A technology community driven by values, not just profits.
I’ve been part of the New York City tech scene for more than 15 years, from back when it was “Silicon Alley” trying to be an imitation of the West Coast, to its more recent iteration as a world-class technology community unlike any other in the world. While I’ve been deeply critical of the things people working in technology have gotten wrong, I’ve recently often found myself trying to re-emphasize something that our community has gotten right.
The other day, I was looking at Matt Turck’s analysis of the New York City tech ecosystem, a detailed look at tech in New York from a venture capitalist’s perspective. It offers a compelling and well-reasoned argument for a strong economic future for New York’s tech scene. But what most jumped out at me was what it missed about what’s special in New York City, something that has nothing to do with the rate of return for investors.
Put simply: New York City is unique in that its tech community is grounded in principles of social and civic responsibility. It’s an important distinction, one that we’ve got to work hard to protect and nurture. And just like New York-style pizza, I’m hoping lots of people in other cities think that what we’re making here is good enough that they try to emulate it in their own communities.
What do I mean by a civic-minded tech community? We see a few consistent traits that jump out:
- An actual community. Thanks to groups like the New York Tech Alliance and its signature monthly NY Tech Meetup event, we have the ability to gather and organize in centralized ways, a powerful and necessary infrastructure for organizing. As a NYTA board member, I’ve been able to see firsthand the convening power of having a prominent, unified group representing a tech community where “tech” doesn’t just mean employees at startups, but rather everyone who’s using tech to transform their work in various industries and across the public sector and academia as well.
- Engagement with policy and policymakers. On issues ranging from SOPA/PIPA to net neutrality, executives from New York tech companies were among the first, most persistent, and most effective voices engaging with policy makers to try to improve our laws. Their willingness to hop on an Amtrak and head down to Washington, D.C. to talk to lawmakers is matched by the more local efforts that so many in the NYC tech community do at the state, city, and neighborhood level.
- Community service. Whether it was after major events like Hurricane Sandy, when many in the tech community worked to volunteer around the city, or in more ordinary daily efforts like mentoring young students interested in technology, there’s a solid expectation of service that I see expressed between members of the community. It’s that kind of peer support that’s necessary to sustain a culture of service, and it’s been reassuring to see support extending from ordinary grassroots tech workers all the way up to the most prominent and influential investors and entrepreneurs in the city.
- Corporate commitment. While New York’s tech scene goes far beyond startup companies, we see meaningful, significant commitments to responsibility being made by some of the most prominent and influential companies in the community. From Kickstarter legally committing to being a Public Benefit Corporation to Warby Parker pursuing B Corp certification to Etsy working to uphold B Corp principles even as a publicly-traded corporation, there’s a visible and consistent tradition amongst our most successful companies to honoring their commitment to our city and to the world.
- Inclusion. No, the tech industry in New York City is not yet inclusive enough and does not yet provide opportunity to everyone in our city. But by gender, race and economic class, New York’s tech industry is miles ahead of any other major tech community in the United States. What’s more, our civic and social leadership are more broadly inclusive, making it much more likely that we’ll actually achieve significant change. This even extends as far as significant, broad-based commitments to public, universal programs like computer science education that’s available to every student, in every borough, instead of through commercialized, limited-access platforms.
This is a start, not a finish
We still have a lot of important work to do to improve our tech efforts in New York City — most urgently around inclusion. I am not trying to describe what we’re doing here as a utopian wonderland of perfect technology, and indeed we have inherited many of the same structural barriers and biases that plague the larger technology realm.
But the everyday commitment to being mindful of our communities and our obligation to the world is real, and has only increased over time. I’m hoping that by reiterating this unique strength of our community, we can remind ourselves keep putting in the effort and care to maintain a focus on our values.
To be clear, I’m not saying that only New Yorkers care about their communities. Lots of individuals in every part of the country, and every part of the world, care deeply about these things. But when I think about what motivates me most to work with people in the New York City tech scene, it’s that I can usually count on people sharing a sense of ambition to do something more than just making money.
And, though I still think New York-style pizza is the best, I’ll happily admit that nearly every city in America has at least one place that offers pretty decent pizza. A lot of the time, they call their offerings New York-style pizza just to make clear that they’re trying to be like the best. Similarly, I suspect that every city that develops a substantial technology community will nurture a core group of creative people who give back to their city and think that technology reaches its best potential when it benefits the most people.