By Levi Sumagaysay
It was [former SVLG CEO] Carl Guardino who recognized this as a priority, and he has already put a committee of 87 executives in place. I didn’t expect that — and I’ll be honest about it, I was extremely heartened by that. And that is why I’m having these conversations today, and I’ve got a set of life experiences, maybe, that allow me to speak more bluntly and directly about it. What I hope the executives and board members and members of our community take away is that they have someone authentically committed to driving change.
Maybe, just maybe, I’m the guy who can speak to the business executives and our community leaders, and when they hear me, they know I’m not just talking — I believe what I’m saying.
MarketWatch: What about diversity beyond the workforce? Critics of some of your member companies, for example Facebook Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +0.34% and Palantir Technologies Inc. /zigman2/quotes/221054928/composite PLTR -12.31% , say those companies’ policies actually hurt minorities. (For example, Facebook is currently under fire for failing to remove posts that were flagged as calls to violence in Kenosha, Wis., until after protesters there were killed this week . And Palantir has long been criticized by activists over its work with immigration authorities.) How can SVLG help encourage those companies to think about diversity in a holistic way?
Thomas: Carl [Guardino] deserves this credit. He moved to formalize racial and equity issues as a platform. We have 87 executives focused on this. Every decision we make, every policy, every proposal that we view, there is now a lens to what the corollary impacts are.
We will have open dialogue first behind closed doors, being very direct in what I see and where I believe there is support for change. Once we’ve had these conversations, we will collaborate and find ways to support our companies and make the changes we can.
Driving change and a reorientation of thinking in very large organizations takes time. But I tell you what, if we get executives and managers in these roles who look different and have a different set of life experiences, I bet you they will pick up on some things others may not have.
These are not issues to be resolved tomorrow, but it’s urgent and critical that action is taken soon. On our board there is strong support for a structured approach that is mindful of competitiveness and our place in society.
MarketWatch: What about the criticism against companies that have a two-tier wage system for their workers, such as gig companies that employ many independent contractors who California law says should actually be classified as employees? The employment status of gig workers contributes to racial and wage gaps.
Thomas: We sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to work with gig-economy workers and Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) to fashion a resolution that allows drivers to remain independent while providing them the benefits, rights and protections available to all workers under state and federal law. The potential for significant job losses and harm to our state’s economy during this challenging time are of very serious concern. Both Uber /zigman2/quotes/211348248/composite UBER +6.97% and Lyft /zigman2/quotes/208999293/composite LYFT +9.57% are SVLG member companies.
MarketWatch: Housing inequality is a longtime problem in the valley and is being exacerbated by this pandemic. According to one estimate , more than 40,000 households in Silicon Valley risk eviction during this economic crisis. What is SVLG’s role when it comes to housing?
Thomas: One of the selling points in bringing me in as a business executive who does have a policy perspective is that I’ve worked in infrastructure for the past 10 years.
As I presented to the SVLG board, it’s about continued policy leadership related to permitting and environment and all the issues that allow projects to be in a position to be placed online, coupled with market-based solutions. Housing is a great example because these are revenue-generating and revenue-sustaining projects.
There is a social-impact investing movement in this country. I’ve been part of this, having led a deal of the year in social impact.
There is far more money sitting in these funds that need to be earmarked for high-impact projects than actual projects. At SVLG, we should be working to connect the dots — between our elected officials and the projects that are shovel-ready and high impact, between our member companies that have impact funds of their own, between large institutional investors that are looking to put impact dollars to work.
These can be issued tax-exempt; there are a lot of ways to structure it. Affordable housing is an example. There are innovative ways to use impact investment and dollars to get projects funded, and Mayor Sam Liccardo is a leader around this thinking with his affordable-housing initiatives in San Jose.
This is where I hope to bring my experience in the private sector to bear. I believe, based off feedback I received, that this was a big component of why I was hired: understanding how infrastructure is financed and funded.
MarketWatch: How does SVLG plan to tackle education and transportation as ways to address economic inequality in the valley?
Thomas: We are deeply engaged in the work to diversify the STEM pipeline, and it starts at the K-12 level with some of our elementary-school programs as well as our Leadership Summits, where young men and women have a chance to engage with successful tech leaders who can inspire them to achieve.
At the next level, our Community College to Career Initiative has been a major priority for us. Nearly 80% of community-college students are minorities, and more than half are women. Community College to Careers connects our 350-plus member companies with 19 community colleges in Silicon Valley for quality career positions that do not require a four-year degree. We also know that community colleges provide nearly half of the University of California system’s STEM students — investing in our community colleges today means more Black and brown tech business leaders tomorrow.
Regarding transportation, SVLG has adopted racial justice and equity as a pillar of our organization. That means when we evaluate any infrastructure issue or bill, we do so with a lens looking at the impact it has on our minority communities. Transportation is a critical area for equity and inclusion. How we get where we go affects our opportunities in jobs and housing, so our transit system must have frequency, affordability and connectivity.
Frequent transit is more equitable transit: Not every member of our community is on a 9-to-5 work schedule at a desk, so having more frequency during what are considered “off hours” in the early morning and in the evening levels the playing field for many workers. This is why we take part in advocating for CalTrain and BART extension and service expansions through ballot-initiative campaigns and working with public officials. Highly connected public transit can induce density that can help make housing more affordable — this is happening now in and around new and future BART stations in San Jose.
Also, how we travel affects the air we breathe, and we know minorities are disproportionately affected by pollution.
MarketWatch: What is your approach to this emergency that we find ourselves in — this pandemic?
Thomas: When we talk about impact, one of the components to that is immediate impact. Under Carl’s leadership, we’ve raised almost $9 million for COVID relief funds and PPE. We are a key part of the recovery task force [in Silicon Valley]. Simply put, we must continue that work.