Billionaire technology investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel made headlines last week for his full-throated support of Donald Trump. And while Thiel’s stance isn’t winning many supporters in Silicon Valley, it is a sign of how this year people in the tech industry are taking their political engagement to new levels.
Walker is 32 years old and his company sells beauty and health products to people of color. It’s backed by some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. His office is based in Palo Alto, and in that democratic stronghold it should be no surprise that Walker isn’t just for Hillary Clinton.
“I am vociferously against Donald Trump. Innovation is what makes America great, diversity is what makes America great,” Walker said. “I think he has no clue.”
Walker is African-American and has been an outspoken advocate for diversity. He signed a scathing public letter calling Trump a “disaster for innovation.” The co-founders of eBay, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and about 140 other folks in the tech industry also signed it.
Walker, like many in the tech industry, supported President Obama during the last election. So why didn't the tech community pen a similar letter against Mitt Romney in the previous election?
“This is not about Democrat and Republican this year,” Walker said. “This is a referendum on decency.”
He is also supporting a grass-roots campaign to give tech workers the day off to vote. He said that during this election “civic engagement is actually increasing in a big way” among his colleagues in tech.
Tucker Bounds agrees. He’s the co-founder of Sidewire, a San Francisco-based social network built on texting. But in a previous life, Bounds was a spokesman for U.S. Sen. John McCain during his run for the presidency in 2008. And he worked on Republican Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor of California in 2010.
“What I see in terms of online engagement and activism from people I worked alongside who have no connection to politics,” Bounds said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Bounds said during the last two elections, his colleagues in tech watched the debates and talked about them. But this time around?
“People are hosting fundraisers that have never hosted fundraisers before,” Bounds said. “I was just talking to a colleague of mine who works at a technology company who was talking about parachuting into Nevada with her daughter to campaign for Hillary Clinton. And these are people that would never have thought about going to a target state to campaign for a president before."
Tech companies are getting involved, too. Spotify launched a podcast this election season called Clarify, which is aimed at getting millennials more engaged. And Facebook launched its first national voter registration drive this year.
While Silicon Valley is left-leaning, it’s also had a libertarian bent that put the focus on innovation -- and not government -- as a tool for social good.
Bounds said that mentality has changed. As technology makes inroads into almost every part of our lives, tech companies and workers are being forced to work more closely with government. Still, Bounds said, it would be a mistake to take all this activism as a referendum on the Republican Party.
“You have in Donald Trump somebody who most people who work in the valley find totally unacceptable,” Bounds said.
Bounds is a Republican, so will he be voting for Donald Trump?
“I am not going to be voting for Donald Trump,” Bounds said. “I will probably write in George H.W. Bush. It reminds me of a time when Republicans stood for thoughtful, hard-working, qualified people.”
That’s not to say there aren’t Trump supporters in Silicon Valley, but they’re not easy to find. Of course, one Trump supporter has been Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. In late October, Thiel's $1.25 million donation to the Trump campaign was the source of fierce controversy in the valley. Some accused Thiel of supporting hate speech.
“We’re voting for Trump because we judge the leadership of our country to have failed,” Thiel said in his defense at a press conference this week.
But Aaron Levie thinks a Trump presidency is a threat to the tech industry. Levie is a co-founder and CEO of Box. The Redwood City-based company provides online storage and collaboration tools to companies.
“It’s not a given that America will be at the forefront of technology,” said Levie, who also signed the open letter against Trump.
As we race forward into a digital and information economy, Levie said, Silicon Valley’s success depends on training workers in the U.S. and attracting high-skilled workers from around the world.
“Which means that we have to have massive reform that we need in our education systems,” he said. “We need massive reform in our immigration process.”
And Levie said policy reform is needed in Washington around big issues confronting the technology sector, like encryption and privacy. He said Hillary Clinton’s policies best address those needs. And how do Clinton’s policies stack up against Trump's?
“I didn’t get the tech policies from the Trump side, so the outreach of the Trump campaign to the technology industry has been extremely limited to negligible,” Levie said. “So I don’t know how to compare and contrast to his policies. I only know how to compare and contrast to his rhetoric.”
And he said Trump’s rhetoric hasn’t been reassuring to the tech industry. He cites Trump's idea to ask Bill Gates to help shut down parts of the internet in response to terrorism. And Trump has also called for a boycott of Apple for refusing to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Trump “has shown such naive understanding of technology, it’s hard to even begin,” Levie said.
That’s not to say he discounts Trump supporters. He said this election has exposed the serious challenges American workers face, in part because of technological disruption. Levie's hope? That once the sound and fury of Trump dies down, tech leaders will start working with government to address these concerns, too.
This story is part of our ongoing series on Techquity: Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in Silicon Valley.