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Pinterest Accused of Not Paying Female ‘Co-Creator’

SAN FRANCISCO — When Pinterest went public in 2019, Christine Martinez’s friends sent congratulations. She had worked closely with the founders of the digital pinboard in its earliest days, and her friends thought she would get rich alongside them.

But as Pinterest’s stock price rose, turning its founders into billionaires, Ms. Martinez realized she would not be compensated or credited for her contributions, she said.

On Monday, she sued.

In a lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court, Ms. Martinez accused Ben Silbermann and Paul Sciarra, two of Pinterest’s three co-founders, of breach of implied contract, idea theft, unjust enrichment and unfair business practices. Ms. Martinez created Pinterest alongside Mr. Silbermann and Mr. Sciarra, the lawsuit said, contributing ideas that were “core organizing concepts,” such as organizing images on boards and enabling e-commerce.

Ms. Martinez, 40, was never formally employed by Pinterest, nor did she ask for a contract. She was not given stock, though she said Pinterest’s founders had verbally agreed to compensate her many times.

Ms. Martinez argued that she and the founders had an implied contract, based on their discussions. Pinterest even named a section of its source code after her, according to the complaint. And she was such close friends with the co-founders that she brought them both home for Christmas and was a bridesmaid in Mr. Silbermann’s wedding.

“I always expected that when they could compensate me, they would,” she said, adding that she had been naïve. “There was never a doubt in my mind.”

A Pinterest spokeswoman said in a statement that Ms. Martinez’s allegations were without merit and that the company would defend its position in court. We are proud of what we built at Pinterest and appreciate all the Pinners who have helped shape the platform over the years,” she said.

The lawsuit renews questions about whether Pinterest, which caters primarily to female users, is hostile to women and minorities in its workplace.

Last summer, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, two former Pinterest employees, wrote on Twitter about the pay disparities, retaliation and sexist, racist comments they had experienced at the company. Shortly after, Francoise Brougher, Pinterest’s former chief operating officer, sued the company, claiming gender discrimination and retaliation.

In response, Pinterest employees staged a virtual walkout in August last year, demanding that the company increase the number of women and minorities in its top ranks and provide more transparency around promotion levels, retention and pay.

In December, the company agreed to a $22.5 million settlement with Ms. Brougher, including a $2.5 million donation toward charities for women and underrepresented minorities in tech. Pinterest shareholders then sued the company and its board over its workplace culture.

Ms. Ozoma has helped sponsor the Silenced No More Act in California, which will broaden protection of employees who speak out about discrimination or harassment at work. It was recently passed by the State Legislature.

Ms. Martinez said that she was not surprised to see the headlines about Pinterest’s culture and that she had been frustrated by the disconnect between the company’s male founders and its female users.

“I’ve spent a lot of years being really confused about how it is that people believe that these three men created a product like this for women — that they understood women well enough,” she said.

Starting in 2008, the year before Pinterest was founded, Mr. Silbermann and Mr. Sciarra sought Ms. Martinez’s advice on a wide range of concepts, from its name and features to its marketing strategy and product road map, according to the lawsuit.

Ms. Martinez had studied interior design, created a lifestyle blog and founded LAMA Designs, an e-commerce start-up. Even though LAMA’s business model worked and was showing promise, venture capitalists didn’t take her seriously, and she said she had struggled to raise money.

Yet funding for Pinterest, based on little more than an idea and Mr. Silbermann’s and Mr. Sciarra’s credentials, came easier. Ms. Martinez said she was eager to help her friends.

“They had no marketing background or expertise in creating a product for women,” she said. “My role was always to educate them.”

According to the lawsuit, Ms. Martinez gave the co-founders the idea of organizing images on “boards,” a core feature of the site; created its call-to-action phrase, “Pin it”; and established its main categories including home décor, fashion and D.I.Y. She also helped Mr. Silbermann persuade top design and lifestyle bloggers to use Pinterest and promote it. She took him to conferences, gathered feedback from the community and honed the pitch to them, she said.

Ms. Martinez said she realized she would not be compensated only after Pinterest went public in 2019.

Soon after, she said, a death in the family caused her to reflect on her life. That emboldened her to speak up about Pinterest.

“I couldn’t take this to my grave,” she said.

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Tecnologia

The Scientist and the A.I.-Assisted, Remote-Control Killing Machine

If Israel was going to kill a top Iranian official, an act that had the potential to start a war, it needed the assent and protection of the United States. That meant acting before Mr. Biden could take office. In Mr. Netanyahu’s best-case scenario, the assassination would derail any chance of resurrecting the nuclear agreement even if Mr. Biden won.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh grew up in a conservative family in the holy city of Qom, the theological heart of Shia Islam. He was 18 when the Islamic revolution toppled Iran’s monarchy, a historical reckoning that fired his imagination.

He set out to achieve two dreams: to become a nuclear scientist and to take part in the military wing of the new government. As a symbol of his devotion to the revolution, he wore a silver ring with a large, oval red agate, the same type worn by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by General Suleimani.

He joined the Revolutionary Guards and climbed the ranks to general. He earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Isfahan University of Technology with a dissertation on “identifying neutrons,” according to Ali Akbar Salehi, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency and a longtime friend and colleague.

He led the missile development program for the Guards and pioneered the country’s nuclear program. As research director for the Defense Ministry, he played a key role in developing homegrown drones and, according to two Iranian officials, traveled to North Korea to join forces on missile development. At the time of his death, he was deputy defense minister.

“In the field of nuclear and nanotechnology and biochemical war, Mr. Fakhrizadeh was a character on par with Qassim Suleimani but in a totally covert way,” Gheish Ghoreishi, who has advised Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Arab affairs, said in an interview.

When Iran needed sensitive equipment or technology that was prohibited under international sanctions, Mr. Fakhrizadeh found ways to obtain them.

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Tecnologia

Tim Cook Faces Surprising Employee Unrest at Apple

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple, known among its Silicon Valley peers for a secretive corporate culture in which workers are expected to be in lock step with management, is suddenly facing an issue that would have been unthinkable a few years ago: employee unrest.

On Friday, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, answered questions from workers in an all-staff meeting for the first time since the public surfacing of employee concerns over topics ranging from pay equity to whether the company should assert itself more on political matters like Texas’ restrictive abortion law.

Mr. Cook answered only two of what activist employees said were a number of questions they had wanted to ask in a meeting broadcast to employees around the world, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times. But his response was a notable acknowledgment that the workplace and social issues that have been roiling Silicon Valley for several years have taken root at Apple.

Over the past month, more than 500 people who said they were current and former Apple employees have submitted accounts of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination at work, among other issues, to an employee-activist group that calls itself #AppleToo, said Cher Scarlett and Janneke Parrish, two Apple employees who help lead the group.

The group has begun posting some of the anonymous stories online and has been encouraging colleagues to contact state and federal labor officials with their complaints. Their issues, as well as those of eight current and former employees who spoke to The Times, vary; among them are workplace conditions, unequal pay and the company’s business practices.

A common theme is that Apple’s secrecy has created a culture that discourages employees from speaking out about their workplace concerns — not with co-workers, not with the press and not on social media. Complaints about problematic managers or colleagues are frequently dismissed, and workers are afraid to criticize how the company does business, the employees who spoke to The Times said.

“Apple has this culture of secrecy that is toxic,” said Christine Dehus, who worked at Apple for five years and left in August. “On one hand, yes, I understand the secrecy piece is important for product security, to surprise and delight customers. But it bleeds into other areas of the culture where it is prohibitive and damaging.”

Mr. Cook and Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s human resources chief, said in response to a question about pay equity on Friday that Apple regularly scrutinized its compensation practices to ensure it paid employees fairly.

“When we find any gaps at all, which sometimes we do, we close them,” Ms. O’Brien said.

Asked what Apple was doing to protect its employees from Texas’ abortion restrictions, Mr. Cook said that the company was looking into whether it could aid the legal fight against the new law and that its medical insurance would help pay for Apple workers in Texas if they needed to travel to other states for an abortion.

Mr. Cook’s comments received a mixed reception from Apple employees on Slack, the workplace message board, Ms. Parrish said. Some employees cheered for Mr. Cook, while others, including her, were disappointed.

Ms. Parrish said she had submitted a question about what concrete steps Apple had taken to ensure that pay gaps were resolved and that more women and people of color were being promoted to leadership roles. “With the answers Tim gave today, we weren’t heard,” she said.

Apple has about 160,000 employees around the world, and it was unclear if the newly public complaints reflected systemic problems or isolated issues that happen at many larger corporations.

“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace,” the company said in a statement. “We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”

While the airing of Apple’s workplace issues is remarkable to many people who have followed the company over the years, employee activism has become commonplace in Silicon Valley.

Three years ago, Google employees marched out of their offices around the world to protest sexual harassment policies. Last year, Facebook employees protested their company’s handling of posts by President Donald J. Trump. And some companies have explicitly banned discussions that aren’t work-related.

But at Apple, the rank and file had until recently appeared to be doing their jobs with little fuss. Secrecy was a trait pushed by the company’s late co-founder, Steve Jobs, who was obsessed with preventing leaks about Apple’s new products to maximize the public’s surprise when he unveiled them onstage. The employees who spoke to The Times said that, over time, that culture had extended to the broader workplace.

“Never have I met people more terrified to speak out against their employer,” said Ms. Scarlett, who joined Apple as a software engineer in April and has worked at eight other companies.

An Apple spokesman pointed to a company policy that said employees could “speak freely about your wages, hours or working conditions.”

Slack has been a key organizing tool for workers, several current and former employees told The Times. Apple’s siloed culture kept different teams of employees separate from one another, another result of efforts to prevent leaks. There was no wide-scale, popular internal message board for employees to communicate with one another, until Apple began using Slack in 2019.

When employees were told to work from home at the beginning of the pandemic, Slack became particularly popular. “For a lot of us, this was the first chance to interact with people outside our own silo,” Ms. Parrish said. Previously, “none of us were aware that anybody else was going through this.”

The complaints seem to be making an impact. When Apple this year hired Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook manager, more than 2,000 employees signed a protest letter to management because of what they called “overtly racist and sexist remarks” in a book he had written, based in part on his time at Facebook. Within days, Apple fired him. Mr. García Martínez declined to comment on the specifics of his case.

In May, hundreds of employees signed a letter urging Apple to publicly support Palestinians during a recent conflict with Israel. And a corporate Slack channel that was set up to organize efforts to push Apple to be more flexible about remote-work arrangements once the pandemic ended now has about 7,500 employees on it.

Beyond the group activism, Apple is dealing with individual fights that are slipping into public view.

Ashley Gjovik, a former engineering program manager at Apple for six years, said she had complained to Apple for months about what she believed was inadequate testing for toxic chemicals at her office, as well as sexist comments from a manager.

After taking her complaints public this year, Ms. Gjovik was placed on leave and later fired. She said Apple had told her that she was fired for leaking product information and not cooperating with its investigation. She has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department, she said.

Apple declined to comment on specific employees’ cases.

Ms. Dehus, who worked at Apple to mitigate the impact of mining valuable minerals in conflict zones, said she had left Apple after spending several years fighting a decision to reassign her to a role that she said had involved more work for less pay. She said Apple had begun trying to reassign her after she complained that the company’s work on the minerals was not, in some cases, leading to meaningful change in some war-torn countries.

Richard Dahan, who is deaf, said he had struggled at his former job at an Apple Store in Maryland for six years because his manager refused to provide a sign-language interpreter for him to communicate with customers, which federal law requires under some circumstances. He said that he had communicated with customers by typing on an iPad, and that some customers had refused to work with him as a result. When he told his manager, the manager said it was the customers’ right, he said.

“Would it be OK if they said they didn’t want to work with a person of color?” Mr. Dahan asked in an interview via a sign-language interpreter.

He was eventually assigned an interpreter. But by that time, he said, upper management viewed him as a complainer and refused to promote him.

“Their culture is: Drink our Kool-Aid, buy into what we’re telling you, and we’ll promote you,” he said. “But if you’re asking for anything or making noise, then they won’t.”

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Theranos Whistle-Blower Erika Cheung Concludes Her Testimony in Elizabeth Holmes Trial

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Erika Cheung, a key whistle-blower in the fraud trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the failed blood-testing start-up Theranos, wrapped up her testimony on Friday after saying the company had put a priority on speed over accuracy in its blood tests and answering hours of questions by the defense.

Over three days of testimony, Ms. Cheung, a former Theranos employee, detailed how some of the processes the company used to conduct its blood tests were problematic. While the defense sought to show that Theranos’s procedures were rigorous and complex, Ms. Cheung said on Friday that its priority was to conduct tests as quickly as possible and that its machines often failed their quality-control checks.

Ms. Cheung said Theranos’s blood tests might have been cheaper than other tests, but that did not mean “you should give people false information about their health status.”

Credit…Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, via Getty Images

Ms. Cheung was a high-profile witness for the federal government, which is trying to make the case that Ms. Holmes intentionally misled investors, doctors and patients about how well Theranos’s blood testing technology worked. The company, once held up as a Silicon Valley success story with Ms. Holmes its shining star, collapsed in 2018. Ms. Holmes, 37, faces 12 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and has pleaded not guilty.

Ms. Cheung, who worked as a lab assistant at Theranos for several months in 2013 and 2014 before reporting lab testing problems to federal agents in 2015, testified this week that she had concerns about how the company deleted outliers in its data to ensure that its devices passed quality-control tests. She said her concerns had begun about a month into her employment.

During cross-examination, Lance Wade, a lawyer for Ms. Holmes, quizzed Ms. Cheung on the processes, procedures and organizational chart of Theranos’s labs. The apparent point was to show that the issues Ms. Cheung raised about inaccurate lab results applied to only one small area of the company.

While Ms. Cheung dutifully answered, recalling Theranos’s procedures and organizational structure, she countered that its blood testing machines had constantly needed recalibration and failed their quality checks. Recalibrating the machines could take days, she said.

“We had people sleeping in the car because it was taking too long,” she said.

On Friday, Mr. Wade also asked Ms. Cheung about a 2015 letter she received from Theranos’s lawyer at the time, David Boies. In the letter, which Ms. Cheung mentioned earlier in her testimony, Mr. Boies threatened litigation against her for discussing Theranos with John Carreyrou, a Wall Street Journal reporter who exposed the company’s testing problems that year.

Mr. Wade noted that Ms. Cheung had received two calls from Theranos’s human resources director before receiving the letter from Mr. Boies but had not returned them.

Ms. Cheung later said she had not returned the calls because she no longer worked at Theranos and because the “fear” in the human resources director’s voice reminded her of how scared she had been at the company.

“I had the right to not speak to them,” Ms. Cheung said.

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