Launch of the Startups & Society Initiative
— Wilneida Negron & Lyel Resner
“I lay awake at night thinking about all the things we built in the early days and what we could have done to avoid the product being used this way”¹
— early Facebook Executive
Faced with a pandemic, the climate crisis, and unresolved systemic racial and economic inequality, our country finds itself at a critical moment. Our interdependence is now more apparent than ever, and this has triggered explosive demands for change in every corner of society.
Technology companies are not immune, having been increasingly singled out for enabling discrimination, human rights abuses, and political polarization. This has led to calls for more rigor in considering the social implications of their products, platforms, and business models.
We have seen resistance to such appeals. Most notably, Brian Armstrong, the CEO of Coinbase, recently stated that his company will not engage in “social activism,” and that Coinbase would strive to be “apolitical”. The reaction has been pointed — with some critics arguing that “creating an open financial system” is inherently deeply political, and others highlighting that the workers inside tech companies are concerned less about politics and more about basic human rights.² Importantly, we also believe that Mr. Armstrong’s stance increases the likelihood that Coinbase will have blind-spots which can result in both serious unintended social consequences and business risks.
But we have sympathy for his position. Founders who identify with Mr. Armstrong’s might feel overwhelmed navigating a new socio-technical landscape. Running and growing a startup is already difficult; to do so in a way that ensures you aren’t creating unforeseen negative social consequences can add more complexity — but avoiding these social and ethical issues is ultimately fanciful thinking.
We want to help.
We are a group of founders, investors, and researchers who believe responsible tech is both a business and societal imperative. Over the next few months, we’ll be interviewing influential founders, startup executives, investors, and Tech & Society thought leaders, to collect best practices, case studies, and concrete tactics for building more ethical and responsible technology companies that we will make freely available to Founders and the broader tech community.
Current “Ethical Tech” conversations tend to focus on the technology itself (and the development of AI specifically) when technology is generally subordinate to the mission, values, business model, processes, operations, and culture of the organizations that bring it into the world. Phin Barnes at First Round Capital notably said, “Great startup CEOs recognize very early that their job is not to build a product, but to build a company.”³ Accordingly, we need to support founders with responsible company design, as companies are the containers that enable, incentivize, and sustain the creation of ethical technology.
There is a growing set of entrepreneurs, investors, and VCs who have been innovating away from the ‘growth at all costs’ paradigm that has dominated startup and tech culture. We are seeing Ethical/ESG governance boards, use of risk-surfacing frameworks like Ethical OS and Consequence Scanning, third party ethical audits, ‘World-Positive” term sheets, stakeholder-value frameworks, the embrace of Public Benefit Corporations, and a wealth of DEI strategies, among other concrete ways founders are trying building tech companies more responsibly.
Groups like LTSE, Institute for the Future, Builder Capitalists, Zebras Unite, Human Company Playbook, and Doteveryone (RIP) are pushing new thinking in the field, and tangential movements of long-termism, stakeholder-driven capitalism, worker-ownership models, society-centered design, and reimagining capitalism have been growing rapidly. Perhaps most notably, a recent survey issued by 500 Startups also makes it clear that the next generation of entrepreneurs want to take steps to ensure their growth does not come at the expense of a healthy democracy, human rights, or a peaceful society.⁴
We hope to centralize and share many of these stories to create case studies and practical resources for startups in every stage and vertical to build their companies responsibly. Going forward, there can be no other way.
We are thrilled to have an extraordinary advisory committee that includes founders, VCs, and experts in Tech & Society who bring deep cross-sector expertise to inform this work: Safiya Noble (Algorithms of Oppression) , Kathy Pham (Mozilla, Harvard), Nihal Mehta (Eniac VC) , Leslie Miley (Gusto, Slack), Clayton Bryan (500 Startups), and Ellen Chisa (Dark, Kickstarter), and Jenny Fielding (Techstars, The Fund).
If you’re a founder, startup employee, or investor who’s thinking about exploring these issues , or you’d like free access to our materials, drop us a line, or take a 2-minute survey on responsible company-building practices for your own organization.
Thank you to Elizabeth Eagen at OSF for her early support of this work, The Guild of Future Architects for fiscal sponsorship, and to all of our extraordinary advisors.
About the authors:
Dr. Wilneida Negrón most recently worked at the Ford Foundation, where she led strategy development between the Gender, Race, Ethnic Justice, Technology and Society, Mission Investing, Future of Work, and Civic Engagement thematic areas. She is a lifelong fellow for Data & Society Research Institute and the Atlantic Fellows Program for Racial Equity. @Dr. Wilneida Negrón
Lyel Resner is an entrepreneur, technologist, and advisor. He is currently the Head of the Public Interest Technology Studio at Cornell Tech, and has worked with Google, the ACLU, Girls Who Code, and Airbnb, among others. Previously, he Co-founded Swayable and was an executive at Flatiron School. He is also a Fellow at the MIT Civic Data Lab. @lyelr
: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/10/early-facebook-employees-regret-the-monster-they-created. Vanity Fair, Oct. 12, 2017.
: Why Coinbase will struggle to ban politics from the workplace.” The Verge, September 30, 2020.
: http://www.humancompanyplaybook.com/interview/phin-barnes/. O’Reilly. March 1st, 2016.
: https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/esg-gains-momentum-among-early-stage-startups-2020-07-16. Nasdaq, July 16th, 2020.