How Tech is Ruining The World

How Tech is Ruining The World

When I heard about Uber’s acquisition of Postmates for $2.7 billion in late 2020, it sounded like every aspiring tech entrepreneur’s dream. It was a cause for celebration for Postmates’ former CEO, Bastian Lehman, as he hoped to reach demigod status, alongside figures like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs:

Or, at least until people on Twitter gave him a dose of reality:

This tweet highlights an issue that has crossed many of our minds. What does it mean to sell a company for $2.7 billion, and also have hundreds of thousands of people delivering food (known at Postmates as “the fleet”) who aren’t paid a living wage? I’m a former Postmates employee, and I’m going to share my honest reflections about the company in the wake of its acquisition by Uber. This matters because companies like Postmates are growing all over the world, with Gojek in South East Asia, Deliveroo in the UK, DiDi in China and Rappi in Central and South America. As these tech companies scale, their impact on society scales as well.

As customers, employees, investors and executives, we have to be honest with ourselves about what we’ve created and figure out how to make it better. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed at the sheer scale of money, power and influence these companies have. But remember: every time we order food from these apps, or take an Uber, we are contributing to these issues. Each of us can make an impact, and if we are contributing to the system, we already are.

Minimum Wages & The Machine

My story at Postmates begins in March 2019, when I was hired as a Business Strategy Analyst. My job was to use revenue data to help the executives make better business decisions. Not everything that I built at Postmates was bad, but some of my work had real consequences on people’s lives that I am not proud of.

For example, when I was working on pricing, I had to update a spreadsheet of minimum wages for every major city Postmates operated in across the United States. I had to check that the minimum wage in San Antonio, Texas, was still $7.25 per hour. (As of 2022, the minimum wage in Texas has not been updated since they raised it $0.70 from $6.55 in 2009, and according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for a single working adult with no children is currently $15.49 in Texas.) My team then used this list to adjust the payout for the fleet, i.e. the amount each driver would make on each ride, and make sure Postmates could continue to pay thousands of people as little as possible without violating any state laws.

Few cities had a $15 minimum wage. The fight for $15 is so important, and yet it is still nowhere near enough for a worker to support a family. At the same time, Postmates has raised a total of $763 million in the past 10 years, with over $1 billion in revenue. We could spend all the money we wanted acquiring customers in Los Angeles, but we could not pay a hard-working driver in San Antonio or Pensacola a dime closer to a living wage. The drivers of the Postmates fleet could not afford to pay rent or support a family. This is what proved to me that companies like Postmates are designed to serve themselves, not society.

When I think about my role in all this, a quote from Edward Snowden’s book “Permanent Record” stands out to me:

“My fellow technologists came in every day and sat at their terminals and furthered the work of the state. They weren’t merely oblivious to its abuses, but incurious about them, and that lack of curiosity made them not evil but tragic…once they’d gotten inside the machine, they became machines themselves.” [1]

I was the machine. I can’t go back and change the fact that I went to work at Postmates every day and tried to do my job. But since I’ve left the company, I’ve thought more critically about the impact of my work. I encourage everyone working in tech, even if you’re in it for financially legitimate reasons for your family, to do the same. When you’re sitting in a fancy office, or working remotely from home, drinking La Croix and waiting for your shares to vest, remember that your actions are impacting thousands if not millions of people’s lives. Your actions matter a great deal more than you know, or that they want you to believe.

Churning Like Butter

I now understood that Postmates existed to serve itself as a company, and not society. But maybe it was worth it, I thought, if the employees themselves were truly happy in their jobs, and were treated exceptionally well?

Not so fast. Within my first couple months of working at Postmates, 5 of the 6 people I sat across from in the office had left the company. Some days, I’d go into the office, and someone on my floor had disappeared. My average peer worked at the company for between a year and a year and a half. This was just enough time to vest their shares at the one-year cliff, then jump off into a new job as quickly as possible.

Not long after I noticed this, I also disappeared. Only 8 months in, I was a junior employee and the only woman on my team, when I was fired from the company (I’ll save that story for another time). I was swiftly outcast, and I felt very alone. Luckily, two weeks after I was fired, Postmates announced its quarterly layoffs, and some of my former coworkers were able to join me for Happy Hour in Hayes Valley. To this day, I have no idea why Postmates continued to hire so many people, and then lay just as many people off every quarter. Apparently it's more expensive to create a stable working environment than it is to hire and fire people constantly.

From all this, I learnt that Postmates does not even exist to serve the well-paid corporate employees of the company. But if the company did not exist to serve its employees, then who did it serve?

The Curse of The Golden Checkbook

Unfortunately for society, executives at Postmates and other leading tech companies have very little incentive to build a good company. For example, Postmates raised $300 million for their Series E (yes, let that sink in: $300 million, with less than 1,000 employees working in our corporate headquarters). At that point in time, let’s assume the company was valued at $1.5 billion dollars. So, if you’re the CEO, and you own 7.5% of the company, that means on paper you’re worth about $113 million.

Now that you’re worth a lot of money, you have a choice. You can keep growing the company at all costs and raise more money from investors, so that you can get even richer. Or you could look up from your smartphone, and realize you’re employing real humans, with real lives and real families. Perhaps you’ll see that beyond that, you have over a million people in the fleet who have done a delivery for your company. How could you give back to them, and help others?

Giving back to others isn’t as bad as it sounds. For one thing, researchers have found that helping our communities is one of the key tenants of happiness: “the joy of giving lasts longer than the joy of getting” [2]. But beyond your own happiness, your legacy is at stake. As Simon Sinek said:

“Leadership is not a rank, it is a responsibility. Leadership is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of those in your charge. And when we take care of our people, our people will take care of us.” [3]

Every executive could take better care of the people in their charge. It is up to them. It is their legacy. If you’re an executive, I would encourage you to think critically about whether an extra $100,000 matters to you, or if you would rather see the lowest paid employees or contractors at your company not live in poverty. It is lonely for you at the top, but it doesn’t have to be.

 

Diversity and Inclusion: An Irrelevant Afterthought

In addition to the executives, I wanted to know: who else does Postmates exist to serve?

Well, let’s start with who Postmates doesn’t serve. When I worked at Postmates, we had 3 Black employees in our entire corporate headquarters, out of hundreds of employees. Only 3. There was one White woman on the executive team of about 15 people, and no Black or Latinx employees in any senior leadership positions. The rest of the leadership were White, Asian, or South Asian men.

Postmates continues to pay lip service to Diversity and Inclusion, while paying diverse employees next to nothing. For example, for Black History Month, the SVP of Marketing published this post on LinkedIn and Medium:

The Weeknd Partners With Postmates to Deliver 150 Meals From a Black-Owned

Kicking off Black History Month with The Weeknd. #postmates...

Postmates probably spent more on this marketing collaboration with The Weeknd then they did on their Black employees’ salaries in Black History Month.

When we talk about who benefits from this system as is, we can narrow it down to about 100 employees who had significant equity in the company. The vast majority of these were White, Asian or South Asian men. When the company was acquired, they became millionaires overnight.

Accelerating Inequality At The Speed of Light

It’s now clear to me that Postmates is dividing the world into 3 tiers of people.

1st Tier: Employees in the San Francisco office and remote workers (about 1,000 people)

  • 6+ figure salaries, including the significant equity holders (mostly White, Asian or South Asian men) who became millionaires in the acquisition
  • Free food, La Croix, healthcare, 401ks, stock options and fancy office pods
  • Amazing Events Team, weekly yoga and tea sessions, more free food to celebrate any festivals and holidays, and also “Bring Your Kid to Work Day”, where they transformed the office into a candy land

2nd Tier: Customer Support staff in Nashville (about 5,000 people)

  • Unclear whether they were contract workers or employees
  • Healthcare? Also not clear
  • No high salaries, free food or stock options, and practically no cool events

3rd Tier: "The Fleet" i.e. Couriers all across the United States and Mexico (about 1,000,000 people)

  • Barely made minimum wage
  • Not employees, limited accident insurance
  • No healthcare, benefits or worker protections
  • And, yes, you read that correctly: 1 million people had ever done a delivery for Postmates

Not all Tech is Good Tech

In the technology revolution of Silicon Valley, some smart people got together and have aspired to use technology to improve the world. Instead, they have drastically accelerated and exacerbated social problems. Not all technology is making the world a better, more equitable, safer, or even a more awesome place. The wealth disparity that companies like Postmates and Uber have created and scaled is pure insanity. And while I admire so many of my former coworkers and friends who work in tech, and I try not to take Ubers, it’s going to take us decades to really understand the full consequences of what we’ve done to people’s livelihoods and the fabric of our society.

It is important to remember that as a customer, your actions have an impact. You have a choice about whether you contribute to and validate these systems. You have the choice to stand up and do something to make a change. As an executive or venture capital investor, you also have a choice. You can choose to invest in companies that you think will bring you the best returns, but also that will not drive society into the ground. Think about the lives of the lowest paid workers that operate at your portfolio companies. Would you do their job? Is this the right way to treat another human being?

And finally, to the executives: I challenge you to think about your legacy. Look around at what you have created and think about how you want to be remembered. If you’re going to care about people, don’t do it for the marketing. Don’t pay lip service to causes like Black Lives Matter and yet continue to pay Black workers next to nothing. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Your moral compass is broken, but it’s not too late. You can fix it.

[1] P240 “Permanent Record”by Edward Snowden:

[2] Simon Sinek Facebook Post 2015, “Leaders Eat Last”

[3] The Joy of Giving Lasts Longer Than the Joy of Getting

How Tech is Ruining The World

When I heard about Uber’s acquisition of Postmates for $2.7 billion in late 2020, it sounded like every aspiring tech entrepreneur’s dream. It was a cause for celebration for Postmates’ former CEO, Bastian Lehman, as he hoped to reach demigod status, alongside figures like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs:

Or, at least until people on Twitter gave him a dose of reality:

This tweet highlights an issue that has crossed many of our minds. What does it mean to sell a company for $2.7 billion, and also have hundreds of thousands of people delivering food (known at Postmates as “the fleet”) who aren’t paid a living wage? I’m a former Postmates employee, and I’m going to share my honest reflections about the company in the wake of its acquisition by Uber. This matters because companies like Postmates are growing all over the world, with Gojek in South East Asia, Deliveroo in the UK, DiDi in China and Rappi in Central and South America. As these tech companies scale, their impact on society scales as well.

As customers, employees, investors and executives, we have to be honest with ourselves about what we’ve created and figure out how to make it better. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed at the sheer scale of money, power and influence these companies have. But remember: every time we order food from these apps, or take an Uber, we are contributing to these issues. Each of us can make an impact, and if we are contributing to the system, we already are.

Minimum Wages & The Machine

My story at Postmates begins in March 2019, when I was hired as a Business Strategy Analyst. My job was to use revenue data to help the executives make better business decisions. Not everything that I built at Postmates was bad, but some of my work had real consequences on people’s lives that I am not proud of.

For example, when I was working on pricing, I had to update a spreadsheet of minimum wages for every major city Postmates operated in across the United States. I had to check that the minimum wage in San Antonio, Texas, was still $7.25 per hour. (As of 2022, the minimum wage in Texas has not been updated since they raised it $0.70 from $6.55 in 2009, and according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for a single working adult with no children is currently $15.49 in Texas.) My team then used this list to adjust the payout for the fleet, i.e. the amount each driver would make on each ride, and make sure Postmates could continue to pay thousands of people as little as possible without violating any state laws.

Few cities had a $15 minimum wage. The fight for $15 is so important, and yet it is still nowhere near enough for a worker to support a family. At the same time, Postmates has raised a total of $763 million in the past 10 years, with over $1 billion in revenue. We could spend all the money we wanted acquiring customers in Los Angeles, but we could not pay a hard-working driver in San Antonio or Pensacola a dime closer to a living wage. The drivers of the Postmates fleet could not afford to pay rent or support a family. This is what proved to me that companies like Postmates are designed to serve themselves, not society.

When I think about my role in all this, a quote from Edward Snowden’s book “Permanent Record” stands out to me:

“My fellow technologists came in every day and sat at their terminals and furthered the work of the state. They weren’t merely oblivious to its abuses, but incurious about them, and that lack of curiosity made them not evil but tragic…once they’d gotten inside the machine, they became machines themselves.” [1]

I was the machine. I can’t go back and change the fact that I went to work at Postmates every day and tried to do my job. But since I’ve left the company, I’ve thought more critically about the impact of my work. I encourage everyone working in tech, even if you’re in it for financially legitimate reasons for your family, to do the same. When you’re sitting in a fancy office, or working remotely from home, drinking La Croix and waiting for your shares to vest, remember that your actions are impacting thousands if not millions of people’s lives. Your actions matter a great deal more than you know, or that they want you to believe.

Churning Like Butter

I now understood that Postmates existed to serve itself as a company, and not society. But maybe it was worth it, I thought, if the employees themselves were truly happy in their jobs, and were treated exceptionally well?

Not so fast. Within my first couple months of working at Postmates, 5 of the 6 people I sat across from in the office had left the company. Some days, I’d go into the office, and someone on my floor had disappeared. My average peer worked at the company for between a year and a year and a half. This was just enough time to vest their shares at the one-year cliff, then jump off into a new job as quickly as possible.

Not long after I noticed this, I also disappeared. Only 8 months in, I was a junior employee and the only woman on my team, when I was fired from the company (I’ll save that story for another time). I was swiftly outcast, and I felt very alone. Luckily, two weeks after I was fired, Postmates announced its quarterly layoffs, and some of my former coworkers were able to join me for Happy Hour in Hayes Valley. To this day, I have no idea why Postmates continued to hire so many people, and then lay just as many people off every quarter. Apparently it's more expensive to create a stable working environment than it is to hire and fire people constantly.

From all this, I learnt that Postmates does not even exist to serve the well-paid corporate employees of the company. But if the company did not exist to serve its employees, then who did it serve?

The Curse of The Golden Checkbook

Unfortunately for society, executives at Postmates and other leading tech companies have very little incentive to build a good company. For example, Postmates raised $300 million for their Series E (yes, let that sink in: $300 million, with less than 1,000 employees working in our corporate headquarters). At that point in time, let’s assume the company was valued at $1.5 billion dollars. So, if you’re the CEO, and you own 7.5% of the company, that means on paper you’re worth about $113 million.

Now that you’re worth a lot of money, you have a choice. You can keep growing the company at all costs and raise more money from investors, so that you can get even richer. Or you could look up from your smartphone, and realize you’re employing real humans, with real lives and real families. Perhaps you’ll see that beyond that, you have over a million people in the fleet who have done a delivery for your company. How could you give back to them, and help others?

Giving back to others isn’t as bad as it sounds. For one thing, researchers have found that helping our communities is one of the key tenants of happiness: “the joy of giving lasts longer than the joy of getting” [2]. But beyond your own happiness, your legacy is at stake. As Simon Sinek said:

“Leadership is not a rank, it is a responsibility. Leadership is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of those in your charge. And when we take care of our people, our people will take care of us.” [3]

Every executive could take better care of the people in their charge. It is up to them. It is their legacy. If you’re an executive, I would encourage you to think critically about whether an extra $100,000 matters to you, or if you would rather see the lowest paid employees or contractors at your company not live in poverty. It is lonely for you at the top, but it doesn’t have to be.

 

Diversity and Inclusion: An Irrelevant Afterthought

In addition to the executives, I wanted to know: who else does Postmates exist to serve?

Well, let’s start with who Postmates doesn’t serve. When I worked at Postmates, we had 3 Black employees in our entire corporate headquarters, out of hundreds of employees. Only 3. There was one White woman on the executive team of about 15 people, and no Black or Latinx employees in any senior leadership positions. The rest of the leadership were White, Asian, or South Asian men.

Postmates continues to pay lip service to Diversity and Inclusion, while paying diverse employees next to nothing. For example, for Black History Month, the SVP of Marketing published this post on LinkedIn and Medium:

The Weeknd Partners With Postmates to Deliver 150 Meals From a Black-Owned

Kicking off Black History Month with The Weeknd. #postmates...

Postmates probably spent more on this marketing collaboration with The Weeknd then they did on their Black employees’ salaries in Black History Month.

When we talk about who benefits from this system as is, we can narrow it down to about 100 employees who had significant equity in the company. The vast majority of these were White, Asian or South Asian men. When the company was acquired, they became millionaires overnight.

Accelerating Inequality At The Speed of Light

It’s now clear to me that Postmates is dividing the world into 3 tiers of people.

1st Tier: Employees in the San Francisco office and remote workers (about 1,000 people)

  • 6+ figure salaries, including the significant equity holders (mostly White, Asian or South Asian men) who became millionaires in the acquisition
  • Free food, La Croix, healthcare, 401ks, stock options and fancy office pods
  • Amazing Events Team, weekly yoga and tea sessions, more free food to celebrate any festivals and holidays, and also “Bring Your Kid to Work Day”, where they transformed the office into a candy land

2nd Tier: Customer Support staff in Nashville (about 5,000 people)

  • Unclear whether they were contract workers or employees
  • Healthcare? Also not clear
  • No high salaries, free food or stock options, and practically no cool events

3rd Tier: "The Fleet" i.e. Couriers all across the United States and Mexico (about 1,000,000 people)

  • Barely made minimum wage
  • Not employees, limited accident insurance
  • No healthcare, benefits or worker protections
  • And, yes, you read that correctly: 1 million people had ever done a delivery for Postmates

Not all Tech is Good Tech

In the technology revolution of Silicon Valley, some smart people got together and have aspired to use technology to improve the world. Instead, they have drastically accelerated and exacerbated social problems. Not all technology is making the world a better, more equitable, safer, or even a more awesome place. The wealth disparity that companies like Postmates and Uber have created and scaled is pure insanity. And while I admire so many of my former coworkers and friends who work in tech, and I try not to take Ubers, it’s going to take us decades to really understand the full consequences of what we’ve done to people’s livelihoods and the fabric of our society.

It is important to remember that as a customer, your actions have an impact. You have a choice about whether you contribute to and validate these systems. You have the choice to stand up and do something to make a change. As an executive or venture capital investor, you also have a choice. You can choose to invest in companies that you think will bring you the best returns, but also that will not drive society into the ground. Think about the lives of the lowest paid workers that operate at your portfolio companies. Would you do their job? Is this the right way to treat another human being?

And finally, to the executives: I challenge you to think about your legacy. Look around at what you have created and think about how you want to be remembered. If you’re going to care about people, don’t do it for the marketing. Don’t pay lip service to causes like Black Lives Matter and yet continue to pay Black workers next to nothing. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Your moral compass is broken, but it’s not too late. You can fix it.

[1] P240 “Permanent Record”by Edward Snowden:

[2] Simon Sinek Facebook Post 2015, “Leaders Eat Last”

[3] The Joy of Giving Lasts Longer Than the Joy of Getting

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