While the Silicon Valley has been on the cutting edge of technological and economic advancement for quite some time, it has done so without having a significant presence in Washington, D.C. But if a new lobbying group called FWD.us is any indication, those days of being largely apolitical appear to be numbered.
Early last month, a group of venture capitalists, angel investors, and tech industry leaders, led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his college roommate Joe Green, formed FWD.us. The group, pronounced “Forward U.S.,” aims to lobby for their version of immigration and education reforms, and facilitate scientific breakthroughs with broad public benefits. The non-partisan group is attempting to build a bipartisan community in support of their proposed policies. There appears to be plenty of star power to do so. In addition to Zuckerberg, the founders of Microsoft (Bill Gates), Napster (Sean Parker), LinkedIn (Reid Hoffman), and Dropbox (Drew Houston) are also founding members of FWD.US.
The group’s concern with U.S. immigration policy is based on the idea of a new knowledge economy. In an op-ed written last month in the Washington Post, Zuckerberg, who has become the face of the group, claimed that today’s economy “is based on knowledge and ideas – resources that are renewable and available to everyone.” Gone are the days where natural resources, manual labor, and industrial machines are the main engines of economic opportunity; innovation is the driving force behind the modern economy, and at the core of innovation are ideas.
The problem is that, according to Zuckerberg, the United States isn’t doing a good enough job in attracting the most talented and hard working people necessary to lead this new world economy. “Why,” he asks, “do we kick out more than 40 percent of math and science graduate students who are not U.S. citizens after educating them? Why don’t we let entrepreneurs move here when they have what it takes to start companies that will create even more jobs?”
Many of the most valuable thinkers in the Silicon Valley are foreign born. For example, Ruchi Sanghvi, who was the first female engineer hired by Facebook and is currently the Vice President of Operations for the file hosting service Dropbox, was born in India. Ukrainian born Max Levchin founded PayPal and the personal media-sharing service Slide.
Among the reforms that FWD.us is advocating for, according to its website, are improved border security and an immigration policy that is biased in favor of attracting extremely talented and hard working people. They also look to implement a path to citizenship for current and prospective immigrants to the United States, including those present in the United States illegally.
The question remains whether or not this group of highly intelligent, talented, and motivated knowledge economy leaders can exercise enough influence to see their efforts realized. The knowledge economy idea advanced by Zuckerberg is clearly the direction that the country is moving in. But will this group – made up of seemingly political laymen – succeed in their attempts? It certainly helps that FWD.us’s president, Joe Green, worked for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, after turning down Zuckerberg’s offer to move to Silicon Valley and join Facebook in the company’s early stages.
That being said, it has hardly been smooth sailing since the inception of FWD.us. Soon after the group’s launch, a memo leaked to Politico that indicated that the group’s technology executives would use their companies and their control over distribution networks to support the group’s causes. Green quickly backtracked, but the leak raised eyebrows among those who have long considered the social media services they use to be insulated from politics.
The high-tech entrepreneurs behind FWD.us may, for the most part, lack political experience. But what they lack in political clout, they make up for in their bright minds, strong wills, and bountiful resources. The knowledge economy is the future – and Washington, D.C. is being forced to take notice.