Board Diversity: How Much Progress Have We Really Made?

Women now hold more than 25% of S&P 500 board seats. This represents a modest increase from a mere 16% recorded in 2009, with notable improvements occurring over the last two years as gender diversity continues to garner attention. In the past year alone, 46% of new directors appointed to S&P 500 boards were women and 23% self-identified as racial or ethnic minorities. Strikingly, July 2019 marked the first time each member company of the S&P 500 had at least one woman on its board of directors. With increased public pressures, many stakeholders are choosing to play an active role in ensuring board diversity rather than remaining passive and adhering to the status quo.

Lawmakers, in addition to shareholders and other C-Level executives, have decided to tackle gender diversity head-on. Last year, California passed SB 826, mandating public companies with executive offices in the state to appoint at least one female director by 2019. Illinois followed suit with a law requiring that corporations based in the state report their female and minority board membership on an annual basis. Other bills subsequently surfaced in New Jersey and Washington, but have yet to crystallize. Despite multiple states expressing interest in pursuing board diversity through legislation, critics are skeptical of whether this is the right avenue to achieve meaningful diversity and inclusion at the board level. A recently filed lawsuit claims SB 826 is unconstitutional, while other critics see SB 826’s quota approach as tokenistic and reductionist.

Overall this advancement is certainly a welcomed change, but much remains to be accomplished if women are to have real representation at the highest executive levels. Among 31 CEOs appointed to S&P 500 companies during the first half of 2019, only four were women. And while women now make up a quarter of S&P 500 board seats, there are only six companies where they constitute a majority of the board. The same can be said about racial diversity at the board and executive levels which lags behind any progress made in gender diversity. According to a study of the Fortune 500 companies conducted by Deloitte in 2018, only 12% of board directors identified as minority men and only 5% as minority women.

With so much work left to be done to achieve gender and racial parity at the board level, the challenge might unfortunately become even more difficult. According to Harvard Business Review’s 2018 Annual Corporate Directors Survey, 48% of polled directors believed that “shareholders are too preoccupied with diversity,” a phenomenon HBR called “diversity fatigue.” Desensitization to such matters reflects a poor understanding of the importance of achieving diversity beyond meaningless check-the-box-criteria. Without continued prioritization and buy-in from all stakeholders, any near-term progress will likely face challenges. We can remain hopeful, however, that the progress made to date – however slight – is worthwhile.

Board Diversity- How Much Progress Have We Really Made?

A New Decade and a New Age of Privacy

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) takes effect on New Year’s Day, 2020. It will impact everyone from the most established businesses to startup app developers. Under the CCPA, consumers have a right to know and a right to delete their information, and the companies need to make this possible. It applies to for-profit companies that meet business and size criteria. Many companies across the country fulfill the first part, and even small startups will eventually scale up to the minimum criteria.

The legislation has sent companies scrambling to understand what data they have, even driving ad-tech, like LiveRamp, to help companies organize what they have and streamline consumer consent agreements. While big business may now be facing the task of organizing mountains of data, it’s the new startups that will have to comply with the regulation as they scale, even at an early stage before the criteria are met. This becomes incredibly significant in the world of mental health apps.

There is a CCPA exemption drafted around the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which would protect certain kinds of health-related information and companies.

Venture-backed companies, like Talkspace and BetterHelp, deal with highly personal information regarding users’ mental health to provide online therapy. Wellness apps like Calm and Headspace collect less information, and it is unclear whether their purpose will be protected through HIPAA or whether CCPA will apply.

Regardless of the confusion surrounding exemptions, technology companies are emerging and expanding to address the worsening mental health crisis. Consequently, insurers are increasingly looking to partner with and invest in startups, recognizing that new technologies can radically improve the healthcare experience. Insurance company Dissinger Reed recently partnered with Talkspace, the online subscription therapy app, to offer the service to student athletes. With an insurance partnership will come rapid growth and also consumer data, triggering CCPA compliance.

California’s law is the first of its kind, but it is likely that other states and the federal government will follow with their own versions. As the applicable law changes, these for-profit venture-backed mental health apps will need to stay flexible. If it becomes a significant barrier to a company’s ability to scale and comply with changing regulations, then these apps will be less able to drive positive change in mental health.

A New Decade and a New Age of Privacy

Trade Deficit Continues to Grow Under Trump’s Watch

The trade war initiated by President Trump is yet to yield positive results for the American economy. The United States’ trade deficit increased by about five percent through the first three quarters of 2019 as compared to the same period last year. This is despite promises from the Trump administration that hiking tariffs on Chinese imports would shrink the trade deficit, which is the gap between the value of the country’s imports and its exports.

With each new round of tariffs, the two largest economies are drifting further apart. Trade between the two countries has declined more than ever, and China has fallen from being United States’ largest trading partner to being its third, after Mexico and Canada. The trade war has not bolstered American manufacturing and exports either. In fact, businesses claim they have been hurt by the uncertainty it has created, and many American companies have shifted their production facilities to countries like Vietnam to avoid increasing tariffs.

In isolation, higher tariffs on Chinese imports have resulted in a decline in the trade deficit with China. However, this decline has been largely offset by imports from other countries such as Mexico, Taiwan and Vietnam. At the same time, retaliatory tariffs from China, along with the European Union, India and Turkey, have negatively impacted American exports. As a result, Trump’s tariffs have neither failed to reduce American demand for foreign goods, nor have they stimulated American exports. These factors combined have caused the country’s overall trade deficit to grow.

President Trump has long believed that the trade deficit hinders economic growth and is a sign of weakness for the American economy. On the contrary, some economists argue that the trade deficit is not an accurate a metric to measure the health of the economy. If anything, they believe the increase in trade deficit is largely because the American economy is growing fast, leading to greater import and consumption of foreign goods by Americans. The widening of the trade deficit, they add, is a product of a host of macroeconomic factors such as the relative growth rates of countries, their investment flows, and the value of their currencies.

The Trump administration is now considering rolling back tariffs on Chinese goods as part of a truce to end the trade war. However, any definitive agreement hinges on concessions from China, including large purchases of American agricultural products, rules to deter currency manipulation and provisions to protect intellectual property. While the economic pain appears to have softened President Trump’s resolve, it is doubtful when a conclusive deal will be reached and whether it will make up for the damage already done.

Trade Deficit Continues to Grow Under Trump’s Watch

Vitamin E Acetate Could be the Vaping Illness Culprit

The CDC has announced a potential link between the various vaping-related illnesses that have recently occurred and the additive vitamin E acetate. As of November 5, 2019, there have been 2,051 of these illnesses reported since the outbreak began in mid-August. Upon testing samples from the lungs of a group of infected people, the compound seems to be a possible link— the first traces were found in August but are reoccurring as a consistent thread in the lungs of sick patients. The compound was found in all 29 of the samples that researchers have tested.

Vaping related illnesses carry unknowns for researchers, akin to when the risks of cigarettes to human health were still obfuscated. While most patients who have reported illnesses report vaping THC or nicotine products, the concern about vaping and the illness that have occurred is not necessarily unique to THC or nicotine devices. Instead, the concern should reach all vape products. Of the 29 samples tested, 23 also showed THC in the samples and 16 showed nicotine.

The heart of the problem is, as these recent tests are illuminating, the various additives in the products. This issue is amplified by the fact that many of these products are being purchased on a black market and, thus, are entirely unregulated. Regulation would allow for the opportunity to monitor additives and ensure dangerous compounds stay out of legally purchased products.

Vitamin E acetate is described by the CDC’s Dr. James Pirkle as “enormously sticky.” This means it can stay in the lungs long after use and this is why its reappearance in the tests could mean it is a central cause in the vaping related lung illnesses. While vitamin E in its other forms like lotion and supplements is harmless and even beneficial, inhaling the “oily” substance is a different story.

Of the reported vaping related illnesses, 70% are male and 79% are under 35. Thankfully, there has been a significant decline in reported sicknesses, but this should not dwarf our concern or our search for a solution.

Vitamin E Acetate Could be the Vaping Illness Culprit


Lawsuit Alleges Man Died in a Burning Tesla Because its Futuristic Doors Wouldn’t Open

Elon Musk founded Tesla Motors in 2003 and oversees all product development, engineering, and design of the world-renowned company. In August of 2008, Tesla announced its first electric sedan called the Model S. Elon Musk is known for having a brilliant mind and was quoted saying, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” Recently, a failure related to Tesla has come tragically according to Omar Awan’s attorney, Stuart Grossman. Grossman filed suit against Tesla claiming the company was at fault for his client’s death in a car crash due to the Model S’s futuristic design features.

Omar Awan was a 48-year-old anesthesiologist and a father to five children. Like many Americans, he leased the Tesla Model S because he was environmentally sensitive and conscious of safety. According to a Tesla spokeswoman who responded after the crash, “Tesla vehicles are engineered to be the safest cars in the world and Tesla drivers have driven more than 10 billion miles to date.” Awan was driving the Model S and lost control. The car went across a South Florida road and ultimately slammed into a palm tree. The struggle for his life began shortly afterwards. Once the car was stopped, the Tesla lithium-ion battery caught fire while smoke and flames filled the car. There was a crowd standing nearby to witness the tragedy take place but there was nothing anyone could do to help. According to the Washington Post, “the car’s retractable door handles, which are supposed to auto-present when they detect a key fob nearby, malfunctioned and first responders weren’t able to open the doors and save Awan.” Grossman alleges there was no other way to open the doors because of the Model S’s inaccessible door handles.

Awan’s death is not the only Tesla-related failure in the news recently. Another lawsuit from a May 2018 crash that killed two teens was a result of the lithium battery catching on fire. Also, a Shanghai parking garage surveillance footage showed a Model S moments before the car burst into flames after smoke was resonating. Tesla has responded to the lawsuits and other claims of the company’s cars resulting in accidents by saying, “high-speed crashes can result in fires whether the car is powered by gasoline or batteries.” Grossman responded to this by saying this was not the issue in his client’s case because all the first responders needed to do to save his life was have access to the Model S door handles.

Dr. Awan leaves behind a family and an issue to be solved by Tesla. Even after the crash, and after firefighters extinguished the flames, the Model S reignited and began burning at a local tow yard. Tesla is one of the world’s most innovative companies we have, but tragic stories like these are eye-opening. The American people are brought back to the reality of just how safe we must be with technology and automobiles.

Lawsuit Alleges Man Died in a Burning Tesla Because its Futuristic Doors Wouldn’t Open





Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Lays Out the Technologies He’s Betting Will Take the Company Past its $1 Trillion Valuation

With a $10.7 billion profit on a $33.1 billion revenue, Microsoft has achieved a $1 trillion valuation. It is the third US-based company to exceed this market cap and has since seen its stock price surge by over four percent within a month. The company attributes its growth to its Azure cloud business, a key strategic area that has transformed the company into a cloud computing leader.

According to CFO Amy Hood, Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing business had material growth in $10 million-plus contracts. In addition, the overall commercial cloud business, which includes Azure, Office 365, and other cloud services, has increased quarterly earnings by nearly 36% to reach $11.6 billion. Customers like Walgreens Boots Alliance have bought packages from Microsoft that include Azure Cloud and other AI offerings with cloud-based subscriptions to Microsoft Office. This hybrid cloud approach allows companies to use a single set of tools for data stored on their own servers, as well as on shared space.  According to  Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, the company has a “very competitive and growing footprint” in business applications: “even when you think about something like Microsoft 365, we never participated in spite of our past success with all the first-line work and now we get to participate in it.”

Interestingly, the commercial cloud business isn’t the only area of focus for Microsoft. Hood says that the company would invest in areas like security, compliance, communication, workflow and business-process reinvention. The aim is to look for areas where there is room for durable and expansive growth. Services like LinkedIn have noticed a growth spike as an increased number of recruiters and job seekers have utilized the service. Along with Office and Dynamics, these three services brought in $10.2 billion in quarterly earnings. Even the company’s gaming business saw strong growth, which is attributed to the rise of the online video game, Fortnite.

There is no doubt that the cloud space is a source of Microsoft’s growing value, but in order to keep growing, the offering must maintain its profitability. This will require long-term growth stemming from selling more services and products to customers — that is, Microsoft gaining a bigger share of how much companies and agencies spend on technology overall.

Many have regarded the $1 trillion valuation as a significant feat for the company and investors are paying close attention amidst fears of a slowing global economy. Despite outperforming the estimates, senior leadership isn’t quite fazed by it. According to Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s Chief Marketing Officer, “this is a metric that nobody on the senior leadership team is tracking.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Lays Out the Technologies He’s Betting Will Take the Company Past its $1 Trillion Valuation

Expanding Corporate Responsibility: JPMorgan’s New Hiring Initiative

JPMorgan Chase (“JPMorgan”) recently began tackling a systemic problem long faced by the formally incarcerated and convicted felons by removing the standard criminal background inquiry from its application process. This policy, also known as the “second chance program,” stems from a new effort to increase corporate social responsibility. 10% of JPMorgan’s new hires last year were people with criminal backgrounds. This amounted to roughly 2,000 new hires. The company hopes that the second chance program will help eliminate biases that prevent otherwise qualified applicants from being prematurely overlooked.

The second chance program is the first of many initiatives undertaken by JPMorgan’s new policy center. Former Deputy Secretary of State, Heather Higginbottom, is leading the center, which will focus on “issues such as job skills and education, small business growth, economic development and affordable housing.” Higginbottom states that the goal of the policy center is to accomplish “real policy change,” and the first steps involve reinstating Pell Grants for ex-convicts and removing prior criminal convictions as barriers to employment.

Higginbottom hopes to address the significant obstacles former convicts experience in the job market. For example, formerly incarcerated people have an unemployment rate of over 27%, which is higher than the total unemployment rate during the Great Depression and more than five times the current rate. JPMorgan hires employees with criminal backgrounds for a variety of jobs and found that it has in no way affected the effectiveness of their employees.

The center is adamant that change allows it to select from a broader pool of applicants and affect its community in a positive way. Higginbottom says that “the economy works well for some people and it’s not working well for others . . . [and] business has a role to play in advancing some of the solutions to those problems.”

The creation of the policy center and JPMorgan’s emphasis on corporate social responsibility follows a recent shift in leadership’s definition of corporate purpose. In August, 181 CEOs of major U.S. corporations issued a Business Roundtable letter that expanded the definition of “purpose of a corporation” to include a “modern standard for corporate responsibility.” Thus, in addition to maximizing shareholder value, the letter emphasized the importance of corporate social responsibility. With this is mind, hopefully more companies will follow JPMorgan’s lead and address the entrenched social problems that our increasingly polarized U.S. Congress cannot efficiently confront.

Expanding Corporate Responsibility- JPMorgan’s New Hiring Initiative

Don’t Worry About Us, Worry About China: Why Facebook Went from Appeasing to Criticizing China

Recent comments by Mark Zuckerberg—thus far hardly known as a China critic—suggest that Facebook is abandoning its charm offensive aimed at China and shifting toward its own flavor of an “America First” policy. After years of trying to enter the Chinese market, Zuckerberg now unabashedly invokes the specter of Chinese dominance in technology to thwart critics. For instance, Zuckerberg recently told the House Financial Services Committee that his Libra cryptocurrency experiment would “extend America’s financial leadership,” while warning Congress of China’s progress in cryptocurrency technology. However, some view Facebook’s change as a sleight of hand designed to divert attention away from the company’s mistakes.

China’s a great country”—said Zuckerberg, employing the full extent of his Mandarin proficiency at a Tsinghua University conference in 2014. The next year saw Zuckerberg jogging through a smog-covered Tiananmen Square and meeting with President Xi Jinping in Seattle. During these years, Facebook worked hard to reverse China’s decision in 2009 to ban its website, a decision made amidst Uyghur riots in China’s Xinjiang province. But Facebook made little progress: Facebook did not utilize a 2015 permit to open an office in Beijing and only briefly registered before quickly taking down a subsidiary in Hangzhou in 2018.

Facebook now seems to have abandoned its efforts to scale the Great Firewall of China altogether. Instead, Zuckerberg has started to characterize Facebook as the antithesis of Chinese authoritarianism. Speaking at Georgetown University in October this year—at an event named “Standing for Voice and Free Expression”—Zuckerberg warned that “China is building its own internet focused on very different values.” Zuckerberg called attention to “our services, like Whatsapp, [that] are used by protesters and activists everywhere,” in contrast to “TikTok, the Chinese app…. [where] mentions of these protests are censored.” Meanwhile, in August, Facebook deleted accounts attempting to undermine the protests in Hong Kong.

At the same time, Facebook is facing a litany of antitrust probes, hostile central banks, privacy investigations, and other challenges. Facebook is currently under three antitrust investigations in the United States, respectively launched by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Congress, and a group of 47 attorneys-general. In Europe, governments and central banks have set a “very high bar” for regulatory approval of Libra. In July, Facebook paid $5 billion to settle privacy cases with the FTC. And this month, California’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against Facebook, alleging non-compliance with inquiries over its privacy management. Further, prominent people, such as presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, now argue that Facebook should be broken up. It is against this backdrop that Zuckerberg tries to take the moral high ground by emphasizing American values and looming Chinese dominance—to conquer the hearts and minds of the voting public, if not the regulators and politicians.

Don’t Worry About Us, Worry About China- Why Facebook Went from Appeasing to Criticizing China

The Future of Cryptocurrency: From the Bitcoin Whitepaper to National Virtual Currencies

Cryptocurrency entered our lives in 2009 with a “whitepaper” introducing Bitcoin. The revolutionary agenda of Bitcoin was to create a decentralized system by eliminating financial institutions from transactions. Bitcoin garnered tremendous interest from people with a variety of interests and from a variety of fields. In last ten years, countless cryptocurrencies have emerged to form a billion-dollar market.

Facebook recently introduced a cryptocurrency called “Libra.” Economists question its legitimacy and compliance with securities provisions. With Facebook still reeling from its various privacy scandals, regulators doubt its incentives in entering the virtual currency industry. Their primary concern is that Facebook will use private spending information to optimize its advertisement algorithm. The Federal Reserve has made clear its reservations about Libra, and five European countries have explicitly stated that they will block Libra in their countries.

Since Libra was unveiled in June 2018, Facebook’s various business ventures have struggled against a backdrop of being thwarted by regulators. Meanwhile, China is creating a government-backed national virtual currency akin to Libra. Chinese officials have declared the initiative’s disruptive potential to carry the world to a new financial system.

China seeks to achieve “controlled anonymity” with its upcoming digital currency. Some economists feel this is an oxymoron. For virtual money to become currency, the anonymity that people could gain from cash should be preserved, according to Flex Yang. Otherwise, it only has value as a payment tool. Regardless, Chinese authorities plan to scrutinize transactions made via the new virtual currency.

Sweden, Canada, and Australia have also put forward significant efforts to release their own cryptocurrencies. However, much of cryptocurrencies’ value lies in its neutrality and anonymity, features which disappear when sovereign cryptocurrencies require identification for virtual wallets and the like. Bitcoin remains a standout among cryptocurrencies for this reason—success that Libra and sovereign cryptocurrencies will find difficult to replicate.

The Future of Cryptocurrency- From the Bitcoin Whitepaper to National Virtual Currencies

“Back off Bezos”: Amazon Money Fails to Flip Seattle City Council

Amazon spent $1.6 million to make the Seattle City Council more business-friendly, but the failed foray into local politics may cost the company far more in the long run.

In 2015, Amazon and its employees donated about $130,000 to Seattle City Council candidates. In 2019, that total increased tenfold, with $1 million donated just weeks before election day. The money flowed to a local business advocacy organization that spent funds to support pro-business—and therefore pro-Amazon—candidates. The advocacy group spent the most to defeat Kshama Sawant, a fierce critic of Amazon. And while early results indicate that the efforts successfully ousted Sawant, there is no sign that Amazon will come away with a landslide victory. On the contrary, the donations have landed Amazon’s feud with Seattle in the national spotlight and may prove to heighten discomfort with big tech.

Though Amazon takes pride in its Seattle roots, tensions have grown between the company and its hometown in recent years. In 2018, the City Council proposed a per-employee tax designed to make the largest corporations contribute to funding affordable housing and homeless services in the city. Locally based giants, including Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft, joined together to fund a campaign against the “Tax on Jobs.” Amazon threatened to freeze its planned construction and halt its growth in the city if the tax were imposed. The backlash was so significant that the City Council repealed the tax just a month after passing it. The fear of a revived “Amazon tax” likely drove Amazon to spend big in 2019 to reshape the Council in its favor.

However, that plan may have drastically backfired. The local election spending has landed Amazon in the national spotlight and may prove to be a flashpoint in the big tech and income inequality debate. Amazon and its supporters argue that the company has brought jobs and infrastructure to Seattle, making it a global tech center. Others, however, point to Amazon as the root of Seattle’s problems: the more than 50,000 employees at the company’s home base exacerbate the city’s soaring housing costs and homelessness crisis. Amazon’s effort to tilt the City Council so as to avoid a tax that would fund solutions to these problems undermines the company’s commitment to its community. The Seattle election saga will likely heighten skepticism of big tech in politics and may galvanize supporters of the policies that Amazon sought to defeat.

“Back off Bezos”- Amazon Money Fails to Flip Seattle City Council