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Tom Steyer, Ann O’Leary reflect on California business recovery

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s seven-month-old Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery is disbanding as the coronavirus pandemic reaches a second peak, but his co-chairs predict the state will have a strong economic turnaround once the pandemic is past.

Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, one of the co-chairs, said in a phone interview with CNBC that priorities going forward include bridging the digital divide, “where we have a number of specific proposals,” and supporting small businesses, which make up half of the employment in California.

Newsom convened the task force in April with more than 100 political and business titans including former Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger resigned from the task force in October two days after Disney announced 28,000 layoffs at its U.S. parks.

Up until now, the task force has been working largely behind the scenes, meeting every other week on Zoom video calls.

Steyer and Ann O’Leary, co-chair and also Newsom’s chief of staff, said it was a delicate balance meeting with business leaders to talk about coronavirus control, while some were also laying off thousands of their own employees.

“The businesspeople felt enormous responsibilities to their employees and to their shareholders,” Steyer said. “And that’s absolutely normal, but we supported the governor in his determination that health and safety of Californians had to come first. The best and strongest recovery would come if the coronavirus was under control.”

“One of the things that we also learned was how do we really think about building the economy back up that we want to see in the future, what does it look like from an equitability and sustainability front,” O’Leary said.

“We really worked to think about the sectors that are most impacted the jobs that are most impacted, and the Californians most impacted and often it is both people of color, low-income Californians who are most impacted by the intersection of health and economic crisis.”

Asked about the task force shutting down as Covid 19 cases rise, Steyer said the panel was always meant to finish its business before the end of the year.

“You’re asking a lot of the leading people in California to contribute their time and effort,” Steyer said. “We had a task to create this blueprint and obviously we’re not through this pandemic, but the formal task has been completed.”

Steyer and O’Leary said some of the committee members will continue working on the proposals in an informal way.

Their comments come in the wake of Friday’s release of the task force’s final report, which reviewed its accomplishments and challenges ahead.

This is the first public report of its findings. Among other things, the report focuses on:

Unemployment. California is facing significant unemployment, jumping from a historic low of 3.9% in February 2020 to 16.4% in April and May. California’s unemployment rate as of September is 11% and only a third of the jobs have returned.

The report says there are still 839,100 fewer Californians in the workforce in September than there were in February and 4.4 million Californians were receiving some form of unemployment insurance in early November.

It also notes that the job losses have not been evenly distributed, with the greatest losses in sectors that employ workers of color in low-wage jobs, hospitality, restaurants, retail and construction.

Small businesses. Task force members launched a new public-private partnership called the California Rebuilding Fund resulting in an additional $25 million allocation from the state. Structured to support small businesses, lenders will offer a standardized loan of up to $100,000 to help businesses in a post-COVID economy.

“When we come back, we’ll come back stronger and better than we’ve ever been,” Steyer said.


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Saudi Arabia’s STC Pay eyes rapid Gulf expansion

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Saudi arabian flag in Asir province, Abha, Saudi Arabia.

Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us | Corbis News | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s STC Pay plans to expand its financial services offering across the Gulf region, after achieving a billion-dollar “unicorn” valuation on the back of a deal with Western Union.

“We are very proud of becoming the first unicorn in the Kingdom and the first fintech unicorn in the Middle East,” STC Pay CEO Ahmed Alenazi told CNBC in an exclusive interview on Monday. 

STC Pay reached the valuation last week after Western Union, the world’s largest money transfer firm, acquired a 15 percent stake for $200 million – giving the burgeoning payments business a value of around $1.3 billion. STC Pay is the digital payment arm of Saudi Arabia’s STC Group, the largest telco operator in the Kingdom.

“The business opportunity is bigger than money transfers,” Alenazi said. STC Pay says it has more than 4 million active users after successfully tapping into rising smartphone and internet penetration across Saudi Arabia, where 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and the government is reducing dependence on cash as a way to modernize the economy. 

Western Union, which has long seen the Gulf as a lucrative market for remittances, provides money transfer services that allow STC Pay users to send money from its app to more than 200 countries around the world. 

STC Pay is now in talks with Gulf regulators to seek approval to operate in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, subject to regulatory approvals. It said other countries were also under consideration. 

“This is where we want to change the way people look at financial services,” Alenazi said. 

STC Pay seeks banking license

STC Pay was the first fintech company licensed by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority. It’s now negotiating with Saudi regulators to obtain a digital banking license.  

“This will allow us to do lending and other activities,” Alenazi said. “We have a lot to do in terms of products and services,” he added, indicating that a banking license would allow the business to expand into more valuable business areas.

“We don’t want to tap in with similar products and services available in the market, we want to tap in with a unique user experience,” he said. “We will work with the central bank to get it done ASAP.”


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Amazon pushes holiday shoppers to pick up packages at stores

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An Amazon worker delivers packages amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Denver, Colorado, U.S., April 22, 2020.

Kevin Mohatt | Reuters

Amazon is pushing holiday shoppers to retrieve their own packages from brick-and-mortar retail locations and neighborhood “hubs,” as it braces for a surge in online orders.

The company said in a statement Monday that Amazon shoppers nationwide can now get their gifts delivered to one of its physical bookstores, called Amazon Books, or an Amazon 4-star location.

Amazon also highlighted its network of contactless pickup points, referred to as Amazon Hub, as an “alternative delivery location” for holiday orders. Hub locations refer to Amazon’s network of self-service kiosks and manned pickup counters, located inside or near local shops, as well as in residential apartment buildings.

Amazon said it was offering shoppers new ways to pick up their packages as a means of keeping their holiday season “spoiler free.”

“This year many customers and their families are opting to stay home so the challenge of keeping those special gifts under wraps from family, friends or loved ones is going to be greater than ever,” John Felton, vice president of Amazon’s global delivery services, said in a statement.

But it could also benefit Amazon in other ways. By pushing shoppers to have their orders sent to Hubs and brick-and-mortar stores, Amazon can cut down on the number of last-mile delivery trips that are necessary. The last-mile is an especially labor-intensive and expensive step in the delivery process.

To that end, Amazon also pointed shoppers to its “Amazon Day” delivery option, which allows them to pick a day of the week to receive all of their orders, cutting down on the number of boxes and deliveries. It reduces the number of trips Amazon has to make to a single address.

Amazon will likely need all the help it can get when it comes to deliveries this holiday season. For months, large shippers such as FedEx and UPS have been warning of a potential capacity shortfall, as the pandemic-induced surge of online shopping, coupled with the holiday peak, leaves them struggling to keep up.

Online sales this holiday season are expected to spike 33% year-over-year to a record $189 billion, according to Adobe Analytics.

Amazon is also managing tight capacity inside its warehouses after experiencing months of peak online ordering activity due to the pandemic. The company encouraged consumers to start their holiday shopping early in anticipation of the delivery crunch. Amazon kicked off its holiday deal season in late October, a month earlier than usual, following a delayed Prime Day.

Other retailers have followed suit. Walmart and Home Depot nixed one-day store events in favor of rolling out deals over several days.


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Snapchat to give users share of $1m a day for most entertaining clips | Technology

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The promise of viral fame has always been a lure for online content creators, but Snapchat hopes it has found a more immediate way of encouraging people to post pictures and videos: a share of a daily $1m (£747,000) prize.

The messaging app is to begin paying its users for their most viral snaps, as the platform moves to head off a feared exodus to TikTok with a new feed of user-generated content.

The new feature, called Spotlight, will be a major change to how Snapchat users find content on the platform – and also represents one of the most serious efforts yet on the part of a social media company to share revenue with all its users, rather than a narrow selection of the most famous creators.

“Spotlight will surface the most entertaining snaps from the Snapchat community all in one place, and will become tailored to each Snapchatter over time based on their preferences and favourites,” Snap said in a statement.

“As a way to celebrate and reward the creativity of the Snapchat community, Snap will distribute over $1m every day to Snapchatters who create the top Snaps on Spotlight, at least through the end of the year.”

The company created the new feature after realising that videos created with the Snapchat camera were regularly going viral on other platforms, such as TikTok and YouTube, because creators had little opportunity to grow their audience on Snapchat itself.

For users, the feed will be reminiscent of TikTok’s “For You” page, the crown jewels of the video-sharing app. But behind the scenes, Snap’s philosophy is very different.

Users must explicitly decide to post videos to Spotlight, but by default, their profiles will be obscured when they do so – a move which allows creators to dabble in content creation without running the risk of unwanted attention.

That anonymity also lets Snapchat promote the feed as a meritocracy: one where previous fame counts for little. The videos users see in their Spotlight feed won’t be affected by who they follow on the platform, and a new post from someone with millions of followers faces exactly the same hurdles as a first-time video from a new user in reaching the higher tiers of viral fame.

The company hopes that approach will prevent famous users from coasting on mediocrity, as well as encourage normal people to produce the most entertaining videos they can.

As will the $1m fund. Other platforms, such as Twitch and YouTube, have revenue-sharing agreements with top creators, but all require a certain level of fame to qualify. Snapchat is instead promising that any video that gets big – around 100,000 views in a day, the company says – will receive its share of the cash.

Before users can end up in the Spotlight feed, however, they will need to pass through a tier of human moderators, who both categorise the video – helping some of the personalisation elements – and ensure it fits the company’s content guidelines. Those include the expected limitations, such as bans on copyright infringement or underage alcohol consumption, as well as some others that fit the platforms idiosyncratic approach: “Spotlight is an entertainment platform, rather than a space for news or overtly political content,” the guidelines say, adding that they “should be vertical videos with sound”, rather than still images or text-only snaps.

Despite strong competition from TikTok and Instagram, Snapchat remains one of the world’s largest social media apps. In its most recent quarterly earnings report, Snap said it had 249 million daily users, with an 18% growth year on year. More than 40% of the US Gen Z population watched sports content on Snapchat’s publisher platform, Discover, in August, it added.

Snap hits

Damn Daniel

Teen Snapchatter Josh Holz’s videos of his friend Daniel’s white Vans trainers went unexpectedly viral in 2016, bringing the pair onto Ellen Degeneres’ show.

Anime lens

Snapchat’s AI-powered lenses have regularly gone viral in their own right, and a filter that turned users into Japanese Anime characters is its most recent success – though many of the most successful videos were made in Snapchat then posted to TikTok.

Jaden Smith

Snapchat’s Discover platform is a more traditional publisher-run space, where the company and media partners produce shortform content – like Jaden Smith’s series from this September, the Solution Committee, which addressed social and racial justice and urged viewers to vote.

Dance challenges

Sometimes the company has seemed to actively court Tiktok success. One recent collection of lenses saw Snapchat partnering with four TikTok stars to create lenses, which worked with specific dance trends, in order to encourage users to film themselves on one app and post to the other.

Jeremy Corbyn

In 2016, the then-Labour leader became the first head of a major UK party to join Snapchat, and his Stories were briefly the talk of Westminster.



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