In conversation with Mackenzie Burnett

Anna Mitchell
Jan 20 · 8 min read
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San Francisco, California. Mackenzie Burnett is an entrepreneur, researcher, and political organizer. She’s also on Interact’s Board of Directors. Right now, she’s focused on building The Next 50, an organization making politics more accessible to young people, and researching climate security and water rights. Previously, she was the cofounder and CEO of Redspread, acquired by CoreOS. Anna Mitchell, Interact’s Fellowship Communications Lead, caught up with Mackenzie in December.

Where did you grow up, and what were you like when you were little?

I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, one of the earliest planned communities in the United States. You could walk to the doctor’s office and grocery store; it was a wonderful place to grow up. I was always very focused on school and sports, and really liked homework. But towards the end of high school, I began questioning authority in small ways––hard for someone who very much feared getting into trouble.

During senior year, I kept telling the staff who led our Class Council that our senior class t-shirts should be more affordable. They cost $20, which some people on my track team couldn’t afford. After bringing this up over and over with these staff members, I became really annoying — they actually called me into the principal’s office to discuss my “behavior.” I was so upset I started crying. Finally, I asked to speak with my favorite teacher, and she and I had a transformative conversation where she validated the difference between moral authority and legal authority. She told me that what I was doing was right, even if it got me into trouble.

That totally changed the way I did things in college: I became way more comfortable speaking up, and doing things that you had to find workarounds for, like studying abroad for free or creating my own major.

How did that realization about the difference between legal and moral authority, and new willingness to speak up against injustice even if it got you in trouble, guide your transition from government into tech?

In short, it gave me more confidence to question the status quo and to seek out creative opportunities to have the impact I cared about. For the first two years of college at the University of Maryland, College Park, I was pursuing government, but I became more and more disillusioned with how slowly everything moved. I wanted to have impact at a faster pace and larger scale. Then accidentally, I was introduced to Startup Shell, a student-run coworking space. At the time, it was just a ragtag group of kids who had taken out broken equipment from an old storage closet, and brought in monitors, desks, and chairs from their apartments. They had built a little home for themselves to hack on things. And I thought that was so cool.

This was another transformative moment for me. I saw all these really smart people working on really cool things, and realized that tech allows people to think of an idea and then actually build it. I had spent my last two years in government internships with people who would never have that mentality. The execution part had been missing before. I ended up leading the Startup Shell community in my remaining time at Maryland.

So you joined Startup Shell, and your involvement escalated to the point where you started your own company. Could you talk about that a little more?

One of the lessons I learned from Startup Shell is that an effective way to attract great people is to create a compelling community space. Basically, all the people I’ve built things with have come from that community. For example, my junior year, I cofounded our school’s hackathon, Bitcamp, with people from Startup Shell.

My senior year, I started a company with a Startup Sheller, Dan Gillespie, in a space I basically had no experience with, open source software infrastructure. I had been doing mostly operational, strategic work for the tech community at Maryland, and had never taken a computer science class. I had to learn a lot of stuff really quickly.

We were building an experimental tech company in a really fast-growing field, during the early days of Docker and Kubernetes. My first Interact retreat was actually during this time: I went to Interact in February of 2015, and we incorporated our company in April of 2015. With encouragement and referrals from members of the Interact community, we went through Y Combinator in the winter of 2016.

You’re working on climate research and political organizing right now, though. What motivated this transition from open source infrastructure?

I began to feel like I was no longer working on a mission that felt existential to me. We had investors and a community, but hadn’t yet launched our paid product, so we were at a crossroads. We needed to decide whether to launch or exit. We ended up selling the company to another open source software company, called CoreOS. It was an incredible team and a big learning experience for me and Dan, but after a year there, I decided to go back to school to focus on climate change.

My resume looks scattered to a random observer, but there is a common theme: I’ve always gravitated towards platforms and communities that enable interesting people to do meaningful work. That’s the common thread for me between open source software, Interact, and The Next 50.

Tell us about your time in the International Policy Studies master’s program at Stanford.

Stanford has this incredible community of academics and political practitioners who are all at the top of their field; it’s like a summer home for the off-administration. It has an incredible military community as well. I met a lot of interesting people in foreign policy, which was one of my goals in going back to school.

My other goal was to understand and learn how to affect the conversation around climate change and national security. I’m also thinking about water rights, carbon removal, and renewable energy development, as part of the broader question of building companies that align financial and environmental incentives.

You’ve spent time in both the technology and policy worlds. What are your views on how technologists can affect policy?

One strategy is to do an interactive literature review of the field. For my master’s thesis, I interviewed as many of the top people in my field as I could — it was a great reason to talk to everyone relevant. I think one of the most efficient ways to understand something is to talk in a structured way to everyone who has spent a lot of time thinking about it. This work is also valuable to the field because not all of these people have talked to each other and understand patterns in their collective beliefs.

I also think it’s important to place both technical and nontechnical people in the same room on some of these emerging technology questions. Without this, you end up getting misunderstandings or bad decisions on both sides. The difference between AI policy and nuclear policy, for example, is that there exist abstraction layers for nuclear policy so laypeople can negotiate nuclear policy without being nuclear experts. But this doesn’t yet exist for AI policy — it’s important for technical people to be in the same room and figure out how to speak to non-technical people, so we can start building those layers.

This leads us to the recent work you’ve been doing in the political realm. Tell us about your work building The Next 50?

The Next 50 is an organization trying to make politics more accessible to young people. I started it in early 2019 with Zak Malamed, a friend of mine from Startup Shell (of course) who was also thinking about how to make an impact on the 2020 election. We started hosting presidential candidates for young professionals, both as fundraisers, and also as a way to understand how campaigns work. We were also disillusioned with how little the political left built long-term infrastructure to last beyond an election. During every major campaign, they tended to reinvent the wheel.

Since February we’ve hosted 18 presidential candidates and about a dozen congressional, Senate, and gubernatorial candidates, across 45 events in 5 cities. So far, we’ve raised around three quarters of a million for these candidates. We’re playing around with some ideas that would enable grassroots donors to be more informed and engaged, like a donor advising tool and online candidate town halls over Zoom.

We’ve also learned about a host of other problems and opportunities in this space. For example, we are connecting local-expert young people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to this process to write briefs for candidates. A few of us who had expertise on various aspects of climate policy wrote a brief on the Bay Area impacts of climate change for the candidates we host in San Francisco.

Another issue is local investment in people. There isn’t really a local pipeline that’s encouraging politically engaged people to stay in their communities, become experts, and maintain local relationships. Instead, the smart people on campaigns relocate every two years to work on whatever campaign needs them. There’s also no emphasis on the transition for young political staffers. Between campaigns, you could be out of a job for two or three months. If you can’t afford to not get paid for that time, you’ll probably leave the field. On the right, though, there is a clear pipeline for career advancement, beginning with College Republicans.

These are just examples of all the side-problems that came up. Because of the way we’ve organized The Next 50, our team is free to try out solutions to these different problems. We want people to have the context and platform to experiment with their different political ideas.

Finally, I’d love to know how you got involved with Interact and what you found so special about it and worth your time amid all the things you do!

Interact introduced me to the tech community beyond the national hackathon network. It was my first introduction to a professional community of like-minded peers. And it was the best possible introduction to Silicon Valley, because it was so friendly; I was staying with a group of people who would open their homes to me and go out to dinner together, and it made moving to the Bay, what would have otherwise been a big transition, much less scary.

It also normalized risk taking: there were a lot of people my age who had dropped out and were building projects and startups, and Interact made this feel normal. This was so important for me, coming from the suburbs of Maryland. When I’m in a state of transition or indecision, people in Interact don’t push me to do something that feels “safer” or more normal. Their way of reasoning about the situation is, “Given that you are a founder, what are the things that you should do?” — rather than, “Why don’t you do something less risky?”

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Interact is a community of mission-driven technologists. Applications for the Class of 2020 are now open at joininteract.com.

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