Silicon Valley Crashes the Republican Debate

Leading up to this upcoming republican debate, I wanted to reflect on the last debate I was invited to attend in Las Vegas with an organization called the Lincoln Initiative. It’s a relatively new organization focused on liberty and the ambitious task connecting pragmatic policy makers and the tech community. As a relatively new and unproven entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, I was perplexed that I got selected to attend the program, and was eager to go along for the trip (which was completely free, inclusive of the flight, hotel, Uber rides, and meals). I was in a group of about fifteen other entrepreneurs and members from the tech community, all with highly interesting backgrounds: software, hardware, venture capital, YCombinator alums, etc.

An amazing networking dinner we had at the Bardot Restaurant

From the get-go, we were invited to some truly impressive VIP parties — the first being the “State of the Startup Nation Reception” at the top floor Rivea in the Delano with entrepreneurs and investors both from Las Vegas and all around the country. This event was co-sponsored by the Economic Innovation Group, a new bipartisan ideas think-tank whose mission is to advance solutions that empower entrepreneurs and investors. That set the tone for the following events, which included other networking receptions and an amazing dinner and brunch. We also got to tour the Downtown Project, an initiative started by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. The project aims to revitalize the Downtown Las Vegas district, partly by investing in technology businesses based in the area.

Being led on a tour through Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Las Vegas Project

Another organization that had presence at the debate with ties to Silicon Valley that I met with was a group called FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group primarily supported and funded by entrepreneurs like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Part of the comprehensive immigration reform they push includes streamlining legal immigration that makes it more efficient to provide visas to foreign entrepreneurs and helps many very promising foreign student graduates stay in the country. This is a problem I’ve seen and heard too often about in my short experience in the San Francisco startup scene.

Watching the debate as part of the live audience was an amazing experience

I was eager when it came to debate time! I originally thought the audience would be a pretty random mix of people; however, most tickets were divided up amongst members of the local and national Republican Party and split evenly between the candidates. Many attendees I spoke to got debate tickets from being large donors to a particular candidate, while others were heavy hitter political players based in Washington, DC. It seemed interesting, from my observation, that despite the audience representing many parts of the political and private industry spectrums, there wasn’t much of a technology and innovation presence. This contrasts with a lot of the big promises candidates make in their campaigns, along with their notable presence in Silicon Valley to do fundraisers.

Maybe I did have some influence at the debate after all…

Of course it was tough to approach and talk to a lot of the candidates themselves about various issues, but I still gave it a try. I took two snapchat videos talking to Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina and it ended up getting published onto the debate story that was seen by over half a million people. It turns out, it’s not that hard to get published on the public snapchat story when most attendees have no idea what snapchat even is!

Some of the group meeting with Gov. George Pataki in the hallways of the Venetian Hotel, shortly before he suspended his campaign.

With hot issues like self-driving cars, net neutrality, immigration, artificial intelligence, and even concerns with some of Donald Trump’s statements about “closing off the internet”, it’s a wonder why there isn’t more of an influence from Silicon Valley! One possible explanation, is that with all the hard work and long hours entrepreneurs are putting in tackling problems, sometimes tech life can become it’s own bubble, and it may be hard to realize what’s actually going on in Washington D.C., or elsewhere, at least until things really start to get bad. We saw this most prominently in 2012 with the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. SOPA’s passage seemed assured, was originally supported by a broad bipartisan coalition, and essentially went unnoticed for months until a massive online civic movement reversed the bill. If we could simply exert our interests as effectively as other industries, the bill would probably never have been introduced in the first place. This is starting to change, with groups like Lincoln Initiative, Economic Innovation Group, and FWD.us, who are trying to bridge the gap between technology, innovation, and the political world. However, it’s clear more stakeholders need to get involved in the process. Thus, my hope is some day, it would no longer be out of the ordinary for Silicon Valley to “crash” a presidential debate.