Artificial intelligence is a bit like 5G. Both are heavily hyped, genuinely new, and poorly understood. (This explainer by Brian Chen in The New York Times might help on 5G; I plan to focus today on A.I.)
Oh, and there’s a lot of money to be made on both too, particularly from consultants, technology hardware and software vendors, and cloud services providers.
Strictly speaking, A.I. isn’t new. The notion and the aspiration have been around for decades. But new computing capacity married with scientific breakthroughs in harnessing have led to the hype and business explosion.
That newness shone through in a panel hosted Wednesday morning by Fortune deputy editor Brain O’Keefe. Tatsiana Maskalevich, a data scientist at clothing retailer Stitch Fix, calls the information its clients give the company—their size, age, hair and skin color, likes and dislikes, and so on—“a data scientist’s goldmine.” The data helps human stylists, the people who choose clothes for clients, stay ahead of preference curves, faster than if they were merely reading the fashion zeitgeist. (Stitch Fix is trusted too: Maskalevich says the company often knows about client pregnancies before their families do.)
Joelle Pineau, a McGill University professor and A.I. big shot at Facebook, says the powerful company is applying machine-learning techniques to quickly translate medical reports about the pandemic, most of which are written in English.
And Lan Guan, an “applied intelligence” expert at Accenture, which sponsored the event, notes that because A.I. is so new, there is little historical data to choose from in analyzing it. “A.I. is a living and breathing engine,” she says.
(A delightful side note for a virtual event hosted by Fortune, a publication that over-indexed on male executives for decades: an entire panel of women.)
If you want to dig deeper into the newness of A.I., read Jonathan Vanian’s compelling feature about one of A.I.’s weakest suits, at least as it has been applied so far: reading spreadsheets and other so-called structured data.
When Twitter, a $22 billion company with a headquarters in the center of San Francisco, told employees they could work from home permanently on Tuesday, techies in the Bay Area began to wonder why they were there at all.
“Moved to the Bay Area just weeks before quarantine; can’t meet new people, team was already remote, tech mindspace lives on Twitter, SF streets be sketchy, rent is ridiculous, I still use straws,” Eva Beylin, who works on ecosystem strategy and is an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Graph, which builds APIs, tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “Why am I even here?”
Tech workers who have grown up in or migrated to San Francisco and its environs enjoy access to jobs, venture capital, and networking. Their numbers and wealth have changed the region, contributing to rent increases, the proliferation of pricey restaurants, and tax receipts that have enriched local governments. But as shelter-in-place continues, some are wondering why they remain in the Bay Area — and an outward migration may follow.
“I am definitely thinking of leaving the Bay Area for the next three to six months during quarantine,” Beylin told BuzzFeed News. “I still think being in San Francisco is valuable at least while you’re trying to meet new people in tech, expand knowledge, cowork, etc. so I will likely come back to the Bay Area for at least a short period, but I don’t feel the urgency to be here as much.”
The region is expensive — with rent in San Francisco more than double the US average, and Oakland and other surrounding cities only somewhat more affordable — and a tech workers’ salary could go much further elsewhere. Beylin said she was looking at a three-bedroom Airbnb in Palm Springs that costs as much as her one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Mission district.
Joseph Flaherty, a director at the VC firm Founder Collective, told BuzzFeed News he could see tech workers leaving the Bay Area for more affordable cities if they no longer have to be physically in their offices.
“The average call center manager in Houston, probably has a higher material quality of life than does a director-level executive in Boston or certainly in San Francisco,” Flaherty said. “If there’s an arbitrage opportunity, at least for a while, where you could get the San Francisco salary and live in Nashville or Minneapolis, or any of these cities that have a cool cultural vibe, but extraordinarily affordable housing — it doesn’t strike me as implausible.”
On Tuesday, Flaherty tweeted that local governments outside of the Bay Area might take advantage of tech workers’ newfound ability to work from anywhere: “If I were a mayor of an up and coming, mid-sized city I’d offer $500K housing credits to the top 10 VPs at Twitter,” he said. “If Twitter is just the first domino, imagine the power of being able to kickstart a regional talent hub?”
After Twitter’s news, people on Hacker News, a forum popular among tech workers, spoke about their desire to leave the Bay Area. “If I could keep my current compensation and move to the low cost of living area where my family is located, I would reach financial independence 10-15 years ahead of my current trajectory with Bay Area rents/costs,” one said. “I’ll settle for the minor inconveniences of WFH any day in order to get a decade of my life to spend with family or to work on my own projects.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said another. “If I could work from home permanently I would move far far away from where I am currently living. I would get myself a nice condo or small house, and settle in. Currently, where I live, despite the fact that I make almost 30k/year more than the average income, [but] I still can only just afford a one-bedroom apartment spending the suggested 30% of my income.”
Not all were convinced. “Calling this a trend would be stretching this a bit,” another person said. “A lot of employees prefer to work from office and are not liking the current WFH situation.”
Despite the chatter, there’s no indication that Twitter employees are ready to decamp en masse quite yet. “I will still work in SF,” one Twitter employee told BuzzFeed News. “Love it here too much to leave. This is home for me. Though this [decision] allows more flexibility and even playing field for many to be anywhere and get our work done.”
Still, if salaries remain high and working from home takes hold, the appeal of the Bay Area could dwindle, and the nature of the region may change as well. “I thought moving to SF meatspace would be more valuable to learn more, broaden my perspective of tech and make new connections,” Beylin said. “But I don’t think I actually have to live here to do that, whereas maybe 10 years ago you did.”
The biggest wholesale mortgage originator in the U.S. is merging with a special-purpose acquisition company in a deal that will take the lender public at a valuation north of $16 billion, the record for a type of deal that has become all the rage on Wall Street.
United Wholesale Mortgage plans to combine with Gores Holdings IV Inc., a SPAC that raised $425 million in a public listing in January, people familiar with the matter said. The deal will make United Wholesale Mortgage a public company listed on Nasdaq.
Also known as blank-check companies, SPACs effectively turn the traditional model for initial public offerings on its head by raising money before they develop a business. They use the proceeds to make an acquisition—usually within a couple of years—that converts the target into a public company.
There has been an unexpected boom this year in blank-check deal making, which has gone in and out of favor over the years, as startups and other private companies seek a more expeditious route to the public markets and sponsors hunt for opportunities in the economic dislocation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Blank-check companies have been a key driver of what is shaping up to be a record year for IPOs. Issuers have taken in $91 billion in U.S.-listed IPOs, exceeding the $84 billion raised at this point in 2000, the previous record year, according to Dealogic. Roughly 44% of the volume, or $40 billion, has come from SPACs. That is more than four times the volume raised by these vehicles at this point in 2019—the previous record year.
Tempting though it is to comment yet again on the glorious dealmaker-in-chief’s splendid, classy, and genius (in a stable sort of way) handling of the forced maybe/sorta/kinda sale of TikTok, I bring you instead today a story about sheep.
Merino sheep, to be precise, and the wool that is shorn from them in New Zealand that ends up in the comfy sneaker-slippers made by Allbirds. Fortune’s Sheila Marikar went to the end of Earth, back when Americans could do such things, to report on the keen interest the San Francisco company takes in the lives of these sheep.
Without giving away too much of the story, the way the farmers tend to this particular patch of land in New Zealand makes for a net positive in terms of climate-harming emissions. This is important to Allbirds because, as Marikar writes, “Kindness to the planet is one of Allbirds’ biggest selling points.” The company over-indexes on natural materials to make its shoes and then takes care to ensure its customers know about its environmental goodness.
Marikar’s is a good yarn about a company that is doing well by trying to do good. Allbirds is aiming now for the performance running shoe market, where natural fibers aren’t the norm.
Incidentally, an earlier feature in Fortune by the same author featured an unlaunched video service called Quibi. The Wall Street Journalreported Monday that Quibi is considering selling itself. Maybe Quibi’s founder, Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, could see if Donald Trump has some time to make a few calls.
Since the early days of the pandemic, parents who can’t work from home — the people we now call essential workers — have confronted the dual risk of exposing themselves to the coronavirus at work, often for wages so low they are earning less than what people have been collecting on unemployment, while their children are exposed in schools and daycares.
There is little in the way of help. Essential workers have found it hard to collect unemployment benefits if they stop working to care for their families. Those who can afford professional childcare, and are willing to deal with the risks, have found it difficult to find open spots. Around the country, thousands of childcarecenters have closed as work-from-home parents withdrew their children, unintentionally impacting parents unable to keep their children home. Enrollment at childcare programs is down by an average of 67% nationwide and only 18% of programs expect that they will survive longer than a year, according to a June survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
To keep their jobs, they’ve tag-teamed impossible schedules with spouses and relatives, cobbling together help from family and friends one day at a time. Sometimes it means asking older children to watch over younger siblings, or even sending kids to live safely with their grandparents.
BuzzFeed News spoke to essential workers around the country about the emotional and financial challenges of parenting during the pandemic. As hard as parenting has been for the work-from-home set these past several months, for essential workers it’s been much more difficult. At the end of a long day, when they come home, they don’t let their children touch them until they’ve taken off the clothes from the outside world. Some are bracing themselves for what they consider to be the inevitability of contracting the coronavirus. They’re drained and scared, especially single parents. These are their stories.
All interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Tracey, grocery employee and UFCW Local 7 member in Denver
Child Age: 6
Childcare costs: $190/week
My husband and I both work during the day. When the pandemic started, I was managing a department at one of our stores. I was blessed that my employer let me work overnight, and it was tough. I went in anywhere from 10 p.m. to midnight, and then I would get off at 6:30 or 8:30 in the morning. Sometimes I worked 12-hour days. I would come home, and as soon as I got home, my husband — he remodels homes and is a barber part-time — would leave to work. We have a mortgage and bills, so we really didn’t have a choice.
My son was enrolled in school, so if he wasn’t awake when I got home, I’d get some sleep or I’d get some things done, and if he was awake, we’d get breakfast and then I’d get on his schoolwork. They took attendance and you had to be logged in six hours a day. But there’s no way you can expect a parent to be logged in for six hours a day with their child. Then there was homework, so we would do homework during the day. I just slept when I could — I didn’t get much sleep, but women are strong. And we didn’t have a choice.
When everything started opening up again, we went ahead and put him in daycare. I had reservations about sending him to daycare, but as soon as I got the guidelines, I felt pretty comfortable and safe. I would never have sent him if they didn’t lay out the guidelines for me. They don’t even let the parents inside. They take his temperature. The masks are mandatory. And cleaning is every hour.
My hazard pay at work — $2 more an hour, $3 more if it was overtime — actually was helping me pay for the daycare. Basically, I was just working just to pay someone to watch my child. And later, the hazard pay stopped.
What do you do: send your child to school or lose your house?
I’m sure a lot of parents feel the same way that I do, that their hands are tied up working full-time jobs. I mean, just with the cost of living out here, you have to have two parents working full-time in order to just survive. I’ve got coworkers at work too that have the same fear: What do you do: send your child to school or lose your house?
Going back to school in the fall, there’s always this thought in the back of my mind, that this virus is the Grim Reaper; it’s a deadly virus and it can’t be seen. We signed him up for a pod run by the school — that way he can go to school and he’ll stay in that pod throughout the year. To be honest with you, if my child was older and responsible enough, I would probably do the remote learning. He’s a very good little boy, but there’s no way he could do that by himself.
Bryan, EMT in Western Georgia
Children Ages: 17 and 8
Childcare costs: NA
I’ve been an EMT for 12 years now. The job was always difficult in nature, but after the virus, it has become a lot more difficult. Compounding that with childcare, it’s very stressful. My kids are 17 and 8. The 17-year-old, he can take care of himself. The 8-year-old, we have to juggle that around because the school isn’t allowing face-to-face classes, so it’s all online. So when I am at work, his mom — we’re divorced — has to take him to work with her, while she is doing her job.
In my job as an EMT, I have patients with confirmed COVID cases, sometimes dozens through my shift. In the beginning, when we had little information on how contagious or deadly the virus was, I had to quarantine to keep working. Thankfully, I haven’t contracted the coronavirus. But keeping away from my kids was very stressful. The longest stretch I didn’t see them was about six to seven weeks. In the first month, we were all really nervous. Everyone thought they had it. If they sneezed, or their eye itched, or they coughed, everyone thought they had the virus, so call volume picked up tremendously. I FaceTimed as much as I could with my kids, but some days I was on the phone just trying to keep my eyes open.
EMS in general was already understaffed, so once the pandemic started, we were really strained. I was constantly at work, 70 to 80 hours a week. At first the kids didn’t really grasp the severity of what was going on. They’d just expect that they’d be able to see me next week, and then it was clear, well, Dad’s not going to be able to see you guys until this thing dies down.
That’s why you work — to provide for them and be able to take care of them. It was pure joy being able to see them again.
I started seeing them again around May. I love my boys so much. That’s why you work — to provide for them and be able to take care of them. It was pure joy being able to see them again. That mental strain of the added call volume and not knowing what to expect, and then you get to see your kids again — it’s just a great feeling.
EMS in general is really low-paying, and the way you make a livable income is to work additional hours. I make $12.50 an hour — I have to work a lot of hours, but it is livable.
The company I work for doesn’t offer any benefits if you test positive for coronavirus. The CARES Act didn’t include first responders for mandatory paid sick time. It’s kind of disheartening because there are signs up, “Healthcare workers are heroes.” But if we’re heroes, treat us like heroes. Unfortunately, the company I work for is cutthroat, so people are afraid to make waves. We all think we should get more benefits and protections, but no one has done anything because of the nature of the business. The job has its pros and cons; being able to help people in their time in need makes up for the low pay and not-so-good benefits.
EMS in itself is stressful, even before the pandemic. I cope by working out and hiking in nature away from everything.
Demetrus, security guard in Seattle
Children Ages: 7, 4, and 9 months
Childcare costs: Approximately 50% of paycheck
My hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. When I get home, I don’t let my kids touch me. I take off my uniform. Wash my hands. I’m not taking chances.
Before the pandemic, one child was in school and one was in the YMCA daycare and we were on parental leave. After the pandemic, the daycare we did find for two of the kids, we were lucky our kids were the only ones there.
Our older daughter’s school is going fully remote. But you can’t work from home and teach kids also. She is regressing — she is having trouble reading the same book she was reading perfectly before all this. She has to stay focused. If we have to find childcare for her too, a third kid…I almost just want to get a vasectomy right now. So I’m thinking, I have to take her to work with me, because we don’t want to pay any more childcare costs. But I can’t — I don’t know who would chew me out more, the manager of the building or my boss. But I’ve been here 13 years, so if I needed to put her in a conference room, maybe I could. It was an idea. I’ve got 100 things going through my head — what are we going to do?
So I’m thinking, I have to take her to work with me, because we don’t want to pay any more childcare costs.
I tell myself to calm down, try to relax. It hasn’t helped. I’m getting more grays by the week. We do family walks. And when everyone is in bed, I go work out and play a video game. That helps get my mind off things.
Looking at my childcare costs, we’re pretty much paying to work. I’ll be frank: It’s unaffordable.
We need more money and more flexibility from employers, because if we have to start bringing our kids to work, we can’t get chewed out for it.
I’m trying to keep my family safe, but I have bills to pay, and security isn’t a field where you can work from home. It took my company months — months — to get us PPE, and it’s only because the building manager got on my company to get us masks and hand sanitizer. It was brutal.
Patricia, pharmacy technician in Los Angeles
Child Age: 9
Childcare costs: NA
I am a single parent. My schedule is not set. It goes up and down even though I’ve been there for 30 years. And I can’t be here doing my job and helping my daughter with remote learning. My mom, who is the person taking care of her at this point, is 72 — she has no knowledge of computer systems.
I asked my manager to use some of my personal time off to be able to be here to help my daughter. It’s hard because she starts school at 9 o’clock in the morning. You log in, you log out, log in, log out. I have to make sure that she goes back on time, after her 10-minute breaks, her 30-minute lunches. We have to be on top of everything. And that’s where it’s hard for my daughter — when she tries to reconnect. She has to know all her passwords. I cannot depend on my mom to help her with that.
It is so stressful right now, and I feel that there should be some help for parents who are essential workers.
It is so stressful right now, and I feel that there should be some help for parents who are essential workers. I had asked for certain hours when school started, and they didn’t schedule me that way, and they didn’t change the schedule when I asked; they just said they’d notify staff that I’d be late because I would be taking care of some stuff for my daughter. Even if I try to talk to my manager about more flexible timing, I probably couldn’t work my 40 hours. I definitely will have to take fewer hours in the future. I don’t see any other way at this point. I need to make sure that she logs in to do the work and projects. I can’t just leave her hanging because that will make her fall behind.
I am one of the few people in my store that has a full-time position, and I don’t know if asking for fewer hours means I would lose my benefits or my vacation pay. I cannot afford to go from full-time to part-time. The company has not mentioned anything about helping us now that kids are going back to school. And I don’t think they want me to cut my hours because they already were cutting part-timers.
I don’t think we’re getting much support from the company. I had contact with a customer that contracted COVID. I informed the company and never got an answer about how to get tested so I went through my private insurance. Then my daughter tested positive, and she was asymptomatic. I had to quarantine. They refused to pay me because they said if I was asymptomatic, I should go in with my N95 mask. So I was like, you’re telling me to go in, and expose my coworkers, and my customers — most of whom are elderly? So they told me to get my district manager’s approval for a leave of absence, but it would not be paid because I was not sick, it was my child. So I never got paid. But as a health provider, you should care for your employees, and care for your customers.
Krystle, local government employee in Western New York
Child Age: 3
Childcare costs: $250/week
I’m my daughter’s sole caretaker. Her father lives in another country. At first, my employer had half of us working from home, and the other half in the office for two weeks at a time. So at that point, I had her home with me for two weeks, but then her school closed and her backup daycare closed and her summer program closed. Plan A, B, and C — just done. My parents have preexisting conditions, but they took her. If I didn’t have them around, I would be super screwed.
She’d live with them the two weeks I was working at the office, and the two weeks that I worked from home, after being at work, I would have her and we’d “quarantine,” and I wouldn’t even let my parents come over. I don’t want to come home and pass it to them. My mom’s friend’s husband died from COVID so it’s super scary. When my daughter lived at their house, she’d be like, I miss Mommy, I want to see Mommy, and we’d FaceTime. And when she lived here, she’d be like, I miss Grandma and Papa. I want to go see them.
My employer actually found that working from home, we were the same or more productive than we were going to work, but there’s a stigma that government workers are lazy. So in June, they called me back in to work 100%. My job is just like, Well, just find a daycare that has open spots, but I don’t know if the one with open spots is reputable! I’m not just gonna send my kid to whatever is available without doing research.
She ended up going back to the place she went to when she was a toddler two to three days a week. It’s $52 a day. It’s out of the way, but the teachers are really nice. The daycare is doing a great job of making sure they wipe everything down and having kids wash their hands frequently. And the staff all wear masks, and it’s up to us if they want the kids to, but their ears are so little, they don’t stay on.
My parents take care of her the other days. We’re still being as careful as we can now. She’s been staying there overnight the nights before they watch her because they live 15 miles in the wrong direction from my work, and I start at 8 a.m. So getting her up at 6 a.m. was too tough on her.
She’ll be in pre-K this fall, and we just got word that our school board voted to do 100% remote for the first four to six weeks of school. Only one board member brought up the issue for working parents, and nobody offered solutions. Now I have to scramble and see if her daycare can take her full-time, because my parents are going camping in September and won’t be able to take her at all.
There is no winning right now. If you need to work, you’re a bad parent, and if you need to stay home with your kid, you’re a bad employee.
There is no winning right now. If you need to work, you’re a bad parent, and if you need to stay home with your kid, you’re a bad employee. Some parents are going fully remote, but for someone like me, I work full-time. I’m an essential worker. And they stop letting us work from home. So what would you like me to do? What is the solution for that? The teachers unions are saying, Well, we don’t feel safe going in. Other parents say, Well, you can send her to a daycare — yes, but I would still be sending her somewhere. Public school is tuition-free, and full-time daycare is $250 per week. That’s $1,000 a month that was not in my budget. It is super messy.
I just wish that all of us parents could do a better job of working together and being nicer to each other. There’s always the mommy-shaming, like, you’re a terrible person because you’re not keeping your kid home. Or you’re a terrible person because you’re not going to work and making money. I had to delete my Facebook app because I just couldn’t take the fighting anymore and the debates about the kids and going back to school. Everybody just wants to push the blame on each other: The workplaces are blaming the school district who is blaming the teacher unions. And nobody wants to take responsibility for anything right now.
Phoebe*, health worker in the Bay Area
Child Age: 8 months
Childcare costs: NA
I had mybaby inJanuary. Both myself and my husband are essential workers and I went back to work in June. It’s always been the plan that my mom would help take care of the baby. They have daycare programs for essential workers of the city, but I heard staff in some of those daycares aren’t wearing masks, so we didn’t send my little one there.
Honestly, it was a lot of anxiety to come back, because I have to go to the hospital. I feared coming back to work and if I could, I would stay on leave for even longer. When this first broke out, they were saying they had multiple system failure, which is really scary. I’m very glad that my manager actually understands and I have an accommodation to not see COVID patients, but that will expire at the end of September. I just had to have that talk with my husband, like, okay, my accommodation is expiring and I will have to go see COVID patients. My husband said, If you get sick then, like, just isolate and quarantine. We’ve had to face the fact that it will happen.
I would say as an essential worker, you don’t want to bring what’s at work back home, the disease. That’s my biggest concern. And mentally, it’s very draining. I know people who aren’t sleeping well anymore. I can still sleep at night so I guess I am coping, but I turn to yummy food when I feel stressed. If I didn’t have a mortgage, I wouldn’t come back to work. If my husband could completely provide for everything, I wouldn’t risk it.
*Name changed to protect identity.
Kate, animal caregiver in upstate New York
Child Age: 7
Childcare costs: Variable, about a couple of hundred dollars per week
I’m a single mom. Up to now, I’ve just been cobbling together childcare, getting people to come in and watch my daughter. I lived here for three months when the pandemic hit and just had zero safety net. I left corporate New York City to come take care of the animals, because I believed in animal rescue. So I don’t have the same resources that other moms might have — I don’t know anybody. My job was my only safety net.
There has been a lot more work since the pandemic, because people are dying and we’re having to go rescue animals from caregivers that died of COVID, or other causes. We’ve had to do way more triage and rescue than normal because all the other resources were closed.
My job was not receptive to the idea of any paid time off. They did offer people with school-age children a small stipend of $75 a week for childcare, because [animal] caregiving is just inherently such a low-paid job that if I needed to pay someone full-time to care for my kid, I would be losing money. But that stipend was only until June, and after that, it’s been on me. After taxes, I make $13 an hour, and you can’t get a babysitter for that much. Maybe there’s someone I could exploit, but I’m not going to.
So I had family members fly out to take care of my daughter for like a couple weeks at a time. My mom is a professor, and she drove across the country from California to help me keep this job. She was teaching online while watching the kid. But when my daughter’s school starts again, you need someone actively facilitating remote learning. You can’t just throw her in front of a computer — she is only going into second grade.
I have to take care of my daughter and you’re making me choose between doing this job and my child.
School is going to be on a hybrid schedule. My employer said, Well, we need you to work these days, and I was saying, I have to take care of my daughter and you’re making me choose between doing this job and my child. My job was pushing me to put her in a daycare, and I was like, but now you’re asking me to put my daughter in like an unsafe situation. If the schools are closed, why would I put her in a daycare? There have just been no good options for any parents and especially parents who have to be at work.
I ended up having to leave my job because it’s just been six months of me cobbling together care, or losing so much money to do this work that I loved to do. But it’s unsustainable at this point, if they’re not going to work with me and give me the same days off as my child. I can’t do it. That has been the most disappointing part, I’m like, You are the only people here who can help me keep doing this job.
I was just realizing the only way that anyone in my position — I can’t be the only single parent who has an essential job — can do this is if they keep passing the stimulus to keep supplementing incomes. Because whoever watches my kid, I have to pay them. Even my friends and family, if they take time off work to come help, you can’t ask them to do it for free.
But this is what being a caregiver is like. I get it now. I see it with people who have nurses in their homes; it’s just not a valued profession, whether you’re taking care of people or animals. This must be why burnout is so high: because you have to care so deeply.
Jenn, auto parts retail employee in Connecticut
Children Ages: 16, 11, 10, 9, and 1
Childcare costs: NA
My 16-year-old daughter has been taking care of her four siblings while we are working. She has taken on the role as parent because we cannot afford a day off. I feel proud of her, and upset at the whole situation, because she shouldn’t have to do this. To compensate her, she has an allowance and we take her to Dollar Tree. She earned this. I can’t save much, but I have to be grateful that she steps up in this crazy time for us.
My spouse and I work in the automotive industry. My spouse works in the morning. I start work at 12 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. We are both managers and ever since the pandemic we’ve been working double shifts. There was a time my spouse and I worked for three weeks straight because someone in my store caught COVID.
We explain to our kids why we are working so much, and on payday we do something as a family. They at least understand that.
We explain to our kids why we are working so much, and on payday we do something as a family. They at least understand that.
We are scared every day to bring COVID home to our children. All the company did was give us hand sanitizer and masks. Two months later we got glass installed in only two out of five registers. Just last month they sent us cloth masks.
I have been told that I don’t need hazard pay because I have a job. That I don’t need another stimulus because I have a job. They don’t care that we are struggling. They just care that we are open and they have what they need to go home safe. But what about us? Don’t we matter? We didn’t pick if we wanted to be essential. That role was given to us. At least you get to shop, spend some money, and go home and stay safe in your little nest. Not I. I literally have a beard of pimples right now from wearing the mask eight hours a day.
Sara, municipal employee in Northern California
Child Age: 1
Childcare costs: $1,200/month
I had only started going back to work a couple of months earlier when the pandemic started. My maternity leave was unpaid and my husband, who is a mailman, had stayed home to help when I started going back to work part-time, so we had both not been working before the pandemic happened and we were trying to dig ourselves out of that hole.
At first, it was super busy at work; no one was on the roads, so they ramped everything up. And my husband obviously has been super busy this whole time because everyone is ordering things online. He started working 12- to 15-hour days every day when this whole thing started. He had a hard time in the beginning because people would come up close to him and try to talk when he’d drive up in the truck, because they weren’t seeing other humans and were starved of conversation and human interaction. I was able to work from home in the beginning, and I did it for three months, but I wasn’t getting enough work done.
I was trying to prove I could still do my job well after having a baby. We’re told for so long you can have a career and a child, but it’s hard to put 100% of yourself into both. So there is internal pressure, but I have been the primary breadwinner in our family for a while, and I have to make sure we can pay the bills.
I was trying to have Zoom meetings all the time with the baby crying. It was a lot of feeling like I was overextended, but not being a good parent and not being a good employee and it was hard to feel like I could accomplish anything. I have a good relationship with everyone at work, but it always felt like, I know I am not the most convenient person to be around right now, but I need to have input so I am just going to let the other person speak for me because I am going to be muted this whole call. My workplace was as supportive as it could be, but I wasn’t getting everything done and it was stressful. We had a round of layoffs for financial reasons, so you want to prove that you’re valuable.
I kind of lie to myself and pretend that I am okay with it and feel she is safe.
In June, I was called back into my office full-time so we sent my daughter back into the daycare she had been in for a month in February before this all started. I thought about getting a nanny, but financially, we couldn’t afford it. So I tried to justify to myself that daycare was safer anyway because at least they’re sanitizing everything. Because the daycare was open the whole time, they had their protocols in place, but I kind of lie to myself and pretend that I am okay with it and feel she is safe. But it’s a constant worry: that she could be exposed today. And COVID was really ramping up when I went back to work.
There are fewer kids at the daycare now than before the pandemic; all the staff have to wear masks all the time; there’s hand sanitizer everywhere; things have to be washed every hour. We can have one parent in the classroom at a time, and I am still nursing, so I go in every day at lunch and nurse her in the back area where the cribs are where there’s never anyone around.
Day to day, I just tell myself that it’s okay, but it’s always in the back of my mind: Why am I prioritizing money and having a job when I could keep her home and not expose her? But even then, my husband would expose her so there’s a general fear of exposure all the time. I have to pretend I don’t feel bad.
I had a really bad work week where I was like, Why am I killing myself at this job? I am making money to pay for someone else to raise my kid — in a pandemic. I have little moments where I spiral like that. But I try to be positive. I grew up with working parents and I appreciated the work ethic I saw in them and I’ve always wanted to be a working mom. But I also just need to make sure we can pay rent and buy groceries. ●
A federal judge in California temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s executive order curbing Americans’ use of WeChat , upholding a motion from users of the popular Chinese-owned messaging and e-commerce app.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler entered an order Sunday for a preliminary injunction blocking the federal ban on U.S. downloads and other functions from going into force as scheduled for 11:59 p.m. Sunday.
The ruling is a victory for WeChat ’s owner, Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., and the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, the nonprofit organization representing several mobile app users that filed the motion against the Trump administration in August. The group, which has said it isn’t affiliated with Tencent, said it consists of users who rely on WeChat for business and personal reasons.
In her 22-page order, Judge Beeler agreed with free-speech arguments raised by the user groups, saying she is convinced that “there are no viable substitute platforms or apps for the Chinese-speaking and Chinese-American community.”
“WeChat is effectively the only means of communication for many in the community, not only because China bans other apps, but also because Chinese speakers with limited English proficiency have no options other than WeChat,” she said in the order.
Over the past few months, organizations from PepsiCo to PayPal have responded to public demands for meaningful action on racial equality. As protests have swept communities across the country, business leaders are examining the role of ongoing racial disparity in their own organizations. The startup and venture world is facing the same set of questions, and has the same opportunity to create meaningful change.
As a recent graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, newcomer to Silicon Valley, and young Black professional, I set out to explore how Black entrepreneurs experience the startup and venture ecosystem.
However, in interviews with Black founders, I found that many have developed a crucial set of skills as a result of their experiences navigating this difficult environment. Persistence, passion, and self-awareness are all abilities that look fundamentally different for these founders because of their experiences with race. By building empathy for the unique experiences of Black founders and by filling gaps in their access to professional networks, we can open the door to greater inclusion in the startup world.
Persistence, grit, hustle, resilience: It goes by many names, but there’s no ignoring that this “it” factor is a must for entrepreneurs. For many Black founders, experiences navigating race have built lifelong persistence.
“I have lived many situations in which I was vastly underestimated. I always had to take the little that I had and position it into strength, even if no one else thought I could do those things,” reflected Helen Adeosun, founder of CareAcademy. This mindset carried Adeosun through an early layoff from a teaching position and fueled her drive to network her way into entrepreneurship from an education-focused background.
For these founders, persistence is core to success. Elise Smith, founder of Praxis Labs, points to the months upon months of bootstrapping Praxis with winnings from pitch competitions as evidence of her unceasing will to keep going. She summed it up: “You know you won’t have the same resources or access, but you have extra fire to figure it out. It’s fueling, in a way.”
Startup founders are expected to have passion: intellectual passion for the industry or idea, passionate energy as part of their leadership style, or even passion for the startup process itself.
For Seke Ballard of Good Tree Capital, his passion stems from a deep-seated duty to give back. Good Tree itself was born from a conversation Ballard had with his father in the wake of the 2015 shooting in a Black church in Charleston, S.C. Ballard discovered a calling to strengthen minority communities by addressing inequities in access to capital. “A synonym for passion could be outrage,” Ballard shared. “How has this inequity persisted for so long? I have a duty to all marginalized people. That feeling of duty informs what I do.”
He wasn’t the only founder to name the role of community as the root of his passion. Sherrell Dorsey, founder of tech publication The Plug, said, “There’s a very different sense of what community means in the context of the barriers our people have faced.” Dorsey’s grandparents, she reflected, raised a family, took on a mortgage, and persisted in long professional careers without even the ability to vote. She concluded, “We really are building from the ground up.”
Harnessing this passion—one driven by responsibility, community, and a strong understanding of history—gives these founders a deep well of motivation to keep building, even when the road gets rough.
For many of the founders I talked to, self-awareness was a product of the fundamental, constant need to relate to others across cultural differences.
Kellee James, founder of Mercaris, has used this adaptability to her advantage throughout her career, building her reputation in economic development and agriculture despite minimal representation of women and minorities in those fields. “I’ve always worked in areas where there are not a lot of Black women, so I’m always aware of myself and how I am perceived. It’s second nature to adjust for that at this point,” she said.
Alex Lofton of Landed described a similar adaptability learned over time: “My own mental model of myself can shift a bit to relate to other people and better story-tell,” he reflected. “I wasn’t doing that intentionally, just out of necessity…But now it’s pretty helpful.” As a cofounder, Lofton has used this combination of self-awareness and empathy as a cornerstone feature of his leadership style: bringing others together, approaching every aspect of the work with curiosity, and continuing to learn about himself as a leader.
The way forward
Just because Black founders may have developed these unique skill sets doesn’t mean that investors and others in the ecosystem easily recognize that fact. Fully translating the depth of Black founders’ skills into greater inclusion in the ecosystem will require greater empathy for entrepreneurs’ experiences. This empathy is an important tool for investors to use in connecting the dots between the stories founders tell about themselves and the skills that equip founders for success.
The ecosystem’s relatively closed nature will also require greater focus on expanding access to contacts, capital, and resources for Black entrepreneurs.
Mercedes Bent, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, said having a robust network is crucial. “In my experience, Black and brown founders often have less mutual contacts with our team and founders in our portfolio, and that’s all about the network the founder has,” she reflected. “When founders come in and we’ve been contacted multiple times on their behalf with positive, trusted recommendations, it changes the initial tone of pitch meetings. They start off more jovial and collegiate.”
Building empathy and opening networks are not easy feats. Both are often defined by our immediate communities (such as schools, employers, or neighborhoods), and so our empathy and networks often extend mostly to people who are similar to us.
Still, we are not helpless to enact change; there are a few actions we could all take to stretch our empathy and open our networks. First, we can ask founders how their life experiences have contributed to building the key founder skills, and consider how their answers are similar to or different from our own stories. Second, whenever we meet a founder from an underrepresented group, we can proactively offer to introduce them to others in our network. Third, we can give cold emails a chance. Some of us never respond to cold emails; others never miss a message. Whatever our habits, we should commit to engaging a few extra new faces per week.
The startup world has a major opportunity, a chance to move the needle on the racial disparities that keep many businesses, founders, and investors from reaching their full potential. Start with these small steps and engage in the conversation; there is not a moment to waste.
Erica B. Smith-Goetz is a recent graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
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Each morning at 4 a.m., hours before the sun rises, Monica gets out of bed and begins her day. First, she tends to her 1-year-old baby, before preparing coffee and breakfast. Then she and her child drive 10 miles north to a big, open house set on 40 acres in rural Alaska, where from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., she watches over four children, plus her own son, as a private nanny.
Monica never expected to be a nanny. She was expecting to be a stay-at-home mom to her new baby. Then, her husband was laid off in March as the pandemic shut down the economy. Weeks went by without any income, as delays at the labor department held up unemployment benefits. But the Alaska air was still cold, and a $300 heating bill needed to be paid.
Her husband found work again in May, and in June, she found a job caring for the children of a nearby family for $14 an hour. That’s more than the state’s $10.19 minimum wage, but still not enough to afford childcare for her own baby, about $1,200 a month, if she and her husband were out working. The hiring family said she could bring her infant, who had been born 6 weeks prematurely, to work with her. So she agreed. And this is how she has kept her household afloat since COVID-19 turned everything upside down: caring for four children who aren’t hers — and one that is — for $14 an hour, 20 hours a week.
“It’s strange being on the other side of it, thinking that last year that we might need [childcare] and now I’m providing it,” she said.
The entire industry of childcare, as well as those who work in it, is facing a crisis. The fundamental issue is that while childcare is a huge expense for families, it still doesn’t cost enough to pay most workers in the field a wage that allows them to support their own children. Many daycare centers are facing financial ruin, with thousands already closed, as parents keep their children home out for fear for their safety.
“If childcare doesn’t work, the rest of the country doesn’t work. There’s a spotlight being shined on childcare now, but if it doesn’t lead to structural changes, it’s all for naught,” said Rhian Allvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Around the country, child caregivers overcame fears about exposing themselves and their families to the virus to earn a living, often from families that earn far more than they do. The median pay in this field is $24,000 a year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And this does not include the large number of workers who do the job off the books — with no benefits and often at lower wages. The average annual cost of infant care: $9,600 for family care, which is often home-based, and $15,000 for center-based care. This poses a huge dilemma for childcare workers who have children of their own.
If childcare doesn’t work, the rest of the country doesn’t work.
“The only way that it’s sustainable for me is I can bring him with me. If I were to go out and work in other people’s homes and have to put him in daycare, there’s no way that I would be able to swing that. I would be making [just a few] dollars after paying for his own childcare,” said Monica, who asked that her last name not be used.
All parents must grapple with the reality that working isn’t always financially viable if you also need childcare — families with children under age 5 spend about 10% of their income on average on childcare, according to the Center for American Progress, and that percentage gets higher — as high as 35% for the poorest families — as income gets lower. Childcare, like housing, faces a serious affordability crisis.
This reality is especially painful and frustrating for parents who themselves work in childcare, and find themselves caught between two crushing forces for American families: low wages and the high cost of care. Some parents say it is not a sustainable job if you must support a family, even if you are able to take your children with you. The pay is too low, the days are too long, and the risk of burnout is real.
While she feels grateful to have found work and likes the family she is working for, “I wish that childcare was taken more seriously because I do feel like it’s an essential service, and it’s not treated as such — it never has been. We can’t have people working and contributing to society if they can’t find someone to take care of their kids while they do that,” said Monica. “And daycare centers can’t pay their employees if they’re not charging a certain amount. It’s a huge mess.”
While BLS expects parents who work will continue to need the assistance of childcare workers, “the increasing cost of childcare may reduce demand for childcare workers.” Now, as enrollment in childcare programs cratered during the pandemic, fewer than 1 in 5 programs expect to survive longer than a year, according to a survey by the NAEYC.
Even before the crisis, compensation has been a deep concern in the field, with nearly half of early childhood educators eligible to receive some form of government assistance, said NAEYC’s Rhian Allvin. Despite research showing how important these early years are, “most early childhood educators are underpaid, based on the value they’re contributing to society, as a profession. Without more systemic support from the government and employers, the impasse remains: “Parents can’t pay any more and early childcare workers can’t make any less.” And for parents who work in childcare, like other essential workers who cannot work from home, “there’s an added conundrum in terms of where their children spend the day,” Allvin said.
For those who could afford it, the need for emergency childcare became urgent after COVID-19 shut down schools. Monica started getting emails — several emails every hour — through her old Care.com profile from parents who suddenly, urgently needed childcare. Soon, she was getting emails, texts, and voice messages throughout the day. Parents were asking her to start immediately, without even an interview, and offering cash if she could arrive in an hour.
“To go to another family’s home, not only being exposed to them during a pandemic, but also not knowing what their expectations or biases or opinions were about it — it was nerve-wracking,” she said. “I ended up going on 15 interviews because I needed to make sure I was going to be able to help them with what they needed and that I was going to be able to bring my son with me safely.”
Eventually, a mother emailed her. It wasn’t the frenzied, desperate inquiry she was used to, but a request for advice on finding a good nanny. Her husband was an essential worker, and she had been trying to work from home with their four children, which was an untenable arrangement. They introduced themselves by phone, hit it off, and two hours later, Monica had a new job.
Other working families in the area were scrambling to find care. Monica’s friends from college who had just lost jobs in banking and marketing were finding lifelines as nannies.
“You see it with nurses, people working at grocery stores and gas stations, these services that we didn’t even bat an eyelash at before, who are now in the spotlight because, hey, we’re doing a huge job,” Monica said. “People that work in childcare centers, teachers, private nannies, and babysitters, all of a sudden, oh, you guys are essential.”
These workers, and the families they work for, have been holding it together over the last six months, but they still need help. “I’m hoping that childcare and childcare assistance becomes a priority. It shouldn’t be a luxury,” Monica said.
In Sacramento County, California, Alani, who asked her last name not be used, watched the battle unfold between teachers and the state about reopening classrooms through the summer. Protect the children! Protect the teachers! She wondered why early childhood educators like herself, who continued to come in throughout the pandemic to care for the children of other essential workers, never drew that level of concern or sympathy — from lawmakers, from parents, or from the public in general.
For months, she had been coming to work at a childcare center, bringing along her 7-year-old daughter, to keep the community running as the coronavirus ravaged the country. And she was earning $15 an hour for it.
It’s hard for her not to feel resentful. “It just seems like we’re being overlooked,” she said. “When I read what K–12 teachers are saying, me, having worked at a designated essential center while the rest of the world shut down, I’m doing exactly what K–12 are reluctant to do. Today, I was in a classroom with 24 kids and a co-teacher.”
What keeps her going in, with her daughter, is an extreme commitment to the work. “I feel like if I didn’t go back, I’d be abandoning those kids. I’d be abandoning my passions. I’d be abandoning those families,” she said. “Not every household is safe for children to be in every day. And not every family has responsible adults who can meet the intense demands of distance learning. We know this.”
Yet at her current salary, Alani can’t afford to send her daughter to her own center at full tuition. In the end, she said, “We make basically nothing.” And her passion for the work doesn’t obscure the fact that it is hard.
At 5 a.m. Alani awakes in the two-story townhouse she rents with her husband and child. There’s time for a quick workout before her daughter wakes up. They get ready to leave the house together around sunrise so she can start the day at the daycare center at 7 a.m. Since schools shut down, she’s had no choice but to bring her child along with her, as her husband, also deemed an essential worker, must leave the house to do his job as a mechanic. The 7 a.m. shift is still early, but discernibly more relaxed than the opening schedule she recently had, which required her to be out the door with her daughter by 5:45 a.m.
Bringing her daughter along with her to work came at a price too; the center offers employees a discounted rate, which had been free thanks to California childcare subsidies for essential workers that ran until Sept 1. Now, Alani pays a discounted rate of $105 per week, which is still a sizable chunk of her paycheck.
“Parent-me and teacher-me, they kind of clash,” Alani said. Parents need affordable childcare; teachers need a safe work environment and livable wages. “I see it from two from both sides. They’re both just so conflicting.”
When things shut down in the spring, enrollment at Alani’s center fell to less than 50 kids from 200, mostly kids of healthcare workers, first responders, grocery employees, and other essential workers who, like her, had no choice but to go in. “Everybody was scared. So were we, but we were still there,” she said. Her classroom shrank to six kids from 24.
“[K–12] teachers don’t feel safe returning to work, but, you know, it’s always on our minds too. Is it safe for us to be here?” she said. “My center, we’ve been great. But there’s always that fear. Especially because we were caring for essential families. But my job wasn’t giving me the option to opt out. I have a family and I can’t not have an income.”
“Everybody was scared. So were we, but we were still there.”
The center implemented safety protocols: taking temperatures at the door, cleaning around the clock, even sanitizing pens after they’ve been touched. “We’re absolutely doing the best that we can.” Now, when she hears the debates about whether schools should reopen, “I get really frustrated, because here I am.”
According to NAEYC’s Allvin, surveys show that early childhood educators are held in high esteem by voters, but those who work in the industry don’t feel like they are, mainly due to their compensation. “There’s a mismatch between what people think about early childhood educators and how they believe they’re valued. The pandemic exacerbated that,” Allvin said.
Better wages, Alani said, are the only thing she can think of that would help temper her inner conflict. “That would make all the internal struggle really worth it right now,” she said. “As much as watching the kids grow and giving back to my community is great, there should be a little something more. There’s got to be a little more of a benefit for me and my family.”
In mid-September, she decided to leave the industry.
About 400 miles south of Alani, in Los Angeles’ Signal Hill, Zoila Toma opens the doors to her home from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. She runs from her daycare from her residence, where she lives with her husband and three children, ages 17, 8, and 6.
It’s a later start than she had gotten used to before the pandemic, when she would rise just after 5 a.m. to get her house ready for the children. Parents are now bringing their kids in a little later, giving her a little more private time in the mornings, and they’re picking them up earlier too.
Before COVID-19, Toma would watch some kids as late as 10 p.m. At that point, long after many parents had put their children to bed, she’d start cleaning her house, to start the next day fresh. “This is an industry where you could work 14 hours every day,” she said. “Maybe Saturday I could be a little lazy because I don’t have any kids coming on Sunday, so I don’t have to worry about where I left my things — in my own house. But come Sunday night, I had to make sure there’s nothing out of place, and the house is safe for all the kids.”
Of course, that was then. Back in February, her Castle in the Sky Daycare had 18 children signed up for services from morning drop-off to full-time care. Now, some days there are six children, some days eight; some days Toma doesn’t work. As they enter her home, they must wash their hands; she sprays the bottom of their shoes with alcohol.
Childcare programs around the country are facing similar crises. Average enrollment at programs is down by about two-thirds nationwide — the average number of children at centers decreased to 48 from 105, and to 7 from 12 at family homes, according to NAEYC’s survey. Already, thousands of childcarecenters have closed around the country as parents withdrew their children to keep them safe from the risk of the coronavirus. Whenever the economy reopens and parents are expected to return to their workplaces, it is not clear in many places who will take care of their kids.
For a full day of watching a child, Toma charges $275 per week for an infant, $205 for toddlers, and $168 for school-age children. Some families paid privately, others with a childcare subsidy for low-income households. Some of the parents have white-collar jobs — professors, accountants — while others work in the food industry. In a normal year, her 14-hour days meant she could pay herself about $40,000 after expenses. In 2020, the bulk of her pay will come from the Paycheck Protection Program loan she took out. “The reality is if this continues, these loans are not gonna be there next year,” she said.
Toma started the business in 2011, when her oldest child was 8 years old and she was pregnant with her second. It allowed her to care for her children and also earn a living. “I don’t think anybody wants to sound like they’re complaining. We’re doing a very fulfilling job, but the only reason that it worked for me is, like, because I am not paying for daycare myself. I am caring for my children.”
The pandemic is forcing her to work with her children on remote learning now and pivot her business to serve other school-age children who are unable to attend classes from home as her regular daycare numbers were too low to be viable.
The transformation required new, $50 chairs for older kids, $5,000 for laptops, earphones to help the kids focus on their own classes and tune out those streaming from the other kids’ screens, $300 worth of sneeze guards, PPE for staff and the kids, and a store of cleaning supplies — altogether $15,000 so far, which she is paying for with a Small Business Administration loan.
She’s had to bring on new staff who are proficient with technology to help juggle the remote classes, which are all happening on different schedules with different breaks for lunch. Meanwhile, the daycare’s expenses — $500 for electricity, mostly for air-conditioning in the summer, insurance, water, lawyer fees — haven’t stopped.
By early September, Toma had nine children enrolled, and a few more families planned to sign up as school classes were kicking off again.
“This business is very nice and fulfilling, but I eventually want to close it,” she said. “Your privacy is compromised. You have people coming in and out of your house, at any given time of the day. This is the industry.”
In Alaska, Monica spends much of the day at her employer’s property. The house already has twice as many bedrooms as Monica’s (including the room she rents out to a friend). Their pantry is always full, she’s noticed, with an abundance of options, including luxury items like expensive chia seeds. “Sometimes something goes on in my mind, like, Could we do this eventually? What would we have to do to be able to have things that aren’t … necessities?” she said. Monica’s family is never hungry, but being on a budget means being sensitive to price changes and scarcity at the grocery store caused by panic buying.
The job doesn’t afford much time to dwell though: Lunches have to be made, and the children are anxious to get to the park.●
This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Parenting Week series, about how parenting has changed during the pandemic.
The Federal Reserve issued new guidance to banks Friday in an effort to improve access to new business loans through its $600 billion Main Street Lending Program.
The central bank is relying on banks to underwrite loans to qualified small and midsize businesses under the novel effort to reach firms that aren’t large enough to access corporate funding markets, which the central bank has also backstopped.
The Fed is trying to encourage banks to make loans that might not otherwise be made to support businesses through the coronavirus pandemic. The program has faced limited uptake since the Fed began purchasing loans in July, with some banks saying they are selling 95% of eligible loans to the Fed because of concerns over how regulators might treat loans to firms whose revenues have been significantly harmed by the pandemic.
In response, the central bank said Friday it had agreed with bank regulators at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to clarify that federal examiners will provide more flexibility in evaluating loans originated under the Main Street program.
Through Wednesday, banks have extended slightly more than $1.5 billion in loans under the program. The Treasury Department has provided $75 billion to cover loan losses, which will allows the Fed to extend up to $600 billion in loans. So far, large national banks have mostly shied away from using the program.
Good morning, Broadsheet readers! President Trump faces a new assault allegation, Rent the Runway ditches Unlimited,and we learn more about Kamala Harris, the sneakerhead. Have a restful weekend.
– Converse campaigning. I’ll never pass up a story about what political candidates eat on the campaign trail. Same goes for stories about what they wear.
This cycle, the campaign wardrobe beat has turned to Kamala Harris’s shoes, specifically her penchant for an American staple: Converse Chuck Taylors.
Her sneakers first got earnest attention on Sept. 7 when a video of her de-planing in Milwaukee in Chucks garnered 8 million views in a day. Harris’s shoe choice is not new. She told The Cut all about her Chucks collection in 2018. “I have a whole collection of Chuck Taylors: a black leather pair, a white pair, I have the kind that don’t lace, the kind that do lace, the kind I wear in the hot weather, the kind I wear in the cold weather, and the platform kind for when I’m wearing a pantsuit.”
Fashion, as we know, can be a powerful political messaging tool. So, what do Harris’s shoes say? Lauren Rothman, a D.C.-based political stylist, told Elle that the “affordable American brand is bold yet accessible,” a choice that “radiates confidence” and could boost Harris’s “likability” during a tough campaign. (If you deep-sighed at “likability,” I am with you.)
The sneakers do convey a down-to-earth, approachable attitude. Will they win over voters who dislike the Biden/Harris ticket? Probably not.
But other commentators argue that, beyond changing hearts and minds, Harris choosing a more relaxed look for the biggest political stage could finally convince her peers to do the same.
As women’s work wardrobes have grown more casual over the years, the field of politics has been especially slow to evolve. (Remember ‘Shouldergate‘ in 2017?) Two years ago, The New York Times‘ Vanessa Friedman profiled the Dress to Win class at the Women’s Campaign School at Yale. There, experts gave political newcomers seemingly impossible advice: Your clothes shouldn’t speak for you, but they should say something about you. That needle seems impossible to thread, but with her Chucks, perhaps Harris pulled it off.
At the very least, her sneakers might encourage the growing number of female candidates to appear more authentically on the campaign trail; to—as CNN political analyst Hilary Rosen put it—dismiss any “convention about what female candidates are supposed to wear and do.”