Aiding (Without Abetting) in the Sharing Economy

How do we chart a course of empowerment and advocacy?

[This is the second post in our series on startup political activism in The Dish. You can read the first post here.]

In the sharing economy companies like Uber, Airbnb and Task Rabbit have a choice in how they treat their workers. Many hang their hats on the mission of empowering individuals, but when it comes to relationships with their drivers, hosts, and rabbits, actions speak louder than words.


At Josephine, we’ve seen that peer-economy income and opportunities can have real impact — in the lives of stay-at-home parents, recent immigrants and lower SES communities who otherwise wouldn’t have had the privilege to think like the owners or creative agents of their work.

New ‘gig economy’ freelancers are many of the same workers who have always been vulnerable and voiceless in the low-wage service sector. So our basic human values suggest the importance of not further anonymizing and destabilizing them in the new economy. And this economy also continues to engulf more of the workforce (half of us will be freelancers by 2020), so the ethics and motivations of the platform businesses that power it will increasingly impact all of our lives.

But the path charted in the peer-economy so far has not set the right example. Platforms have largely evaded the basic responsibilities of employers to create a growing class of invisible, on-demand labor. For example, despite Uber’s landmark agreement yesterday to recognize an independent driver’s association in New York City, its actions around the world indicate that this sort of recognition is a reactive last resort.

Employers can either treat their workers like interchangeable pawns or look for ways to share the value these workers help create.

Tech platforms as ethical employers

We believe that technology platforms can and should hold themselves to the standards of a good employer. Beyond the tax/benefits implications of the 1099 contractor vs. employee debate, being a good employer means taking a long-term interest in the support and development of employees.

For our team at Josephine, taking a long-term interest in our cooks means:

  • Empowerment: We help cooks build their own businesses and prioritize supporting them (rather than the end-consumer) with platform tools, safety/business education and a highly-collaborative community. We believe that investing in and trusting our cooks — by giving them the skills, ownership and creative license to run their own businesses — is both a strategic and ethical investment in the Josephine business.
  • Advocacy: Many of our cooks have spent their lives working in the shadows of an exclusive and expensive industrial food system. Existing regulation was written for (and often by) large corporations and many requirements effectively shut out micro-enterprises. The private caterers, curbside tamale hawkers and personal chefs of our day-to-day convenience don’t have the resources for costly commercial kitchen space nor do they have the voice to change laws crafted around large industry. We believe in telling their stories and advocating on their behalf.

Why our approach is challenging

Our commitment to empowerment and advocacy has landed us in an difficult place when it comes to navigating existing regulation.

Empowerment = “Knowledge and Intent”

Last week, local regulators served the Josephine platform a request to cease and desist operations in the City of Berkeley and Alameda County. The request cited charges of “aiding and abetting illegal food sales”, a claim that is legally based upon “knowledge and intent” of supporting illegal activity. While we believe that our cooks are operating legally (in an area without regulatory precedent), costly litigation involving our cooks and customers is certainly not our preferred path. And the unfortunate result is that we have become the easiest way for regulators to target and shut down our cooks.

In contrast, most peer-economy platforms have carefully crafted their terms and operations in order to pass through all liability to their suppliers and claim plausible deniability with respect to any legal ambiguities. So the irony is that these platforms are protected from regulators so long as they don’t take any responsibility for the support and education of their workers.

Are hands-off, zero-accountability platforms what we want to tacitly encourage with our laws and policy?

Advocacy = “Letting the Cat Out of the Bag”

In a recent phone call, one of our state-level allies suggested that unfortunately, our legislative effort has effectively “let the cat out of the bag” and made it difficult for regulators to ignore our cooks.

Since many of our cooks already operated food businesses underground before Josephine, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if these people remained silent and invisible, it would have been easier for regulators to ignore or selectively-enforce their grey-area activities. By shining a light on existing activity — in telling cooks’ stories and trying to affect broader food system policy — we have endangered the already tenuous livelihoods, pride and security of our cooks.

Are we asking gig-economy workers to remain silent and in-the-shadows as they operate in spheres without regulatory precedent?

We won’t change course

Our efforts both in policy and in operating our business are incredibly unconventional and are sustained in large part by the strong sense of ethics and conviction held by our team and our cooks.

We believe that American food policy was written for the industrial economy — dominated by anonymous retail sales, opaque supply chains and mass production — and was never meant to be applied to neighborhood potlucks, home chefs and church bake sales. But new technology is making these age-old private sphere activities more publicly accessible, so we also believe that existing legal frameworks need to be updated. We want to both support cooks who are already operating and help inform new laws that ensure public health and safety.

And we don’t want to stop being collaborative and transparent.

Unfortunately, in talking to dozens of regulators, policy-makers, and sharing-economy advocates over the past two years, we’ve learned that while our end-goals might align, the regulatory system often lacks tools to quickly respond to the blurring of the public and private spheres. Government responsiveness is especially a problem for small startups or independent producers without the resources for strong-armed lobbying or aggressive litigation.

As we’ve built Josephine, we’ve seen other peer-economy companies learn to keep their activities anonymous and ambiguous while they scale— with loopholes like private transactions, ‘optional donations’ and digital currencies. The ideal path though, and the course we continue to pour effort into charting, is that we as innovators find ways to collaborate with regulators early and often, to co-create models and rules that promote, rather than deter, ethical and accountable employment.


I’ll end with an excerpt from a letter we sent to our cooks last week:

We refuse to be anything other than proud and grateful for the community that you all have become. We started Josephine because we felt like we could empower neighborhood cooks — givers and community leaders who deserve unconditional love and appreciation, and certainly better than the current food system allows. Two years later, we’re still driven by the same ethical imperative to create a more equitable food system, one where people feeding each other is encouraged, not illegal.
Despite the events of the past weeks, we still believe that sustainable impact can only be had through empathy and collaboration. Today, our team is as determined as ever to represent and include diverse stakeholders in the political process while continuing to leverage our skills and energy to better support home cooks everywhere.

We want to build Josephine the right way — as an ethical, accountable employer rather than a value-extracting tech platform. And we want to believe in a collaborative approach to change. But we are learning that this is hard, and more than ever, we need help.

You can help!

We are trying to chart a path of empowerment and advocacy without endangering the safety of our cooks or the prospects of our business. We’d love comments, advice or introductions.