THE BLOG

Is Silicon Valley the 'Epicenter of Social Change?'

04/04/2015 05:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2015
zimmytws via Getty Images

Earlier this week, as CEOs like Apple's Tim Cook and Salesforce's Marc Benioff sparked a headline-grabbing debate over "religious freedom" laws in Indiana and Arkansas, I was asked by a reporter whether Silicon Valley, with all its wealth, prosperity and economic power, had become "the new Hollywood" for organizers of social causes.

I based my answer (that the balance of power is shifting and tech leaders are increasingly playing a bigger role in the political system) on the fact that Silicon Valley and the technology industry as a whole has captured the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. This digital revolution has been a long time coming and is starting to reshape people's everyday lives, largely for the better.

Recent advances in technology are transforming our economy and society by changing the way we access information; communicate with each other; get from point A to B; and buy things. Companies like Uber, Facebook, Amazon and Spotify have found themselves at the center of consequential national conversations; the sector's dominant social and content platforms have incredible reach; and companies themselves are commanding larger and larger audiences -- a role once occupied by traditional media outlets and production studios.

Plus there's a startling amount of wealth creation happening in Silicon Valley and it's largely concentrated in the hands of founders and investors who are making huge sums of money. That gives them more power (real or perceived) than many in the private sector and makes them more influential than most when they take a public stand for something that matters to them, their customers and their employees.

On top of all that, tech has been a sustained source of national job creation over the past decade and remains one of the brightest spots in the U.S. economy. Just look at this year's Silicon Valley Index, which reported nearly 58,000 new jobs - the highest growth rate in 15 years - created in the region. But there's also a downside. In the Bay Area, the business boom has widened the middle-income gap, jacked up housing costs and increased traffic. There are real tradeoffs and not everyone is riding the wave of prosperity.

We can look back on the second American industrial revolution for a comparable era of sweeping innovation, concentrated wealth and fundamental changes in the way people lived. The good news is that as a country, we're much better positioned today to have important conversations about issues like income inequality, diversity and civil rights and take steps to ensure a wide swath of Americans have access to new opportunities.

For high profile executives like Tim Cook and Marc Benioff -- and the 70 tech leaders who signed a Thursday letter condemning discriminatory, anti-gay laws that have cropped up in other states -- taking a stand makes good business sense. They run large companies with thousands of employees and those companies depend on recruiting and retaining some of the world's top talent, irrespective of gender, race or sexual orientation. Despite critiques of Silicon Valley, tech companies highly value their workers' labor, whether through salaries, benefits, perks, workplace inclusivity or job flexibility.

So, is Silicon Valley becoming the "epicenter of social change," as Michelle Quinn, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who approached me, suggests in her column? It remains to be seen whether the tech sector will continue to have an outsized impact on social and political issues driving the national dialogue. But one thing is certain: there's never been a time when tech industry leaders have had this much impact on the advocacy world and political climate.