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Capital Factory founder responds to criticism of unpaid internships

(BUSINESS NEWS) Capital Factory founder, Joshua Baer responds to criticism of their recent blog post featuring participating companies’ internship opportunities.

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The center of gravity

Capital Factory is the self-proclaimed “center of gravity” of the tech and entrepreneurial community in Austin, soon to celebrate a decade in operation as an accelerator, incubator, coworking space, and guide for the industry. If you’re in the Austin tech world, you’ve been to one of the many events in their space, from Ignite speaker series, the Austin Diversity Hackathon, Women Epic Office Hours (kind of like speed mentoring), to the Nonprofit Tech Club, or [name any coding language] networking meetup.

In fact, according to founder Joshua Baer, the 40 person team that operates Capital Factory is 75 percent women and is comprised of two lone white males. The opposite of what most tech startups internationally can say.

The scrappy company has endlessly made something out of nothing, so to speak. “We lead by example,” Baer asserts.

Why then is the company currently under fire?

They recently asked all of the companies participating in their program if they had any internships opening up that they could promote for them. Then, they posted the openings, most of which are less than part time. Here is the original internship posting that ignited the debate.

Sounds innocent enough. But some in the Austin community rejected the fact that some of these internships are unpaid.

Ironically, two positions have been commonly taken, both on and off the record. The first is that unpaid internships anywhere exploit people and benefit the company with free labor. The second is that the wealthy are disproportionately advantaged because mommy and daddy can pay their bills while they pad their resume by working for free at a startup.

Baer calls accusations of exploitation “ridiculous” and favoring the rich oxymoronic. He responds by challenging anyone to find an unpaid intern from any of these startups that feels exploited.

Whichever opposing viewpoint you may subscribe to (it exploits people or favors the rich), the ethics are subjective.

What is not subjective is the law

Lawyers tell us the internship postings aren’t clearly illegal, nor are they clearly legal. Baer said that they did not review the listings for legality, but that Capital Factory pays their interns, again, leading by example.

When asked if the tone of the job postings could be the source of the ire, given that they failed to focus on what an intern would learn, rather on what their required skills and duties at the company would be, Baer called this a “learning moment.” As their role is to guide, not operate these companies, he said that perhaps they can help guide their entrepreneurs to write better job descriptions in the future.

What the federal law boils down to is that unpaid interns may not benefit the company financially, and that it cannot be unpaid unless it passes the stringent Department of Labor test of six criteria:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

The DoL goes on to say, “If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the Act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern.” Meanwhile, unpaid internships are pretty kosher in Texas, but they point back to the restrictive federal laws.

Baer calls the whole exercise a “waste of time,” noting that “the Department of Labor isn’t going to enforce this, it’s a waste of their time, they have bigger fish to fry, so it’s not going to change,” several times alluding to the DoL’s focus being on larger companies like IBM, not such tiny early stage startups.

CF also under fire for not enough melanin

Also part of the internship posting are pictures of the teams, most of which are two to 10 people large. Although not exclusively all white males, many complained that the pictures were revealing of the startups present in the Capital Factory ecosystem.

In response, Baer reiterated that they lead by example by being one of the most diverse teams in town, working hard to “combat brogrammer culture.”

Some believe the negative response about diversity is a knee-jerk reaction that every event host is familiar with (there are more men on the panels than women, you sexists!), and every startup has heard (there are no black people on the team, you racists!). Others believe pointing out a lack of diversity is critical in impacting change.

“The Austin startup scene is becoming a parody of itself,” Redditor Travis_Williamson commented. “All of the upper middle class white guys in those photos are just creating shit for themselves at this point.”

Skin and pay aside, what’s the real issue?

The troubling undertone of public and private conversations surrounds the nature of Capital Factory. Since their inception, they’ve been an unquestionable force in the Austin tech world, unavoidable even. Success breeds jealousy and they’re often the victim of vague criticism for that reason.

But this line of conversation is different, more venomous. More substantial.

The legitimacy of the startups in the internship posting is under heavy fire. Mean-spirited comments about their model permeate communities like Reddit where Baer is accuse of being “less of a keen startup motivator and more of a rent queen,” with others saying that if the CF ecosystem is so hot, the companies should be able to at least afford minimum wage, not just an honor badge.

Baer, used to being a target, says the online commenters are “complainers” and brushes off the entire critique.

Baer insists they teach entrepreneurs how to be “resourceful,” and “scrappy,” reiterating that an unpaid intern won’t be the only unpaid person on some of these teams that are being guided to make something out of nothing. It is also important to remember here that Capital Factory doesn’t own or operate these companies, they’re an incubator/accelerator designed to incubate/accelerate.

So although the internship posting was a simple gesture from the actual Capital Factory team toward the companies in their offices, it triggered numerous online and offline debates about unpaid internships, then about diversity. Baer firmly believes they lead by example with a diverse team and paid interns, but with the postings focused on job duties and not on intern learning opportunities (the core tradoff of unpaid internships), it created a vulnerable moment for CF that the internet jumped on.

The future of unpaid internships at CF companies?

Baer argues that a “three person startup can’t barely even pay payroll and doesn’t really even know what they’re doing and are just trying to figure it out? Yeah, they can have unpaid interns, sorry. I don’t think that’s a problem.”

Will Capital Factory reconsider their position on unpaid internships? Absolutely not.

In fact, Baer doubled down, asserting, “I’m not going to discourage them from doing that. I’m going to encourage them to be creative about finding other ways they can not pay for things, or defer paying for things, and do other things that allow them to create something out of nothing, which is what creates jobs for other people and allows them to eventually pay for them.”

#unpaidinterns

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Paul O'Brien

    April 20, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    Interesting. There is much to be said for why and whether or not we should be having to reinvent the wheel of entrepreneurship. The point that startups are 3 person teams without even enough capital to pay themselves is VERY valid. So too is the point that people need to be paid. Someone not getting paid in a startup is part of the team. An intern is there to learn and further paid to work; what I look to in internships if from whom the intern will be learning and if that’s lacking, one has to wonder how an intern can benefit.

    What I find here (In Austin, relatively speaking to my experiences on the coasts) though is that startups are unwilling, discouraged from, or unfamiliar with how to deal in equity (and more importantly – how to ensure that equity is valuable). Owners are neither interns nor employees unless they are too that. I own a piece of a business, that’s why I work on it; AND I am paid by a business, for my position in it.

    There is a real challenge for us to collectively consider when venture capital isn’t prolifically available, funding rounds are relatively smaller, and outcomes average a fraction in size compared to elsewhere, if exits occur at all: equity is both at once more precious and less valuable. Founders want to retain just a bit more, early investors hesitant to relinquish as much, early supporters seeking their ROI. Likewise, Angels press for a little more ownership to offset the relative rate of return.

    What then is available to build good teams?

    By no means an answer or a way forward for us. Just an observation of reality that relatively less capital, less valuable companies, causes the circumstances with which we need to work. Startups can’t succeed without teams, and young professionals will struggle to get the good experience they want/need, and can provide, if businesses can ill afford them. Let’s solve the challenge.

    Business capitalization, valuation, growth, and establishment is NOT remotely easy. We might be experiencing a lot of a cart before horse situation where we think we need more startups to find their way, to get more capital injected, to get interns and executives paid, to drive further outcomes. Maybe we’re going about it wrong and need to work the other way with more leadership and education to drive outcomes, get more executives and interns involved valuably, injecting more capital into the ecosystem, enabling us to fuel more startups.

  2. Pingback: Summer 2017's best paying internships - The American Genius

  3. Pingback: THE DISRUPTORS: Joshua Baer stamps his brand on the DFW startup scene - Launch DFW

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Business News

How companies are embracing the gig economy to fight employee burnout

(BUSINESS NEWS) The gig economy has had plenty of ups and downs, but employers are using it to advantage their teams and the gig workers. It’s a pretty interesting model we’re watching evolve…

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If you’re an employer of a lot of people, it’s no secret that there are a lot of moving parts involved in the day-to-day processes of keeping the business going. You’ve got full-time employees, people earning both salary and hourly wages, part-time workers, and more than likely have used a staffing agency over the years to fill in the blanks.

Depending on your experience, some managers love working with temp agencies, while others aren’t the biggest fans. Like toppings on a hot dog, it all comes down to personal preference.

But, there’s one segment of the market that’s roaring – the gig economy.

While on the surface, it might seem simple (someone comes in and does a job and leaves), it’s a little deeper than that. Depending on the industry, there needs to be a more nuanced approach to solving how staffing issues are handled.

When you think of the gig economy, you’re probably thinking of Uber or GrubHub, but a whole world has opened up – you can get your car fixed in your driveway or hire movers to come and take boxes away. There are a lot of apps out there putting money in people’s pockets thanks to taking on tasks like food delivery but also working on a crew for a day or being hospitality staff for a corporate gig.

Many people love the gig economy because honestly, the Internet has democratized our lives so much that millions of workers would rather be their own bosses, which honestly works to the advantage of businesses as well.

First, there’s less demand for the business because if they need a specific job taken care of, they can bring in some ringers to bang out the job, collect their pay, and move on. For companies, this helps because they’re only paying a one-time fee versus keeping someone on staff and paying them annually.

The boom right now is applications connecting workers with businesses who need help.

Instead of the consumer being the end-user, the applications connect a worker with a temporary or sometimes long-term employer with a click.

And the process is simple – workers are in just as much control as the companies. The price point is established by the company and the hours and people they need, but the worker can set their skill level and availability. So, when there’s a match, everyone wins.

While some of the companies offering access into the space, provide workers with gigs for whatever length of time, some of them are even doubling down on retention, offering W-2s and full insurance for staying in the worker community so employers have a larger pool to choose from.

This model works because it incentives both parties: the worker gets to work on their terms and still receive benefits, and the company gets the staff they need for project work without the HR/taxes/risk.

Listen: That W-2 aspect is enormous. The reason being is if you’ve ever had to deal with a 1099, they’re the worst. Taking away the burden of taxes is a significant win for the worker, especially those of us who still have trouble figuring out, “should I claim one or zero?”

Because this model addresses a major staffing problem, concerning short-term help, it’s still very focused on the worker.

The aspect of flexibility is built into the fabric of the concept, considering the labor pool is what matters – you can have a bunch of open jobs, but you need qualified and motivated people to fill those roles. While this is a gig-working scenario, it’s also unique in that there’s less focus on the person performing an idealized task like delivering food, but rather jumping on a team to solve a problem or finish a job.

Basically, they’ve digitized the temporary staffing model but cut all of the ugly overhead and worker quality issues out.

They’re taking a labor market and connecting it with a consumer via an app on the iPhone. But, the consumer isn’t someone who needs a ride to the airport, it’s a company who needs help staffing a Pearl Jam concert in a stadium.

With the market evolving pretty much on the hour these days, there’s a clear through line at play – we’re seeing more and more businesses adopt gig workers, if even for the day.

It’s easier to bring someone in as a temp to help clear projects or just get things finished the regular staff is too busy to handle. One of the biggest pluses of the model is that it helps avoid employee burnout.

For a place like a hotel, if there are a bunch of small jobs that keep piling up, it’s easier to spend the cash for a day or two worth of work rather than add to an already overworked staff’s load.

It’s a new world that’s evolving every day, but with every swipe, tab, and click, we see the workforce develop in ways we could have never imagined just a few short years ago. If the future of work is now, imagining five years from now is mind-blowing.

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Business News

How to work with someone who’s a never-ending stress mess

(OPINION EDITORIAL) Working with, or around, people who seem to always be carrying stress can be detrimental to your health and theirs, here’s how to deal with them.

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My baseline level of anxiety is pretty high. I get stressed out if I forget to pack a fork in my lunch even though there are utensils at the office. If someone is mean to me, I get on edge. If I make a small mistake I’m probably going to carry it with me for a few hours.

Others may not exhibit stress unless they’re up against a tight deadline or coming from a difficult meeting, but it seems like they’re always inclined towards stress regardless of their schedules. While many people exhibit stress in understandable, fleeting situations, for some stress is a default setting. It can be difficult to work with someone who’s always stressed out.

When someone is perpetually stressed, it takes a toll on everyone else too. That energy can be toxic and leave you wondering if you should be helping or if your colleague is intentionally being a Debbie Downer.

For starters, don’t make a judgement call about your coworker. Everyone handles stress at different levels, and for some people that means not really handling stress at all.

You may be able to breeze through your day with minor frustrations while others are thrown off by the smallest thing.

Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate, notes “Don’t think what can I do to change this person?” Instead, she suggests considering how to neutralizes the situation and move forward.

If you want to offer the most basic form of help, acknowledge what’s going on and offer a compliment. Even if it doesn’t seem like much is going on, simply letting your stressed colleague feel heard and appreciated can make an impact.

Author of How to Have a Good Day, Caroline Webb, explains stressed people are “feeling out of control, incompetent, and disrespected. A compliment is your easy way to help them get back to their better self.” Make sure you’re not enabling them by dragging out the situation, though.

Acknowledge, offer some praise, and try to move with the conversation.

Although it’s not necessarily in your job description to fix your coworkers problems, you can still offer support. You may not actually be able to do anything, but offering assistance gives the other person a chance to think through solutions.

Webb also suggests brainstorming way to “reduce their cognitive load,” to ease what’s making your coworker feel overwhelmed.

Some simple solutions include splitting requests into smaller steps, shortening emails, or dividing work into parts.

Ultimately the job needs to get done, but you can provide your coworker with more manageable means of accomplishing tasks by breaking things into chunks.

You can also check in on your coworker to find out if you should be concerned, or if their stress limited to the work environment. If their stress is beyond what you can reasonably handle with these de-escalation tips, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone about further steps to take.

Check out our mental health series for some more insight if you’re concerned your coworker’s problem may be more than regular stress.

Just like some people are easily stressed, some easily pick up on the negative feelings of others. Be aware of how your coworker’s stress is affecting you. If someone is truly draining you, try to get some distance.

While that may be difficult in a small office, Weeks recommends keeping in mind that out of all the “office characters…the stress case’s temperament [is] less of a problem” than others.

Ultimately, it’s not your responsibility to destress your coworker, but you can certainly make your work life a little easier if you take these steps to make for healthier, happier collaboration.

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Business News

Company offers extra vacation days to nonsmoker employees

(BUSINESS NEWS) A Japanese marketing company offers extra vacation days for nonsmoker employees who don’t utilize smoke breaks – sound good to you?

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Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a huge fan of “The Office” (I mean, who isn’t?) I spend a lot of time reflecting on the awesomeness of that show and the situations that characters go through at Dunder Mifflin.

One thing that always stuck with me was a scene where Kelly is talking about how she will take up smoking in order to get the 15 minute breaks throughout the day. This statement made me think about how odd it was that smokers got breaks throughout the day while nonsmokers stay inside, maybe taking a water cooler break.

Being from Chicago, I always thought the concept of smoke breaks was crazy, anyway. I remember visiting my dad at work as a kid and seeing people standing in the freezing cold, smoking outside of his building. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chicago in the middle of January, but having to spend 15 extra minutes in that weather would be enough to make me stop smoking, cold turkey (pun intended).

All of these memories about the weirdness of smoke breaks came back today when I learned about Piala Inc., a Japanese marketing firm, and their new plan to give non-smokers six extra vacation days a year.

The policy was introduced in 2016 after employees complained about colleagues receiving multiple smoke breaks throughout the day. Since its implementation, 30 employees have taken advantage of the extra vacation days.

“One of our non-smoking staff put a message in the company suggestion box earlier in the year saying that smoking breaks were causing problems,” company spokesman, Hirotaka Matsushima, told The Telegraph. “Our CEO saw the comment and agreed, so we are giving non-smokers some extra time off to compensate.”

This is a great incentive for companies to offer employees. Not only in terms of equality, but would also be beneficial for a company’s health and wellness program.

While I’ve never fallen under the spell of nicotine, I would like to think that I’d prefer six extra days off compared to the habit of smoking. Apparently others are starting to feel this way as the company has reported that it has helped at least four people to stop smoking.

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