to launch a similar daily-deal business for families: Instead of skydiving and go-kart racing, we offered deals on kids’ music classes and birthday party venues. While I was working on this idea, John Ason, an angel investor in Diapers.com, said I should meet with the founder and CEO Marc Lore. By the end of the meeting, Marc and I etched a partnership to launch DoodleDeals.com co-branded with Diapers.com. The first deal did over $70,000 — great start.

I’ve observed a brief quiet period following the IPO. But now I want to share how exactly our paths intersected, largely because Bom exemplifies what founders should aspire to and should seek: big risks, dogged determination, and obsessive responsiveness to the market.

All that time, I kept in touch with Bom. In February 2010, we were catching up over lunch at the Union Square Ippudo, and he asked if I had heard of Buywithme, a Boston-based Groupon clone. He hadn’t yet heard about Groupon, so I explained the business model and shared the numbers. He thought something similar might transfer well to South Korea, where he was born and his parents still lived.

This kind of conversation is exactly why I love working with founders early, even before the idea forms: You learn a lot about them as they explore, wrestle with uncertainty, and eventually build conviction on a business they plan to spend the next decade-plus building. Ultimately, success comes down to founders’ belief in themselves; when you develop the same belief in them as an investor, it is pretty magical. I was starting to really believe in Bom.

The idea gets real — and moves fast

I'm not Korean — I am ethnically Chinese — so Bom put together slides on the Korean market and why it was perfect for the daily-deal model. In short: a very dense population that’s incredibly online.

I’m not Korean — I am ethnically Chinese — so Bom put together slides on the Korean market and why it was perfect for the daily-deal model. In short: a very dense population that’s incredibly online. Image Credits: Ben Sun

I told Bom he should drop out of business school and do this. He said, “You don’t think I can wait until I graduate?” I responded, “No way! It will be over by then!”

First-mover advantage is real in a business like this, and it didn’t take Bom long to see that. He raised a small $1.3 million seed round. I invested, joined the board. Because of my knowledge of the deals market and my entrepreneurial experience, Bom asked me to get hands-on in Korea — not at all typical for an investor or even a board member, but I think of myself as a builder and not just a backer, and this is how I wanted to operate as an investor.

Once he realized time was of the essence, Bom was heads down. For context, he was engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Nancy, who also went to Harvard undergrad and was a successful lawyer. Imagine telling your fiancée, “Honey, I am dropping out of business school, moving to Korea to start a company. I will be back for the wedding. Not sure if I will ever be coming back to the U.S.”

I emailed Bom, saying: “Bom — honestly as a friend. Enjoy your wedding. It is a real blessing that your fiancée is being so supportive of you doing this. Launching a site a few weeks before the wedding is going to be way too distracting and she won’t feel like your heart is in it. Launching a few weeks later is not going to make or break this business. Trust me.”

Bom didn’t listen. He launched Coupang in August 2010, two weeks before the wedding. He flew back to Boston, got married, and — running on basically no sleep — sneaked out for a 20-minute nap in the middle of his reception. Right after the wedding, he flew back to Seoul. Nancy has to be one of the most supportive and understanding partners I have ever seen. They are now married and have two kids.

Jumping on new distribution, turning down an acquisition offer

#asia, #ben-sun, #column, #coupang, #e-commerce, #ec-column, #ec-consumer-applications, #ec-ecommerce-and-d2c, #ecommerce, #groupon, #livingsocial, #softbank, #softbank-vision-fund, #south-korea, #tc

0

How to choose and deploy industry-specific AI models

As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, previously cutting-edge — but generic — AI models are becoming commonplace, such as Google Cloud’s Vision AI or Amazon Rekognition.

While effective in some use cases, these solutions do not suit industry-specific needs right out of the box. Organizations that seek the most accurate results from their AI projects will simply have to turn to industry-specific models.

Any team looking to expand its AI capabilities should first apply its data and use cases to a generic model and assess the results.

There are a few ways that companies can generate industry-specific results. One would be to adopt a hybrid approach — taking an open-source generic AI model and training it further to align with the business’ specific needs. Companies could also look to third-party vendors, such as IBM or C3, and access a complete solution right off the shelf. Or — if they really needed to — data science teams could build their own models in-house, from scratch.

Let’s dive into each of these approaches and how businesses can decide which one works for their distinct circumstances.

Generic models alone often don’t cut it

Generic AI models like Vision AI or Rekognition and open-source ones from TensorFlow or Scikit-learn often fail to produce sufficient results when it comes to niche use cases in industries like finance or the energy sector. Many businesses have unique needs, and models that don’t have the contextual data of a certain industry will not be able to provide relevant results.

Building on top of open-source models

At ThirdEye Data, we recently worked with a utility company to tag and detect defects in electric poles by using AI to analyze thousands of images. We started off using Google Vision API and found that it was unable to produce our desired results — with the precision and recall values of the AI models completely unusable. The models were unable to read the characters within the tags on the electric poles 90% of the time because it didn’t identify the nonstandard font and varying background colors used in the tags.

So, we took base computer vision models from TensorFlow and optimized them to the utility company’s precise needs. After two months of developing AI models to detect and decipher tags on the electric poles, and another two months of training these models, the results are displaying accuracy levels of over 90%. These will continue to improve over time with retraining iterations.

Any team looking to expand its AI capabilities should first apply its data and use cases to a generic model and assess the results. Open-source algorithms that companies can start off with can be found on AI and ML frameworks like TensorFlow, Scikit-learn or Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit. At ThirdEye Data, we used convolutional neural network (CNN) algorithms on TensorFlow.

Then, if the results are insufficient, the team can extend the algorithm by training it further on their own industry-specific data.

#artificial-intelligence, #big-tech, #column, #ec-ai, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #machine-learning, #tc

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How we dodged risks and raised millions for our open-source machine language startup

Open-source software gave birth to a slew of useful software in recent years. Many of the great technologies that we use today were born out of open-source development: Android, Firefox, VLC media player, MongoDB, Linux, Docker and Python, just to name a few, with many of these also developing into very successful for-profit companies.

While there are some dedicated open-source investors such as the Apache Software Foundation incubator and OSS Capital, the majority of open-source companies will raise from traditional venture capital firms.

Our team has raised from traditional venture capital firms like Speedinvest, open-source-specific firms like OSS, and even from more hybrid firms like OpenOcean, which was created by the founders and senior leadership teams at MariaDB and MySQL. These companies understandably have a significant but not exclusive open-source focus.

Our area of innovation is an open-source AutoML server that reduces model training complexity and brings machine learning to the source of the data. Ultimately, we feel democratizing machine learning has the potential to truly transform the modern business world. As such, we successfully raised $5 million in seed funding to help bring our vision to the current marketplace.

Here, we aim to provide insights and advice for open-source startups that hope to follow a similar path for securing funding, and also detail some of the important risks your team needs to consider when crafting a business model to attract investment.

Strategies for acquiring open-source seed funding

Obviously, venture capitalists find many open-source software initiatives to be worthy investments. However, they need to understand any inherent risks involved when successfully commercializing an innovative idea. Finding low-risk investments that lead to lucrative business opportunities remains an important goal for these firms.

In our experience, we found these risks fall into three major categories: market risk, execution risk, and founders’ risk. Explaining all three to potential investors in a concise manner helps dispel their fears. In the end, low-risk, high-reward scenarios obviously attract tangible interest from sources of venture capital.

Ultimately, investment companies want startups to generate enough revenue to reach a valuation exceeding $1 billion. While that number is likely to increase over time, it remains a good starting point for initial funding discussions with investors. Annual revenue of $100 million serves as a good benchmark for achieving that valuation level.

Market risks in open-source initiatives

Market risks for open-source organizations tend to be different when compared to traditional businesses seeking funding. Notably, investors in these traditional startups are taking a larger leap of faith.

#artificial-intelligence, #column, #ec-ai, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #entrepreneurship, #machine-learning, #open-source-software, #private-equity, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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Dear Sophie: Help! My H-1B wasn’t chosen!

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

My startup registered two H-1B candidates in this year’s lottery. Sadly, neither was selected.

One is my co-founder, the other is on OPT. Help! We can’t afford for them to have to leave the U.S. What are our options?

— Lost in Los Angeles

Dear Lost:

Take a deep breath; I’ve got your back. There are many creative immigration pathways for you, your co-founder and your F-1 OPT employee to explore. We’ll take a look at several options, and you can also check out my recent podcast in which my colleague Nadia Zaidi and I explain them in greater depth.

I hope the below ideas inspire you and fill you with a sense of hope and possibility. As always, I suggest consulting with an experienced immigration attorney who can help you identify the strongest path forward, as well as backup options for your co-founder and employee. The particular immigration strategy that’s best for you is always an individual determination. It’s best identified through a personal consultation with an attorney such as myself based on a variety of factors, including each person’s immigration history and your particular startup’s goals.

Co-founder immigration options

For a funded startup, there’s a great H-1B Plan B: the Cap-Exempt H-1B. Especially if your co-founder has a STEM background (and possibly even for some founders who don’t have this), there’s a wonderful new triple-win option that supports startups, international candidates and even diverse U.S. STEM college students seeking better project-based learning opportunities.

What is this magical rainbow-striped unicorn option, you ask? Well, here’s the legal background: Some employers qualify to petition for an H-1B visa at any time without going through the lottery. These employers — called cap-exempt employers because they are not subject to the annual H-1B cap of 85,000 visas available to for-profit employers — include:

  • Institutions of higher education.
  • Nonprofits tied to institutions of higher education.
  • Nonprofit research organizations.
  • Government research organizations.

If your co-founder can get a part-time H-1B visa through one of these cap-exempt employers, your startup can concurrently sponsor your co-founder for an H-1B regardless of the recent lottery results.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

To take advantage of this special law, I’m a huge fan of Open Avenues Foundation, which offers a Global Talent Fellowship. In this program, international talent can receive cap-exempt H-1B visas by leading university students for about five hours a week in real-world, project-based work within their field of expertise for the startup that nominated them for the fellowship. The candidate gets to stay in (or come to) the U.S., your startup gets a team of students working on a group project that benefits your company and increases diversity in your hiring pipeline, and U.S. students get the benefit of hands-on high quality STEM learning.

Once your candidate’s first cap-exempt H-1B is in place, your startup can petition for a second, concurrent Cap-Exempt H-1B for direct startup employment.

Interested in variations? If you’re not in STEM but have a university that would host you (free to the university), you can potentially partner with OAF. In addition, many universities in the U.S have global entrepreneur-in-residence programs that can help international co-founders qualify for concurrent Cap-Exempt H-1Bs. Your startup should also consider sponsoring your co-founder for an O-1A visa or change of status.

Another option to consider is for your co-founder to apply for International Entrepreneur Parole (IEP), a new 30-month immigration status in the U.S. The International Entrepreneur Rule (IER) was created by President Barack Obama and is the closest thing the U.S. has right now to a startup visa. The Trump administration tried to eliminate it, but the National Venture Capital Association, led by Jeff Farrah, successfully challenged the administration’s effort in federal court, so IEP remains on the books.

A lot of folks don’t believe it’s an option yet, so I’m currently looking for international startup founders with a strong case to file for IEP to test out this new program and demonstrate its existence to the world. We’re currently seeking global startup founders holding at least 15% equity in a U.S. startup that’s less than five years old and has raised at least $250,000 from U.S. investors. If you want to be on our free interest list, you can fill out this form. If we think you have a strong application, we’ll reach out.

If your co-founder wants to remain permanently in the U.S., consider starting a green card now such as the EB-1A green card for individuals of extraordinary ability or an EB-2 NIW (National Interest Waiver) green card for individuals of exceptional ability. Of these, the EB-1A is the quickest option, but its qualification requirements are tougher than for the EB-2 NIW.

F-1 OPT employee immigration options

If your F-1 OPT employee graduated with a qualified STEM degree, that employee can apply for a 24-month work extension, known as STEM OPT. That will allow the employee to remain in the U.S. to continue working for you. In the meantime, you can register them again next year for the H-1B lottery. If there’s no possibility for STEM, please check out the Cap-Exempt H-1B option explained above.

If your F-1 OPT employee only has a bachelor’s degree, they might want to consider pursuing an advanced degree. Individuals with a master’s or higher degree from a U.S. university have better odds of being selected in the annual H-1B lottery. That’s because 20,000 of the 85,000 H-1B visas available each year are earmarked for individuals with a master’s or higher degree from a U.S. university.

You should be aware, however, that next year’s H-1B lottery will likely shift from the current random selection process to one based on the highest wages. Unless the Biden administration changes the policy, which was devised by the previous administration, employers who pay their H-1B candidates a Level III wage or higher have the best chance of getting selected to file for an H-1B visa.

As you know, sponsoring employers must agree to pay an H-1B candidate the higher of either the actual wage paid for the job or the prevailing wage, which is broken down into four levels based on experience required for the position and location of the position. Level I wage is basically for an entry-level position, while a Level IV wage is for a position requiring the most experience. While this will add greater predictability to the annual H-1B “lottery,” early-stage startups and small businesses may have a difficult time competing against more established companies on salary, particularly because stock options and equity are not included in the salary calculation.

If you need to find alternative visa solutions, you can always consult with an attorney. I hope all of these options help you realize the control and agency you have in this situation. You have choices!

All my best,

Sophie


Have a question for Sophie? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space.

The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

#column, #diversity, #green-card, #h-1b-visa, #immigration, #immigration-law, #lawyers, #sophie-alcorn, #startup-visa, #tc, #verified-experts

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What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?

As consumers build their wealth, assets are typically tangible: cash, investments, property, cars, jewelry, art. But increasingly we’re adding a new type of asset to the mix: digital assets, whether in the form of cryptocurrency or a new asset class, NFTs.

We’re going through the biggest wealth transfer in history right now, with an estimated $16 trillion expected to change hands in the coming decades. While it’s easy to hand over the reins of a physical asset in the event of an emergency or death, it’s not as simple with digital assets.

A new Angus Reid study commissioned by Canadian online will platform Willful finds that only one in four consumers have someone in their life who knows all of their passwords and account details, which begs the question: Will consumers be prepared to pass on digital assets, or will billions in virtual goods be stuck in the digital ether?

While it’s easy to hand over the reins of a physical asset in the event of an emergency or death, it’s not as simple with digital assets.

Digital assets have been dominating the news cycle in 2021. While cryptocurrency isn’t new, it’s attracted a lot of attention in the past year because of its skyrocketing value, promotion from prominent figures like billionaire Elon Musk, and bitcoin offerings from traditional financial firms like Morgan Stanley. If you hold any type of cryptocurrency, the only way to access it is via a private key — typically a 64-digit passcode. No private key, no access to the virtual currency.

There have been many stories reported about people who purchased bitcoin and would be millionaires today if they hadn’t thrown out their hard drive or lost track of their key. One high-profile case is that of Gerald Cotten, the founder of cryptocurrency exchange Quadriga. When Cotten died in 2018, he took with him the private keys to over $250 million in client assets.

Consumers have also been inundated with stories about NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are digital assets hosted on the same blockchain that makes cryptocurrency possible. To most, it seems absurd that artist Beeple could sell a $69 million piece of art through a Christie’s auction, or that a virtual home in Toronto could sell for over $600,000, or that people would spend over $200 million trading virtual NBA highlights like we used to trade baseball cards. But this new asset class is proving that digital assets can be as valuable if not more valuable than physical assets — and similar to cryptocurrency, they likely require a private key to access them.

When someone dies, they either have a will that dictates how their assets will be distributed, or, if they die without a will, a government formula outlines how their assets will be divided. While a will outlines who should receive what, it typically doesn’t have an up-to-date asset list, nor does it contain passwords or access keys. There’s an estimated tens of billions in unclaimed assets sitting in banks today as a result of a family or executor not knowing about those accounts following an individual’s death.

But an executor can do due diligence by calling financial institutions to double-check whether the person held accounts and get access to those funds, which typically requires providing copies of the will and/or death certificate. With digital assets, it’s not as simple as calling the bank and finding out a relative had a valuable NFT. There’s no directory or central body that governs NFTs or cryptocurrency — it’s purposely decentralized, which is great for privacy but less than ideal for family members who want to figure out if someone held valuable digital assets.

And it’s not just about knowing digital assets exist — it’s about knowing how to access them. A recent study from the Angus Reid Forum, commissioned by Willful, showed that consumers under 35 are way less likely to have shared account access with loved ones (19% of those under 35 have shared account info, compared with 32% of those over 55). This makes sense, since the younger you are, the less likely you are to think about passing on assets after you die. But this tech-savvy younger demographic may leave their families in the lurch if something happens.

So what can consumers do to ensure their digital assets are protected? First, consider using a password manager like 1Password — which can store all of your account information, logins, private keys to digital assets and any other key information — and share the master access password with your executor or store it with your will.

While this can ensure easy access to your accounts in an emergency, Lee Poskanzer, the founder of Directive Communication Systems, says it can also put your family or executors at risk, highlighting that in many cases, website and app owners explicitly prohibit password sharing in their terms of service, and privacy laws in some jurisdictions prohibit account holder impersonation (in the U.S., that’s covered by the Stored Communications and Electronic Communications Privacy Act). Not to mention, accounts increasingly require two-factor authentication, which may not be easy to confirm if executors don’t have access to the person’s smartphone.

Directive Communication Systems’ platform helps manage the transfer of digital assets upon death, and Poskanzer says they don’t collect passwords for this reason. Instead, they work with the estate to provide content providers (Google, social media platforms, etc.) with required documentation, which can include a death certificate, obituary, ID or other documents. Upon meeting those requirements, which vary by company, content providers provide a data dump of an account’s contents, making them available via the cloud.

Second, consider using a digital wallet or exchange to store your digital assets — if your family has access to that, it may also include access to your private keys, depending on the wallet’s features, or the exchange itself may have a death-management process.

For example, Coinbase clearly outlines what an executor or family member can do to retrieve digital assets in case of the death of the account holder. As a backup, you can store your private key on a physical piece of paper and ensure it’s stored in a safe deposit box, fireproof safe or other safe place your executor can access in the event of your passing.

Third, create an up-to-date list of your assets that your executor and/or key family members have access to — this should include physical and digital assets, and should be reviewed and updated either annually or when you acquire a new asset or change financial institutions. Finally, create a will that clearly outlines how you want your assets to be distributed and provide specific instructions on how you want digital assets to be distributed.

Not only is this best practice to protect your assets of any kind and to appoint key roles like guardians for minor children, it will also likely be required in order to release any account contents (for example, Coinbase requires a copy of the will as part of its process to release funds to an estate).

As we go through this major wealth transfer between generations, it’s likely that banks, fintechs, crypto exchanges, social media platforms and other content providers will create clear death-management processes that make it easier to alert people about digital assets before you die and provide easy access instructions. But until that happens, following these steps means you can ensure your assets go to the people or organizations you want them to — and that they won’t be stuck in digital purgatory.

#bitcoin, #blockchain, #coinbase, #column, #cryptocurrencies, #cryptocurrency, #digital-currencies, #estate-planning, #media, #nfts, #private-key, #tc

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Three ways VC firms can construct sustainably diverse portfolios

Venture capital has a diversity problem: Data show that Black and Latinx founders received just 2.6% of overall funding in 2020. Women-founded teams received nearly 30% less funding in 2020 than they did in 2019.

For decades, a close-knit community of brilliant but like-minded individuals built a system of pattern recognition. It produced high-growth companies with homogenous leadership teams. They called it meritocracy. Those of us who didn’t fit the profile were told, or were left to assume, that we didn’t have what it takes.

When a founder needs funding but investors don’t think they “have what it takes,” it can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how good you are and how much product-market fit you achieve, at some point “what it takes” to scale a company is money.

Until recently, the lack of diversity in the ecosystem was largely an issue to those of us directly affected by it. It wasn’t until the groundbreaking #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter movements that the lack of funding for women and minorities became both evident — and evidently problematic — to the rest of the world.

I believe that underrepresented founders are the most undervalued asset class in the U.S. today, and investors are starting to realize that diversity is not charity — it’s economic opportunity.

Just look at the data on women-founded startups, which deliver 63% higher ROI (according to First Round Capital), generate twice as much revenue for every dollar invested (according to BCG), and take one full year less time to exit (according to PitchBook & AllRaise). Founders that have it harder, but persevere, lead to stronger companies with outsized results for their investors.

The good news is that recent events jolted many into action. A flurry of pledges, micro-funds and quick investments in support of Black founders arrived in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer. Overnight, these founders were heavily courted for meetings and speaking opportunities from people and firms they didn’t have access to in the past. Some secured investments and built new relationships that will help down the line. For many, the timing was off, and they didn’t benefit materially. In the end, the frenzy quieted down, and only 3% of 2020 VC deal volume went to Black-founded companies.

Ashlee Wisdom, the co-founder and CEO of digital health platform Health in Her HUE, experienced this firsthand.

“Last summer I was overwhelmed with inbounds from investors, which felt great at first,” she said. “But I was new to venture; I didn’t know how to build a strategy around fundraising, and most of those investors were looking for companies at a later stage than mine. No one I spoke to during that time seemed to be willing to invest in my pre-seed round despite our demonstrated traction. On the positive side, I met a lot of great investors who made meaningful introductions to pre-seed and early-stage funds. And some of those later-stage investors are now watching Health In Her HUE’s progress.”

It’s too soon to tell how sustainable the progress made last year will be. But we do have evidence from prior times that small, cosmetic efforts at diversity do not result in lasting change. Just take a look at what’s happened to VC funding for women recently.

In the aftermath of #metoo, investors and corporations were also spurred to act, with some success. For a while, VC investments in women-founded companies increased slowly but steadily. But once COVID hit, and investors retreated to their closest and most trusted referral networks, VC funding for women took a huge step backward. Crunchbase data show more than 800 female-founded startups globally received a total of $4.9 billion in venture funding in 2020, through mid-December, representing a 27% decrease over the same period the prior year.

The lesson is this: Efforts at the periphery of venture capital do not make a difference in the long run. The good news is many have started taking action. To achieve systemic, long-term improvements, VC firms will need to make changes to their core system, building diversity into the primary investing process itself. Results will not be visible immediately, but they will be far more sustainable and, as the data suggest, more profitable over the lifetime of these funds. Here are three specific actions VC firms can take to achieve this:

1. Hire BIPOC and women investors

A recent PitchBook report notes that female investors are twice as likely to invest in companies with female founders and three times as likely in companies with female CEOs. And yet fewer than 10% of all VC partners are women. According to BLCK VC, more than 80% of venture firms don’t have a single Black investor on their team. That makes it less surprising that only 1 percent of venture-funded startup founders are Black.

When you hire from the same communities you want to invest in, and ensure your new hires are set up for success, you unlock dealflow, relationships, and insights into new markets and customer sets. This results in a more diverse portfolio and a stronger investment team, one that serves its entire portfolio of companies better.

2. Measure the top of your funnel

Inputs lead to outputs. VC firms should do everything they can to foster stronger relationships with underrepresented founder communities to enable more diversity at the top of the deal flow funnel.

Partner, sponsor and invest in organizations like Female Founders Alliance, SoGal Foundation, Black Women Talk Tech and more. Go out of your way to attend events, ask for introductions, schedule casual coffee meetings and meet as many founders in those networks as you can — and foster those relationships meaningfully over time. This is how you seed decades of great dealflow.

3. Invest directly in emerging fund managers

There are hundreds of new funds, many of them with less than $50 million in assets under management, with direct access to pockets of talent that you are not currently seeing. These general partners have trusting, authentic relationships with founders who might be wary of mainstream VC. If you are a larger VC fund, you should be actively investing in them. Emerging managers can act as your scouts, and, in return, you will help build the ecosystem itself.

I believe that the lack of diversity in venture capital is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for those willing to make the earliest bets. If we invest in women at the same rate that we invest in men, this could boost the global economy by up to $5 trillion. That is a huge amount of return up for grabs. A homogenous portfolio misses that opportunity.

Most investors I know are aware of the opportunity and genuinely want to do better. The more urgency they feel, the more likely they are to spin up independent initiatives to address inequities directly. While these can be helpful, they’re also not sustainable. The best way to build a sustainably diverse portfolio is to do the slow, hard work of change from the inside out.

#column, #diversity, #diversity-and-inclusion, #entrepreneurship, #funding, #private-equity, #startup-company, #tc, #venture-capital

0

Hack takes: A CISO and a hacker detail how they’d respond to the Exchange breach

The cyber world has entered a new era in which attacks are becoming more frequent and happening on a larger scale than ever before. Massive hacks affecting thousands of high-level American companies and agencies have dominated the news recently. Chief among these are the December SolarWinds/FireEye breach and the more recent Microsoft Exchange server breach. Everyone wants to know: If you’ve been hit with the Exchange breach, what should you do?

To answer this question, and compare security philosophies, we outlined what we’d do — side by side. One of us is a career attacker (David Wolpoff), and the other a CISO with experience securing companies in the healthcare and security spaces (Aaron Fosdick).

Don’t wait for your incident response team to take the brunt of a cyberattack on your organization.

CISO Aaron Fosdick

1. Back up your system.

A hacker’s likely going to throw some ransomware attacks at you after breaking into your mail server. So rely on your backups, configurations, etc. Back up everything you can. But back up to an instance before the breach. Design your backups with the assumption that an attacker will try to delete them. Don’t use your normal admin credentials to encrypt your backups, and make sure your admin accounts can’t delete or modify backups once they’ve been created. Your backup target should not be part of your domain.

2. Assume compromise and stop connectivity if necessary.

Identify if and where you have been compromised. Inspect your systems forensically to see if any systems are using your surface as a launch point and attempting to move laterally from there. If your Exchange server is indeed compromised, you want it off your network as soon as possible. Disable external connectivity to the internet to ensure they cannot exfiltrate any data or communicate with other systems in the network, which is how attackers move laterally.

3. Consider deploying default/deny.

#backup, #column, #computer-security, #data-protection, #data-security, #ec-column, #ec-cybersecurity, #ec-how-to, #security, #tc

0

Tech in Mexico: A confluence of Latin America, the US and Asia

Mexico has been known as an up-and-coming tech hub and a gateway to the Latin American market. As an investor focused on developer-centered products, open-source startups and infrastructure technology companies with a particular interest in emerging market innovation, I have been wanting to do some firsthand learning there.

So, despite the ongoing pandemic, I took all the necessary precautions and spent roughly seven weeks in Mexico from January to March. I spent most of my time meeting founders to get a handle on what they are building, why they are pursuing those ideas, and how the entire ecosystem is evolving to support their ambitions.

Knowledge transfer is not the only trend flowing in the U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus. Competition is afoot as well.

The U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus

One fascinating, though not surprising, observation was how much LatAm entrepreneurs look to Asian tech giants for product inspiration and growth strategies. Companies like Tencent, DiDi and Grab are household names among founders. This makes sense because the market conditions in Mexico and other parts of LatAm resemble China, India and Southeast Asia more than the U.S.

What often happens is entrepreneurs first look to successful startups in the U.S. to emulate and localize. As they find product-market fit, they start to look to Asian tech companies for inspiration while morphing them to suit local needs.

One good example is Rappi, an app that started out as a grocery delivery service. Its future ambition is squarely to become the superapp of LatAm: It is expanding aggressively both geographically and productwise into delivery for restaurant orders, pharmacy and even COVID tests. It’s also introducing new payment, banking and financial-service products. Rappi Pay launched in Mexico just a few weeks ago, while I was still in the country.

Rappi now looks more like Meituan and Grab than any of its U.S. counterparts, and that’s not an accident. SoftBank, whose portfolio contains many of these Asian tech giants, invested heavily in Rappi’s previous two rounds and now has a $5 billion fund dedicated to the LatAm region. The knowledge and experience accumulated from Asian tech in the last 10 years is transferring to like-minded firms like Rappi, right under Silicon Valley’s proverbial nose.

U.S.-Asia-LatAm competition

Knowledge transfer is not the only trend flowing in the U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus. Competition is afoot as well.

Because of similar market conditions, Asian tech giants are directly expanding into Mexico and other LatAm countries. The one I witnessed up close during my visit was DiDi.

DiDi’s foray into LatAm started in January 2018 with its acquisition of 99, a Brazilian ride-sharing company. In April 2018, DiDi entered Mexico with its bread-and-butter ride-sharing service. It wasn’t until April 2019 that DiDi launched its food delivery service, DiDi Food, in Monterrey and Guadalajara — two of the largest cities in Mexico. Its expansion hasn’t slowed down since, with a 10% extra earnings incentive to lure delivery drivers.

DiDi delivery worker recruitment promotion banner outside venue

Image Credits: Kevin Xu

My Airbnb in Mexico City happened to be two blocks away from the large WeWork building where DiDi’s local office was located. Every day, I saw a long line of people responding to the earning incentives — waiting outside to get hired as DiDi delivery workers.

Meanwhile, the Uber office that’s literally one block away had hardly any foot traffic. As Uber and Rappi fight for more wealthy consumers, DiDi is working to attract lower-income users to grab market share, hoping that one day some of these people will reach the middle class and become profitable customers.

#column, #ec-column, #ec-latin-america-and-caribbean, #mexico, #private-equity, #southeast-asia, #startups, #united-states, #venture-capital

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Startups must curb bureaucracy to ensure agile data governance

By now, all companies are fundamentally data driven. This is true regardless of whether they operate in the tech space. Therefore, it makes sense to examine the role data management plays in bolstering — and, for that matter, hampering — productivity and collaboration within organizations.

While the term “data management” inevitably conjures up mental images of vast server farms, the basic tenets predate the computer age. From censuses and elections to the dawn of banking, individuals and organizations have long grappled with the acquisition and analysis of data.

By understanding the needs of all stakeholders, organizations can start to figure out how to remove blockages.

One oft-quoted example is Florence Nightingale, a British nurse who, during the Crimean war, recorded and visualized patient records to highlight the dismal conditions in frontline hospitals. Over a century later, Nightingale is regarded not just as a humanitarian, but also as one of the world’s first data scientists.

As technology began to play a greater role, and the size of data sets began to swell, data management ultimately became codified in a number of formal roles, with names like “database analyst” and “chief data officer.” New challenges followed that formalization, particularly from the regulatory side of things, as legislators introduced tough new data protection rules — most notably the EU’s GDPR legislation.

This inevitably led many organizations to perceive data management as being akin to data governance, where responsibilities are centered around establishing controls and audit procedures, and things are viewed from a defensive lens.

That defensiveness is admittedly justified, particularly given the potential financial and reputational damages caused by data mismanagement and leakage. Nonetheless, there’s an element of myopia here, and being excessively cautious can prevent organizations from realizing the benefits of data-driven collaboration, particularly when it comes to software and product development.

Taking the offense

Data defensiveness manifests itself in bureaucracy. You start creating roles like “data steward” and “data custodian” to handle internal requests. A “governance council” sits above them, whose members issue diktats and establish operating procedures — while not actually working in the trenches. Before long, blockages emerge.

Blockages are never good for business. The first sign of trouble comes in the form of “data breadlines.” Employees seeking crucial data find themselves having to make their case to whoever is responsible. Time gets wasted.

By itself, this is catastrophic. But the cultural impact is much worse. People are natural problem-solvers. That’s doubly true for software engineers. So, they start figuring out how to circumvent established procedures, hoarding data in their own “silos.” Collaboration falters. Inconsistencies creep in as teams inevitably find themselves working from different versions of the same data set.

#agile-software-development, #business-intelligence, #column, #data-governance, #data-management, #ec-column, #ec-cybersecurity, #startups, #tc

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