You’re not the only person who wishes work was better.

Every week, we’ll ask innovators, activists, thought-leaders and entrepreneurs about their work and insights into how folks in the 21st century workforce are rewriting the rules and building power.

Eric Shih
Founder, Spendrise

Eric Shih

Founder, Spendrise

What do you do for work?

I run a startup called Spendrise that is focused on consumers creating change.

What training or education or experience most prepared you for what you do now?

My experience as community organizer has definitely been a driving influence for this project. Having worked to understand how to make sure that communities are able to speak up and be heard on the issues they care about–that training really affects the way I approach this work today.

It was also helpful that I grew up around computers. My dad was a computer engineer, so we grew up with computers in the house and we were always encouraged to figure out how they worked. I went to college with the intent to do more of that, but got involved with social justice work. So now it’s all coming together.

What did you study in school?

I did Asian American studies and then I did a PhD program briefly in American studies. I focused mostly on history and sociology, but I didn’t complete that–got a Masters–and then ended up going back to work instead.

What’s the best job you’ve had and why?

I want to say being a community organizer was the best job because I got to do work that I believed in. It was something that really spoke to me. It involved long hours and it was really hard; we were on the losing side of fighting for things that needed to be fought for — campaigns around environmental justice and health. We also worked on raising the minimum wage in San Francisco and getting the first paid sick days law passed. We fought for restaurant workers, for garment workers, for other workers who lost their jobs after NAFTA. A lot of that work meant going up against employers, which we struggled with. It’s almost a shame when you win because you think, this is easy! We should do more of this! And then you keep fighting for bigger things, which becomes harder.

What is the worst job you’ve had and why?

I worked a lot of minimum wage jobs in high school. One that stands out is working as a clerk at Blockbuster when it still existed. That was pretty miserable. I remember they put us in a room and made us watch this video, basically about a lot of anti-union stuff, like, you shouldn’t ask your colleagues how much they make. It also wasn’t fun to be in an environment where they call you on holidays and ask you to come in, and the schedules weren’t clear. These are things that a lot of retail workers are dealing with today and may have gotten worse.

How is tech changing the nature of work and working people’s lives — in good ways and bad?

With self-driving cars and other advances, there is a lot of talk right now about whether people’s work is going to be replaced. While automation is important to explore, I think the larger trend to explore is not whether tech is automating, but how it’s augmenting work. We work faster and get more done as a result of technology, and then the reality is that the more we produce, the more profits are being made. That increased productivity is creating more profit. The question then is where is that profit going? Are the workers who are tech-augmented and producing more profits getting a bigger share of those profits, or are these profits going to the people at the very top? I think we’re seeing that wages aren’t keeping up with productivity. So that’s a big question: as tech makes us more productive, where are the fruits of that labor going?

What would you change about your own industry and why?

I guess if I could change one thing I’d find a way to raise up the voices of people within the tech sector who do actually care about more than just the work they do every day, who care about more than just the company. They’re aware of bigger issues. I think among rank and file technology workers there is a progressive strain. And so finding ways to connect with other forces and communities would be helpful.

In your view, what are the major barriers to collective action.

I was at Michigan for graduate school, so we’d go to Detroit to meet with community groups. One thing that stood out was the scale and scope of mass production of factories in the early 20th century through Detroit’s heyday. The factories were these huge campuses, which have now been pushed to other countries, but that used to be here in the U.S., where all these people worked in the same place on the assembly line for the same company.

It’s hard to remember, but at that moment, there were folks in the labor movement, at the guilds of skilled workers, who saw this as an unorganizable situation–there were so many folks coming in, all interchangeable, all competing with each other and lowering wages. But then they found a way to do collective action on a mass scale. They realized that the fact that everyone was at the same point of production, had the same employer, and faced the same conditions–this was actually ripe for a new kind of unionism, a new kind of organizing, a new kind of collective action: bargaining.

That became the standard for a long time, but that really doesn’t exist in terms of workplace conditions anymore. It’s rare to find a workplace where you can find 30,000 people who work at the exact same location for the same boss. Today, it’s much more distributed. Or you might have a situation where you work at Starbucks and there might be many workers, for sure, but at your particular location there’s only a relative handful. So then how do you organize workers and act collectively when people are so distributed? How do you bring people together when they’re not in the same place, when they don’t all know each other and see each other face to face?

There’s also been a shift in how people relate and connect. We ask people to come to things, like an action, but increasingly people are used to doing things online. It’s harder to get people to show up and be part of an organization in the same way. Where are people gathering now? If they’re building communities online, that creates a whole different opportunity to engage them where they’re at, rather than expecting them to come to the forms of community that we’re more used to in organizing culture.

Collective action is about aggregating the little bit of power that each of us has so that it’s not just about my relationship with a large employer, but it’s about our relationship with a large employer. And that’s what we’re trying to do with consumers.

If there was one thing you could change about work and why?

I wish everybody felt they had a voice in their work, in their life on the job. Just because they go to work doesn’t mean they stop having ideas or opinions, or desire for a better world or a better life. Whether you’re an employee or a small business owner, your humanity should be seen at work as well. We’re all more than workers.

Paige Panter
Director of Product, Unitive

Paige Panter

Director of Product, Unitive

What do you do for work?

I’m a product manager at Unitive, a web based app designed to make life easier for anyone who hires. We built the app based on research that helps to explain how we make decisions and how implicit bias plays a role in who gets what job. Our goal is to help our biased brain make better decisions when it comes to hiring.

Implicit bias in hiring is any factor that sways your decision-making that shouldn’t have bearing on how well someone can do a job. For example we often cite things like a manager’s preference for Ivy League schools or, more overtly, racial discrimination. These are the kinds of biases that make our brains pick the stereotypical candidate over the most qualified candidate.

What kind of training, education or experience did you need to get where you are?

It’s hard to draw a real line from my formal training to what I do today. If I see a common thread between college and the jobs I had following, it’s that I’ve looked for what I find most interesting and then work hard to learn as much as I can about it. I also know that the reason I have this job is thanks to network and what we call “who you know”. If there are two routes to getting jobs, one is making it through the steps of applying and interviews, and the other is getting a job through your network. Getting to where I am was more contingent on being introduced to the person who started the company rather than pedigree or training.

What was the best job you had and why?

This one because I’m learning more than ever.

The worst?

Lifeguarding at a YMCA in Arizona when I was in high school. It was probably 120 degrees and you’re not really supposed to get in the water unless there’s a reason. I can’t say I learned a ton from that job.

How is tech changing the nature of work and working people’s lives – good and bad?

We’re getting to the place where we know that flexible work is good. And, yet, at the same time, there’s still so much we have to wrestle with in making a new definition of “employee”. Employers today are using flexible work structures to blur who is and isn’t a real employee. For example, looking at how Uber handles their drivers or how Google treats their contract workers. If you talk to 1099 workers, many would say, “it’s great! I’m self-employed, I love having my flexible schedule, I work on my time”. I’ve had that conversation with so many Uber drivers. But if you zoom out a little then you start to wonder, don’t they deserve more of the benefits that full-time employees get? So we’re fleshing out this new concept of flexible work that’s letting us work more freely than we used to, but bottom-line-driven companies are getting to define it more on their terms than on the workers’ terms.

What would you change about your industry and why?

If I define my industry as developing products using software, I’d boil down many of the problems we have as a sector to the huge gap between the people creating technology and the people using it. There’s this barrier to entry in that the ones who have specialized knowledge of the tools are the ones who get to decide what businesses get started. Another way to put it is the people who decide what gets built are the ones prioritizing what needs get met—and that definition of “needs” is skewed by the lack of diversity among the decisionmakers. For example, Alice Wong writes about a Google.org makeathon that, despite good intentions and “co-designing” alongside women in wheelchairs, engineers failed to produce an assistive technology that worked. I do think that will change as tools to create and deploy products become less specialized and as more people from other sectors enter tech, but until then, it feels like builders of technology can be out of touch with the rest of the population.

In your view, what are the key barriers to collective action and how is technology changing that?

We’re in this moment when it’s easier than ever to be informed on an issue, to take some kind of action whether or not it requires any real commitment. But it also feels like there’s more ambivalence in our online social movements—it feels like our generation on twitter is all nihilism and bantering about issues, but in a way that’s like “this is how things are and we don’t have a roadmap for action or change”. And then Black LIves Matter is the counterexample. It feels like the one movement that’s working and gaining widespread traction, and demonstrating how to transcend this divide between online and irl movements. And when I ask myself what’s unique to that movement, it centers on the very lived experience of race and it’s all too wrapped up in our lived identities to be relegated to just what we do online. If there was one thing you could change about work, what would it be and why?

At my company we talk a lot about what we call “the miracle of hiring”—how people end up in which jobs—the fact that for so many working people, the thing we devote the most of our waking hours, passion, energy to—our jobs—are arrived at somewhat randomly. It’s kind of a crapshoot when you think about how one applicant makes it through the screening process versus another, or what markers on a resume determine whether it’s selected out of 200 to be interviewed—not to mention all the gut-level responses at play in a face to face interview that are going to make or break who gets the job. And then when it’s not that crapshoot version of the process, it’s what connections have you been lucky enough to make in your life. Either way, the whole process is more chance and randomness and then it’s the thing we spend all our time doing. So I look forward to the day—and I hope it’s not some match.com type algorithm, I hope we have a really thoughtful way to go about it—but a way to match people to professions that 100% resonate with what they want to learn about. It’s exciting to think that we may finally get to a moment when more workers get to explicitly choose their work.

Los Rakas
Artists

Los Rakas

Artists

What do you do for work?

Raka Dun: We’re musicians. And we make the people dance. Haha.

Rico: On a day to day basis, we’re coming up with different ideas to keep the dream alive. It’s using your imagination to generate revenue and keep the business going and making music and designing clothes. Making sure that we’re staying on top of our craft because it keeps evolving every day. Every week we’re doing something new.

https://soundcloud.com/losrakas/

What kind of training or experience most prepared you for your work?

Raka Dun: Most of what we have learned we’ve learned just by doing, learning as we go. But we started at the youth centers–youth centers over here in the Bay Area–centers like Youth Speaks, Youth Together, Youth Movement Records. They used to teach us how to make music, and they used to have us go to the studio, and that allowed us to practice our craft there. That taught us a few things about the music industry on the business side.

Rico: Life. Just going out there and doing it, you know? Every day is a learning experience for us. I agree, the youth centers were a big part of us doing what we’re doing now. When you go to school, you learn other stuff that has nothing to do with what you want to learn, so we just went straight into the craft. Immediately, you have to do your thing and that’s what helped us.

What was the best job you had and why?

Raka Dun: The best job is the one we’re doing right now. It’s what we love. I was just thinking about that–we work hard, but thank god we work in something we love. It makes it easier.

Rico: I’m going to have to agree with my cuz–that’s the best job.

What about the worst job you had and why?

Rico: For me, the worst job I had was a security guard. It was bad because I was really not going to be the security guard that they wanted me to be. I was just doing it to get paid. I was a security guard in East Marmont in Oakland, and it would get so rowdy–if something was going to pop off, I might’ve gotten hurt, and for the money I was making, it wasn’t worth it. It was the worst job and everyone made fun of me too. [Laughs.] You’re a security guard!

What exciting changes are happening in the world of work? In music, what’s different now than how it was five to ten years ago?

Raka Dun: Now you have a little more control–the artist has a little more control of their destiny. And that’s exciting because back in the day, you had to rely on the record labels to be able to do your thing. But now thanks to the internet, thanks to YouTube, you can have the funds come directly to you. So that’s exciting.

How is technology changing the nature of work and how is it changing people’s lives — in good ways and bad?

Raka Dun: One bad thing is that people’s attention span is not what it used to be. You have to constantly come out with something new for the fans, even if you came out with something great six months ago, they’re looking for the next great thing, like, okay–what’re gonna do now? Back in the day, you could at least make a great album and then take two years or three years to make another great album. But now it’s like, alright that album was nice–what’s next?

Rico: And now you’re not selling albums, now it’s digital. There are ups and downs to both.

Raka Dun: Yeah, because back in the day you had to rely on album sales to make money. People were selling a lot of CDs–a million CDs, 25 million, whatever. Now a big artist might sell 100,000 or 50,000 records and an independent artist might sell, like, 10,000. But now there are other way to create that revenue with streaming. You can make money off people playing your stuff off YouTube and Spotify and Pandora. People don’t have to buy it, but if they’re listening to it, you can make money off of that. So you just have to evolve with the times.

Rico: And the profit goes to you instead of breaking the profit down between so many different people. It goes straight to you–you and whoever is pushing out the stream, however you decide your deal.

If there was one thing you could change about your industry, what would it be?

Raka Dun: People’s fear. If people actually cared about the art, I feel like we would have more great music. There’s great music out there, but I feel like the big power, the big machine, they invest more in what they think is going to make the dollars instead of investing in the talent. Is this a good song or a good artist? They’re not thinking about it like that.

Rico: They’re thinking, does this sounds like that sound? There are too many comparisons. That’s why music back in the day was so great. You had rock and roll and Jimmy Hendrix, soul music and James Brown. You had Michael Jackson, Blondie, the Rolling Stones. You had hip hop coming up. You had Run DMC. You had so many different artists. I feel like nowadays, you have A and B. Before you had so many different options and styles of music and it was okay. Now you have to fit into the box of what everyone else is doing.

Raka Dun: They’re scared of something different because they don’t know how to deal with it. They tell artists to do something like whoever is hot at that moment, instead of just figuring it out. They make it so you have to sound just like the other person for you to get played.

Rico: In Panama, a DJ might give you ten different genres of music in his whole set. People in Panama listen to all different kinds of music. Over here in the U.S. everything is in categories — this station is for rap, this station is for something else. But in music, there should be no limits. Music shouldn’t be categorized. It’s art. It should be free.