Over the past eight years, there has never been a shortage of bold social action by Silicon Valley's most powerful and influential.
We saw it in 2014 when Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as a proud gay man. We saw it in 2013 when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and several others launched FWD.us, calling on Congress to open the U.S. to more immigration. And most recently we saw it in 2015 when Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff threatened to pull his company out of Indiana after the state passed a law that allowed discrimination against LGBT people.
One month after the election of Republican businessman Donald Trump, whose campaign was filled with racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric, there's still plenty of moral leadership to be found in the tech industry. It's just not coming from the top.
As Silicon Valley's most influential leaders take a wait-and-see approach toward controversial President-Elect Donald Trump, pausing to consider what effect his policies could have on their companies' bottom lines, it's grassroots efforts by everyday tech workers that are perpetuating the industry's tradition of tolerance and progressive activism.
"This presidency, given the drastic divisiveness of all of it, it's really forcing [tech leaders] to think about what's important," said Kyle Graden, a gender solutions strategist and former employee of Salesforce. "They do really care, but they have to ask themselves 'Do we care enough to risk some business?'"
It's a change in the tech industry that has been underway for some time but has become starkly evident in the past month.
Nothing has done more to highlight the new dynamic than the question of where tech companies stand on the idea of helping the federal government create a Muslim registry as a tool against future terrorist attacks. A growing number of tech companies have vowed never to build such a demographic database, but these pledges came only after most large tech companies originally stonewalled the question. It took hundreds and then thousands of independent tech workers signing their names to a pledge before their companies finally began to budge on the matter.
"We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration's proposed data collection policies," independent tech workers said in their pledge against the creation of a registry. Their display led directly to Apple, Google and Facebook, among others, distancing themselves from the proposal, which Trump has yet to renounce.
A similar pattern played out in November around the issue of fake news.
Journalists questioned the influence of false and misleading stories shared and propagated on Facebook, Twitter and Google. Zuckerberg's initial reaction was to dismiss any blame, calling the idea of fake news stories swaying Americans votes as a "crazy" proposition. Zuckerberg only changed his stance after a renegade group of his employees formed an unofficial task force to look into the matter.
"It's not a crazy idea. What's crazy is for [Zuckerberg] to come out and dismiss it like that, when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season," one Facebook employee told BuzzFeed regarding the renegade group.
Shown up by his underlings, Zuckerberg quickly adopted a more contrite tone; Facebook is now launching efforts to better identify fake news. He has even softened on his long-held assertion that Facebook should in no way be considered a media company.
The national context matters. During Obama's time as president, it was always easy for Silicon Valley to be progressive without worrying about high-level fallout for their businesses. The leader of the free world was a fan of both tech and progressive social norms. With the looming presidency of Trump, things have changed.
Trump may say that he believes Silicon Valley is a unique industry, but he is not afraid of leaning on its biggest players, as he already has with Twitter, which he shunned from a recent high-level CEO summit.
"For better or for worse, founders, CEOs and tech leaders have a duty to their investors, partners, shareholders and employees. Their words and actions have a pronounced effect on their companies," said Ben Parr, co-founder of Octane AI, a startup whose tools can be used to create artificially intelligent messaging bots.
As an example, Parr argues that if a tech CEO makes a public comment and is then suddenly lambasted by Trump, who is never shy to express his thoughts through tweets, that CEO could suddenly see the price of his or her company's shares fall instantly as a result.
"This is one of the reasons why you see tech leaders so restrained at the moment," Parr said. "Employees, on the other hand, don't have these restrictions. They are more free to speak their minds and organize. Their actions don't have the same impact on a company or an industry. In fact, tech leaders may quietly support these efforts since they cannot publicly."
Tech's leaders may be restrained at the moment, but there is evidence that a divide is growing, and nowhere is it more evident than in the industry's individual contributions throughout the 2016 election.
As usual, the tech industry shaded heavily blue in its campaign support. Hillary Clinton raised more money from Silicon Valley than any other presidential candidate at nearly $8 million from 9,670 contributions, according to Crowdpac, a nonpartisan tech startup that analyzes data on contributions to political candidates.
But while Clinton raised the most money, she did not receive the highest number of contributions from the tech industry. That distinction went to social liberal Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who received more than 41,900 individual contributions from Silicon Valley, most of which came from the industry's non-management tech workers, Crowdpac told Inc.
The tech industry's top brass may have put its weight behind the business-friendly Clinton, but more everyday tech workers gave what they could to the more liberal Sanders, the data shows.
Now with the ascension of Trump to presidency, a similar pattern is beginning to play out in which tech workers lead on social issues while tech executives gravitate toward strategies that can help or protect their businesses. Some executives may be choosing constraint in their statements, but others have been eagerly speaking out -- in support of Trump that is.
Following the election, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty wrote a public letter congratulating the incoming president and offering the company's services. Rometty also promptly joined Trump's transition team as a member of the president-elect's economic advisory committee.
"I am writing to offer ideas that I believe will help achieve the aspiration you articulated and that can advance a national agenda in a time of profound change," Rometty said in her note. "I do so as the leader of the nation's largest technology employer, its leading patent creator, and the company that for more than 105 years has believed that prosperity and progress can be achieved by unleashing the potential of all people."
Also serving as a Trump advisor is Oracle Co-CEO Safra Catz, who was quoted as saying, "I plan to tell the President-elect that we are with him and are here to help in any way we can."
At IBM, more than 100 employees signed a petition against Rometty's letter, saying they assert their "right to refuse participation in any U.S. government contracts that violate constitutionally protected civil liberties."
Oracle, meanwhile, saw the public resignation of one of its staff directors published on LinkedIn for all of his colleagues and business associates to see.
"I am not with President-elect Trump and I am not here to help him in any way. In fact -- when his policies border on the unconstitutional, the criminal and the morally unjust -- I am here to oppose him in every possible and legal way," wrote former Oracle employee George Polisner on Monday. "Therefore I must resign from this once great company."
The higher up the tech corporate ladder you go, the more people you will find whose political views are shaped by the flow of capital investment and revenues, Polisner told Inc. Understanding that, Poliser opted not to resign when Oracle Executive Chairman Larry Ellison donated millions to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's bid for president.
What Polisner cannot tolerate, he said, is the executive of his company joining the advisory board of a president-elect he disagrees with without first resigning her position at Oracle and then roping her employees into her personal support with her words.
"That is so against my own personal values in terms of the rise of hate crimes that Trump has given license to," Polisner told Inc. "To have a co-CEO who commits to helping this administration in anyway it can, I cannot -- I would feel like I'd be putting on an SS uniform."
Going forward, Polisner said he expects to see this divide between the tech industry's higher-ups and everyday workers continue to widen. In part, this is because tech workers have already begun to see just how much influence they too can have on the world. He said he encourages his peers to exercise their strength by donating to groups that can oppose the incoming president on social issues and by personally committing to not helping the administration create anything that could be used to discriminate against groups of any kind.
They can "refuse to engage on anything that can effectively be used to further hate or discrimination," Polisner said. "Rejecting a Muslim registry is an incredibly important thing to do."