TechFest NW 2018: Nut milk bags, thought leaders, politicos & gender problems

The following are blog posts from my coverage of TechFest 2018 for Willamette Week:

Patagonia’s CEO is Coming to Portland to Talk About the Company’s Crusade Against Climate Change and the Trump Administration

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Rose Marcario.

How well do profits mesh with progressive politics? It’s an eternal question.

Possibly no corporate leader is more attuned to it than Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, who will be speaking at TechfestNW on April 6. In just a few years, she’s built on and expanded the legendary do-gooderism of company founder Yvon Chouinard, a man who famously ran a full page ad that said “Don’t buy this Jacket,” an unusual request from a company that sells apparel. But it is consistent with Patagonia’s reputation as green, mission-driven and willing to take a stand.

Marcario, who took over as President and CEO of Patagonia in 2014 after serving as its CFO and COO, has not missed a beat. When Patagonia employees proposed the company give away its global 2016 Black Friday salesCQ to grassroots environmental groups, a company exec told Fast Company, Marcario green-lighted the plan in 30 minutes.

The company quintupled expectations, raising $10 million and signing up 24,000 new customers that day.

A year later, Patagonia doubled down, going to war against Republican Utah Governor Gary Herbert and the Trump administration over plans to reduce national monuments including Utah’s Bears Ears. North Face, REI and other companies have joined the effort, causing some to marvel at the newfound radicalism of the sportswear industry.

The company has kept up the pressure in this age of Trump, and Marcario herself has penned company blogs about using “endless pressure, endlessly applied” as a counterweight to the forces of “cynical politicians and their industry friends.”

“The president stole Bears Ears national monument,” a Patagonia website claims, inviting visitors to tweet their activism while culling email addresses and phone numbers.

There’s no reason to think it’s inauthentic, yet the activism is also helping Patagonia’s business. Marcario is credited with quadrupling the company’s profits and revenues since 2008, along the way helping to restructure the company (as Patagonia Works) and starting new efforts.

Those include creating an organic regenerative food company called Patagonia Provisions — hellllo, buffalo jerky! — and the company’s first in-house venture fund, the $20 Million and Change fund, which supports startups with an environmental bent.

It’s all part of Marcario’s fascinating, Buddhism-anchored balance: the plaudits in Fortune, being named one of the five most inspiring CEOs in America, keeping a “RESIST” banner in her office, photos in plaid shirts and rustic barns.

Like Chouinard, Marcario sees business value in authenticity and speaking plainly — and not just about the president. She unhesitatingly calls out the “pathetic” “weenies” of Silicon Valley.

“All these guys [at Facebook, Twitter, and Google] are rich,” she says. “Why don’t they just do what’s right?”

With climate change heating up, the bloom off the rose of tech, and this question hanging in the air, Marcario’s talk is likely to be the most anticipated of TechfestNW.

Senator Ron Wyden Sends Facebook a Letter Demanding Answers About its History With Cambridge Analytica

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Sen. Ron Wyden hosts a Portland town hall in 2017. (Joe Frazier)

Starting April 10, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders from Google and Twitter may testify to Congress on the future of data privacy.

At the center of the storm is U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Wyden, who will speak at TechfestNW this Friday, says he is looking for for substantive answers from Zuckerberg & Co.

“The bottom line is, I’m not going to accept this ongoing parade of apologies from tech companies, who after years and years of sitting on their hands, either sat on the sidelines, or possibly worse, misused Americans’ most private information,” Sen. Wyden told WW on Monday.

Zuckerberg’s dithering is legendary, as is his frequent absence from Washington, D.C., but Facebook is currently weathering unprecedented public criticism — and a fall in stock price — in the wake of revelations it allowed Cambridge Analytica to cull data on 50 million Americans during the 2016 election.

“This is one of those transformative moments that’s going to affect [Facebook] for a long time to come,” Wyden said.

“I wrote the rules of the road for the Internet, back in 1998. It was part of the Communications Decency Act, and it provides these companies with a sword and a shield. They couldn’t be held liable for something posted on their site. But they also were supposed to understand that they had to take steps to support the public interest.”

It’s a choice, Wyden insists, and it’s as much about what hasn’t been done as what has:

“They don’t use the authority we gave them to police their platforms.”

Wyden spoke to Willamette Week while driving to a town hall in Wheeler County, Oregon’s least populous. Ironically, a conversation about tech was cut off five times by lack of cell phone receptivity.

Audio recordings of the town hall provided show Wyden’s folksy wisdom — for example, Wyden gets laughs when he notes that his eldest child refers to the “so-called intelligence committee” — as well as his undiminished advocacy for protecting Americans’ personal data.

Now, he points out, “we have a whole host of new surveillance issues.”

Wyden says social media companies should be required to include an “opt in” measure — “affirmative consent” — before they’re allowed to access users’ personal data, not just a “workaround” or a way to opt out buried in fine print on the bottom of a webpage.

“The real question is, will these companies take steps to ensure that users control their data?” Sen. Wyden says. “Are users in the drivers seats, or are they just sort of conduits for people who want to make money?”

Wyden will be discussing this in his TFNW talk.

While Startups Increasingly Move to Portland, a New York Times Reporter Warns That There’s a “Gender Problem” in Tech

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Nellie Bowles.

Over time, does innovation move from the center to the periphery?

New York Times tech reporter Nellie Bowles’ thinks the Portland tech scene brings to mind the social science question.

“As the Bay Area has priced out so many of its young creatives and startups, a city like Portland becomes the place to watch for interesting new startups and investors who’ll be changing the conversation, so I’m excited I get to roam around and see what people are working on,” Bowles wrote in an email.

Bowles will be in Portland next month to speak at TechfestNW and share what she knows about a range of subjects, including the inclusivity, or lack thereof, in tech culture.

Just in the past year, Bowles has written a number of groundbreaking stories on the “gender problem” in tech, including a profile of a “contrarian” fringe element of men leading a backlash against women asserting their rights.

Ironically, Bowles writes, “‘witch hunt’ is the new whispered meme” in these male Silicon Valley tech circles. Her reporting deepened the story surrounding James Damore, an ex-Google engineer who has argued that women are biologically inferior, and whose recent visit to Portland State University caused a furor.

“I’ve never felt more gendered than since I started covering tech,” Bowles wrote in a Guardian story about how Silicon Valley’s culture makes gender the “primary identifier or interest” for many women.

Her work for Recode, whose cofounder Kara Swisher is also speaking at TechfestNW, brought incisive, in-depth coverage of Ellen Pao’s historic — but unsuccessful — gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.

In February, , she travelled to Puerto Rico for “Making a Crypto Utopia in Puerto Rico,” a fascinating tale of rich white boy “crypto utopians” flocking to post-hurricane Puerto Rico to harness the power of blockchain in a tax haven.

Bowles is a graduate of Columbia University and Fulbright fellow. She wrote for Recode, The Guardian and Vice News Tonight before joining the Gray Lady. Her favorite stories are “ones where I go somewhere,” her website says.

Soon, that will be Portland.

“I’m so excited for TFNW,” Bowles wrote. “I’ve actually never been to Portland, so I can’t wait to visit.”

TFNW‘s four content areas are food, health, inclusivity and smart cities/smart transit. Bowles says that “From my chats with entrepreneurs and investors in Portland so far, my sense is the tech scene there is focused on impact and emphasizes having a certain self-awareness. These tracks — highlighting work that effects our bodies, culture, and cities — show that focus.”

Asked for a favorite book, blog, podcast or website, Bowles notes she’s into screenplays, including Chinatown. “I know I should have like a super hip mix of pods on my phone but I don’t,” she emailed. “The main audio content I’m consuming is Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Stop Worrying,’ which I highly recommend.”

Nut Milk Bags and Out-Of-Ear Headphones Are Among Seven Products Local Start-ups Will Pitch to Investors Next Week

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PitchfestNW 2017 winner Madorra (Thomas Teal)

What makes PitchfestNW so exciting?

If the winners of TechfestNW’s startup competition over the past two years are any guide, it’s the way startups both local and international seek to solve real-world problems while hopscotching the changing fortunes of the market.

The 80 companies that were chosen among the more than 200 applicants for this year’s PitchfestNW 2018 — April 5 and 6 at Portland State University’s Viking Pavilion — comprise the largest pool to date. They represent industries ranging from health care to food, IoT, travel, AI, personal services and more.

Startups will pitch in two different rooms on Thursday, April 5 to panels formed from 25 investors, venture capitalists and executives who’ll judge viability and potential. The top five will present on the main stage Friday, April 6, when a panel of judges will choose a winner.

Here are seven startups that offer fascinating products and will face the probing gaze of judges like Portland Seed Fund’s Angela Jackson, Keiretsu Forum’s Brianna McDonald and Meyer Memorial Trust’s Rukaiyah Adams:

MilkRun connects consumers directly with “farmers, bakers, butchers, makers, foragers, chefs and other small producers.” thereby removing the grocery delivery middleman. Leeks, ribeye steak, chocolate milk and honeycrisp apples are among the offerings.

Bright.md offers a virtual physician assistant tool, named “SmartExam,” which enables online exams for low-acuity conditions like colds, thereby reducing office visit costs and saving time for patients and doctors. According to Bright.md’s website, it cuts the cost of medical visits by 80 percent, “while providing high-quality care your patients will love.”

Verdical invented a sleek, space-efficient modular vertical garden that uses low-cost LED lights for year-round indoor growing of “leafy greens, herbs and microgreens.” Growing a vertical garden year round is now “as easy as inserting seed pods and pushing a button,” its website says.

Tali created a voice-driven productivity assistant that works with Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana — and connects with legal industry software platforms like Clio, Rocket Matter and Practice Panther. The idea is to help lawyers and other harried professionals easily track billable hours with “friction free time tracking.”

BladeRunner Energy seeks to provide “energy when you need it” with biomimicry, i.e. adapting nature’s designs to solve human problems. Its affordable, scalable “micro-hydro solution” harnesses the power found in the natural flow of water with flumes and rotors in the water and a floating platform, battery, electronics and generator.

Hooke Audio says it has “reinvented” headphones, providing professional audio recording quality wirelessly with the first bluetooth binaural “3D Audio” microphone and proprietary technology. “Specially placed mics” located near each ear “allow you to capture sound like you actually hear it.”

Goodnuss produces “the world’s first reusable mess-free nut milk bag,” with which you can make nut milk at home. “Why milk your own nuts?” its website asks — a very good question. The startup says doing so offers a healthier, more sustainable option for people who have moved away from dairy. Also, the milk “totally comes out of an udder cap.”

These winners will seek to join Madorra, the winner of last year’s PitchfestNW. Madorra makes a non-invasive, non-hormonal ultrasonic device to relieve post-menopausal vaginal dryness. After winning Pitchfest 2017, Madorra went on to win $200,000 at Angel Oregon.

Want to Sell Tech to People of Color? Get People of Color to Design it

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Nicole Rennalls.

You don’t know what you don’t know, Nicole Rennalls reminds us.

As the Tektronix innovation manager pointed out recently on the company’s blog, technology leaders might not consciously be trying to ignore innovations that can benefit women or people of color.

They just may not be “listening” for them in the first place.

Rennalls works for the “granddaddy” of Oregon tech. It’s an apt term for a company that has spawned several generations of technological innovation here, it’s now part of Everett, Wash.-based Fortive, one of the 1,000 largest corporations in the world.

If you’re not an electrical engineer and Harvard MBA like Rennalls, you might be forgiven for being a bit mystified by the exact meaning of Tek’s “waveform slices” and “modulation analyzers.”

But virtually all Americans have enjoyed the fruits of Tek’s labor.  If you caught the shirtless Tongans, the Garlic Girls, Gus Kenworthy’s kiss or Mikaela Shiffrin’s gold during the recent Olympics, you have Tek to thank: The Beaverton-based company’s audio, video and network monitoring helped deliver the imagery and audio.

Rennalls joined Tektronix in 2014 following stints with GE and Eaton. She manages teams that develop solutions for next-generation smart transportation/smart city applications in what’s known as the automotive LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) supply chain — a key to self-driving cars.

She’s also part of the wave of people looking at how to close the diversity gap in tech. In the Tek blog post, for International Women’s Day, Rennalls gives nods to historic black entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and Rennalls’ grandmothers, who both immigrated from Jamaica and became nurses.

Then she explains how diversity creates better tech products.

“I had a professor once say that ‘people tend to scratch their own itch,'” Rennalls notes. “What he was saying is that the people driving the market to find a solution to a problem usually are feeling that problem themselves. … That opened my eyes. I realized three things.

“First, that there were likely really big opportunities to innovate all over the place that big technology companies weren’t able to address because they didn’t even know there was a problem. Second, it was likely that those companies did not deeply understand the problems faced by me because they had few women or people of color developing their technology. And finally, that the technology being developed by those companies was likely not aimed to solve problems like mine and many others.”

It’s not clear whether Rennalls can help take Tech  “Black to the Future,” to borrow the name of a Harvard Business School African-American Student Union production she worked on in 2014.

What is clear is that Rennalls, who speaks at TechfestNW‘s Main Stage at 3 p.m. on Thursday April 5, is part of a group of Silicon Forest leaders looking at and listening to some way-out waveforms with fresh eyes and ears.

Her Journalism Makes Silicon Valley Tremble. Now Kara Swisher Is Bringing the Fight Against Tech’s “Bro Culture” to Portland.

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Kara Swisher.

Ever since she “insulted her way into the mail room” at the Washington Post, telling an editor there she could do better than another reporter “with my eyes closed,” Kara Swisher’s career has been a lesson in strategic combat.

Quite possibly the preeminent journalist in tech, Swisher is the co-founder of Recode, and “Silicon Valley’s Chief Disrupter,” according to Rolling Stone. She’s even pondering a run for San Francisco mayor in 2023.

Bespectacled, nerdy, courageous and often hilarious with her blunt truth-telling, Swisher has done as much as any journalist to expose tech’s “bro culture,” the subject of her talk at TechfestNW next month.

She has punctured Silicon Valley’s “juvenile” white male “tantrums” and made Mark Zuckerberg sweat. Literally. Her 2010 interview with Zuckerberg and fellow Recode founder Walt Mossberg is legend.

For years, she’s called out the social media giant for eluding its role in “protecting our democracy.” Facebook’s proved a shifty target, she says.

Early this year, she took her swagger and remarkable access to the tech elite to TV—she is now hosting a series on MSNBC that looks at how tech is impacting our lives.

Few have covered the issue of sexual harassment and inclusivity (or lack of) in the world of tech as honestly, or aggressively as Swisher, whose podcasts reveal a penetrating interviewing style.

“Believe me, sexism is rampant in Silicon Valley,” Swisher said in 2016. “sexual harassment is rampant in Silicon Valley in a lot of places you wouldn’t imagine it is. . . .”

As to what is holding up reform?

“Because they’re fucking lazy. I don’t know how else to put it. “

But, she added, “Unfortunately for [tech companies] right now, the most powerful tech reporters happen to be women at this point.”

What is Star Jones Doing in Portland? It’s Women’s Business

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Star Jones.

TV personality Star Jones will be in Portland for Techfest NW on Thursday, but don’t expect paparazzi. Jones’ recent Caribbean wedding was covered by tabloids everywhere in March, but, for her, this trip is all about business.

International business.

Women’s business.

Jones is promoting both the growing international flavor of Techfest NW and the gender diversity that may come to define this fest: first, as president of the International Professional Diversity Network (NASDAQ: IPDN) and second, as spokesperson for the International Association of Women.

Jones is functioning as an ambassador for a group of 20 Chinese business leaders IPDN is bringing, to TechfestNW she says. Jones describes the Chinese attendees as “leading business owners or investors” from “several major cities in China.

Jones says she’s most excited about the talks by women leaders like journalist Kara Swisher and Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario.

“I love that there are a number of women who are in lead positions who are going to be presenting,” Jones says. “I’m going to be taking notes because these ladies are leaders in their industries, and I look forward to learning from other women leaders, always.”

The global nature of Techfest NW — now in its seventh year — is evident.

Four Canadian and three German startups will compete at this year’s PitchfestNW. Invest in Bavaria (Germany) and Invest Hong Kong will have booths on the main stage floor.

And an Israeli cybersecurity company, Twistlock, is giving a workshop titled “Cybersecurity at the Speed of Software,”

The company opened a Portland office on the North Park Blocks in 2016.

“It’s more than just another office,” writes the company’s Vice President of Marketing, Joshua Thorngren. “As of 2018, Portland is our global headquarters.”

A Portland Smart Transit Expert Is Excited About Artificial Intelligence Taking the Wheel of Your Car. He’s Also a Little Worried.

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Nat Parker.

Which technology goes almost unnoticed today but will eventually transform our lives?

Artificial intelligence, says Nat Parker, the Portland CEO of moovel North America, who before that was cofounder and CEO of GlobeSherpa.

“With processing power provided by quantum computers equipped with machine learning, AI will reshape how we interact with almost everything, from social networks to grocery shopping,” Parker wrote via email.

Parker knows a thing or two about AI: he’s an expert in Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS), which is changing urban transport by bringing together widespread use of smart phones, applications and AI. A leading Portland tech maven, Parker grew GlobeSherpa to service 16 transit agency clients and was chosen to run moovel (a divison of Daimler) after his company merged with RideScout in 2015. Moovel and Daimler’s car2go also just announced a merger with BMW’s ReachNow—which will help consolidate car-sharing, ride-hailing and electrical-car charging services for Portlanders.

Parker will be speaking at this year’s TechfestNW about the future of smart transit.

In his TechFest talk, Parker will delve into “what it will mean to move beyond the car in your driveway to a set of intelligent and shared mobility services that make getting around easier, cheaper and better for the environment.”

And as much as Parker is excited about the possibilities of AI, he says it should not be taken lightly. Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, among others, are calling for governments to “research and create safeguards against the rise of the machines.”

Parker has an unusual background for high tech royalty. He served in the Peace Corp in Senegal, was a regional manager for the Sierra Club and was a canvasser for the Ralph Nader-founded Public Interest Research Group.

This may explain why the speaker he is most excited about seeing at TFNW is Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario. “I am a huge fan of her company and was really impressed by Patagonia’s advocacy for protection of several National Monuments and other public lands,” Parker wrote. “I am an ardent believer that businesses with social missions and the public interest in mind always do better over the long term.”

His favorite book, podcast, blog or website? Human Transit — the blog of Portlander Jarrett Walker — and the Eno Center for Transportation.

“In smart cities of the future, we need to think beyond the infrastructure that will power and move our people,” Parker wrote. “We have to consider how we put happiness, thriving communities, and a healthy environment at the forefront of the technologies we pursue.”

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