Amazon Warehouse Worker in L.A. Tests Positive, As Company Struggles with Covid-19
At least 30 of the fulfillment centers that power Amazon's e-commerce business have outbreaks of COVID-19, according to news reports and employee accounts. The most recent case in Los Angeles was reported Wednesday, when Amazon confirmed to City News Service that an employee at their warehouse in Atwater Village has tested positive for COVID-19. The mounting cases are sparking walkouts, frustration, and an unprecedented challenge for a tech company that finds itself at the center of the coronavirus pandemic.
Amazon says it is going to great lengths to protect employees on the front lines, but current and former workers who spoke with GeekWire for this story say its statements don't always match the experience on the warehouse floor. Employee concerns bubbled over in the form of walkouts at fulfillment centers in New York, Chicago, and Detroit this week, with workers demanding Amazon shut down facilities with confirmed cases for thorough cleaning.
The outbreaks and employee unrest come at a time when Amazon desperately needs all hands on deck. The company has been fielding a massive surge in orders in the weeks since the virus gained a foothold in the country. Many shipments are delayed, and consumers across the U.S. are unable to order groceries through the Amazon Fresh service.
Amazon executives are now navigating the responsibility of supplying thousands of Americans under isolation orders with items they need, mitigating virus outbreaks across their facilities, and keeping a worldwide delivery and logistics engine humming during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, workers in Amazon warehouses are facing difficult decisions and trade-offs of their own.
Inside Amazon warehouses
Frank Eliason works at an Amazon fulfillment center in New Jersey where two of his co-workers have tested positive for COVID-19. The 47-year-old is considered at-risk for the disease because he has diabetes. He also has two daughters at home who he worries about infecting.
"Employees are scared," he said. "I am scared. I do not want to bring this to my family. This is an unprecedented event. There is no playbook for employees or companies."
Amazon would not say how many warehouses have COVID-19 cases, but local news reports and a running list tracked in a private employee Facebook group indicate at least 30 of Amazon's 175 fulfillment centers are affected. Workers at several Amazon warehouses are organizing walkouts to demand that the company temporarily close facilities for cleaning. It's a position backed by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, an activism group created by mostly white-collar workers at the company's Seattle headquarters.
"To be honest, every facility that has positive cases in them need to be shut down and cleaned inside and out," said one Oklahoma City worker who asked not to be identified because he is concerned about retaliation from Amazon.
Amazon employees at a fulfillment center in Staten Island made the same demand when they walked off the job on Monday. Amazon fired the organizer of the demonstration, Christian Smalls, claiming he put his colleagues at risk by breaking quarantine. The New York protest was one of several around the country organized by increasingly uneasy Amazon warehouse workers.
"I am sitting here right now trying to decide if today is the day I will get sick," Eliason said. "Do I really want to go in? It is a question I ponder each day."
Eliason said he supports Amazon's decision to fire Smalls, "assuming the employee who was fired was asked to quarantine with pay. I worry each day of people coming in knowingly or unknowingly are sick."
Amazon consults with public health officials and medical experts when deciding whether to shut down a contaminated warehouse, according to spokesperson Timothy Carter.
"Our process also evaluates where the employee was in the building, for how long, how much time has passed since they were onsite, and who they interacted with, among other items," he said in a statement. "If someone hasn't been at the building for quite some time, they were onsite only briefly, or the area they were in was already deep cleaned several times as a regular course of business, we may not need to close."
Amazon's new protocol
Amazon has made more than 150 "significant process changes" in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a blog post by worldwide operations CEO Dave Clark.
On Sunday, Amazon started screening employee temperatures at warehouses in New York and the Seattle area, sending anyone who registers above 100.4 degrees home. Clark said Amazon will roll out temperature screening across its facilities, including Whole Foods stores, next week.
Amazon expanded its sick policies, providing two weeks paid time off for employees who test positive for COVID-19 or are asked to quarantine due to exposure. The company is also offering unlimited unpaid time off to all employees.Clark said that disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer are readily available in all fulfillment centers, though some workers say they do not have access to those supplies.
"They're not supplying us with the proper PPE or cleaning products to ensure that our areas are cleaned after every shift," said the Oklahoma City worker who asked to remain anonymous. "I have been bringing my own Lysol to ensure my area is cleaned. We were told each department and station would have their own products to clean. Nothing has shown up."
There is a global shortage of personal protective gear (PPE) that even Amazon's vast supply chain has struggled to fill. Amazon ordered millions of masks for fulfillment center employees weeks ago and those supplies are starting to arrive, according to Clark. Any N-95 masks that are critical for healthcare workers will be donated or sold to medical providers at cost. Amazon is requiring warehouse workers to maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another and has canceled daily stand-up meetings which bring employees into close proximity with each other.
It's difficult to conceptualize the sheer size of an Amazon fulfillment center, which can range from 400,000 to 1 million square feet. A typical Amazon warehouse is comparable to 10 football fields lined up.
"Cleaning and sanitizing of an entire warehouse (let alone multiple warehouses) seems incredibly daunting," said Scott Meschke, a microbiologist specializing in pathogens at the University of Washington's occupational health sciences department, in an email.
The Centers for Disease Control do not have specific cleaning guidelines for warehouses, but recommend other facilities close off areas visited by infected people, ventilate, and "wait 24 hours or as long as practical before beginning cleaning and disinfection."
"A potential problem with shutting a facility for cleaning is that in the absence of a more holistic plan to control spread, the likelihood is that contamination may be reintroduced by infected workers," Meschke said.
A lifeline in isolation
Washington, California, New York, and other jurisdictions across the country have implemented mandatory isolation orders, compelling thousands of consumers to turn to online shopping when they might've otherwise visited a store.
Last month, Amazon announced plans to hire 100,000 new warehouse workers to cover for sick employees and respond to the surge in orders from customers practicing social distancing. Clark said Thursday that the company has already hired 80,000.
Analysts at Jefferies conducted two surveys of about 630 U.S. adults on March 10 and March 27 that show how the pandemic is influencing demand for Amazon's products and delivery horsepower. Amazon was the only online retailer that saw consumers increasing their spending, according to the surveys. The percentage of consumers who said they are spending more on Amazon jumped from 14 percent to 34 percent. Consumers are spending less on other sites, like eBay, Chewy, and Etsy, according to the analysis.
Though the shift to online shopping is nothing new, its acceleration due to the pandemic has been disastrous for brick-and-mortar retail. Nordstrom, Macy's, Kohl's and others are shuttering stores and furloughing employees as traditional shopping grinds to a halt. The broad social distancing orders driving this trend are temporary, but the shift to online shopping may not be.
"This is not simply predicated on a one-time bump in the first and second quarter as consumers have been forced to stay home … we believe the current backdrop provides for incremental comfort and awareness of purchasing basic goods at home, which will have [a] lasting impact," write analysts at William Blair.
But the surge in demand may not be the financial buoy for Amazon that it appears to be at first glance. Amazon is spending more than $350 million on its response to the pandemic, according to Clark.
"We expect to go well beyond our initial $350 million investment in additional pay, and we will do so happily," he said.
Amazon increased its minimum warehouse wages by $2 to $17 per hour last month and fulfillment centers temporarily stopped accepting shipments of non-essential items so that the company can restock household goods and medical supplies.
"This could be a headwind for Amazon, partially offset by greater-than-expected demand in grocery items and other staples, including health-related items," wrote Mark Mahaney, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets. That firm lowered its revenue estimates for Amazon this year due to the impact of the coronavirus.
Still, Mahaney believes "Amazon is better positioned than most other names in our coverage universe to weather this macro uncertainty given the diversity of its business."
The sprawling Amazon empire includes its lucrative cloud arm, growing advertising business, and grocery store chain.
Amazon's relative resilience could reshape the e-commerce landscape when the coronavirus threat passes. Millions of Americans are reporting job losses at a time when Amazon is hiring. Retail stores are shutting down at a time when Amazon's demand is surging. Though the tech giant is not immune to economic turmoil, it could come out of the crisis in a more dominant position than before.
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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
The list includes many familiar names. Dana Settle, founding partner of Greycroft, and Mark Mullen, founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, garnered the most votes.
Settle manages West Coast operations for Greycroft, a New York firm with $1.8 billion in assets under management. She is one of only nine of the top 100 VCs nationally who are women, according to CB Insights.
Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, which closed a $100 million second fund in September to continue funding seed stage business-to-business (B2B) software startups. Mullen has also been an angel investor and is an LP in other funds focusing on other sectors, including MaC VC and BAM Ventures.
Below is the list of the top ranked investors by how many votes each received from their peers. When there was a tie, they appear in alphabetical order according to their last name:
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures
Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.
In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.
Dana Settle, Greycroft
Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.
"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in an interview with Business Insider. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital
Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.
"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in a blog post for Mucker.
Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.
William Hsu, Mucker Capital
William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford.
In an interview with Fast Company, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."
These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures
Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.
He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.
In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company."It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures
Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently raised $18 in a Series A round.
"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures
Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.
Though Upfront had attempted to recruit her before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.
Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.
In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.
"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures
Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.
Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders on Crosscut's website reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures
Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.
In an interview with John Livesay shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures
Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."
"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."
His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners
Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.
He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.
"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global.
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures
Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his blog, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.
In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," Suster wrote about the importance of passion — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.
"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.
From helping save beehives to healing the human body, some of L.A.'s most innovative companies are helmed by female founders. Who stands above the pack? We asked the region's top VCs participating in our recent dot.LA sentiment survey to weigh in.
Ara Katz, a serial entrepreneur and founder of probiotic company Seed tops our list. Katz found a niche in a multi-billion dollar industry, but she acknowledges that this past year has been especially tough for women, as the pandemic forced millions to drop out of the workforce.
"It is not lost on me what a privilege it is to be building a company as a female founder and mother given how impactful the pandemic and the past year has been on women and mothers in the workforce," said Katz. "My best advice to founders is to build with abandon — it is contagious, amplifying and makes it all meaningful."
Nationally, female-founded or co-founded companies earned less than 3% of all venture capital in 2020, according to data from Pitchbook. Although women founders say they still face issues of sexism and encounter more obstacles than their male counterparts, there are signs of improvement. In the first quarter of this year, women entrepreneurs reeled in $9.8 billion in capital investment nationally – an all-time high in quarterly investments over the past 12 years.
In Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana, $544 million was poured into female founded startups alone over that time.
Therese Tucker, founder of fintech company BlackLine, which also made our list, said that it's important for women to find people who believe in them as they build their companies.
"Don't be intimidated by condescension," Tucker said, "Look for people you can actually partner with who 'get' your business."
And just as importantly, founder of health platform Kensho, Krista Berlincourt, said stay true to who you are.
"It is not easy. And you'll be surrounded by men, so just find the people who get you and your vision, hold onto them tight, and go for it. Then remember that soft is strong. You don't have to 'crush it' to be successful," she said. "Be you. Be flexible. Soften. Grow. That's the only thing that has ever worked," Berlincourt added.
Here's the complete list:
Ara Katz, Seed
Ara Katz is the co-founder and co-CEO of Seed, a Venice-based probiotic company designed to improve health and digestion. Katz's experience as a breastfeeding mother led her to explore the importance of microbes and their impact on bodily health. Among other leading roles, Katz was co-founder and CMO of ecommerce marketplace Spring, which was sold to ShopRunner in 2018. She was also on the founding team of Beach Mint, an e-commerce company for fashion and lifestyle brands.
Claire Schmidt, AllVoices
Claire Schmidt aims to empower workers through AllVoices, an anonymous reporting and management platform, which allows employees to report issues in the workplace. The LA-based company has raised a total of $4.1 million with investments by Crosscut, Greycroft, Halogen Ventures and dot.LA founder Spencer Rascoff. Inspired by the the MeToo movement, the platform lets employees alert management to problems like discrimination, harrasment, or work bias. Prior to roles at AllVoices, Schmidt was vice president of technology and innovation at Fox properties and senior director of giving at Thrive Market, an e-commerce platform for organic products.
Ariel Kaye, Parachute
Ariel Kaye used her design and brand background to launch Parachute in 2014. Parachute is a direct-to-consumer bedding brand based in Culver City. The startup has raised over $47 million in funding to date with investments by H.I.G Capital, Jaws Ventures and Brilliant Ventures. The brand avoids chemicals and synthetics in their products putting an emphasis on sustainability.
Therese Tucker, BlackLine
Therese Tucker is the founder and executive chair of BlackLine, an LA-based platform for accountants that takes on repetitive or complicated tasks. BlackLine pulled in nearly $352 million in revenues in 2020, and expects to grow that to at least $410 million this year. Ranked among Fortune's '50 fastest growing' women led companies in 2016, the company also received first place in G2's "Best Finance Products of 2021" ranking.
Sophia Amoruso, Nasty Gal
Southern California native Sophia Amoruso is the founder and former owner of Nasty Gal, a multi-million dollar clothing store originally started on eBay. Nasty Gal was sold at a value of $20 million, including $15 million in debt, to BooHo in 2017. Amoruso's newest project is an eight-week entrepreneurship course called Business Class, which aims to help female business leaders begin or grow their small businesses. The New York Times bestseller author of#GIRLBOSS, she detailed her entrepreneurial story that was later made into a Netflix series.
Madeline Fraser, Gemist
Madeline Fraser is the CEO and founder of Gemist, a mobile app that allows users to design a ring and try it on at home before they buy. Fraser used her experience in growing tech-startups to create one of her own. The sustainable jewelry brand raised $1 million in funding in its first seed round in 2019 and last year was backed by De Beers Group Ventures, Hawke Ventures and Monique Woodward last year for an undisclosed amount.
Krista Berlincourt, Kensho
Berlincourt is the CEO and co-founder of Kensho, an Los Angeles-based health platform and guide to natural medicine. Kensho provides users with specialized wellness services from surfing to acupuncture. The company has raised $1.3 million and is backed by top investors like CrossCut Ventures, Female Founders Fund and Evolve Ventures. Prior to creating her own company, Berlincourt worked in public relations at venture-backed Simple.
Katherine Power, Who What Wear
Katherine Power co-founded Who What Wear 15 years ago out of frustration with a fashion industry that was often out of reach for many. The brand focuses on providing affordable and size-inclusive fashion. She is now CEO of Clique Media Group, a parent company that oversees Who What Wear and other consumer brands. As of 2017, Clique Media Group raised over $15 million in funding with investments by Amazon, Greycroft and e.ventures. Power was also listed in Fortune's 40 under 40 in 2016.
Cat Chen, Skylar
Cat Chen is the founder and CEO of Skylar, a fragrance and body care brand. Chen developed a hypo-allergenic and cruelty free fragrance after being dismayed by the lack of clean ingredients in high-priced perfumes. The company founded in 2017 has raised a total of $11 million backed by Amplify, FirstMark Capital and GingerBread Capital. Prior to Skylar, Chen was was an executive of operations at The Honest Company, where she helped grow the company to $300 million of revenue in her four years there.
Shivani Siroya, Tala
The founder and CEO of Tala, a Santa Monica-based consumer credit smartphone app, Shivani Siroya created the company to assist people in underrepresented markets. Tala uses advanced data science to provide personalized financial services, such as disbursing loans to people with no formal credit history. The startup has raised over $217 million in funding by top investors, and has since been mentioned in TedTalks, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Siroya's company is valued at an estimated $750 million dollars as of 2019, and was deemed one of the top FinTech companies in the world by Forbes.
Lead image by Ian Hurley.
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