When Hello Alfred launched a few years ago, many naturally assumed that the service was exploitive, with the company’s “home managers” tackling household chores and running errands for folks while earning meager pay and no benefits. This, after all, is how most of the “gig economy” functions.
One early customer, for example, wondered whether she was “contributing to unfair labor practices” by using Alfred Club, as it was then called, noting in Fast Company that she couldn’t “stop feeling guilty about it.” Slate characterized the startup as “Uber for servants.”
Yet, in fact, Hello Alfred has always been the anti-Uber—at least when it comes to taking care of its workers.
“People need to have jobs, and they need to feel like they are connected to the mission of the company that they’re working for, that they’re being paid well and treated well,” Marcela Sapone, Hello Alfred’s CEO and co-founder, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “That’s how you actually affect change at a large scale.”
In tangible terms, this means that Hello Alfred has only W-2 employees, not independent contractors. They make about $25 an hour on average, according to Sapone, and “we’re hoping that over time we can pay even more.” Those at Hello Alfred also have health, vision, and dental coverage. And the company is intent on adding a retirement plan “once we’re a little more established,” Sapone vows. Front-line workers are offered skills training on a regular basis, as well.
This deep investment in employees is smart business, Sapone maintains, because, “at the end of the day, they really are our product”—even though Hello Alfred is powered by software to help maximize efficiency and considers itself a tech firm.
The model seems to be paying off. Sapone says that Hello Alfred, which serves primarily residents of large apartment buildings in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, is “operationally profitable.” It has plans to expand next year into Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles.
But Sapone’s vision extends beyond Hello Alfred. She hopes that the company can help to set a new standard for service jobs across the country.
“There is a general distaste . . . in technology companies,” she says, “to really focus on the people element. A lot more of it is focused on how you build these algorithms, what’s the machine learning component, what’s the AI component.”
Many of who’ve been able to disrupt existing industries have achieved “rock star status,” she adds. But “you also have kind of a duty to build things . . . and not just for one class of people but for all the people in that value chain.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Sapone here, as well as Ernest Savage reporting on efforts by the National Domestic Workers Alliance to create good jobs in sectors that haven’t traditionally had them, and Dorian Warren weighing in on the mad rush by one city after another to attract Amazon’s new headquarters.
Why a Pioneering Green Energy Investor is Optimistic About the Future of the Planet
Daniel Weiss, managing partner of Angeleno Group, describes on the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast how clean energy has moved from the realm of politics and policy to that of the markets and economics.
When Daniel Weiss co-founded Angeleno Group in 2001 to fund green energy companies, few would have regarded him as a master of timing.
Oil was trading at a lowly $23 per barrel. The California electricity crisis had recently triggered large-scale blackouts across the state. Enron had just gone belly-up.
“To launch an investment firm and raise capital to invest in this space . . . maybe we ought to have had our heads examined, ” Weiss, one of Angeleno Group’s two managing partners, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line.
Seventeen years and $2.5 billion worth of investments later, Weiss and his colleagues have proven that they were lot more savvy than silly.
Along the way, they’ve kept their eyes on four fundamental drivers: an urgent need to replace an aging and inadequate power infrastructure in the United States and elsewhere; the steadily increasing demand for fuel and electricity as ever more of the world’s population enters the middle class and becomes urbanized; a push by different nations to secure their own energy independence; and the rise of global warming and other environmental issues as a major social concern.
“You add those four things up,” Weiss notes, “and we thought, ‘These are not 10-, 20-, 30-month trends. These are 20-, 30-, 40-year trends. And they’re going to create massive investment opportunities.’”
Plus, Weiss adds, the field was pretty wide open back then. “Not a lot of folks were focused on the next generation of energy,” he says.
At least not in the private sector. Two decades ago, most of those paying close attention to our biggest energy and environmental problems — and how we might overcome them—were public officials, nonprofit leaders, and scholars.
Not any longer, however. “We really are shifting,” Weiss says, “from a world in which adoption of some of these technologies is driven by politics and policy to a world . . . being driven by markets and economics.”
Actually, among Angeleno Group’s greatest strengths is its ability to draw on the assistance of those who have deep experience in both arenas—corporate and government. The firm’s advisory board includes John Browne, the former chief executive of British oil giant BP; Ernest Moniz, who served as Energy Secretary under President Obama; Bennett Johnson, the long-time senator from Louisiana who chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and nine others with similarly golden credentials.
Motivating these heavy-hitters — who take a very active role in helping Angeleno Group and its portfolio companies — is the belief “that this $6 trillion vertical of the global economy is an important one,” Weiss says, and that “technology, science, and entrepreneurship in this sector can make a really positive difference.”
Despite the ongoing threat of climate change and a number of backward steps on the environment made by President Trump and his administration, Weiss thinks so too. He points out that the companies Angeleno Group has invested in — a range of enterprises offering products and services in wind and solar, clean transportation, energy efficiency, and more — have had the effect in terms of reduced carbon of taking the equivalent of 50 million cars off the road per year.
But there’s another metric that hits even closer to home. In 1977, when Weiss was growing up in Los Angeles, there were more than 120 Stage 1 smog alerts. “You couldn’t go out and play on the blacktop” because the air was so nasty, he recalls. But now, “in my kids’ experience in elementary school . . . in Los Angeles there were zero Stage 1 smog alerts” — even though there’s far more traffic on the road.
What made things better, says Weiss, was a steady progression in which politics and policy helped to drive the adoption of new technology (in that case, the catalytic converter) until, eventually, market forces took over and spurred truly widespread change.
“I’m optimistic,” he says, “because of that track record and history that we have of innovating our way against some of these challenges.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Weiss here, along with Marty Goldensohn reporting on Coca-Cola’s “World Without Waste” sustainable packaging campaign, and Rachel Schneider pondering whether the United States can ever have lasting full employment.
The ‘Uber For HealthCare’ Aims to Transform the Marketplace
CEO Walter Jin explains on the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast how the Uber model represents a part of what the company does—but don’t forget about FaceTime, OpenTable, and more.
Like many digital startups, Pager originally pitched itself as the Uber for X—in its case, as the “Uber for healthcare,” a label that made all the more sense given that one of the company’s founders, Oscar Salazar, also helped to launch the real Uber.
But as Pager has brought in a new CEO, it has found that Uber isn’t quite the right analogy anymore.
When you order a car to pick you up, “you know that you want an UberX or UberXL,” Walter Jin, who now leads Pager, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. But when it comes to medicine, “I would surmise that people don’t know which care setting they really need to go to—whether it’s ER, urgent care, primary-care physician, specialist, just getting a . . . lab order or a prescription pharmaceutical. We don’t know. All we know is that we’re sick.”
If someone wants to go see a regular doctor, Jin adds, it can often take weeks to get an appointment. That “leaves us really just to wallow at home and suffer or we go to the ER”—which can be inconvenient and costly.
Pager has been trying to change this scenario by steadily broadening its offerings. Feeling yucky? Now, you tap into Pager and begin with a free interactive session (via chat, voice, or video) with a nurse at the company’s “command center.”
This setup was inspired in part by what Jin himself does when he’s under the weather: He simply reaches out to his brother, who is an emergency room doctor, by text or FaceTime. “He literally just tells me what to do,” Jin says. “We can help you in the same way that my brother does for me.”
The command-center nurse, for instance, might advise you to head straight to the emergency room or to urgent care, if your condition is serious enough. Or this intake conversation might lead to a more extensive telemedicine session with a physician or a house call visit from a Pager-contracted doctor (back to Uber again). Or you might nail down the next available appointment at a local doctor’s office by using Pager’s scheduling app—a feature that Jin likens to OpenTable. Another service now on Pager, called PokitDok, will help you check your insurance coverage.
“We’re really a traffic cop for the healthcare system,” Jin says.
Among the company’s biggest challenges is how to direct more traffic across the country. Pager, which has raised about $40 million in funding since its inception in 2014, currently serves about 100,000 people a year in select parts of New York, Florida, Texas, and New Jersey (where it struck a major deal last fall with Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, which promises to swell its numbers). But penetrating new communities is tough.
That’s largely because markets are highly localized. “When you go to Nashville, the healthcare system and the players are different than if you go to Dallas, Texas, or Oakland, California,” Jin explains. “While we’d love to be a national app that everyone can just download . . . it just doesn’t work that way.”
Jin, who has been involved in the business side of the healthcare world since the mid-1990s, was Pager’s non-executive chairman and an investor in the company through his Three Fields Capital before becoming CEO a little more than a year ago. He credits Salazar and his two co-founders (all of whom remain in senior roles at Pager) with recognizing that they needed to bring in a leader with deep experience in the field.
“As we spent on time on the board talking about the nuances in healthcare,” Jin says, “I think they really started to take a very humble approach to how difficult our industry is to transform.”
After all, while Jin is happy to invoke Uber, FaceTime, and OpenTable, he is quick to point out: “It’s not Snapchat. . . . It’s extremely, extremely complicated.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Jin here, along with Megan Kamerick reporting on a mental-health app called Woebot, and Kanyi Maqubela exploring the fine line “between exploitative and empowering” in consumer finance.
Taming the Ups and Downs of Workers’ Incomes With Even’s Quinten Farmer
Quinten Farmer, co-founder of the banking app provider, explores on the latest episode of The Bottom Line podcast how Even’s open culture helped it to get its product right.
Late last year, Even generated a lot of buzz when it was announced that the banking app provider had signed up Walmart—the nation’s largest employer—so that its 1.4 million workers can draw in advance on their next paycheck and thereby smooth out their financial ups and downs. But this huge success notwithstanding, Even’s own path has been anything but smooth.
“We’ve only just recently exited this experimental stage,” Quinten Farmer, Even’s co-founder and chief operating officer, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line.
Launched in 2014, Even displays an all-too-rare sense of humility in a world where many startups feel a constant need to swagger. This doesn’t mean that the company is timid; Even is plenty eager to put forth bold ideas. But it is also willing to be transparent about what isn’t panning out—and change directions when necessary.
To this end, when Even brought on a head of research a few years ago, “her mandate was to make sure that we as a company didn’t lie to ourselves,” Farmer explains. She has since used the company’s blog to, in Farmer’s words, “essentially live our product development experience in public.”
Making Even’s embrace of this fishbowl existence all the more extraordinary is that things were bound to get messy given that the company had chosen to take on an immense social challenge: income volatility.
Because of erratic work schedules, the need to take time off to care for a loved one, and other issues, many American households face wild swings in their earnings—25% or more on an annual basis and even bigger fluctuations month to month. This makes it “difficult for families to plan, pay regular expenses, save, or pay down debt,” the Pew Charitable Trusts has pointed out. Often, they’re forced to turn to expensive options, such as payday loans or overdraft protection, to cover the bills.
Even’s original way of trying to solve this was through a product called Pay Protection, which Walmart quietly piloted.
“Basically they said, ‘You know, we think you guys are pretty small. We think this is pretty early. But there’s something here. Can we figure out a way to work together?’” Farmer recalls.
Under Pay Protection, the system would establish an average income for you based on your pay history. If you earned more than the average during a particular period (because you worked a bunch of overtime, for instance), it would direct you to save your money. If you earned less (because, say, you had to miss work), Pay Protection would either take money from your savings or float funds from Even to make up the shortfall. All of this was made available for a subscription fee of just $3 a week.
“You can kind of imagine this nice, elegant smoothing function,” Farmer says.
The trouble was, what Farmer and his colleagues imagined didn’t match the way that people actually lived their lives. As it turned out, many folks were routinely running into a cash squeeze before their next payday, when the Even app was designed to intervene. Action, however, was required immediately.
“The classic example really is rent is due two days before payday,” Farmer says. “It’s purely a timing problem.”
And so the company ditched Pay Protection and introduced a new solution called Instapay, which allows people to withdraw part of their paycheck early. Because this is offered as a benefit by employers, Even knows how much money in total is coming to the individual. This ensures that it won’t extend funds, willy-nilly, beyond what someone has earned, helping to keep them financially healthy.
For Farmer, the entire process—trying something, failing, and finally seeming to nail it—is exactly what Even promised its earliest investors. “We don’t know all the answers,” Farmer remembers telling them. “We don’t know what the right approach is. We’re pretty confident we can find it.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Farmer here, along with Molly Nugent reporting on one woman’s struggles to cope with her own financial instability, and Rachel Schneider examining how our assumptions about gender are shaping the future of work.
Tim O’Reilly Eyes the Future of the Tech Industry By Peering Into the Past
On the latest episode of The Bottom Line podcast, the O’Reilly Media CEO draws on lessons of history to help understand high-tech’s current perils and promise.
Lots of folks have expressed amazement at the speed with which Facebook, Google, and Apple have gone from being at the center of “the coolest industry” around to being likened to Big Tobacco, “peddling a destructive addiction,” as New York Times columnist David Brooks has characterized the shift.
Count Tim O’Reilly among those who’ve been decidedly less surprised.
“It’s something that happens in the life of every technology,” O’Reilly, the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “Television was going to change the world for the better. And then we had this backlash where we said, ‘Oh no, it’s making everybody into couch potatoes and making everybody stupid.’ The automobile was going to change the world for the better—and it did. And then we realized, oh my gosh, there are all these terrible downsides. . . .
“It’s kind of how we progress as a species,” adds O’Reilly, the author of, most recently, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. “We start out starry-eyed and optimistic with all the possibility of a new technology,” only to realize that there are shortcomings that need to be addressed—and often are addressed, even as some people invariably resist in order “to preserve the profits that they’re making.”
If it sounds like O’Reilly has a keen sense of the past, that’s because he is a close student of it. But it’s also because he himself has helped to make history, at least in Silicon Valley.
O’Reilly Media started in the 1980s as a publisher of books about computer programming, and later the Internet. Today, its learning platform, Safari, is considered the largest online library for technical and business topics. The company is also well known for its industry conferences. In 1998, O’Reilly organized the meeting where the term “open source software” was born. In 2004, he became instrumental in popularizing the term “Web 2.0” to indicate the shift, in the wake of the dot-com bust, to sites that emphasized user-generated content and were easy for even non-experts to tap.
O’Reilly is also a partner in an early-stage venture firm.
As he draws on the lessons of yesterday to help figure out—and shape—tomorrow, one area that O’Reilly is focused on is the growing concentration of power among a handful of online behemoths. Many critics are concerned that the dominance of Google, Facebook, and Amazon is hurting consumers and workers alike. O’Reilly, though, believes that their behavior is also bound to have another casualty: the tech giants themselves.
“I watched this early in my career with Microsoft,” O’Reilly says, recalling how the company came to wield so much control in personal computing that it would dictate to venture capitalists “what they could invest in” and to entrepreneurs “what was safe to do.”
“That ended up leaving Microsoft holding all of the cards—they thought,” O’Reilly explains. “But in reality, all the innovators said, ‘Well, we can’t make any money in this world anymore. Let’s go over somewhere where there’s just interesting opportunity, namely the Internet. . . . Suddenly, Microsoft wakes up and went, ‘Oh, all of the innovators went somewhere else; they’re not developing for our platform anymore. . . .’
“What’s so interesting,” O’Reilly notes, “is the current conversations in the Valley are very similar. ‘What’s safe to invest in? How close are we to the center of Google’s bull’s-eye or Microsoft’s or Facebook’s or Amazon’s? Is this an acquisition opportunity—or will they just put us out of business?’”
O’Reilly stresses that while a lot wary eyes are being cast toward tech—and for good reason—the impulse to squeeze others transcends the sector.
“It’s really the problem in our entire society and our economy,” O’Reilly asserts. “Long-term greedy is good. Long-term greedy says we’re going to make everybody wealthier, and I’m going to get a piece of that. I’m going to make my customers more successful. I’m going to make my partners more successful.
“But you look at so many companies and you realize that it becomes increasingly zero-sum. And zero-sum is short-term greedy.”
You can listen to my entire interview with O’Reilly here, along with Bridget Huber reporting on how we seem to be facing less the rise of robot overlords and more the rise of robot coworkers, and Kanyi Maqubela exploring whether censorship in China is as much about business as it is about politics.
The Most Successful Union Organizer in America Thinks Traditional Organizing Is a Lost Cause
On the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast, David Rolf of the SEIU explains why worker advocates need to move to a different model.
If anyone has shown a keen understanding of how to unionize workers in America, it’s David Rolf.
If anyone has shown a keen understanding of how to unionize workers in America, it’s David Rolf.
In the 1990s, he was a key player in the Service Employees International Union winning the right to represent some 74,000 home care aides in Los Angeles—the largest union organizing campaign since the 1940s. In his present post, as president of SEIU Local 775 in Seattle, he has spearheaded growth from 1,600 to 45,000 members. In 2014, The American Prospect called Rolf “the most successful union organizer of the past 15 years.”
All of which makes Rolf’s take on the collective-bargaining system—that it is a relic, and that those who truly care about workers should stop focusing their efforts on promoting it—particularly provocative.
“I think we made a valiant . . . bet that if we put enough talent and enough resources behind traditional union organizing that we could somehow bring back the old model,” Rolf told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “It wasn’t the wrong theory to try necessarily. . . . But ultimately, when you try something over and over again and cannot achieve the results you want, it’s time to try something new.”
Instead of being sufficiently innovative, Rolf adds, most labor leaders have been “reinvesting and doubling down on our American system of enterprise-based collective bargaining since the union movement started to shrink in the early 1950s.” The result: “Through decades . . . we’ve seen unions grow weaker and weaker every year while continuing to repeat the same strategic directions.”
Today, less than 6.5% of the private-sector workforce in the United States is unionized, a steady drop from nearly 35% in 1955, 26% in 1975, and 10% in 1995.
To move forward, Rolf has plenty of ideas, including promoting worker ownership and introducing “ethical workplace” certification and labeling programs designed to appeal to socially conscious consumers.
Especially important, he believes, is to supplant firm-by-firm bargaining with a European-style paradigm in which representatives of the employees, employers, and the government set standards for wages and benefits throughout an entire industry or across a geographic area.
“The more there’s bargaining centralization,” Rolf says, “the less anti-union the culture is, the more union coverage you have in the workplace, the lower inequality is within the overall society, the lower the level of gender wage inequality is, and the more time people get for social and leisure activity.”
Another part of Rolf’s strategy has been to build advocacy organizations like the Fight for $15, which, in his words, has put forth a “bold and morally compelling demand” to elevate the pay of more than 20 million low-wage workers.
Whether a critical mass of labor leaders will ever agree with Rolf and push hard to replace the status quo is far from certain. But nobody, he says, should interpret the organizing triumphs that he and a relatively small number of others around the country have enjoyed as a sign that 20th century trade unionism can survive the 21st.
“Overall, the trend lines are not good,” Rolf says, suggesting that the current system is simply “marking time until its eventual extinction.”
“It’s not to say that you can’t find a few dozen black rhinos left in the wild somewhere,” he continues, “but that shouldn’t make us think that they’re suddenly going to take over the world.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Rolf here, along with Marty Goldensohn reporting on the state of employee stock ownership plans, and Kanyi Maqubela reflecting on why the toughest obstacle facing driverless cars is psychological, not technical.
TV Legend Norman Lear: Maximizing Shareholder Value Is the ‘Central Disease of Our Time’
In a special edition of The Bottom Line podcast, the hit sitcom creator zeroes in on a topic that has long interested him: business and its connection to society.
Through hit sitcoms such as All in the Family, Good Times and Maude, Norman Lear has taken on all kinds of contentious topics during his legendary television career: civil rights, women’s rights, the Vietnam War and more.
Through hit sitcoms such as All in the Family, Good Times and Maude, Norman Lear has taken on all kinds of contentious topics during his legendary television career: civil rights, women’s rights, the Vietnam War and more.
But as it turns out, the 95 year old has long had his eye on another issue with huge societal implications: the way that many businesses push to rake in ever bigger financial returns—often in the short term—with little regard for anything else.
“This is the greatest fallacy I think I know,” Lear told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “When nothing in nature suggests anything can grow forever, the American corporation is dedicated to a profit statement this quarter larger than the last. . . . Even as I repeat it, it sounds just ruinous.”
Of course, this relentless pursuit of profit stems in large measure from the fact that, over the past 30 years, companies have embraced an ethos of “maximizing shareholder value.” Says Lear: “I think of it as the central disease of our time.”
Lear became directly involved in promoting a cure when he co-founded the Business Enterprise Trust, which during the 1990s recognized companies that tried to solve social problems as a part of their core business strategy. The program was very much in the spirit of the Shared Value Initiative launched by Harvard’s Michael Porter and Mark Kramer—only Lear’s effort came some 20 years earlier.
One corporation that has consistently impressed Lear is Starbucks. It’s “a company,” he says, “that thinks about its employees a great deal.”
But Lear makes clear that this is the exception. Most companies have kept wages flat and gutted worker benefits over time, leaving many Americans anxious and angry. Indeed, analysts believe that one reason Donald Trump won the White House was that he was able to tap into these feelings among the white working class—a group known as the “Archie Bunker vote” in a nod to Lear’s irascible blue-collar lead character in All in the Family.
Yet Lear says he actually isn’t sure whom Archie would have cast his ballot for—Trump or Hillary Clinton. “Either way is possible,” he says. Getting inside Archie’s head, he adds, “would take 11 scripts leading up to the vote, and I haven’t thought that through.”
As for the business he’s in, Lear—who serves as chairman of Act III Communications, a multimedia holding company—stresses that entertainment can have a positive social impact.
He’s excited about a pilot that he’s doing for NBC, Guess Who Died, which will look at the lives of the elderly—a demographic that, in Lear’s words, has “not been represented ever on television in any way that reflects their numbers and importance in our culture.” He also points to the current reboot of his 1970s show One Day at a Time, which last season grappled with a teenage girl coming out as a lesbian to her single mother and grandmother.
“The lack of acceptance for people who are very different from you . . . this show will help a conversation about it,” says Lear, who was one of those celebrated this year at the Kennedy Center Honors for his lifetime achievement in the arts—set to be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26. “And there is no way conversation doesn’t aid in the long run.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Lear here:
Why One Private-Equity Pioneer Is So Fed Up With The Industry, He’s Ready To Quit
Co-published by Fast Company
Leo Hindery has long been outspoken about super-rich fund managers who exploit a loophole that allows them to pay the capital-gains tax rate—about half the ordinary tax rate—on a huge chunk of their personal income.
Co-published by Fast Company
Greed is winning,” Leo Hindery tells me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “I don’t like its trends. ” Hindery, a private-equity pioneer, is fed up with the mores of his $2.5 trillion industry.
“I’m not sure I’m going to stay in the business,” he says.
Hindery, who runs New York-based InterMedia Partners, stresses that he looks forward to continuing to make “thoughtful investments” on behalf of others. But he is mulling a new vehicle outside the realm of private equity.
“I don’t like the fee structure,” he explains. “I think it’s usurious. I think it’s caused really unfortunate—almost unethical—behaviors by some of the managers. I’m not happy with it. So we’re going to change our own perspectives.”
Hindery’s displeasure comes in large measure from seeing private equity change over time. When the field began to take off in the mid-1980s, he says, there was more of an inclination to acquire businesses and hold onto them for five to seven years, building them up along the way.
But now, he says, there is so much capital chasing so few good deals, it has put pressure on private-equity managers—often young generalists with zero experience in the types of businesses that they’re buying—to become overleveraged and then try to turn a relatively quick profit.
“They’ve backed away from the longer hold, and they’ve gone for the more expedient action of cutting . . . costs, especially employee costs,” Hindery says.
His peers infuriate him in other ways, as well. Hindery has long been outspoken about super-rich fund managers who exploit a loophole that allows them to pay the capital-gains tax rate—about half the ordinary tax rate—on a huge chunk of their personal income. “It’s just unconscionable,” Hindery says. “It’s beyond intellectually absurd.”
“There’s nothing that suggests that what we do as managers of these monies is a capital gain,” he adds. “To call it a capital gain is to call an orange an apple.”
For Hindery, the declining standards in private equity are one piece of a larger picture in which the leaders of corporate America have become increasingly focused on short-term profits at the expense of the greater good to society.
When Hindery went to work for natural resources giant Utah International in the early 1970s, fresh out of business school at Stanford, he says he plunged into a world in which major CEOs “were patriots.”
“They believed in the value of their employees as assets,” he says. “They believed in their responsibility to their communities and to their nation.” Today, however, “I can’t make that generalization much anymore.”
Hindery acknowledges that social impact investing is a force to be reckoned with, as more and more public-pension funds, university endowments and charitable foundations steer their investment dollars into those companies that are good stewards of the environment and their workers.
But money managers and top corporate executives—the bulk of whose own compensation is typically linked to their company’s share price—are still often motivated by other concerns. At least for now, says Hindery, “greed is winning.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Hindery here, along with Larry Buhl reporting on efforts by a group of wealthy individuals called the Patriotic Millionaires to battle income inequality, and Rachel Schneider exploring why we need to develop new indicators that measure people’s overall financial health, not just their creditworthiness.
The Bottom Line is a production of Capital & Main.
Why Giving Ex-Felons a Second Chance Is Good for Business
On this bonus episode of The Bottom Line, Gretchen Peterson of Dave’s Killer Bread and Scott Budnick of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition share how those with criminal backgrounds often make great employees.
More than 600,000 people in the United States are let out of prison annually, only to find that landing a job is near impossible.
In fact, a year after they’ve gotten out, some two-thirds of these folks remain unemployed—often because of the stigma that they carry and concerns over what kinds of workers they’ll prove to be.
But where many businesses can only envision big problems among this population, others have come to discover huge pluses.
Most companies believe that those who’ve spent time locked up “might be unstable or just unemployable—and all of that is untrue,” Gretchen Peterson, the director of human resources at Dave’s Killer Bread, where about a third of its 300 employees have criminal backgrounds, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line.
My other guest, Hollywood producer turned prison-reform advocate Scott Budnick, makes the same point. With the right training, those who’ve been released from prison tend to display “a hunger and a work ethic even more than your traditional . . . employee,” says Budnick, the founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a nonprofit in Los Angeles.
For both Budnick and Peterson, the idea that society would turn its back on ex-felons and leave them jobless—especially when some 70 million American adults have criminal records—makes no sense.
We should want those who’ve paid their dues “to be able to reintegrate and compete with everyone else without this scarlet letter that they’re wearing forever,” Budnick says. “That’s good for public safety. That means there’s an 80 percent less chance that they’re going to commit another crime. . . . That means they’re going to pay taxes.”
Says Peterson: “They’re your next door neighbor. When people can personalize that and get to know an individual, then they realize that person has made a mistake potentially, or maybe two mistakes. . . . But should they be held accountable for that for the rest of their life once they’ve served their sentence?”
At Dave’s Killer Bread—which traces its own history to 2005, when co-founder Dave Dahl was welcomed back to his family’s bakery after a 15-year prison term—myriad benefits have materialized from this philosophy.
For one thing, Peterson suggests, former felons are usually engaged and productive because they are grateful for the opportunity they’re receiving. “They’re very appreciative . . . to have stable employment,” she says.
Attracting front-line workers is also easy because DKB, as the company is known, has earned a reputation among re-entry programs and criminal justice agencies around its hometown of Milwaukie, Oregon, for being a second-chance employer. “We are never short of candidates,” Peterson says—even though it spends almost nothing on recruitment.
What’s more, she says, people who’ve been incarcerated can bring certain insights to the workplace that others lack. “It’s definitely an advantage,” Peterson says, noting how one of her colleagues is an excellent supervisor because of a high level of emotional intelligence that he honed behind bars. “He needed to be able to assess and read and listen and work with other people from all walks of life in order, really, to survive that experience,” she says.
And finally, Peterson explains, there’s this virtue: The company is a magnet for those who, like herself, want to do some good in the world. “It’s a mission,” she says. “It’s more than just baking bread.”
You can listen to my interviews with Peterson and Budnick here.
LinkedIn Wants to Find You a Job — All 3.5 Billion of You
On this episode of The Bottom Line, Allen Blue lays out how he and his team are trying to build the mother of all job-matching platforms.
We all know that technology is poised to wipe out lots and lots of jobs. Driverless trucks threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. Robots can now flip hamburgers. Artificial intelligence is creeping into all sorts of professions—law, accounting, and, dare I say it, journalism.
But technology is also assisting folks in landing jobs, including through online platforms that match their abilities with employer needs—while helping to fill in any knowledge or skills that they might lack.
“We’re able to look . . . and say here are the skills that are required for that set of jobs” that a company has open, Allen Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “And then we can look in the surrounding area and say, ‘Are there any schools out there which are teaching these skills?’ And similarly, we can say, ‘The people who are available to take those jobs—do they have those skills?’”
In this way, Blue adds, “LinkedIn brings a really unique perspective into measuring supply and demand and skill gaps, trying to understand where, in a given location, education, employment, and people who can take jobs . . . actually all come together.”
LinkedIn’s vision is nothing if not grand. Through the project that Blue is spearheading, known as the Economic Graph, the company eventually hopes to digitally map all of the world’s 3.5 billion workers, the hundreds of millions of businesses large and small that span the globe, and every educational institution that has an offering of interest to employer and employee.
“We have been growing faster and faster over time and . . . that growth has come to incorporate more and more people from throughout the economy,” says Blue, who serves as vice president of product management at LinkedIn, which is now part of Microsoft. “I hope that we’ll be able to provide meaningful value to large groups of them in the next three or four years.”
In the meantime, the company is experimenting with various aspects of the Economic Graph in places near (including Colorado, New York, and Arizona) and far (India and South Africa). “We are very much in a learning phase right now,” Blue notes.
Among the biggest takeaways so far: Don’t try to get too prescriptive about what kinds of jobs people should be aiming for or what training they’re going to need. Instead, let the data do the talking in real time.
“The thing which is inevitably true about the future is that it’s going to change quickly,” Blue says. “So the most important thing for us is not actually to try to create a specific solution to a specific foreseen problem, but rather to create a system which is resilient . . . and reacts.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Blue here, as well as Megan Kamerick reporting on a national network called TechHire that is forging pathways for overlooked Americans to gain skills and access to technical jobs, and Dorian Warren providing his take on how Donald Trump is betraying the working-class communities that he vowed to fight for.
Why the Founder of Beyond Meat Won’t Demonize the Consumption of Beef
On this episode of The Bottom Line, Ethan Brown explains why working with the meat industry is essential to transcending it.
The first time that venture capitalist Ray Lane ate something produced by Beyond Meat, one thing stuck with him—literally.
Back then, six or seven years ago, the company was focused on creating a chicken-like strip from plants. “I put it in my mouth, and it’s still there 15 minutes later,” recalls Lane, a partner emeritus at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which in 2011 became the first outside investor in Beyond Meat. “I’m trying to pick it out of my teeth.”
Since then, Beyond Meat has added to its offerings plant-based burger patties and crumbles good for tacos and Bolognese—all of it with the same aim: to replicate the flavor, texture, and full sensory experience of eating animals but to deliver high levels of protein (mostly via peas) in a way that is far better for both human health and the environment.
“My mother always questions my strategy on this and says, ‘Why are you always trying to make it taste like meat? Why not just make it taste good and leave the rest alone?’” Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat’s founder and CEO, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line, where he was joined by Lane.
But Brown believes that the only way to crack the mass market is to acknowledge that people have a strong attachment to meat and to take that on directly—a decision that has catapulted his company’s products into the meat case (and not the health-food aisle) at Whole Foods, Safeway, Kroger, and other chains.
“Meat is central to who we are as a species and as a culture, and so the notion that people are going to stop eating meat, I think, is a false one,” Brown says. “But the idea that people will start eating plant-based meat is a very promising one.”
Brown’s determination has led to another crucial piece of his strategy, as well: not shying away from collaborating with traditional players in the meat industry. “There’s a lot to learn from them both on the production side and on the development side,” Brown explains.
And so, while Beyond Meat counts the Humane Society of the United States as an investor, Tyson Foods owns 5% of the company. Meanwhile, former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, another investor in Beyond Meat, is the one who came up with the name of the company’s signature product: the Beyond Burger.
“It would be a mistake to demonize the consumption of meat,” says Brown, who himself is a vegan. Climate change, which is driven in large measure by livestock production, “is a global problem we have to solve together. There’s not time for ideological differences. . . . Protein is protein.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Brown and Lane here, as well as Ernest Savage reporting on efforts by a startup called Milk and Eggs to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to food deserts, and Natalie Foster exploring why the Independent Drivers Guild in New York represents an important new form of collective worker power.
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