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Silicon Valley's "Obi-Wan," Ron Conway, Pulls Tech Startups Into Politics

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, January 28 2013

SV Angel Founder Ron Conway outside San Francisco City Hall Jan. 2012 protesting SOPA/PIPA Photo: Lai Stirland

On the evening of Jan. 11, a crowd of about 150 local politicos and denizens of the world of finance and technology gathered at the members-only St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, lured there with an invite from the influential angel investor Ron Conway.

Fancy parties at a place like the St. Francis would be no surprise for the San Francisco technology scene, but this one was unusual for its somber tone. Conway put it together to commemorate the launch of Sandy Hook Promise, founded by community members from Newtown, Conn., after a disturbed man with an assault rifle shot and killed 20 children, four teachers, and two administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Among other things, the group's stated goal is to work to ensure a tragedy like Sandy Hook never happens again.

Conway is well known in Silicon Valley for his ability to connect entrepreneurs to each other and to potential investors — so much so that one news account from August quotes a Valley insider as calling him the "Obi-Wan" of the next generation of web startups. In recent months, however, the early investor in Facebook, Twitter, and Google has also been trying to use his influence get other tech-sector figures more involved in politics. During San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's campaign, for example, the Conway-backed social voting platform Votizen announced that Conway-backed candidate Lee was among its first clients. Friends of Conway like Twitter's Biz Stone and MC Hammer appeared in an endorsement video for Lee, a remix of Hammer's "2 Legit 2 Quit." But as the speaker list at the closed-door St. Francis event shows, Conway is doing more than facilitating flashy announcements or fun and games. With his help, the ongoing national debate around gun violence has become a chapter in the saga of Silicon Valley's slowly evolving political identity.

"I think the tech community is getting an education on San Francisco's history with gun violence through Ron," said one Silicon Valley insider, who noted that startup founders do not usually find themselves concerned with gun policy.

On hand that Friday evening were former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — a friend of Conway's — and her husband, the former astronaut Mark Kelly. After an introduction from Conway, Kelly invoked the scene on Jan. 8, 2011, in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Ariz., where a man with a gun approached Giffords at a public event and began shooting. Her attacker, Jared Loughner, fired bullets that struck 19 people and killed six. Loughner shot Gifford in the head and, for a time, it was unclear if she would recover. Since then, Kelly explained, the husband-and-wife team have founded a new lobbying group called Americans for Responsible Solutions, Kelly to lobby for gun control legislation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, also spoke. She offered a background briefing on the history of Congress' attempts to ban assault weapons, but she had a personal story to relate as well. On Nov. 27, 1978, then-City Supervisor Feinstein called the police to report the sound of gunfire in City Hall. Investigating it herself, she found her colleague, City Supervisor Harvey Milk, shot dead at close range. Disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White had killed him and Mayor George Moscone. Feinstein became an outspoken advocate for gun control.

"Being in the room was a powerful experience, not least because of Mark's painful recounting of the morning Gabby was shot, and what this movement means to them," recalls Matt Mahan, president and CEO of Causes, who attended the event.

Conway didn't just limit the push to people in the room. Last year he became chairman of SF Citi, a new organization to mobilize San Francisco's tech community around civic issues. In early January, SF Citi members received an email asking them to support Sandy Hook Promise by posting badges to their sites. The idea was that this would drive traffic to Sandy Hook Promise and generate email signups for the group. He also announced the formation of a new committee to find technology solutions to boost gun safety.

"Ron is doing everything he can to help our nation address the issue of gun violence, including enlisting the support of many other leaders in the tech community," his spokesman Aaron McLear told techPresident. Conway declined to comment directly for this article.

The Sandy Hook initiative is just one of the latest of the high-powered investor's forays into the world of public policy and politics. He's also active on the national level through industry lobbying groups such as the technology industry CEO group TechNet, Engine, a group representing tech startup interests, and CalInnovates, a regional public policy group representing startups both on the state and federal levels. Items on Conway's front burner on the federal level include immigration reform and freeing up more spectrum to enable the growth of the mobile Internet. Conway is also a donor to candidates and organizations from both political parties, according to campaign finance reports available from OpenSecrets.org.

It wasn't always this way. A San Francisco native whose family moved to the wealthy suburb of Atherton when he was in high school, Conway moved back to the city in 2003. At a TEDx event in San Francisco mid-October where he gave a presentation on SF Citi to an assembled group of Internet entrepreneurs, he said that at that point in his life he had been "fairly apolitical."

The confluence of the tech business with local politics started to draw him in. In 2011, news broke that Twitter was considering leaving San Francisco to avoid its tax burdens. Conway, an early investor and adviser, stepped in to broker a payroll tax deal with the city's mayor and board of supervisors. He also worked to persuade San Francisco's Board of Supervisors to repeal city taxes on stock options. But the tax issue extended to other startups.

"So any company that was pre-public, namely Twitter, Zynga and Yelp, were going to get hit with massive taxes that don’t exist anywhere else in the country for stock option taxes," Conway explained at that October event. "And once again Ed Lee came to the call, and the private company stock option tax was repealed by the board of supervisors.

"So ding, ding, ding, the tech community started to say to itself: 'Wow, we need to stay involved in government,’" Conway continued. "And we actually had a hand in getting Ed Lee to run for the election, because he was appointed. And then the tech community rallied around, and helped him get elected. And shortly after the election, he said to me: You helped me get elected, but tech needs to get even more engaged."

This led Conway to help start SF Citi, which also successfully lobbied San Francisco to end the payroll tax for all tech startups thanks to Proposition E, a ballot initiative that passed in November.

The investor's involvement in local politics has raised hackles among San Francisco progressives. Conway gave money to San Francisco Women for Responsibility and Accountability, a PAC campaigning against City Supervisor Christina Olague on the grounds that she bucked Lee to support the scandal-plagued city sheriff, Ross Mirkarimi. She lost her re-election bid thanks in part to those ads, and landed at an area nonprofit.

SF Citi, on the other hand, is more broadly civic-minded projects. In 2012, the group launched a technology experiment to arm city police with tablets so that they can save time reporting crime incidents. The group also supported local Proposition C, a measure that created a fund to support new affordable housing but also reduced affordable housing requirements for private residential projects. That compromise makes sense for a tech sector accused of driving up rents for everyone else. Conway himself worked over the years to help Alex Tourk, a well-known local lobbyist and former campaign manager for Gavin Newsom, on a project called Project Homeless Connect, which organizes volunteers and corporate contributions to help the homeless.

In the course of all of this, Conway and his staff outline in their public remarks about SF Citi an effort to push tech entrepreneurs out of the Silicon Valley bubble and face-to-face with the issues affecting the world in which they do, at the end of the day, actually inhabit.

Tourk, who also spoke at the TEDx event in October, put it this way to the audience.

"Tech companies need to be involved in solutions -- one company can't just look after their company, their product, their issue, because it's bigger than that," he said.

Tech companies need to work together with the city government to bring about positive changes to the city, he added.

Tourk ended his pitch with a request that the companies sign up for a free SF Citi membership. It wasn't clear that the roomful of entrepreneurs were impressed, but afterwards, many of them said the presentation had forced them to think about things they don't usually consider.

The more immediate question is how effective Conway and his tech-sector fellow travelers might be in the debate over gun violence. Immediately after the Sandy Hook tragedy, there was talk in the community of organizing a SOPA-style uprising in which a concerted effort would galvanize large numbers of Internet users into a sudden surge of effort. The idea at the time seemed intriguing since platform companies like Reddit successfully urged their users to take action against the Stop Online Piracy Act and its companion bill the Protect IP Act in January 2012. Conway and his tech industry investor peers in New York Ken Lerer, Eric Hippeau, and Fred Wilson bought a full-page ad in the New York Times and online to promote the anti-gun violence proposals of Mayors Against Illegal Guns in December. A few of the companies listed as SF Citi members have Sandy Hook badges on their pages — but only a few. And when Feinstein introduced her bill to ban assault weapons Thursday, the issue did not take off in Silicon Valley.

As polls have shown, the magnitude of the Sandy Hook tragedy seemed to have shifted the terms of the debate. But that surge from the Internet never came, or at least, has yet to arrive.

And while SF Citi members have become involved in local affairs, it's not officially part of Conway's broader push on the gun-control debate. When I asked about the email sent to SF Citi members, Conway's spokesman, McLear, gave a response that put distance between Conway the individual and SF Citi the civic organization.

SF Citi, McLear said, "is not engaged in this issue."

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