Partisan Activism 101 for Investors and Executives

You care passionately about certain political causes. How can you use your professional influence to help create change?

When your grandchildren ask you, “What did you do during the craziness of 2020?”, how will you answer them?   

Reid Hoffman, cofounder of Linkedin, writes:

Traditionally, CEOs … have tried to avoid mixing business and politics, perhaps because of the fear that the latter would harm the former. Back in the 1990s, basketball star Michael Jordan refused to endorse a Democratic candidate for governor of his home state of North Carolina, saying, “Republicans buy shoes too.” But in 2020, this traditional approach seems both outdated and untenable. The most important issues that affect every business – the Covid-19 pandemic, widespread protests against racism, and the presidential election – are, or have become, undeniably political.

My answer to my children is that in 2020 I became much more politically active. I’m an investor with very limited time, but I also have experience and a network that I didn’t have as a young person. At the same time, I have friendships with people from all parts of the political spectrum, and don’t want to unnecessarily alienate anybody. 

I started by becoming more politically active in a non-partisan way; I wrote up how I approached this in How Non-Partisan Business Leaders Can Help Fix America. However, if you’re comfortable taking stances on issues that are more partisan in nature, there’s a lot more you can do. I couldn’t find any good resources online for people like me, so I put together a 10-point checklist of Activism 101 for investors and executives.  I’m working through the steps below as a 2020 personal priority. 

Personally, I’m focused on saving American democracy from the unique threat of Donald J. Trump, despite the fact that I was previously Chair of a Republican PAC. But even if you disagree with me, my ideas below are still applicable.

  1. Most important, recruit other business leaders to get involved, in whatever way makes sense. Gather their feedback to change policy on the issues that you care about. Ask your friends: how would you like to get involved in supporting [our preferred position or candidate]? Ideally, encourage them to publicly endorse the candidate or position on social media. If they’re uncomfortable doing so, ask them to implement some or all of the ideas in How Non-Partisan Business Leaders Can Help Fix America. We launched the “Ambassadors at Large” initiative for the Biden/Harris campaign in order to provide a formal channel for business leaders to use their unique influence.
  2. Use your superpowers. Every business leader has unique expertise and network. For example, if you’re an investment research analyst, you have expertise in assessing the financial implications of America’s inadequate handling of COVID-19. Share that analysis. If you work in technology, you can invest in or work for a political technology company, as Michael Bloomberg did by launching Hawkfish. Chris Sacca, a prominent venture capitalist, has aggressively invested in progressive political tech companies. VIDA, which sells beautiful original accessories and other goods, launched a VIDA VOTE collection of facemasks and other apparel to help Get Out the Vote.  David Barrett, CEO of Expensify, emailed millions of his users, “Protect democracy, vote for Biden.”
  3. Organize a parlor meeting for politicians and causes you support. As a business leader, you can recruit your peers to listen to a pitch for the causes you support. Innovators for Biden recently organized a “CEOs for Democracy” evening which attracted over 300 CEOs, who are all working to help Biden get elected.
  4. Publicly endorse your preferred candidates, leveraging your visibility as an industry leader. For example, I wrote a public endorsement of Joe Biden in 7 Easy Steps to Make America Functional Again. Reid Hoffman wrote: A Vote for Biden Is a Vote for American Business. In doing this, you need to be careful to separate your personal brand from your corporate brand. 
  5. Reach out to non-governmental organizations and candidates that you support, not just as a donor, but highlighting your unique competencies. Say to their executives, “I can give you a check, but given my position I suspect there’s a lot more I can do to further your mission. What do you suggest?” 
  6. Get on the media’s radar. It’s important that the media is aware that businesspeople are becoming politically active, and what topics you care about.  Qwoted and Cision Help a Reporter Out are services that journalists use to identify sources for their stories, at no cost to you. 
  7. When you’re meeting with people whose politics you don’t know, mention you’re politically involved, but don’t proselytize. Just leave the door open. Most likely they’ll ask about your initiatives, and you’ll learn they’re aligned with you. You can recruit them to get more politically involved also. But if not, it’s important they know that some of their professional peers have different political beliefs than they do.  Hopefully that will help them reconsider their views.  It’s normally very difficult to change peoples’ mind, but it’s much easier if you represent the “tribe” the person is from.  You’re in the tribe of business leaders, which helps your credibility with other similar people. Your goal should simply be to motivate people to take an action they might not otherwise have taken. As context, 77% of business leaders polled by Yale say they plan to vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the November election.  
  8. Use your client-facing channels to share your values. Most businesses will not be as aggressive in promulgating their values publicly as, say, Ben & Jerry’s. However, in the past few years many major businesses have very publicly pushed on issues that might have been controversial in the past.  For example, hundreds of tech CEOs have publicly pushed to increase immigration.  Many others have also publicly talked about their race-related initiatives and concern about non-White Americans in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. You can do the same. 
  9. Recruit public influencers. If your business involves working with celebrities/influencers, then you are sitting on a lot of dry powder to impact opinion. Consider asking the influencers you work with to share political messages on their channels. Innovators for Biden has a Talent Task Force focused on recruiting influencers to evangelize for Biden.  
  10. Lastly, donate and recruit others to donate. The traditional political industry is very focused on fundraising, and money is always welcomed. That said, scientists have actually found it very difficult to prove that money influences politics. George Soros and the Koch family have far more money than the rest of us combined, but they’ve both failed to steer US politics in their preferred direction. We think that if you use your unique expertise and influence, you can do much more to impact politics than your money alone.

In the Ethics of the Fathers, a classical Jewish text, we learn, “In the place where there are no leaders, you will be a leader.” America desperately needs more civic involvement by people who are thinking about the long-term good of the country.

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“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke

Further reading:

Executive Activism

Xiao Wang, CEO, Boundless: It’s time for Tech Startups to Get Political

Reid Hoffman, cofounder, Linkedin: Talking Politics: When, How, and Why CEOs Should Speak Out

Chris Sacca, Lowercase Capital, What you can do to save our democracy

Brian Tayan, Stanford University: The Double-Edged Sword of CEO Activism

Corporate political activism is now becoming a requirement for doing business

Michael Seibel thread: “If US technology companies worked together right now – what could they do to deter Putin’s invasion?”

Activism 101

A Step-By-Step Guide to Getting Involved in Political Activism

How to Make a Difference – Tips for Effective Activism

How to Persuade People

The Only Way to Change a Voter’s Mind: “Deep canvassing”

We asked a cult deprogramming expert how to talk your friends out of voting for Trump

Escape from the Trump Cult

At Yale, we conducted an experiment to turn conservatives into liberals. The results say a lot about our political divisions.

How to talk to conspiracy theorists—and still be kind

Thanks to Ben Leiner and Matt Wallaert for thoughtful input. I’m a past investor in VIDA via HOF Capital.

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