Everywhere, lines between business and political values have blurred, and often the actions of commerce challenge us to “take a side” in a political debate.
To this point, greater Washington’s tech community has largely stayed out of the fray. However, a group of well-respected start-up leaders is looking to change that, forming a group to respond to political issues through a grassroots initiative called the Capital Tech Coalition. They are taking a big risk while at the same time creating a huge opportunity for our start-up ecosystem.
I recently spoke with three members of this group’s steering committee about their hopes for its activities.
I learned that from its inception, the Capital Tech Coalition has had a political position and viewpoint. It originally came together to generate a letter expressing its position on Trump Administration policies on immigration and travel.
“We decided that we needed to speak together to represent our community of D.C.-area companies,” says Joshua Szmajda, the chief technology officer of Optoro, a Washington company that helps retailers deal with excess inventory.
Dan Berger, chief executive of the event-planning software company Social Tables, says taking a position on political issues is something large companies have done for a while yet smaller businesses in the D.C. region have been slow to embrace. To him, it is an inevitable outcome of a workforce becoming “more civically active.” Berger says he saw a growing number of tech employers realizing that their employees expected them to “take on more advocacy work.”
However, for this group, there is not only a need to provide employees with a sense that their employers are engaging in advocacy, but a broader need for star-tup leaders to be vocal about political issues.
From the perspective of Rosy Khalife, chief operating officer of the children’s gift-box service Surprise Ride, start-ups have a “responsibility to speak up on issues that impact our businesses, employees and community.”
I am sympathetic to the mission of this new group. Entrepreneurial people find meaning in their work. Yet, as we have learned in other parts of our society, once a discussion of values is introduced into business, dysfunction and distrust may also result.
For a community priding itself on collegiality and inclusiveness, this may be the largest challenge of all. Will the open nature of D.C.’s tech community withstand the introduction of discussions of values?
Last week in a blog post, Donna Harris, co-founder of 1776 and a leader in the D.C. tech community, suggested discussing values need not be divisive if opinions are respected, differences honored and “enough of us decide that kindness will win over fear.”
Will the newly-formed Capital Tech Coalition provide a template for resolving conflicts of values that shape our society? Time will tell.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.