Billionaire investor Peter Thiel sparked outrage in Silicon Valley after donating $1.2 million to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Thiel’s support for the Republican presidential nominee puts his business partners like Facebook and startup accelerator Y Combinator in the awkward position of justifying Thiel’s actions. In a leaked internal memo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed employees’ concerns of having a Trump supporter as a board member. He argued that however distasteful Trump may be, his supporters may support him for legitimate reasons like Trump’s policy positions.
However, the founder of political advocacy startup Votizen Jason Putorti, says you can’t separate Trump’s hateful messages from his candidacy. A Hillary Clinton campaign volunteer, Putorti echoed the sentiment of Project Include’s co-founder Ellen Pao whose diversity group cut ties with YC. Rather than encouraging diversity, Facebook and YC’s decision to keep Thiel condones hateful rhetoric surrounding Trump’s campaign, he says.
Here is a copy of the written interview edited for conciseness and clarity:
How do you know Peter Thiel?
PUTORTI: He led the investment in my company, Votizen, on behalf of Founders Fund in 2010. However, I haven’t seen or spoken to him since 2013.
What was your reaction to Mark Zuckerburg’s internal memo that support’s Thiel’s position on Facebook’s Board?
PUTORTI: Trump represents a unique threat to American democracy and society that transcends a party nomination. As Fortune editor Dan Primack wrote, “picking a president isn’t a trip to the salad bar. You get the whole meal.” This isn’t about not agreeing with a candidate on every policy issue, it’s about rejecting hate, promoting democracy and civil discourse, and continuing to move this country forward towards a more perfect union.
Trump’s campaign has had the alarming impact of normalizing a kind of hateful rhetoric that is harmful to Americans. He and his supporters have essentially affirmed the kind of speech (and, tacitly, actions) that have contributed to the oppression of people of color, LGBT individuals, women, and countless other Americans, and the so-called rejection of political correctness is a barely-disguised endorsement of a kind of hate that we as a country should have moved past decades ago. Lately, he’s casting doubt on the integrity of our entire democracy, which threatens the peaceful transition of power that has been our tradition, and example to the world, for 240 years. It seems petty, but it’s sending a real, dangerous message to his base, and to the world.
Facebook has been criticized repeatedly for its lack of diversity, especially in leadership, where it’s most impactful. Its board is 25% women but 100% white, and Mark Zuckerberg has paid little more than lip service to this problem. Both Mr. Altman and Mr. Zuckerberg have justified their continued relationships with Thiel in the name of ideological diversity, but if this is the flavor of diversity that these organizations want to prioritize, they’re sending a very strong message that white, wealthy, and male is still how they perceive leadership.
How might Facebook and Y Combinator’s decisions to not fire Thiel affect Silicon Valley’s progressive culture?
PUTORTI: We talk about progressivism, but I think we need to actually practice it. My sincere hope is that others in Silicon Valley are paying attention, not only to the positions taken by Facebook and Y Combinator leadership, but to the experiences of people around them—especially those who haven’t traditionally been given as big of a platform as Mr. Zuckerberg or Mr. Altman. I think if we as a community want to identify as progressive, we need to show up and show some empathy.
How do you think the controversy surrounding Y Combinator’s decision to keep Thiel might affect startups going through the program?
PUTORTI: I’m sure that varies from founder to founder, and I can’t speak to their experiences, but I have trouble reconciling YC’s continued association with Mr. Thiel with their declared support of diversity and inclusion initiatives, and I can’t be the only one experiencing cognitive dissonance over this.
Do you see a scenario where YCombinator would fire Peter Thiel for his political views?
This is a leading question in two ways. One, Peter Thiel is not an employee, he’s a billionaire ‘part-time partner’ who shows up for office hours. Asking him to resign or step away because he’s enabling a racist sexual predator with $1.5 million is absolutely not the same thing as firing an employee for political views. Progressive taxation is a political view. Hate speech is not. This kind of false equivalency is an easy way to justify keeping a wealthy, influential partner on hand for the benefit of YC and YC portfolio companies. What if Peter Thiel was a Nazi or an ISIS sympathizer? Sam Altman himself has admitted he would ‘fire’ Mr. Thiel if he acted the way Trump himself did, but is there truly much of a distinction between actually saying the words and donating significant amounts of money and influence to the man who says them?
That said, it seems Mr. Graham and Mr. Altman have dug in their heels, and instead of listening to the community, and asking how they can do better, they have instead celebrated themselves. Mr. Graham recently boasted that few have done more than Mr. Altman to defeat Trump, a dubious claim at best, and a deflection. If applications to YC take a nosedive, or their companies have a harder time raising capital from VCs who choose to cut ties and not participate in their lucrative Demo Day, they will reverse course. But nothing short of an impact to their returns will do so. As is often the case, its all about the money.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
PUTORTI: While I don’t agree with Mr. Thiel’s support of Trump, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. But the defensive, egocentric responses from Silicon Valley leaders were deeply disappointing. There are consequences to our words and actions, and those consequences are further-reaching when we’re talking about thought leaders and influencers. Paying lip service to the diversity that they claim to value, and not showing empathy to the experiences of others isn’t in service of the progressive identity that these leaders want to claim, and that’s what prompted me to write. Silicon Valley should be better.
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