Tech’s impact on local politics, policy and philanthropy remains to be seen

photo by Cecily Johnson

Almost 100 people filled the small space within Owen’s Garage to hear panelist speak on tech’s plans for community engagement. The Oct. 5 event, Tech’s Emerging Role in Politics, Policy and Philanthropy, was a mix of tech and nonprofit leaders in attendance, all set to hold tech accountable. The Austin Monitor’s Mike Kanin and GivingCity’s Monica Maldonado Williams moderated.

Panelist Joshua Baer, representing the newer organization, Austin Tech Alliance, began with a confession that the tech community responds to the growth in the sector differently. Baer explained how when he hears tech leader Apple is opening its largest campus in the country here in Austin, he sees nothing but benefits for the community. But he went on to admit that he didn’t realize that those outside the tech community saw it as tech’s continuing encroachment on Austin’s way of life.

photo by Cecily Johnson
photo by Cecily Johnson

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he believed tech had a vital role to play in the future of Austin and, in fact, he invites tech representatives often to weigh in on issues facing the community. After the Uber debacle, in fact, Adler’s office leaned heavily on colleagues in tech to create the nonprofit ride-sharing company, RideAustin, which complies with the city’s fingerprinting rules for transportation networks and has signed up about 2,000 drivers.

But when asked whether the tech community should engage in local politics and policy, Mayor Adler said tech had no choice but to engage, suggesting that if tech wanted to change the systems the city operates by now it would have to engage in those systems.

photo by Cecily Johnson
photo by Cecily Johnson

As the conversation turned to philanthropy, a few tired notions were brought up, like the idea that people in the tech community could solve social problems that nonprofits could not. Panelist Barbary Brunner of the Austin Technology Council mentioned work her organization was doing alongside other organizations like Entrepreneurs Foundation. Brunner also mentioned the work of Dan Graham’s philanthropy-focused organization, Notley Ventures, which funds nonprofit and social enterprise organizations as well as produces events that bring the tech community into contact with these organizations.

But as the questions from the audience asserted, tech’s impact on social issues remains to be seen. Beth Kruger, the director of Austin Gives, a coalition of local businesses that give 1% or more of their profits to charity, stood up and challenged those in the tech community to get involved in philanthropy. And Laura Donnelley, the founder to Latinitas, a nonprofit that focuses on preparing girls and young women for jobs in the tech field, further challenged the tech community to address its lack of diversity.

The event, part of Austin Startup Week, was co-hosted by GivingCity Austin and the Austin Monitor, with Owen’s Garage serving as the venue and support from tech startup Encast and gin distillers Revolution Spirits, both Austin-based companies.

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