Big Technology

Tech Must ‘Get Uncomfortable’ With Its Impact on Society: An Interview With Swati Mylavarapu

The Incite.org founder and activist investor shares her view on how innovation should improve the lives of everyday people

Swati Mylavarapu

OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts with notable figures in and around the tech industry.

This week, we’re joined by Swati Mylavarapu, a founder at Incite. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Overcast.

Swati Mylavarapu is a tech investor and activist who spent $2 million in the 2020 election cycle on Democratic causes, in partnership with her husband, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers. Mylavarapu isn’t your typical Silicon Valley investor. She’ll explicitly admit that the tech industry has some culpability in the hollowing out of the middle of our economy, delivering wealth to the few while leaving the rest in a tough spot. She also served as Pete Buttigieg's national finance chair in the 2020 Democratic primaries, playing a key role in his surprising upstart campaign.

Mylavarapu joined the Big Technology Podcast fresh off a bout with Covid-19 to discuss the tech industry’s role in our society, and how it can be a force for good moving forward.

Kantrowitz: We were actually scheduled to record last week. Do you want to fill us in on what your past couple of weeks have been like?

Mylavarapu: Yeah, it’s actually why I am literally excited to be here. My family and I contracted Covid, so we were grappling with the realities of that for most of the last two weeks, including over Election Day. But thankfully, relatively mild symptoms in our house, and we are on the mend and very lucky to have had access to great medical care, which is something that I wish every family had access to.

And it was also such a reminder because we’ve been extremely careful, maintaining a strict quarantine, lockdown, not traveling, and it still managed to come into our house. It’s a reminder that this thing is very real and we need a better coordinative response out there than what we’ve got at the moment.

You’re the first guest that we’ve had on that’s had it. I’m glad that you’ve recovered and are doing well.

Thanks. We’re also really lucky to be in San Francisco because the city’s gone above and beyond to make testing super accessible, so that helped us.

So, to start, there are people that call you a Silicon Valley power broker. I know you don’t like the term, but why do you think people say that?

Oh, I think that’s an awful term. I suppose people say that because I do a fair amount of work really at the intersection of supporting breakout leaders, and increasingly that’s been in the political realm, not just in the startup and venture realm. And I think that I am too rare a bird in Silicon Valley. But part of what I’m excited to talk to you about is why I think it’s important that more of us do this kind of work like we’re doing at Incite to invest in early stage political leaders as well as early stage startup and technology builders.

We spoke for a story a few weeks ago, and you seemed willing to say the way that tech accumulates wealth is part of the reason why have such a disconnect in the country right now.

We’re living in this moment in America where the idea of market fundamentalism and unfettered capitalism is increasingly in question, and that is not just led from one political party. You see people on the conservative side, like Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, starting to call for more conscious capitalism, to folks on the super progressive side as well.

Tech is very much caught in the crosshairs of all of these conversations. And I think the best way for us to grapple with that is to start grappling with these hard questions about what we’re building and why. And [asking] who it benefits; where it concentrates power, and who loses out as a result of it. Because if we’re not having those conversations, the world outside of our industry is having them for us.

Silicon Valley seems to have built a lot of platforms that end up accruing wealth to the few and taking opportunity from the many. One example is TurboTax. There used to be this whole class of accountants who would make a nice living doing families’ taxes, but TurboTax came around, it was more efficient, but it harmed this important middle of the economy. Do you see this as a problem?

It’s one of the biggest problems of our time. And it’s not something that sits squarely on the shoulders of technology companies in our industry, but it’s something that we very actively play a role in.

Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Sure. Well, you’ve given a great example of what this might look like if you are, say, building an enterprise software company. It’s equally true if you are building a delivery service company, and you are starting to make decisions about who are stakeholders in your business versus not and what is the relative value that a driver or delivery person participating on your platform has or not.

It’s also something even more fundamental. Mary Gray is an anthropologist who was recently given the MacArthur Genius prize, and her research over the last couple of years has done groundbreaking work to talk about what she calls “ghost work.” And the idea that any major technology platform in the modern age—whether you’re Amazon and what they’ve done with Mechanical Turk to a gig-economy company or any large company like Facebook that’s using a huge distributive global workforce—what they have done to create and underclass, a global underclass around the world.

And some of these might seem like fringe ideas, but I think we’re starting to see the credence that this notion of class and caste is starting to take on in public conversations about what’s happening in America, and it’s extremely relevant to what we build in the tech industry and these forces of power and earning asymmetry and the divide between capital and labor and how tech feeds into it.

Going back to the TurboTax example, are we going to end up in a society where we do have a small percentage of people who have the wealth and everybody else struggling to get by? We have a lot of political unrest in this country, in large part because people feel that the system has left them maybe one expense away from economic catastrophe.

Populism is in some ways a really powerful lens through which to view what’s happening in the United States at this moment, and if you think about technology as a way of supercharging some of the forces that are giving rise to populism, it can be really telling.

I spent a lot of time last year in places like Iowa, where Donald Trump is about as popular as Bernie Sanders, and that should tell us something. It’s not this red versus blue, good versus evil, the predominant cleavage for a growing number of Americans is around who gets access to having and who doesn’t.

So it’s interesting, you’re posing this as a question of technology building software that’s kind of inverse Robin Hood and taking from the folks that can least afford it and accumulating wealth. I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that, it’s not just that certain stakeholders are getting to accumulate disproportionate amounts of money. It’s also what we’re taking away from so many people that provided for their family, [who] were able to put bread on the table, and buying the American dream of their children and their children’s children having a better life than their own. We are stripping that away, and we’re not offering a viable alternative.

So I guess what you are pointing at is this is something that the political system needs to address?

No, I don’t think this is something that sits just on the political system. I think that this is also a reality that the tech industry has to grapple with and ask questions around. At some point, these companies that we’re building, what is the point of them if they are not meaningfully improving the quality of life for people?

Do you think people actually ask that question?

I think we’re starting to more and more. And I think in our earliest days, those were the questions that gave rise to the tech industry as we currently know it. Wherever those intentions have led us, and I believe at our core we are good and we do hard things not just to make a lot of money but because they make the world better.

And so what I’d love to see is a wider spread, deeper reckoning with some of those core, values-based questions. These days, I think our industry would be better if we talked as much about our leaders’ values and the real-world value that our companies are creating as we do about our valuations.

So often when I speak with tech leaders, they talk about people who are against technological changes being similar to the people who were against the horse and buggy moving to the car. Should we start discussing — and why have so few people started to ask — how tech products are leading a division between the economic haves and have nots?

Yes, we should be having those conversations. Those conversations are happening, they are happening today right now, whether or not we acknowledge that they are. So the question for my peers and my colleagues is: Do they want to be part of those conversations?

Obviously there’s somebody in the White House who calls into question foundational science and the advance of modern thinking when it benefitsed him. And he is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a growing movement of conservatives and elected officials in this country that do the same.

And so too, on the other side of the political spectrum, there’s a growing conversation around [the question]: What is the purpose of capitalism? What is the purpose of technology and innovation if it is not fundamentally improving the lives of everyday people? This movement’s getting a term, “conscious capitalism,” and I think there’s a lot of credence to it. And the more those of us that are here investing in future technologies, building the companies of the future, choose to participate in it, I think the better served we are in terms of what we find is investment-worthy.

But also in the kinds of problems that we decide to take on and solve with the companies that we build. For example, should more venture capital go into technologies and companies that are addressing our climate crisis? We make that choice in the allocation of capital in the founders and companies that we back alongside wanting to generate a top-notch return. It’s not clear that we have to choose between building great businesses and making a ton of money and solving big hard problems that are worth solving.

What is going on behind closed doors when you speak with people in the tech industry about the impacts of this wealth consolidation are?

The tech industry is a monolith. You know that better than most—it’s showcased in the diversity of viewpoints you bring on your podcasts and you cover in your stories, but I think that there is a growing concern.

This year saw two concurrent things that are really interesting to me. One, there’s a growing popular tech-lash, if you will, across most of America outside of Silicon Valley that calls into question the motivations, goals, and unquestioned utility of what’s happening in our industry. But we also saw an unprecedented number of people from inside the tech industry become politically and civically engaged.

How many of our colleagues and friends were motivated to do something around this year’s election? And so what that tells us is we’re an industry full of individuals that care deeply about the future direction of America, about doing good in the world, about solving hard problems that matter.

But somehow that has come a little bit unplugged from what the ramifications of our platforms and our businesses have had. There’s reason for optimism in that. I think we can get out there and rectify things and take more ownership and have these harder conversations.

It’s something that I push the folks in our Incite portfolio to do all the time. We start at the very beginning, by looking for founders that want to build big, hard problems and values-driven businesses, and we drive them and help create platforms for them to have conversations about some of these hard questions around what they’re building. I’d love to see us create more space for those kinds of conversation from more leaders across our industry.

You studied with Pete Buttigieg and ended up being his lead fundraiser here in Silicon Valley. I’m going to say this with a caveat, I’m not a Bernie Sanders voter, but looking at the message it seems to me that you might have gravitated toward him. So why Pete Buttigieg?

The way that you phrased your question, Alex, is in part my answer. So much of Pete’s magic is his ability to have very direct conversations with voters and talk to them openly about ideas that they might have pre-assumed to be too extreme or too radical but to make them palatable.

I’ll give you an example: At the beginning of the primary last year, Pete was the candidate out there in the Democratic presidential primary calling into question why the number of justices that we have on the Supreme Court was a fixed number and in fact, opening up the question of maybe there’s future court reform that calls in the question the size of the court.

Now wherever you are, and that is a potential solution, it became a mainstream idea in the run up to the election two weeks ago, something that everybody across the spectrum was talking about. It was there on Fox News as much as it was discussed on CNN or C-Span. And that is so much of Pete’s magic and his talent—to position ideas that might seem too far extreme or too futuristic and to make them seem approachable and palatable and to make them seem relevant in the current political moment.

It’s a skill that he has in spades, it’s also something that I think is true of new generation political leaders. So while you’re right, I’ve known Pete for half of our lives, and he asked me, he gave me the opportunity to work on his presidential campaign. It’s also something that I’ve seen in the deep political work that I’ve done for the last four years. Right after the 2016 election, I helped build a program called the Arena, which at this point has trained a few thousand young Americans around the country who are incredibly diverse to be first time candidates and staffers.

And this attribute, this ability to talk past partisanship and to speak to core values and to connect with voters on both sides of the political spectrum, is a skill that we see in all of these graduates coming out of the Arena too. I think it’s an indicator of the direction our politics are headed in.

Court-packing was something the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party embraced, but it wasn’t something really geared toward fixing the economic system. And when people thought of Buttigieg, I don’t think that’s really what they thought of. In fact, the tech industry’s support of him was that he was kind of a safe candidate that would ensure the economic systems that have made tech folks wealthy would stay in place. What do you think about that?

I don’t know, he came out here and he protested with Uber drivers; he was in support of AB5. He was out there very openly saying that social media platforms had gotten away from our democracy and the institutions that we respected and that those were all things that needed to be open to review.

So, were the positions as extreme maybe as Bernie Sanders’ economic positions? Not necessarily. But I think that they had a degree of pragmatism to them that also made them approachable, and there was a willingness to put everything out there.

And I’ll say, I think part of the reason why folks on the West Coast gravitated to Pete, especially in the tech industry, is because we have this thing, we understand what it is when young people step up to the plate and try to do big, hard things. And I think we have unique appreciation for that. So that’s part of what we saw reflected in the support that came out of Silicon Valley for Pete.

I don’t want to re-litigate the whole 2020 Democratic primary, but I think that the folks who listen to this might be skeptical that Silicon Valley actually wants real change in the political system. This is not an anti-tech industry podcast, but there’s definitely a feeling that there’s a reticence to tackle some of the real troubling aspects of our society head-on. So where do you stand on that?

For sure. Yeah, and so let me be very clear, this is not a normative position. I want to be very descriptive of what I see happening as a student of the social sciences and history; change is coming for the technology industry. The question is how actively our industry is going to participate in that conversation and in what ways.

Say more about that.

I just think you can see it in the tea leaves of what is happening in different corners of our country and the way that is starting to gain steam. The fact that populism is becoming a major theme in our politics, that there are more and more Americans beginning to question the technology industry, who are beginning to sort of wake up and realize that actually, democracy is more fundamentally American than capitalism, that the notion of unfettered market fundamentalism and businesses seeking profits for profit’ sake.

You can either be a turtle and stick your head back in the shell and hope that it just passes by, or we can get out here and actually listen, learn, participate, and demonstrate that there are better ways to build a more conscious kind of business that solves hard problems, satiates shareholders, and brings all of the stakeholders like our employees, our labor pools, the consumers that we rely on, along with us.

Could you see people actually in this world gravitating toward that message?

For sure I can. It’s part of the reason why we built Incite and why we look to invest in founders that lead with their values as well as their desire to create value.

We’ve got a portfolio now. In the last four years, we’ve made 60 investments of companies that are building important climate technologies, cancer therapeutics companies that have pivoted into COVID treatment development firms. We’ve got companies that are led by incredibly diverse teams that are making maternal health care more accessible to more people in America, that are building really amazing high return likelihood businesses but are also doing it in a conscious way. And if their businesses succeed, their stakeholders will succeed, as will their investors. So I’m in this business because I believe, I know it to be possible.

It seems like, at Incite, you’re looking for mission-driven or founders that want to heal the world, make things better.

I don’t know what we call it these days, but we invest in good people that want to solve big problems and make some money along the way.

Doesn’t everybody in the tech world feel like they’re a good person who wants to solve a problem in a good way and make some money along the way?

I hope so. I want to believe that most of us in tech are good people. But again, you’ve got to be willing to have the hard questions about what you’re building and why and in what ways does it actually benefit people.

I think for a long time, the first few years after I started Incite, I could tell some people got it and some people really didn’t because you’d start to talk about values and doing good and it would make some folks really uncomfortable. Like “Oh there is no data around that.” Or “Well what’s good or what’s bad?” This notion of false neutrality. No, you’ve got to have the conversations .

Right, once you bring that up then you can start to see who’s actually in it and who actually just had a slide in their PowerPoint deck that we’re going to improve the world by doing X.

Yep.

So you’re trying to help with the fund and with the political activism, what would you say is more impactful?

They’re both really impactful, and at their core, they are very similar. It’s the willingness to take early bets on good people that are getting out there to solve really hard problems, but we do it with an awareness that in 2020, big, hard problems aren’t just things that startup companies can fix. Sometimes they require really talented leaders in our politics, sometimes they require new nonprofits to advocate for whole new areas of investment. So we try to be flexible and nimble in the form that solution can take.

Okay, let’s end with this: What are some of the key policies that you would like to see implemented over the next four years? Now, I know we’re going to have divided government most likely, so the chance of anything getting done—if the last four years are any indication—is little. But if you had a dream set of policies that we would implement, what would they be?

Well for one, I’d like to see us get this pandemic under control because I think there is no economic recovery. We can’t even really start a conversation about economic recovery until we figure out how we’re going to get this virus in control.

And there are too many Americans whose health but also livelihoods depend on better leadership from the top. So that’s the first thing that I hope we get there on, and I think that’s such a huge opportunity for the tech and innovation community to step up to the plate and play a part in it. Because we know how vital science and scientific and tech breakthroughs are going to be in the development of treatment and the widespread accessibility of it.

So that’s a big one, but the other thing is I want us to have a set of forward-looking policies that really look at getting the economy working for more Americans. It’s a lot of the themes that you and I have spoken about today, Alex, but I think we’ve gotten the opportunity with the new administration to focus on some of these nonpartisan conversations around how we get the American economy working for more Americans.

And maybe that starts with things like student loan forgiveness and an economic stimulus and relief for families and small business owners across the country. But forward-looking, I think it’s got to be a lot more than that and really look at the breakdown of capital versus labor in this country and who has access to those two things.

And just looking at the composition of the transition team for the Biden-Harris administration and how incredibly diverse it is in gender, in race but also in thinking [and] socioeconomic background. I’m really hopeful, I think this could be one of the boldest periods of leadership on economic issues that America’s seen in a long time.

Okay, so help end the coronavirus and then think about student loan forgiveness—is there anything else that you’d be interested in pursuing?

Student loan forgiveness would be part of just a much broader-based economic reimagining. So I think that could include a host of things, including reinvestment in underprivileged communities, focusing on advancing home ownership for more parts of the country, focusing on minimum wage and what that looks like. We saw some important advances with the ballot box around those questions two weeks ago, but I think there’s more to be done under federal leadership there.

And then for tech companies out there, if there’s a few things that they could do differently, what would you recommend?

Focus on their core products and platforms and ask those hard questions about how their products and platforms are supporting or undermining democracy, and who they’re working for and why, and how we ensure that they work for more people. That’s a big part of it. And then the second is to look internally because it’s not just what our companies build, it’s also how we build them.

So these conversations that we’ve been having for a while around the diversity, or apparent lack thereof in our boardrooms, in our management teams, and our employee bases, it’s a really important moment to be asking those questions.

These are the things that we have control over—what we build and how we build it—so I’d love to see more of us asking these kinds of hard questions and pushing ourselves to choose between right and wrong. Get in there, and get uncomfortable.

I write the Big Technology newsletter. Sign up here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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