"A truly liberal environment should allow all viewpoints to thrive," lawyer and entrepreneur Harmeet Dhillon told the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2013. By that definition, her current hometown of San Francisco is decidedly not a truly liberal environment. Nor is the rest of Silicon Valley.
Given her experience as a Republican activist, official, and occasional candidate, Dhillon is aware of the mismatch between the San Francisco's freewheeling reputation and its actual reaction to dissenters. During a 2012 state senate bid, Dhillon told the Wall Street Journal, "to be a Republican and wear that label proudly is to attract people to key your car." She added, "All kinds of people are Republicans in the city. They just don't advertise it because they think it'll cause them to lose business, lose friends and generally attract scorn."
(Tim Ferriss, the lifehacking guru and investor, recently said similar things to explain his decision to leave San Francisco for Austin. Ferriss considers himself a social liberal.)
Dhillon is in the news again because her firm is representing controversial fired Google employee James Damore, who is suing the company for allegedly discriminating against white people, men, and conservatives. The former two categories are protected by federal labor law, and the latter specifically in California.
It's concerning, Dhillon said in a phone call with Inc., that a company as powerful as Google "has this level of intolerance." She added, "You have to ask, how does that filter down to its products, its search engines, its policies," and mentioned YouTube's ongoing demonetization saga. (Many YouTubers are no longer able to generate significant advertising revenue from their videos as Google attempts to crack down on objectionable content; some conservatives contend that they're being hit harder because of their views.)
"The way tech companies are set up is they are little villages," Dhillon said, referring the Silicon Valley trend of providing free food and other amenities--perks that keep employees in the office longer. Hence "people get their community from their fellow extremists in their workplaces," Dhillon said. "A lot of it is self-reinforcing in an alarming way."
Since James Damore was broadly castigated as a racist and sexist (full disclosure: this reporter found much of that treatment unfair), it's notable that his cause is being championed by a woman of color--one who has personally experienced racist slander, and whose ex-husband was the victim of a racially motivated shooting. When Dhillon's family emigrated from India in the 1970s, they settled in Smithfield, North Carolina, a town that welcomed visitors with a Klu Klux Klan sign.
Why does Dhillon defy the progressive status quo that someone of her race, her gender, and her background is expected to defend? Well, she would likely scoff at the premise of that question. For one thing, Dhillon doesn't buy into standard identity politics. "I certainly have tried to resist labels in my life," she told Inc. "I think they're limiting. Complex people can have complex different aspects to them."
When she ran for Republican National Committeewoman in 2016, Dhillon told Refinery29, "While I'm proud of blazing that trail because of who I am, I don't think anybody should vote for me because of who I am. People should vote for the best candidate. And I happen to be the best candidate with my diverse background."
Dhillon's background is not merely diverse in the sense that she's an Indian woman. She's done work for the Heritage Foundation and the ACLU. Best-known for her civil rights work, the lawyer is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative raised by her parents as a devout Sikh. (In 2016, Dhillon delivered a Sikh prayer at the Republican National Convention.)
On the phone, Dhillon pointed out, "The bulk of what I do is representing women, and minority, and elderly people." When it comes to civil rights law, "having a white client is actually very rare."
And Dhillon knows how it feels to be in the situation of feeling persecuted at work. "I've been harassed in the workplace," she said. "I've been discriminated against." At various points in her career, she's been the only minority in the room, or the only woman.
Dhillon sees her representation of Damore as an extension of this work, certainly not a repudiation of it. "I'm not ashamed at all. I think what is shameful is this kind of lemming-like groupthink in Silicon Valley," she said. "There's no reason why people can't behave in Silicon Valley like they do in the rest of the country"--that is, trying to find common ground instead of trying to get each other fired.
Correction: An earlier version of this article described Harmeet Dhillon as opposing governmental discrimination against same-sex marriage and efforts to overturn the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling on abortion. Those views were attributed to her in a 2011 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, but Dhillon says the author of that article misstated her positions. She declined to clarify what her views on abortion and same-sex marriage are.