Silicon Valley tries to spread wealth to Trump’s America

Originally published on USA Today.

SAN FRANCISCO — Leslie Miley says he knows how Silicon Valley can lift the fortunes of communities bypassed by the tech boom: Put boots and brain power on the ground. And this Silicon Valley engineer and diversity advocate says that’s exactly what he plans to do.

He’s joining forces with Venture for America to launch a new executive-in-residence program that will tap Silicon Valley experience and know-how to build businesses and jobs in such overlooked spots as Detroit and Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a new twist for Venture for America, a nonprofit organization that trains and matches college graduates with start-ups for a two-year fellowship in underserved cities. It comes on the heels of a bruising election that illuminated the deep divides between pockets of high-tech wealth and the Rust Belt cities and town that are in a spiraling decline of job losses, in part due to automation that have wiped out some manufacturing jobs. The tech industry’s work visa programs that hire tens of thousands of employees from overseas each year are also under fire. On Monday, word leaked that the Trump administration has drafted an executive order that could restrict those programs.

Between five and 15 seasoned managers from major technology companies will leave their jobs and uproot their lives for one year, with their employers paying their salary adjusted for the lower cost of living outside of Silicon Valley, according to Venture for America. Two companies, LinkedIn and Yelp, have signed on and Venture for America hopes to recruit more. Miley, who is leaving his job as a director of engineering at San Francisco start-up Slack to jumpstart the program, says he will be among them, with Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield’s blessing.

The goal: for Silicon Valley executives to use their skills and connections to accelerate innovation in places with plenty of entrepreneurial spitfire but fewer resources. During the year-long residency, they will work out of Venture for America innovation hubs, serving as mentors and advisers.

“I believe you can take what we do here and take it into these communities and help accelerate the building of jobs in their growing tech ecosystems,” Miley told USA TODAY. “The opportunity is not just to give the communities access to the people, talent and networks that they have a hard time having access to, but also to create a pathway for people in those communities to come here and for people here to go there.” The idea was an outgrowth of conversations Miley had been having for months on how to address wealth and opportunity gaps, especially in hard-hit communities of color. When Americans’ economic anxieties showed up at the polls in November with the election of Donald Trump, Miley says he felt compelled to act. “Leslie had been thinking for a while about how to best drive change around diversity in our industry and beyond,” Butterfield said. “I knew that he felt especially strongly that tech companies should invest in cities outside the valley, and that moving to regions with more diverse populations could make an important difference.” High-tech start-ups are popping up everywhere, in cities large and small, from Nashville and New Orleans to Baltimore and Birmingham, Ala. Former AOL chief and Revolution LLC founder Steve Case call it “the rise of the rest.”

Yet Silicon Valley, home to tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google and emerging powerhouses Airbnb and Uber, remains in a category unto itself, dominating new ideas, venture dollars and top talent. “There is a sense that we need to do much more to bolster the job growth and the optimism in many parts of the country,” Venture for America founder and CEO Andrew Yang told USA TODAY. The executive-in-residence program will begin taking applications on March 1 and selections will be made in April. A one-week training camp in July will prepare recruits to start in their new cities in September. LinkedIn executive Mike Gamson says the program offers a unique opportunity for his company and its employees to spread the wealth. “Our hope is that through this program, LinkedIn can play a small role in helping to accelerate the development of start-up communities around the country,” he said.

Ever since Trump’s election, the tech industry has been knocked for being out of touch and out of step with great swaths of the nation it serves. It has spawned young millionaires and six-figure salaries in coastal tech hubs yet technological advances spearheaded by tech companies have hastened the loss of middle-class jobs elsewhere. Trump has also criticized the tech industry for its work visa programs that hire tens of thousands of employees from overseas each year. On Monday, word leaked that the administration has drafted an executive order that could dramatically restrict those programs.”The fact that these companies are going to send some of their best prospects and leaders to do meaningful work, we think sends a terrific message and, most importantly, will have a real impact on the ground,” Yang said.

And it may eventually have an impact in Silicon Valley, too, by opening up new opportunities for diverse talent in America’s No. 1 tech hub, Miley says.

Silicon Valley is struggling to bring more women and underrepresented minorities into the fold. Analyses by USA TODAY and others show the mostly white and Asian male tech sector, employs far fewer women and underrepresented minorities than other industries, particularly in Silicon Valley. Miley has been sharply critical of the tech industry’s efforts to reverse decades of exclusion, saying companies have failed to take meaningful steps to hire more blacks and Latinos. He was the sole African-American engineer in a leadership position at Twitter. His takedown of the company’s track record on diversity struck a national nerve and drew scrutiny of the social media service which has an audience whose ethnic background is not reflected in its largely white and Asian staff.

Last year Miley joined Slack as a director of engineering. The San Francisco start-up has been pushing to change typical hiring practices in the tech industry by placing a priority on hiring more women and underrepresented minorities. “There are an awful lot of talented people whose circumstances make it difficult for them to settle in Silicon Valley. If tech only lives here, we put ourselves in an echo chamber, and innovation suffers,” Butterfield said. “So it’s important to cultivate opportunities across the U.S. that are accessible to more people. Leslie’s new role is designed to do just that.”

Other programs aside from Venture for America are trying to achieve much the same thing. CODE2040, an organization working to close the racial gap in tech, has an initiative to fund minority entrepreneurs in cities across the country so they can build bridges for others.

There’s plenty of incentive for the tech industry to expand beyond its comfort zone, according to Miley. He points to PayPal opening an office in Omaha, and to off-the-beaten-path tech hubs such as Cincinnati and Miami where entrepreneurs of color are challenging the status quo with new ideas that are gaining traction.

“If we don’t take what we learn here and invest in these communities, the divide that in our country, that has become evident to many will only increase, making it harder for people to collaborate on solving the problems in their respective communities,” Miley said of the disconnect between the tech industry and middle America. “Trump is the canary in the coal mine.”

 

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