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The Valley Politic

As the tech sector vies for a larger role in national politics, it has to contend with the libertarian isolationists in its ranks.

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Illustration by Matt Dorfman  

“In 2008, I didn’t have money to donate,” says Shervin Pishevar as we coast through the manicured streets of Palo Alto in his shiny black Prius. It’s a sunny day, and the hyperactive venture capitalist, wearing a paisley dress shirt and a fitness-tracking band on his wrist, is telling me how he became a Washington, D.C., power broker despite never having been elected to anything bigger than a school board.

“In 2012, I e-mailed my network of friends and colleagues,” he says. “Suddenly, I had ten entrepreneurs—young ones, like, my ­generation—confirming for, like, $40,000 checks. So, suddenly, I raised $400,000! I was like, Uhh, maybe I can do this.

The GPS navigator interrupts (“In 700 feet, turn left onto East Bayshore Road”) as Pishevar finishes telling me about how the money he raised for Obama’s reelection—roughly $2 million in all—got him a seat of honor at a fund-raiser for the president held at Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s house. “I invited Lady Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter—he’s a good friend, and we invest in stuff together—and I was like, kind of jokingly, ‘Well, why don’t you invite Gaga, too?’ ” Pishevar says. “And she said yes! I e-mailed Sheryl, and she was like, ‘This can’t be real. This is not happening.’ So she shows up in foot-long shoes, with huge beehive hair, and I escort her in. She sat next to me, at the same table with Steve Jobs’s wife.”

There are a lot of power pretenders in tech right now, but Pishevar is not one of them. He has become the Valley’s official information broker, a fist-bumping, name-dropping super-connector who seems to be everywhere simultaneously. He’s a tagalong on the Hollywood party circuit, where he’s taken private jets with Justin Bieber and brought Ashton Kutcher in on start-up investments. And he’s gotten close with White House adviser Valerie Jarrett through a series of tech CEO round-tables he spearheaded that brought Silicon Valley bigwigs to Washington to talk shop with the president.

Pishevar got his start during the first dot-com wave—his start-up, WebOS, raised $10 million in 2000, just before the bubble popped—but he only became famous later on, as a managing director at Menlo Ventures, where he made early bets on start-ups like eyeware company Warby Parker and car-­hailing service Uber. Today, he invests at his own firm, Sherpa Ventures, which he started a year ago with former Goldman Sachs tech banker Scott Stanford.

Lately, Pishevar’s passion, and that of a few like-minded technologists, is to translate Silicon Valley’s ethos of innovation and disruption into a political force, a coalition that can bring new ideas to staid industries and energize depressed regional economies. Bending Washington’s ear should be ­simple—after all, politicians love money, as Hollywood and Wall Street have long known. But merging the interests of a bureaucracy-choked public sector with a tech industry that until now has largely ignored the political realm has turned out to be a tough sell for both camps. The government has been slow to embrace the idealistic mind-set of the Valley, and a large swath of the tech elite still believes it doesn’t really need Washington in order to thrive.

In fact, tech’s most outspoken loudmouths, the headline-­grabbing libertarians and techno-aristocrats, seem to view Washington as both a nuisance and a bygone power and Silicon Valley as an automous region that just happens to be located within the United States. While some tech diplomats are learning how to play the game, others intend to blow up the chessboard.

Which is part of the reason why, so far, the tech industry has made only coltish forays into the world of politics. When Mark Zuckerberg, the cheru-bic Facebook founder, an-nounced last spring that he and a slate of other Silicon Valley executives were funding FWD.us, a tech-driven 501c4 issue advocacy organization, it looked like a moment—the arrival of our new hoodie-wearing, Tesla-driving political overclass.* But the tech industry’s civic takeover has been slow to materialize. Just weeks after it started, FWD.us became embroiled in controversy over its tactic of pushing legislative movement on its signature topic—immigration reform—by funding ads for lawmakers who supported conservative positions on issues like the Keystone XL pipeline. (Several Valley elites quit the group soon after.)

Even if its agenda remains, as they say in the start-up world, in deep-stealth mode, the tech coalition is gaining influence. During President Obama’s second term, Pishevar advised the White House on technology issues and served as an unofficial liaison between the start-up community and Washington. He’s not as well known on Capitol Hill as in Cupertino, but he’s getting there, which is one reason we’re going into San Francisco, where he’s scheduled to meet with two White House staffers who have flown in from Washington to seek his counsel.

When we arrive at the restaurant, Pishevar orders an Arnold Palmer, then sits down at a long wooden table and begins asking for progress reports. Immigration reform—specifically, a bill Pishevar helped come up with, known as the “start-up visa,” that would create a special visa category for foreign entrepreneurs with American financial backing—is the only issue on which the tech community has been able to achieve near consensus. Silicon Valley has spent millions of dollars lobbying for immigration reform, but there has been little actual progress so far, and the White House staffers have presumably asked Pishevar to lunch, in part, so that he can relay apologies and excuses back to the rest of his massive network.


*This article has been corrected to show that FWD.us is a 501c4 issue advocacy organization, not a Super-PAC.


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