Seattle Week in Review: MSFT Calls for Exceptions to Immigration Ban

[Updated 2/3/17 4:22 p.m. See below.The Trump administration’s immigration ban remained a top concern for technology companies, including major Seattle-area stalwarts that this week joined with Washington state to challenge it. Microsoft, while acknowledging that the broader debate over the ban must continue, sought a process to exempt certain people from the ban.

In other news, a first-of-its-kind survey sheds light on gender equity in Seattle’s startup ecosystem; Techstars Seattle managing director Chris DeVore explains the importance of seeking diverse founders; the University of Washington expanded its CoMotion Labs to Spokane; Jobaline raised funding, and more.

—U.S. District Judge James Robart granted a temporary restraining order that would halt enforcement of the Trump administration’s travel ban, as The Seattle Times reported Friday afternoon. [Update added 2/3/17 4:22 p.m.]

A federal district court judge has scheduled a hearing for Friday afternoon on the state of Washington’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Trump administration’s immigration ban. Minnesota has joined the suit, announced Monday and supported by area tech stalwarts including Amazon and Expedia, who outlined the impacts to their employees and operations resulting from the ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The hearing will focus on a temporary restraining order sought by the plaintiffs. Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson says in a statement: “No one is above the law, not even the President.”

—Microsoft, meanwhile, asked the secretaries of State and Homeland Security to create a process that would grant certain travelers an exemption from the ban.

“At the outset, we recognize that this proposal will not and should not end the broader debate and deliberations regarding last week’s executive order,” writes Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith in a blog post Thursday. “Our company is one among many that has expressed its views, and we will continue to participate energetically and constructively in the public discussions that help define our democratic processes.”

Specifically, Microsoft is asking the administration to allow people with valid, non-immigrant work visas or student visas—and their dependent—who have no U.S. criminal record, to travel abroad and return to the U.S. for family emergencies or the needs of an employer. Trips would be limited to two weeks and, for work-related travel, would not include the seven countries subject to the immigration ban.

Smith notes that these individuals—including 76 working at Microsoft, and another 41 family members—are “known quantities” to both immigration authorities and their communities.

“Many of these individuals also fill critical roles in the organizations that employ them, whether they are doctors, scientists, engineers, medical technicians, software developers, or any number of other highly skilled professionals,” Smith writes. “They are deeply valued contributors to the innovation, research and business acumen of our nation, and they serve critical roles in the successful operations of U.S. companies.”

—In other Microsoft news, the company plans to relocate its Michigan operations from the suburbs to downtown Detroit. Here’s coverage from Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor editor Sarah Schmid Stevenson.

A new survey delving into gender equity issues at Seattle startups reveals some hard truths about opportunity within the area’s innovation economy. Most striking to me were the degree to which people acknowledged in the anonymous survey how much more difficult it is for women to advance in startup companies than men, and the belief that entrepreneurship is not a meritocracy.

Along with our coverage of the Catalyze Seattle survey, we pointed to Techstars Seattle’s struggle to land more woman-led startups in its local accelerator. Managing director Chris DeVore, candid as usual, outlined what Techstars has been doing, expressed frustration with the results, and asked for help from the community. He also offers an important explanation for why, as an investor, seeking company founders from outside the mainstream of “white or Asian men from privileged backgrounds with technical degrees from elite colleges” makes sense:

“I’m personally committed to this work because I believe it’s the right thing to do, and helps build the kind of society and economy that I want to live in and see my children grow up in. But that alone is not enough. My job as an investor is to find exceptional opportunities to drive returns for Techstars and for our limited partners (the fund investors whose money we invest). As early-stage investors, we typically commit our (and our LP’s) capital to teams that have yet to ship a product or make a sale—we’re fundamentally betting on people and their human potential as leaders and organization-builders.

“After more than a decade of very early-stage investing, I have developed some strongly-held opinions about what it takes to succeed as a founder—not just to start a company, but to persist through all the skepticism, setbacks and turns of fortune’s wheel on the long road to entrepreneurial success. …

“If you wanted to go looking for people who have learned to persevere in the face of opposition, who have spent their whole lives being told—either tacitly or explicitly—that they weren’t good enough, you wouldn’t start your search among the economic or cultural elite. You’d go looking for people who have achieved extraordinary things despite their background and environment, people who have learned to keep pushing not because it was expected or encouraged, but because it wasn’t and they wanted to prove that they were better and stronger than anyone ever imagined they could be.

“So my commitment to working with founders from underrepresented groups isn’t just a way for me to feel good about myself or earn PR points for Techstars. It’s a deliberate strategy to back the most ferocious and relentless founders I can find, the ones who will walk through walls to deliver for their teams, their investors and themselves.”

—The University of Washington expanded its CoMotion Labs to Spokane, opening a new startup support space focused on manufacturing, agriculture, life sciences, and robotics in the Eastern Washington city. CoMotion Labs @ Spokane marks an expansion beyond the UW main campus in Seattle for the university’s startup and innovation support efforts. Last summer, CoMotion re-branded existing incubator spaces in Fluke Hall and Startup Hall with the “Labs” moniker, and opened a third one focused on virtual reality technologies in CoMotion’s new offices.

The Spokane space will offer programming such as entrepreneur talks, live-streamed workshops from the Seattle CoMotion Labs, as well as mentorship and advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in the Spokane area, which has seen its innovation ecosystem grow with the development of a University District along the Spokane River.

—Speaking of innovation in the ag-heavy side of Washington, here’s a look at investment trends in the agtech sector. Agtech companies raised $63 million in Washington state last year, according to online agtech investment marketplace AgFunder. As Xconomy Raleigh-Durham editor Frank Vinluan reports: “A growing number of early-stage agtech startups are raising money and they’re pulling capital from a broader pool of sources.”

Jobaline, the Kirkland, WA-based maker of tools to help employers and hourly workers connect more efficiently, raised $3.5 million from the company’s existing investors, Madrona Venture Group, Trilogy Equity Partners, Founder’s Co-op and Rudy Gadre, and new area angel investors. Jobaline, which added Doug Johnson as CEO last fall, counts nearly 1 million people in its network and says revenue from employers increased nearly 300 percent last year.

The company raised more than $11 million between 2013 and 2014. Here’s a profile of the company and its approach to modernizing the way people find hourly work.

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