Inside the Growing Political Awakening of Austin’s Tech Community
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tech community moved there in recent years from other states, and they have been more focused on building companies and getting customers than paying attention to local politics.
“We had so many young people moving into Austin and, in many cases, they were first-time voters that didn’t know the basics of voting,” says Erin Defosse, the chief product officer at Austin tech startup Aceable and a leader of TechVotes. “That, combined with a lack of a culture that supports civic engagement, is a recipe for non-participation.”
TechVotes recruited a number of prominent Austin tech names—WP Engine, HomeAway, and Capital Factory, among others—as member companies that would encourage employees to register and vote in elections, starting with November’s presidential election. TechVotes also partnered with ride-hailing company Ride Austin to give first-time riders a $10 discount on trips to the polls.
In addition to being good citizens, Defosse says who else but the tech community should be part of policy discussions on topics such as the future of transportation and automation? “We have the expertise and the responsibility to share what we know to help the community,” he says.
Shion Deysarkar, founder and CEO of Austin analytics startup Datafiniti, says he was spurred to start Blue Squad following the results of last fall’s presidential election, which he considers a signal that the social progress he supports might not continue.
“We progressives kind of had it easy,” he told me. “Now we’re learning you can’t take it for granted. You have to fight for these things. People say, ‘Let’s not talk politics.’ But, no. The time for that is done.”
Blue Squad is recruiting volunteers from Austin’s tech community—software developers, web designers, and the like—who are willing to donate their time and skills to progressive political candidates. Deysarkar says about 60 volunteers have signed up and are starting to get connected with political candidates that they could help.
Kopser, meanwhile, started getting involved in local policy discussions about transportation issues after he sold his startup RideScout, a transportation aggregation app, to Daimler AG in 2014. “I put together a company from scratch, from a PowerPoint through to acquisition,” he says. “I’ve been through many of the challenges that small businesses go through.”
He says that experience, along with his military service and “raising three daughters in nine different public school systems,” gives him real-world experience that could help elevate the political discussion above partisan sniping. (Of course, many candidates say they want to rise above partisan bickering. Few deliver, and it might be even tougher to achieve in the current political climate.)
If he runs, Kopser would have a tall order to defeat a 30-year Republican incumbent in a district that mostly includes rural and suburban communities in Central Texas, as well as parts of Austin and San Antonio. But he says he’s received positive feedback since announcing his potential candidacy.
“If all these people identify with what I’ve done in the past and they’re Republicans,” he says, “maybe now when I start talking about issues of jobs and education and opportunity, they will see me more as a builder of consensus and less of a partisan hack that they will immediately shut off.”