Gabriela Hasbun

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Instacart faced a tidal wave of orders, as people with means opted en masse to pay the service’s workers to buy groceries for them. Apoorva Mehta, the company’s 34-year-old founder and CEO, calls that period a “wartime moment”: “We just didn’t have enough shoppers.” Instacart went on a hiring binge in March 2020, bringing on 300,000 gig workers in a matter of weeks; the next month, it announced it would hire a quarter-million more.

But as usage soared, Instacart faced new criticism about the way it treated its workers, including labyrinthine sick-pay policies, frequent rule changes for shoppers and demanding performance metrics. And after pouring more than $20 million into a controversial ballot initiative in California, Instacart—alongside other firms such as Uber and Lyft—decisively won that bid last fall to avoid classifying their workers as employees under state law. Mehta says, “This is going to be a conversation that we’re going to have as a society over the next decade or so,” about the gig economy: “The ecosystem that we want to build is one that recognizes that flexibility is going to be an important part of people’s work.”

In the meantime, Instacart—which raised more than $500 million in venture-capital funding last year—continues to expand. “The smartphone is the supermarket of the future,” Mehta says. “We are going to help co-create that.” —Alejandro de la Garza

More Must-Reads from TIME