There was a steady drip of employees bouncing between government and tech before Obama took office. Sheryl Sandberg, for example, worked as chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Larry Summers in the ‘90s before taking executive roles at Google (GOOGL, Tech30) and Facebook(FB, Tech30).
But so many members of Obama’s administration have gone to San Francisco that one former political official now in the tech industry likened it to American expats hanging out in Paris after World War I.
The Obama alumni now form an influential network in Silicon Valley that stands out from the pack.
Ryan Metcalf, a former senior analyst in Obama’s White House who now works as chief of staff for PayPal cofounder Max Levchin, recalls showing up to his first meeting with Levchin wearing a flag lapel pin. “[Levchin] was like, 'Who are you? What are you doing in my office? I don’t know if you’re trying to be my security.’ ”
Metcalf and his peers from the administration had to learn to dress more like techies, trade D.C. jargon for tech speak like “disruption” and push for conversations about regulation and policy in an industry that cares more about building things fast.
“We’re viewed as foreigners,” Metcalf says. “In startup culture, it’s like these regulations and all this stuff is just a burden.”
Yet, this group of foreigners is only growing larger. Tech companies are turning to people with political experience as they encounter more scrutiny over public safety, discrimination, privacy and regulatory issues from pushing into markets like ride-hailing, home rentals and banking.
“It wasn’t a goal of mine,” says Nick Shapiro, former deputy chief of staff at the CIA who joined Airbnb in December to head crisis communications. “But time and time again you get hit up by companies in San Francisco who see what you’ve done in government and where you’ve been. They’re looking for people who understand the intersection of press, politics and policy.”
When he was ready to leave government, Shapiro looked at where other officials in similar roles had gone. Those in the Clinton administration, he found, went to New York. Those in the Bush administration went back to Texas. And he noticed those in Obama’s administration went to San Francisco.