You have to stand to matter.

Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Tech Takes a Stand in Indiana

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
Read More.
a | A

The fight over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has galvanized the technology industry and pushed leaders to take a firm stand on a social issue in a way we’ve rarely seen before.

Worried about Indiana’s religious freedom law and by legislation enacted in other states that could let businesses discriminate against gays and lesbians, dozens of tech executives and other industry leaders just released a statement asking all states to protect the rights of gay and transgender citizens. Signees include Max Levchin, the chief executive officer of Affirm, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com and Dick Costolo, Twitter's CEO.

Tech has become an influential voice in what’s shaping up to be a big states’ rights battle. People can disagree about whether the industry's aggressive stance is admirable, naive or more talk than action. But it’s also a telling example of how diversity does have a real impact on how companies operate and what battles they care to fight on behalf of their employees. It’s an important reminder that diversity is actually very powerful.

Before I get into the diversity part, let’s recap the snowballing events that led to the industry’s big petition. First, Salesforce’s Benioff cancelled events in Indiana and said that employees and customers wouldn’t have to travel to the state. Salesforce is based in San Francisco, but it bought the Indianapolis-based company ExactTarget and it holds events in the state.

Other tech leaders soon called for Indiana and other states with similar laws to reconsider their legislation. More high-profile leaders include Apple CEO Tim Cook and Yelp's Stoppelman. Some companies made decisions that could dent the state’s economy. Angie’s List hit the pause button on its planned expansion in Indiana, saying that it had to figure out whether the law would hurt its employees. Enterprise data-storage and software players EMC and Cloudera withdrew from Indiana’s big IndyBigData conference in May.

The venture capital industry chimed in when Bessemer Venture Partners published a letter to the companies that it invests in, telling them that they don’t have to do business in states that have created legal loopholes that allow for discrimination in the name of religious freedom. In the letter, the firm wrote:

You can set an example for others by protecting your employees and their families from discrimination. As the leaders of tomorrow’s industries, your business decisions will impact the lives of everyone around you.

We make this appeal during an historic decade in which the U.S. has made great strides toward social justice for gay and transgender citizens. We must not allow state legislators to undo this progress by curtailing human rights under the false banner of “religious freedom.”

David Cowan, a partner at Bessemer, told Bloomberg that the letter came out of conversations about the stand that leading tech companies were taking. Ultimately, every Bessemer employee supported and signed it.

“I want to be careful not to overstate the impact of writing a letter,” Cowan said. “We wanted to make sure that the entrepreneurs that run our companies don’t feel we’re holding them back from making decisions that protect the rights of their employees and families. We wanted them to know that their investors support them and that it’s okay to not make every decision based on economics.”

Cowan said another thing that's been echoed in tweets and letters penned by everyone from Benioff to Cook to Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle: Bessmer took a stand on the issue because it affects its employees and the family members of those employees. 

What I find interesting, and hopeful, is that tech has many high-profile and openly gay executives and investors, such as Apple’s Cook, the revered venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Megan Smith, who just left Google to be the U.S. chief technology officer. I’m not saying that there’s no discrimination against gay people in tech. That, sadly, isn't the case. I’m just saying that gay people in tech have a big presence; and it’s hard to work in the industry without knowing people who are gay or knowing about very successful leaders who are gay. I don’t have statistics for this, but I’ve met scores of gay people in tech -- engineers, public-relations people, designers, product heads and investors. But I have met exactly three black entrepreneurs and probably four black employees at tech companies and venture firms.

Plenty of other social movements have received attention during the past year, including those springing from the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of the police and the appalling  stories about sexual violence on college and university campuses. Tech companies didn’t protest police brutality en masse and we didn’t see letter-writing campaigns expressing concerns about the criminal justice system. Nor did we see tech leaders pow-wow with the heads of colleges such as Stanford and Harvard, which feed students into the tech industry, to figure out how to make campuses safer for women.

To the contrary, the tech industry has clumsily grappled with questions about gender discrimination -- most visibly amid the high-profile sex discrimination battle between Ellen Pao and the venture firm where she used to work, Kleiner Perkins. There is a notable dearth of black and Hispanic tech employees; Intel recently devoted $300 million to tackle the problem.

You can question whether the tech companies that oppose Indiana’s legislation and similar laws will change the decisions made by state politicians. You can question whether their methods are effective. You can even defend the religious freedom laws and question whether the tech industry is taking the right stance. But you can’t deny that the huge players in an industry that rarely takes a moral stand are doing so now.

For anyone searching for how diversity makes a difference, the tech industry's response means you can stop looking. It’s clear that the only way to make issues matter to an industry is to employ, promote, respect and admire people for whom those issues matter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net