The interests of Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., are separated by a lot more than a six-hour flight. A year ago, Josh Mendelsohn decided to change that by co-founding Engine Advocacy, a group representing technology startups. “Legislation that’s bad for startups pops up without any consideration that it’s bad for startups,” says 29-year-old Mendelsohn, who began his career at Google. “Startups aren’t on the map yet, so Washington doesn’t think about them.”
Now a tech entrepreneur, Mendelsohn has the heart of a politico, which makes the Harvard grad a double threat in Washington. At 14 he worked on a campaign for representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.); during his summer breaks from high school he lived in D.C., working at the U.S. Department of the Treasury for future Secretary Larry Summers and Sheryl Sandberg, another department official who would go on to bigger things.
Mendelsohn reconnected with Sandberg in 2005. By that time, she was the head of advertising for Google, where she offered Mendelsohn a job. The young project manager was “one of the most versatile people I have ever worked with,” says Sandberg, now the chief operating officer at Facebook. “He often jumps in to get things done before anyone else even realizes a problem exists.”
Mendelsohn worked on various projects during his four years at Google. “It was managing a war room every morning,” he says. In 2010 the venture firm Sequoia Capital recruited Mendelsohn to become the COO at TuneIn, an Internet radio company, where he had to deal with legal headaches surrounding online music royalties. When he left TuneIn to start Hattery, a San Francisco incubator, he created Engine Advocacy, a nonprofit side project.
Many technology entrepreneurs can’t afford a lobbyist. So Mendelsohn offers Engine Advocacy’s services to any startup for free and solicits donations from large organizations, including the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Engine Advocacy has already signed up 470 tech companies. Most are small startups, but it has also added larger private and public companies including Mozilla, LivingSocial, Uber, and Yelp.
A recent Engine Advocacy data project took U.S. Census information and mapped where tech jobs were located nationwide, demonstrating the industry’s widespread impact. Other projects include patent reform, high-skill immigration, and crowdfunding. The organization has been compiling data-rich reports to demonstrate why these issues are important.
One of Engine Advocacy’s employees is in Washington at least once a month, and its offices frequently host rule-making and congressional officials in San Francisco. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs believe in forcing change through technology, says Mendelsohn. His mission is to get them to consider an alternative approach: “One of the ways to have a really big impact is through the political process,” he says.