Startups don’t usually put outsiders—let alone experts on equity and technology—on their boards of directors.
But Lacuna Technologies, a startup that develops digital tools to help cities regulate traffic, announced last week that it’s adding Tamika L. Butler, an expert on “issues related to the built environment, equity, anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion,” and Rashida Richardson, a legal scholar with expertise on race and technology, to its board.
Lacuna’s technology is designed to help cities better understand and regulate transportation, including tech-linked transportation services such as app-based ride-hailing and scooter rentals. CEO Hugh Martin anticipates that Butler will contribute her knowledge of transportation and related equity issues and Richardson will help guide Lacuna on challenges related to equity and data privacy. This is a potentially tricky balancing act since the company and the cities it works with likely want to understand the demographics of who is using transportation and how without tracking too much about individuals.
Lacuna’s products include tools for cities to study and regulate the use of curbside areas for parking and other purposes, and a similar tool specialized for use in helping airports avoid passenger pickup logjams. Ideally, Richardson says, the company can help give regulators more of a level playing field in negotiating with tech-savvy transportation companies, which can allow cities to push for more equity in transportation.
“A lot of mobility-disruptive technologies come in and offer a service that . . . is often not available to everyone in the community and often very much aligns with those who already have resources and power in a lot of ways,” Richardson says.
Butler says joining the board gives her an opportunity to participate directly in decision-making at a tech company, rather than just observing and critiquing from the sidelines. She says she’s confident that Lacuna values the training and knowledge she and Richardson bring to the table, not merely the fact that they’re Black women. “I’m excited to be a Black queer woman in the tech sector who is being involved and included, not just to check a box but because of my expertise,” she says.
Historically, people in positions of power—particularly business magnates, venture capital investors, and senior executives—have also been those appointed to corporate boards. But in California, a new state law designed to help remedy that will soon require publicly traded companies to have people from underrepresented communities on their boards.
The law won’t apply to privately held businesses like Lacuna, but Martin says he still considers it important to ensure diverse membership among the company’s directors. “There are many, many decisions that are made about the deployment and the development of technology that are not rooted in the real understanding of a wide swath of the community,” he says, noting that it’s often the case that engineers develop products designed to appeal to the engineer at the next workbench over.
“If you do that all the time, and it’s a bunch of middle-aged white guys that are trying to invent things,” he says, “you really develop a skewed view of the world and a skewed view of products.”