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Holding Corporate America Accountable in the Trump Era

One Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s quest to cultivate employee activism

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When Daniel Gross read the news of President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations this past weekend, he said he felt “frustrated.” His own grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. from Europe to escape the Nazis during World War II, and he draws a line from their resettlement to his own success. At the age of 18, the Israeli-born entrepreneur’s machine-learning company was accepted into the winter class of Bay Area startup incubator Y Combinator in 2010. By the time he was 21, he and his cofounder had sold that company, Cue, to Apple for an estimated $40 million. Now a partner at Y Combinator at the tender age of 25, he couldn’t imagine his path in any other place but America.

“I’m very grateful to this country for giving me my existence,” he said. “I think I’ve been a good example of how immigration in each generation is great for the country.”

Rather than join the immigration-ban protests at San Francisco International Airport this weekend, he put his coding skills to work. Gross fielded a few volunteers through a Facebook post — including Box CEO Aaron Levie, former Facebook and BitGo employee turned investor Arianna Simpson, and a handful of other startup employees — and over 48 sleepless hours they worked remotely to create Great Company. The website is an index of startups and major corporations that indicates whether they oppose or support the ban. For now, it’s a helpful resource for those seeking information about their employer amid the chaos of Trump’s controversial executive order. Gross envisions the site as an employee-caucusing tool that will encourage businesses to take political stances.

“I see this platform becoming the new era of political activism,” said Gross, who created the site independently from his employer. “At the end of the day, everyone wants to work at a company that supports the same values that they have individually. The hope is that we can broaden this platform so that employees can advocate for companies to take a public stance on a whole bevy of issues, immigration being just the first one.”

Gross’s idea of a more politically empowered workforce didn’t come out of nowhere. The White House’s Friday-evening executive order spurred a particularly forceful outcry from Silicon Valley, whether that came in the form of a passionate CEO tweet, a pledge to donate resources to those affected, or the beginnings of a lawsuit. Though it was the tech industry’s first major reaction to a Trump-era policy, their statements followed a well-established Bay Area tradition. Over the past 20 years, it has become commonplace and often beneficial for major companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft to align themselves with values like diversity, environmentalism, and gender equality — even if they aren’t always quick to implement them.

“This might make sense only now, where we’re kind of in this Twitter era where a CEO can take a public stance in a matter of seconds if he decides to do so,” Gross said. “It’s a little bit different than when they were mailing shareholders letters through snail mail.”

Before tech companies began branding themselves as socially conscious, consumers wielded some political power with their wallets. Throughout modern American history, members of both major political parties have boycotted brands based on certain issues. There was the outcry against antigay comments by Chick-Fil-A’s CEO in 2012, with gay marriage activists waging a campaign against the chain. Conservatives have fought similar battles with Starbucks over the years, typically over changes to their holiday-themed coffee cups, which have been interpreted as part of the “war on Christmas.” And amid the initial furor over the travel ban, droves of Uber users deleted the app over the CEO’s apparent willingness to work with Trump and an ill-timed pricing alert. Recently, digital tools like BuyPartisan — a barcode-scanning app that tracks the political affiliation of every publicly traded company’s donations — have popped up to guide consumers in their daily purchases.

In Gross’s experience working in Silicon Valley, however, communicating directly to the leadership of a company can often have a more lasting and prominent impact than temporary boycotts, which tend to fade from news cycles. And there’s evidence of that, considering the high-level positions of tech employees who have responded to the travel ban. To demonstrate solidarity within the tech industry, more than 1,000 technologists have signed an open letter from the group Silicon Valley Stands regarding Trump’s executive order, many of whom are executives, vice presidents, and directors of major companies in the area. Gross hopes that this kind of solidarity among workers can leverage more than just free snacks and standing desks.

“One thing I’ve noticed is the leaders of these various companies really listen to the internal beat of their team, of their employees, because hiring great people is so hard here,” he told me. “As a result, if you’re a leader of a company, you really care about maintaining your team and your people. You care about your engineers, you care about your sales team, you care about everyone working there. So when people internally apply pressure, they get heard.”

If the tool becomes popular enough, Gross thinks that the same forward-thinking tendencies of startups can be pushed to larger, more powerful Fortune 500 companies. It takes only a quick glance at Great Company’s index to see that many of the businesses that have come out against the immigration ban aren’t that well known and are deeply enmeshed within the tech industry (aside from a few corporate standouts like Goldman Sachs and Nike). The 20 that have yet to express an opinion, however, are massive corporations with political sway like Anheuser-Busch, ExxonMobil, and Johnson & Johnson. Eventually, Gross wants to chart the percentage of the United States GDP that comes out for or against an issue, based on the total market caps of companies on either side — something that may be of particular interest to President Trump.

“I think it would be great if America at large found this particular executive action to be bad,” he said. “But I think it may start internally because of how much people care about branding their company as a great place to work.”

In the meantime, Gross and his collaborators are still trying to improve upon their weekend project and catch up on lost sleep. They initially toyed with scraping data from the Twitter profiles of major CEOs or companies to compile the list, but manual labor was ultimately the most effective way to gather the information they needed as quickly as possible. They have yet to determine what other major issues they will add to the website over the course of the Trump presidency, and so far have no method for evaluating the quality of an announcement for or against an issue. (Something to consider after one compares the vanilla statement from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with that of, say, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.) But to Gross, the site is a step forward in what he sees as a changing landscape of corporate activism.