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Pay attention to the Midwest: Silicon Prairie could be better than Silicon Valley

(BUSINESS NEWS) The Midwest produces 20% of USA GDP but only receives 5% of venture capital funding, so why is it the most overlooked region for business?

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When I tell people I’m from Cleveland, I reliably get three references for people to indicate what they know about my hometown: LeBron James, The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and The Drew Carey Show.

It has been my personal mission to spread the word about the hidden secrets that live in the Midwest. And it goes beyond the kind Midwestern sensibility, my favorite amber lager, and the home of America’s best rollercoasters.

A special report by the Economist analyzes the lessons to be learned from the past economic downfall of major cities in the Midwest, with an optimistic outlook for the growing region. It concludes that it is the assets of the Midwest urban centers that will be the driving force behind the region’s growth and future prosperity, which is brighter than many think.

Currently, economic expansion in the Midwest is slow. A 2019 report by The Brookings Institute found that the Midwest economy grew by just 187% compared with 342% combined growth on the coasts. And yet, in a region that includes (by the report’s definition) 12 states and 68 million people, it boasts a combined GDP of $4 trillion, equivalent to that of Germany.

The Midwest is also home to 150 Fortune 500 companies. It includes corporate giants like Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Kroger, and Walgreens, which each produce over $100 billion in revenue annually. It is also home to 60% of the United States’ manufacturing base. Not to mention the outsized political impact states like Wisconsin and Michigan had on the 2016 presidential election.

Despite these big statistics, startups in the Midwest receive only 5% of venture capital funding. Unsurprisingly, 76% of funding went to just three states in 2017: Massachusetts, New York, and California. However, in that same year, the investment in Midwestern companies totaled $4.5 billion. And it was worth it: 37 companies exited for a total value of $5.1 billion, a 218.75% increase from 2016.

But success doesn’t just rely on coastal elites moving in droves to develop the so-called ‘Silicon Prairie’ because they’ve heard there’s real potential in the Midwest. Instead it lies in increasing funding for the talent that already exists in the region, which is uniquely poised to provide solutions to its unique problems. Venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital are beginning to explore the potential in the tech landscape in the Midwest with enthusiasm.

According to founder Zach Ferres, there is a special business culture in the Midwest that lends itself to collaboration to tackle innovation. “In that tech community, your word was your bond — anyone who reneged on a handshake promise was shunned,” Ferres wrote in Venture Beat of his experience starting a company in Columbus, Ohio. “Successful people helped others learn and grow. Entrepreneurs from surrounding areas felt like part of one big family, and tangential industries (like insurance, banking, medicine, and agriculture) intersected naturally with the tech community.”

With the right investment, the unique culture, geography, and talent in the Midwest and its cities hold great potential to be the next economic powerhouse of the United States. So next time you catch me and want to make a dig about the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire, remember that it wasn’t that bad – it’s 2020 now, and I don’t talk to bullies who ignore data.

Heather Buffo is a Cleveland native, a recovering Bostonian, and an Austin newbie. Heather has her Bachelor of Arts in Neurobiology from Harvard University, and is a City Year Boston AmeriCorps alum. When she's not writing for AG, you can find her pouring beers at the Brewtorium, but only one at a time.

Business News

Big retailers are opting for refunds instead of returns

(BUSINESS NEWS) Due to increased shipping costs, big companies like Amazon and Walmart are opting to give out a refund rather than accepting small items returned.

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Package delivery people holding deliveries. Refund instead of returns are common now.

The holidays are over, and now some people are ready to return an item that didn’t quite work out or wasn’t on their Christmas list. Whatever the reason, some retailers are giving customers a refund and letting them keep the product, too.

When Vancouver, Washington resident, Lorie Anderson, tried returning makeup from Target and batteries from Walmart she had purchased online, the retailers told her she could keep or donate the products. “They were inexpensive, and it wouldn’t make much financial sense to return them by mail,” said Ms. Anderson, 38. “It’s a hassle to pack up the box and drop it at the post office or UPS. This was one less thing I had to worry about.”

Amazon.com Inc., Walmart Inc., and other companies are changing the way they handle returns this year, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). The companies are using artificial intelligence (AI) to weigh the costs of processing physical returns versus just issuing a refund and having customers keep the item.

For instance, if it costs more to ship an inexpensive or larger item than it is to refund the purchase price, companies are giving customers a refund and telling them to keep the products also. Due to an increase in online shopping, it makes sense for companies to change how they manage returns.

Locus Robotics chief executive Rick Faulk told the Journal that the biggest expense when it comes to processing returns is shipping costs. “Returning to a store is significantly cheaper because the retailer can save the freight, which can run 15% to 20% of the cost,” Faulk said.

But, returning products to physical stores isn’t something a lot of people are wanting to do. According to the return processing firm Narvar, online returns increased by 70% in 2020. With people still hunkered down because of the pandemic, changing how to handle returns is a good thing for companies to consider to reduce shipping expenses.

While it might be nice to keep the makeup or batteries for free, don’t expect to return that new PS5 and get to keep it for free, too. According to WSJ, a Walmart spokesperson said the company lets someone keep a refunded item only if the company doesn’t plan on reselling it. And, besides taking the economic costs into consideration, the companies look at the customer’s purchase history as well.

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Business News

Google workers have formed company’s first labor union

(BUSINESS NEWS) A number of Google employees have agreed to commit 1% of their salary to labor union dues to support employee activism and fight workplace discrimination.

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Google complex with human sized chessboard, where a labor union has been formed.

On Monday morning, Google workers announced that they have formed a union with the support of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the largest communications and media labor union in the U.S.

The new union, Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) was organized in secret for about a year and formed to support employee activism, and fight discrimination and unfairness in the workplace.

“From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively. Our new union provides a sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade,” stated Program Manager Nicki Anselmo in a press release.

AWU is the first union in the company’s history, and it is open to all employees and contractors at any Alphabet company in the United States and Canada. The cost of membership is 1% of an employee’s total compensation, and the money collected will be used to fund the union organization.

In a response to the announcement, Google’s Director of People Operations, Kara Silverstein, said, “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

Unlike other labor unions, the AWU is considered a “Minority Union”. This means it doesn’t need formal recognition from the National Labor Relations Board. However, it also means Alphabet can’t be forced to meet the union’s demands until a majority of employees support it.

So far, the number of members in the union represents a very small portion of Google’s workforce, but it’s growing every day. When the news of the union was first announced on Monday, roughly 230 employees made up the union. Less than 24 hours later, there were 400 employees in the union, and now that number jumped to over 500 employees.

Unions among Silicon Valley’s tech giants are rare, but labor activism is slowly picking up speed, especially with more workers speaking out and organizing.

“The Alphabet Workers Union will be the structure that ensures Google workers can actively push for real changes at the company, from the kinds of contracts Google accepts to employee classification to wage and compensation issues. All issues relevant to Google as a workplace will be the purview of the union and its members,” stated the AWU in a press release.

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Business News

Ticketmaster caught red-handed hacking, hit with major fines

(BUSINESS NEWS) Ticketmaster has agreed to pay $10 million to resolve criminal charges after hacking into a competitor’s network specifically to sabotage.

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Person open on hacking computer screen, typing on keyboard.

Live Nation’s Ticketmaster agreed to pay $10 million to resolve criminal charges after admitting to hacking into a competitor’s network and scheming to “choke off” the ticket seller company and “cut [victim company] off at the knees”.

Ticketmaster admitted hiring former employee, Stephen Mead, from startup rival CrowdSurge (which merged with Songkick) in 2013. In 2012, Mead signed a separation agreement to keep his previous company’s information confidential. When he joined Live Nation, Mead provided that confidential information to the former head of the Artist Services division, Zeeshan Zaidi, and other Ticketmaster employees. The hacking information shared with the company included usernames, passwords, data analytics, and other insider secrets.

“When employees walk out of one company and into another, it’s illegal for them to take proprietary information with them. Ticketmaster used stolen information to gain an advantage over its competition, and then promoted the employees who broke the law. This investigation is a perfect example of why these laws exist – to protect consumers from being cheated in what should be a fair market place,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Sweeney.

In January 2014, Mead gave a Ticketmaster executive multiple sets of login information to Toolboxes, the competitor’s password-protected app that provides real-time data about tickets sold through the company. Later, at an Artists Services Summit, Mead logged into a Toolbox and demonstrated the product to Live Nation and Ticketmaster employees. Information collected from the Toolboxes were used to “benchmark” Ticketmaster’s offerings against the competitor.

“Ticketmaster employees repeatedly – and illegally – accessed a competitor’s computers without authorization using stolen passwords to unlawfully collect business intelligence,” said Acting U.S. Attorney DuCharme in a statement. “Further, Ticketmaster’s employees brazenly held a division-wide ‘summit’ at which the stolen passwords were used to access the victim company’s computers, as if that were an appropriate business tactic.”

The hacking violations were first reported in 2017 when CrowdSurge sued Live Nation for antitrust violations. A spokesperson told The Verge, “Ticketmaster terminated both Zaidi and Mead in 2017, after their conduct came to light. Their actions violated our corporate policies and were inconsistent with our values. We are pleased that this matter is now resolved.”

To resolve the case, Ticketmaster will pay a $10 million criminal penalty, create a compliance and ethics program, and report to the United States Attorney’s Office annually during a three-year term. If the agreement is breached, Ticketmaster will be charged with: “One count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, one count of computer intrusion for commercial advantage, one count of computer intrusion in furtherance of fraud, one count of wire fraud conspiracy and one count of wire fraud.”

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