By Cecilia Kang
Saturday, April 4, 2009 2:24 PM
Alec Ross arrives today at the State Department, armed with a whole new set of diplomatic tools including Facebook, texting and YouTube.
Ross is Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton's senior advisor on innovation, a new role created for the 36-year-old nonprofit leader who quickly rose within the Obama campaign, helping to craft tech policy under top technology advisor Julius Genachowski.
His new job will blend technology with diplomacy in an attempt to help solve some of the globe's most vexing problems on health care, poverty, human rights and ethnic conflicts. And it's emblematic of the expansive approach the administration has taken to the role of technology in advancing its domestic and global agendas.
"Secretary Clinton believes technology is a powerful tool to address the priorities of the State Department, including promoting human rights and vibrant democracies, fostering development and enhancing the impact of smart power," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. "Alec's track record of successfully using technology for development initiatives around the world made him an ideal candidate for this job."
Projects could include the use of cell phone text messaging as a way to reach isolated communities to warn people of natural disaster or remind patients to take medication. Social networking sites could bring together youth in warring tribes to communicate and organize cultural exchanges. Software could be used to help insure aid gets delivered by creating supply chain systems.
Ross will work directly for the chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, according to Wood.
"I don't believe tech is an end into itself to solve problems," said Ross, "but it can be a critical part of the solution."
Critics have their doubts about whether or not concrete solutions can be achieved through technology, however. And economists have questioned whether stimulus funds for health care information technology and broadband will substantially boost employment, for example.
But friends and colleagues who worked on the Obama campaign and transition say Ross has what it takes to pull it off: business savvy and the ability to bring large disparate groups together.
In 2000, he co-founded nonprofit One Economy, which uses technology to help low-income communities, and built it into a multi-million-dollar organization with donations from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cisco, Yahoo and AT&T.
"Alec has an extraordinary entrepreneurial skill set," said Blair Levin, a telecom analyst who co-led Obama's tech policy group with Genachowski during the transition. "Through partnership with all kinds of different players, he sees opportunities that others don't and makes connections that others don't that will be critical in this new job."
He's an unlikely Washington operator. Ross commutes to the District from Baltimore, where he settled more than 10 years ago as a Teach for America volunteer working at a middle school in economically troubled West Baltimore. He grew up near Charleston, W. Va. where unemployment was ever rising. He named the first of his three children Colton, a play on "coal town," as a "shout out" to his roots, he said.
"Living in Baltimore keeps me planted in reality," he said.
Ross has no formal training in technology. And unlike most of Washington's tech policy leaders, he wasn't groomed at the Federal Communications Commission or through the telecom bar association.
Yet he was charged to manage hundreds of policy advisors brought together to develop the president's tech and innovation plan. High-tech titans such as Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, academics including Stanford law professor Larry Lessig, nonprofit leaders and investors were assigned duties by Ross.
"He created a process for people of extremely strong opinions and long histories of experience to be able to work very well together," said Steve Spinner, an entrepreneur who served as Obama's link to Silicon Valley during the campaign. "He's a nice easy going leader and he reflected the campaign's 'No drama Obama' ethos."
With a hint of a Charleston accent and boyish looks, he has quickly amassed a broad Rolodex from One Economy and through his work on the campaign. He often brought people together, particularly young people, on the campaign. "He thought we should know each other," said Ben Scott, policy director for public interest group Free Press.
But those closest to him say his appearance and style belie an aggressive drive. When former executive Ben Hecht left One Economy, he gave Ross a framed picture of a pit bull, which he compares to Ross's personality.
At the start of One Economy, Hecht said Ross relentlessly e-mailed and called the titans of industry each day, trying email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and any other possible email address for the Microsoft co-founder until he got it right and until Gates finally agreed to have executives listen to Ross's pitch for One Economy. Once he got in front of the executives he "made them believe they were privileged" to sponsor One Economy.
Microsoft eventually became a sponsor.