David Chavern says it was his idea to feature a picture of William Howard Taft wearing Google Glass on the brochure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s new Center for Advanced Technology & Innovation.
“We’re establishment and we’re part of the Washington scene,” said Chavern, a top executive at the Chamber, which evolved from an idea the 27th president had more than 100 years ago.
Those aren’t seen as good qualities in the tech community, where disruption trumps D.C. bona fides. But that’s exactly who the chamber is targeting with its San Francisco center.
So Chavern decided to confront the problem head-on, he said in an interview last week, invoking the past while using some Photoshop fun to show that the Chamber “is part of the new economy.” (In another image in the small brochure, Taft is seen clutching a tablet under his arm.)
The center — which was announced in April and hosts its first event this week — is the Chamber’s only major office outside Washington, and part of its mission is to serve the powerful business lobby’s existing members. But the big focus is persuading Silicon Valley that it needs what Chavern calls “public policy leadership on national issues” and the kind of lobbying muscle he says that only the Chamber can provide.
That could be a tough sell. After long avoiding Washington, many tech companies realized that public policy does matter — and could either help or hurt their businesses. And they’ve bolstered their lobbying presence in recent years, working through their own corporate teams and through a bevy of new trade associations.
There’s another problem. The Chamber was a vocal proponent of anti-piracy legislation (known as SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate) that many tech firms opposed. (Things got so bad that Yahoo quit the trade group in 2011.) In the current debate over net neutrality, in which most tech companies are on one side and telecoms giants on the other, the Chamber has been largely silent.
All of it has left some in the tech world wondering what exactly the Chamber can offer.
“On the issues that matter most to Silicon Valley, they’ve either been on the opposite side or unable to take a position,” said one tech-industry lobbyist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the new competition. “If you can’t advocate for a very specific position, what value is that to an industry or a company?”
But the new Chamber venture does have some early supporters. “There’s always room for people to be advocating for the needs of the technology community,” Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association, told the San Francisco Chronicle last week.
Before taking on his new gig, Chavern spent more than seven years as the Chamber’s chief operating officer, and saw total revenues increase more than 60 percent. Not surprisingly, he sees plenty of room for the Chamber to boost its tech business.
He mentions tax policy and immigration as “universal issues” that all major businesses care about. There are also 70 people at the Chamber who work on international issues and could help the U.S. tech sector expand its global reach, he added.
While he acknowledged that the Chamber has sometimes been at odds with Silicon Valley, he said there are several emerging issues on which he sees common ground, including cybersecurity and privacy.
“I’m confident we’ll be on their side in some big debates,” Chavern said.
At an event, to be held Thursday at RocketStudios, a tech incubator, the Chamber will screen “Underwater Dreams,” a new documentary about immigration and education. (The film’s funders include the Bezos Family Foundation. Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post and sits on the board of directors of the foundation, which was established by his parents.)
The Chamber’s Silicon Valley center is now negotiating with a landlord for office space in San Francisco, and by this time next year, Chavern expects to have a staff of 8 to 10 people working there.
Even then, though, he’s boasting to would-be members that the Chamber can offer the services of a 500-strong team of Washington lawyers, lobbyists and others, working from a stately building across Lafayette Square and up from the White House.
As Chavern said, “I’m not going to run away from that.”