Y Combinator’s recent mashup with the American Civil Liberties Union has raised some questions and concerns. The main concerns are around how YC and Silicon Valley influences will mix with the ACLU and its mission, as well as YC’s connection with Peter Thiel, a part-time partner at YC.
“I wish I was excited abt this, but I’m nervous bc principles of tech growth have not historically been inclusive or benefited all,” CODE 2040 co-founder Laura Weidman Powers wrote on Twitter following the announcement.
Weidman Powers later expanded on that tweet, saying that sometimes the values of tech culture (i.e. “faster, bigger more open” plus “software eats the world + we’re proud of it”) can “bump up against the structural racism+deep-seated sexism in America +three are bad consequences.” She said a lot more than that, which you can read on Twitter, but that’s the gist.
In response to her tweets, Y Combinator Partner Kat Manalac elaborated on some details of the partnership, saying that YC is donating to the ACLU and sending Cadran Cowansage, a software engineer at YC, to consult with the ACLU on its tech challenges. Manalac also mentioned that by enabling the ACLU to present at Demo Day, they’ll have access to “hundreds if not thousands of potential donors.”
But Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner at Backstage Capital, expressed some additional concerns about Thiel’s connection to Trump, saying that she doesn’t want someone who is so close to Trump being privy to ACLU’s inside information or lists. But Manalac said Thiel is not very involved with YC these days.
“He is not a partner,” Manalac said. “He never has been. We have 19 full-time partners who work very closely with the companies.” She went on to say that she “can understand why people would be very scared and nervous about that but he will definitely have no interaction with the ACLU.
Manalac went on to explain YC’s involvement with the ACLU, saying that Cowansage will spend six weeks in New York working full-time with the ACLU and helping them with software and other tech challenges.
Manalac also clarified that YC never tells companies and non-profits in the program how to use their money. The ACLU raised $24 million over one weekend following President Donald Trump’s signing of the executive order that bans immigration from seven countries with majority Muslim populations. The following Tuesday, YC announced that the ACLU would be enrolling in its Winter 2017 class, but Manalac says talks between the two organizations began way before that weekend.
It’s worth noting that while some people have expressed concerns and nervousness around the partnership, it’s not all bad news bears out there. Tiffani Ashley Bell, founder of the Human Utility Project and YC alum, is on the optimistic side, saying that if the partnership goes at it should, “YC will learn just as much as the ACLU, if not more, benefitting everybody,” she wrote on Twitter yesterday. Bell also mentioned that the non-profit world’s use of tech “is still in the stone ages, so there is a lot for ACLU to learn.”
Regarding Thiel, Bell said she suspects Thiel has little to do with YC’s day-to-day operations. Bell also noted that she doesn’t think YC should have cut ties with Thiel when he came out in support of Trump.
“I don’t think people should be concerned (about Thiel’s connection with YC),” Bell told TechCrunch via a Twitter DM. “He’s not running YC, and as far I’ve seen, as a YC alum, Thiel has nothing to do with its nonprofit program. Plus he’s had ridiculous views for years on women, for example, and funded FB, but nobody has stopped using FB over any of his views and he still sits on their board, even.”
The ACLU also does not seem concerned. In a statement to TechCrunch, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero expressed gratitude in both public support and support from YC president Sam Altman. He also said that Thiel will not be involved in any way.
“The partnership was forged in conversations with Altman,” Romero said. “Peter Thiel, a well-known supporter of President Trump, has no role in this project, but the ACLU imposes no political litmus test on our supporters or volunteers. As with other pro-bono legal donations and other in-kind services received by the ACLU, individuals across the political spectrum are welcome to support our work. We set our own agenda and work with any and all individuals willing to advance our goals of promoting civil liberties and civil rights.”