When venture capitalist Peter Thiel doubled down on his support of presidential candidate Donald Trump with a $1.25 million donation, critics questioned whether accelerator Y Combinator might cut ties with Thiel, its part-time partner and investor.
Y Combinator president Sam Altman has responded, saying he doesn't plan to cut off ties with Thiel but that he disagrees --vehemently--with the influential investor. The answer highlights the uncomfortable position some in the tech community may find themselves in, rationalizing their connection with the increasingly maligned Thiel.
Thiel spokespeople didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Altman issued a series of tweets Sunday, saying: "Thiel is a high profile supporter of Trump. I disagree with this. YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee."
He followed up Monday with a blog post in which he stated: "I don't understand how 43% of the country supports Trump. But I'd like to find out, because we have to include everyone in our path forward. If our best ideas are to stop talking to or fire anyone who disagrees with us, we'll be facing this whole situation again in 2020."
His decision has been a divisive one, spurring at least two organizations to announce they would distance themselves from Y Combinator until the accelerator formally cuts ties with Thiel. But leaders of the organizations acknowledge that YC was in a difficult position.
Ellen Pao, founder of Project Include, which advocates for diversity in tech, wrote in a Medium post that her organization would break off its relationship with YC. "While all of us believe in the ideas of free speech and open platforms, we draw a line here. We agree that people shouldn't be fired for their political views, but this isn't a disagreement on tax policy, this is advocating hatred and violence. And donating $1.25 million is a lot more than speech. Money is power."
She noted, however, that Project Include is in a different position than Y Combinator when it comes to asserting its relationship with Thiel, adding that YC has made a point of acknowledging problems of discrimination in tech.
"YC has cited many reasons for leaving Thiel in his current role, some of which we can understand. We at Project Include have no direct relationship with Thiel, so it is easier for us to explicitly distance ourselves from him," she wrote.
Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton, whose fund focuses on female, minority, and LGBT entrepreneurs, tweeted that she would no longer be sending founder recommendations to Y Combinator, at least not until the accelerator changed its relationship with Thiel. She said "most of the founders we work with look at YC as the gold standard," and that distancing the fund from YC could "hinder our chances of raising successor funds."
She described YC's situation with Thiel as "almost impossible."
"Sam (Altman) reached out to me last night and is incredibly open to dialogue and hearing my point of view," Hamilton wrote in a direct message to Inc. Tuesday morning. "He's staunchly anti-Trump like I am, but he and I have different approaches and mindsets to tackling the problem."
She added that Thiel should assume more responsibility and resign from his role at YC "to focus on his work getting his candidate elected, instead of putting his friends in the position to defend him."
Responding to a Monday evening email from Inc. about the two organizations cutting ties, Altman wrote that night, "i was sad to see both of those. beyond that i have no comment. i'm tired." He told Motherboard earlier that day, "I liked the choice I made," adding that he would "continue to work to change [Thiel's] mind."
Y Combinator is not alone in coming under pressure to change or sever its relationship with the controversial investor. Facebook was faced with--and evaded--similar questions about its relationship with Thiel when Forbes revealed the early investor in the social media network and member of its board was bankrolling a lawsuit that ultimately drove Gawker Media into bankruptcy.
When news broke Thiel would be giving a speech in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention, Facebook's response was that the speech was Thiel's business as an individual. "Peter Thiel is attending and speaking at the RNC in his personal capacity. He is not attending on behalf of Facebook or to represent our views," read a company statement per Recode.
The social media giant continues to face criticism for its silence on Thiel's politics.
Despite intense opposition to Thiel in corners of the tech world, Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University tells Inc.: "I don't believe their numbers will be sufficient to remove him from any positions of responsibility."
He says variation in political opinion is generally more accepted in Silicon Valley than it might be in other economic sectors, and that many in the tech world "are going to shrug their shoulders and say, 'that's who he is.'" He thinks it unlikely the influence and power Thiel has accrued over time, becoming "one of those 800 pound gorillas in the room," will be damaged in a lasting way by the investor's relationship with Trump.