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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

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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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How to conduct a proper informational interview

(CAREER) Informational interviews comprise a technique in which you ask an employer or current employee to explain the details of their job to you. Try doing this before you transition into your next occupation!

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At some point in your career, you may ask for someone’s time to do an informational interview — a process in which a job-seeker asks questions about a field, company, or position in hopes of receiving information which will inform both their decision to go into the field and their responses to the specific job’s actual interview. Since the power dynamic in an informational interview can be confusing, here are a few tips on how to conduct one. Not how to obtain one, but how to conduct one once both parties agree to connect.

The process of an informational interview typically starts with finding a person who works in your desired field (and/or location if you have a specific company in mind) and setting up a time during which you can ask them a few questions about things like their job responsibilities, salary, prerequisites, and so on. Once you’ve set up a time to meet in person (or via Skype or phone), you can proceed with putting together a list of questions.

Naturally, you should understand the circumstances under which asking for an informational interview is appropriate before requesting one. Your goal in an informational review should be to ask questions and listen to the answers, NOT pitch yourself as a potential hire. Ever. Nobody appreciates having their time wasted, and playing on your contact’s generosity as a way into their company is a sure way for your name to end up on their blacklist.

Once you’ve set up an informational interview, you should start the conversation by asking your contact what their typical day is like. This is doubly effective: your contact will most likely welcome the opportunity to discuss their daily goings-on, and you’ll be privy to an inside glance at their perspective on things like job responsibilities, daily activities, and other positive aspects of their position.

They’ll also probably detail some drawbacks to the position — things which usually aren’t explained in job postings — so you’ll have the opportunity to make a well-informed decision vis-à-vis the rigors of the job before diving head-first into the hiring process.

After your contact finishes walking you through their day, you can begin asking specific questions. However, unless they’ve been unusually brief in their description of their duties, your best course of action is probably to ask them follow-up questions about things they’ve already mentioned rather than asking targeted questions you wrote without context. This will both indicate that you were listening and allow them to expand upon information they’ve already explained, ensuring you’ll receive well-rounded responses.

You should save the most specific questions (e.g., the most easily answered ones) for the end of the interview. For example, if you want to know what a typical salary for someone in your contact’s position is or you’re wondering about vacation time, ask after you’ve wrapped up the bulk of the interview. This will prevent you from wasting the initial moments of the interview with technical content, and it may also keep the contact from assuming a strictly material motive on your part. And be willing to ask “what does someone with your job title typically earn in [city]?” instead of their specific take-home salary which might not be reflective of the norm (plus, it’s rude, and akin to asking someone their weight).

This is also a good time to ask for general advice regarding breaking into the field, though you may want to avoid this step if you feel like your contact isn’t comfortable discussing such a topic or if you’re intending to apply as someone with experience.

Of course, you won’t always be able to meet with your preferred contact directly, especially if they work in a dynamic field (e.g., emergency services) or have a security clearance which negates their ability to answer the bulk of your questions. If this happens, you have a couple of back-up options:

1. Send an email with a list of questions to the contact, or send them your phone number with a wide-open calling schedule. This is useful if your contact has a random or on-call schedule.

2. Ask your contact if there is someone else you could connect with (it could even be their assistant).

3. Speak to the company’s HR branch to see if you can request a company-specific job requirement print-out or link. These will usually be more particular than the industry requirements. But don’t ask for something you can find yourself on the company’s Careers page online.

Nothing beats an in-person interview over a cup of coffee, but — again — wasting someone’s time isn’t a good way to receive useful information about the position in which you’re interested.

Before transitioning to your next position or career field, consider conducting an informational interview. You’ll be amazed at the amount of insider information you can glean from simply listening to someone discuss their day in detail.

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The sad truths you missed about the US Women’s Soccer Team lawsuit

(NEWS) The US Women’s Soccer team dominated headlines by suing for equal pay, but there was so much more to the lawsuit that could have a ripple effect in the business world.

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Recently, on International Women’s Day, the United States Women’s Soccer Team (USWNT) filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation. The timing of the suit is not only a sign of the team continuing their decades long fight against the organization (only three months before they are set to defend their World Cup title in France), but a recognition of the symbol that they have become in the larger battle that women and other minorities are waging in order to be given the same resources as the men leading in their fields.

It should go without saying that the women’s soccer team is unparalleled in its athletic success: over the past twenty years they have won three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. These players, as ESPN acknowledges, are among the most accomplished and best known women athletes in the world.

Their counterpart, the Men’s National Soccer Team, leaves much to be desired (they failed to qualify for last year’s World Cup, for example) yet they consistently receive much more support from the US Soccer Federation.

Although the pay disparity between the USWNT and the male soccer team is certainly stark, the “gains” that the women athletes are fighting for go beyond monetary compensation.

According to Mashable, “This [suit] includes how women frequently play on a dangerous artificial surfaces when the men do not, fly commercial when the men travel by more convenient, comfortable charter flights, and the alleged allocation of fewer resources to promote women’s games compared to men’s.”

As if being the best players in your sport in the world and having to share hotel rooms after getting torn apart by the seams astroturf and receiving less-than-world-class medical care wouldn’t be infuriating enough, it’s truly this final point that highlights the glaring mistreatment of the USWNT.

Without support from the US Soccer Federation, not only in the form of payment but in promotion of their games and general good-will toward their players, the USWNT will not be able to grow their following so that they can establish a consistent revenue near what the men’s team attracts. This “lack” of revenue continues to create the chicken/egg excuse that the Federation has for not propping up the USWNT like they deserve.

It’s simply the opposite of “sportsmanship” for the US Soccer Federation to use these players’ love of playing the game (that, again, they are the best in the world at) and their country as a way to gaslight them into playing for less.

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Think about automating tasks instead of replacing workers

(BUSINESS) Automation is great, unless you obsess over it and try to cut down on payroll – there’s a smarter approach that successful businesses take.

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automating tasks not people

The concept of automating your workflow is a tempting one — especially as payroll continues to be one of the evergreen highest costs of business. However, in contemplating how to streamline your workflow, you may do better to step back from the idea of “replacing workers” and instead think about you can optimize your existing employees by strategically tweaking their workflow.

As Ravin Jesuthasan and John Boudreau write in The Harvard Business Review, if the goal of automating is to ensure that your company is operating at its most cost effective and efficient levels, then chances are you’d still need knowledgeable employees to help you scale and capitalize.

Where automation can truly help your business is by transforming the ability of your organization to focus on the tasks that truly require a human touch or deep knowledge. For example, automation will not help your employees perform complex, interactive, or creative work like collaborating with clients to come up with solutions or designs.

However, it can help the process of brainstorming or co-designing these solutions easier by replacing some of the mechanical tasks that aid this high-level workflow.

For example, it may be helpful to automate basic research tasks for your designers. If your designers must create a client profile to help them launch their projects — basic information must surely exist at some other point in the process before this point. Maybe your firm has an intake form or contracts where a basic description of the goal of the contracted service has been created. By automating the sharing of that data between departments, perhaps in a content management system, you’d be able to free up time that the designers might spend on basic data collection so that they could instead use it for their more complex, empathetic work.

Jesuthasan and Boudreau offer up other advice for thinking about which specific tasks within your company’s workflow are the best candidates for automation.

Is a task simple? Routine? Does it require collaboration?

These kinds of inquiry are not only useful when thinking about your organizational processes, but they are good refreshers for thinking about the individual value and skills that your organization and its workers offer clients.

So instead of looking at how to cut down on payroll, consider automation as an option to improve the value you’re getting from your team, and freeing them from mind-numbing tasks that have nothing to do with their expertise. Win-win!

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