Following Trump win, Silicon Valley prepares to step up its global development work

By Catherine Cheney 16 November 2016

The Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park in Silicon Valley. Photo by: Komail Naqvi / CC BY-NC-ND

The day after the United States presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg captured the mentality of much of Silicon Valley when he posted a picture with his daughter, Max, and this caption: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let's go work even harder.”

It remains to be seen what the unexpected Donald J. Trump presidency will mean for the U.S. approach to global development. But Devex spoke with Silicon Valley leaders about the way they view their own role as the next administration takes shape. They said that with concerns mounting over what the future scale of U.S. foreign aid will look like, the role of the technology and innovation sector will become all the more critical.

Working harder and better

While many in Silicon Valley reacted with the same shock that swept the nation last week, entrepreneurs and investors are quickly transitioning from processing the results to intensifying their efforts ahead of what many anticipate will be a cutting back of U.S. government development efforts.

“If I were not doing this work, I'd feel utterly powerless right now,” said Kevin Starr, managing director of the Mulago Foundation in San Francisco, which funds social entrepreneurs working in developing countries. “Because I have this work, I feel am determined to step it up, and that leaves me a sense of agency and hope. Government is going to be dysfunctional for a while, and what we do is going to be more important than ever before.”

The corporate leaders, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs gathering for the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley this week are feeling motivation and urgency to come together to advance social outcomes, said Zeev Klein, general partner at Landmark Ventures and founder of the Social innovation Summit.

“There has always been the strong underlying passion, but with the change in administration I suspect efforts will be redoubled to identify key gaps from the public sector that will now need to be met by the private sector,” he told Devex via email.

For example, at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit hosted at Stanford University earlier this year, the U.S. Agency for International Development emphasized the way it can help entrepreneurs scale their solutions. While plans continue for GES 2017 in India, entrepreneurs — particularly those working on issues the president-elect has pledged to cut funding for — are beginning to question whether they can look to the government as a partner.

“The uncertainty of federal global development funding for social enterprises, innovations, and entrepreneurship is a big concern to me as a social entrepreneur,” said Aneri Pradhan, the San Francisco-based founder of ENventure, which is focused on bringing clean energy to Uganda.

The current administration did an enormous amount to propel the social innovation sector forward, she said, adding that she is concerned what will happen to initiatives such as Power Africa and Development Innovation Ventures in the next administration.

Global entrepreneurs based in the U.S. may not want to stay in the U.S. if hostility to immigrants translates from campaign rhetoric to political reality under the incoming Trump administration, said Doug Galen, CEO of RippleWorks, which connects Silicon Valley experts with social enterprises in the developing world.

“Will [Trump’s] anti-immigrant message hurt job growth and entrepreneurship in the US by immigrants and encourage such job growth and entrepreneurship globally?” he asked.

This period of uncertainty demands that organizations in Silicon Valley and beyond working to address global poverty work not only harder but also better, Starr told Devex.

“With government MIA, and markets doing whatever weird things they’re going to do in the wake of this disaster, we have to have a more disciplined focus on impact,” he said. “We've always needed an efficient market for impact; if we can pull it off, it may be the only effective market we have.”

An opportunity to partner

“People here don’t want to build the next burrito delivery app,” Zvika Krieger, the U.S. Department of State’s representative to Silicon Valley, told Devex.

He used this line, his favorite way to describe how Silicon Valley is in the midst of a transition from focusing on solutions in search of problems to tackling problems that defy easy solutions, in a recent meeting at Google. It turns out Project Wing, a unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet. Inc., had just launched a partnership with Chipotle Mexican Grill, meaning that burritos are in fact the focus of the most extensive U.S. test yet of routine drone delivery of products. But Krieger — like other global development professionals increasingly engaging Silicon Valley — stands by his belief that Silicon Valley is increasingly drawn to seemingly insurmountable problems such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Our approach to global threats has always been premised on the idea that these are big challenges that will require innovation, collaboration, resources and a sense of urgency to solve,” said Bruce Lowry, director of policy and communications at the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which focuses on safeguarding humanity from global threats ranging from water security to pandemics to climate change. “So anything that takes away from those factors will slow down potential solutions.”

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The election results makes partnership between established and emerging global development actors more critical than ever before.

“To have impact globally, tech expertise must be married with knowledge of how to design programs, communicate and do business with the billions Silicon Valley does not currently touch,” said Jessica Heinzelman, a San Francisco-based consultant who brings her knowledge of emerging market economies to companies and NGOs looking to expand their footprint with technology.

Because much of Silicon Valley sees the SDGs not as a foreign aid problem but as an investment opportunity, they are increasingly looking toward markets they see as too big to ignore. But they lack an understanding of the challenges of working in developing countries with diverse populations whose needs differ from those of the high-tech consumers they tend to target. This need opens up an opportunity for global development professionals who might want to make the transition from Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley.

“This may be Silicon Valley's moment to attract the best and brightest away from Washington, D.C., and government-funded implementers working abroad who can offer their expertise to tech companies and foundations based here,” Heinzelman said.

With future government funding for foreign aid and global development in question, NGOs will have to look for new funding streams, she said. This could be what finally pushes organizations that have struggled to tap into Silicon Valley money to adapt their fundraising strategies. And partnerships will allow the technology and innovation sector and the global development industry to combine forces to develop and scale appropriate and impactful solutions, she said.

The importance of inclusivity

When it became clear that Trump would become the next president of the United States, Sam Altman, the founder of Y Combinator, tweeted the following: “Tonight we cry, we despair, and we fear. Tomorrow we get back to work trying to build the world we want.”

But while reactions such as these were common among Silicon Valley leaders, with some going so far as to say California should secede, the election led many Silicon Valley leaders to ask themselves how they can ensure that technology does not accelerate problems for the people it does not reach.

“The prosperity generated through technological innovation and globalization increased inequality,” said Shannon Farley, cofounder of Fast Forward, which provides financial and human capital to technology nonprofits.

While the digital divide has historically been defined by access to broadband and mobile, the second digital divide is product based, with few companies building products to address the needs of the base of the economic pyramid, Farley said.

Technology has the potential to act as an equalizer, Nikunj Jinsi, global head of venture capital investments at the International Finance Corp., told Devex via email Wednesday.

“I think if anything learnt from last night, a key lesson is that any societal, developmental or political change needs to be all inclusive, not just applying to targeted few segments,”  he told Devex Wednesday.

Investments in technology, innovation, and the new digital economy can enable people in developing countries to create better livelihoods for themselves, he added.

“None of this needs push from an administration, more a strong will from the people concerned,” he said.

Still, Silicon Valley companies could benefit from the resources and relationships of organizations such as USAID to build products for the base of the economic pyramid, Farley said.

“As much as Sam wants to just sit and roll up his sleeves for the ‘world we want,’ he has to be cognizant of who he means by ‘we,’” said Teddy Ruge, cofounder of the Hive Colab innovation hub in Uganda.

On Thursday, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and his wife Michelle Yee announced a $20 million pledge to the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a new laboratory that is one part of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative plan to cure all disease by the end of the century. On the one hand, the donation demonstrates the way how the influence of Silicon Valley money and technology will continue regardless of who is in the White House. On the other hand, Priscilla Chan said she is “waiting anxiously” to learn more about what the Trump administration’s policies will be to determine how they can “work together.”

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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