San Francisco tech leaders that haven’t yet decamped for Miami are increasingly vocal in their opinions on San Francisco government, mocking apparent government failings and treating us to endless versions of “I had a bad experience on the street. This must stop.”
While these critiques are often valid, they miss a crucial and obvious point: Democracy is not a spectator sport. The tech community doesn’t get to just stand there and complain—we are a responsible party here, and it’s time to act like it. With all of the jobs, investments and employees tech brings to San Francisco, its leaders are part of the fabric of this city whether or not they understand their role.
Yet we can still count on one hand the number of prominent technology leaders who have put their energy, money and time where their mouth is to improve the city. We often hear of the efforts of Marc Benioff of Salesforce and Chris Larsen of Ripple, but what about everybody else?
There are promising signs that more people in the tech community see the critical need for engagement. Serial entrepreneur Bob Epstein partnered with legislators and environmental advocacy organizations to enact the nation’s first serious plan to address climate change. California YIMBY, a group we’ve been involved with, was co-founded by tech and policy entrepreneurs and recently helped end exclusionary single-family home zoning in California. In San Francisco, GrowSF (advocating for good government) and Kid Safe SF (advocating for kid-safe streets) launched in the past year with co-founders from the tech industry.
In San Francisco, this kind of civic leadership is often dismissed as rich people trying to push their preferred policies. But that’s often just a way of evading an honest conversation about policy options. And it also flies in the face of a long American tradition of industry leaders putting energy and resources into helping their communities. Yes, some moguls of the robber baron era were mainly interested in assuaging their guilt and burnishing their legacies with charitable works. Still, there are plenty of examples that don’t fit that narrative.
Consider the story of Nathan Straus. He built a fortune as one of the owners of Macy’s, but in the 1890s he became obsessed with food safety after losing two of his children to disease. He began by asking a simple question: Louis Pasteur had invented the milk pasteurization process in 1865, so why were kids still being routinely killed by unsafe milk decades later?
What happened next is a lesson for today’s tech entrepreneurs. Rather than just leaving it there, Straus took his department store earnings, his skills at organization-building, and the doggedness of an entrepreneur and set out to solve the problem. First, he and his wife built a “milk laboratory” to produce sterilized milk in 1892, a time when 25% of infant mortality was tied to diseased milk. He then built a factory to supply New York orphanages with sterilized milk at subsidized rates. Overnight, sure enough, child mortality rates plummeted. Strauss then helped pass the nation’s first milk pasteurization laws, personally driving policy outcomes that saved hundreds of thousands of lives a year, many of them children. He made enemies in the process, but having a thick skin comes with the public policy territory.
Tech leaders in San Francisco today should be asked the same question that was asked of Nathan Straus: Exactly what are you planning to do with the staggering amount of wealth and (potential) power you have accumulated in the process?
Firing off cathartic Tweets is a cheap and impotent form of democracy. Tech leaders, did you build your companies into an industry-changing force by complaining on the internet?
Like most things in life, the first step the tech community can take is simply showing up. Reach out to the elected leaders and see what problems they and you are both trying to solve. Ask them to explain where they are stuck and how you can help them.
California YIMBY began after a trip to Sacramento, where our underprepared group stumbled around the Capitol building, knocking on doors and seeing who would meet with us about the housing crisis in California and pending legislation we wanted to see passed. We were surprised by how direct the Senators, Assemblymembers and their staff were with us. They told us to stop pointing out the obvious to them—they understood the housing crisis!—and sent us home with a list of homework assignments on policy design, lobbying and advocacy.
That original homework assignment soon spawned an organization—California YIMBY—now with 15 staff members. We have since become friends and trusted partners with California government leaders and have the privilege of playing a supporting role in helping them begin to solve the California housing crisis. This is the kind of work we will tell our grandkids about.
San Francisco is blessed with prosperity and a wealth of tech talent. The city government’s budget has grown from $6.4 billion in 2010 to $12.6 billion in 2020. San Francisco remains a stunningly beautiful city of enormous potential.
Yet, the gap between our stated values as a city (and the capabilities of its residents!) and our city’s governmental outcomes is only widening. Housing prices continue to skyrocket, our endemic homelessness problems are compounding and record numbers of students are leaving our public schools.
If Nathan Straus was in a room of San Francisco tech leaders, we believe that he would have a simple message for us: If you are so passionate about these problems, then why are you not helping public leaders solve them?
Andrew Sutherland and Zack Rosen are technology company founders (Andrew founded Quizlet and Zack founded Pantheon.) They are both active in civic organizations such as California YIMBY, Kid Safe San Francisco and TechEquity Collaborative.