SXSL: Fixing Real Problems

Jenna Wortham: Good
afternoon, everybody, and
thank you for coming
to our session.
This is called Welcome to —
sorry, this is called Fixing
Real Problems, a
conversation about
harnessing technology to
solve our biggest and most
stubborn problems
of our time.
I’m joined onstage with
a number of prestigious
panelists; I’ll
start from this side.
I’m sitting with Chris
Redlitz, the managing
partner of Transmedia
Capital, a venture capital
firm in Silicon Valley.
I’m also joined by Nina
Tandon, the cofounder and
CEO of an incredible company
called EpiBone, a biotech
startup that uses stem cells
to regrow damaged bones.
I’m your moderator, Jenna
Wortham, a staff writer at
the New York Times magazine.
Jenna Wortham:
(laughs) Oh, goodness.
That’s just my family;
don’t mind them.
Jenna Wortham: Continuing
down the line, I’m with
Stewart Butterfield,
cofounder and CEO of Slack,
a chat app and productivity
startup, and the —
Jenna Wortham:
Yes, all right.
And at the end of the line
— very rowdy crowd — at
the end of the line we’ve
got Jukay Hsu, founder of
Coalition for Queens, a
nonprofit dedicated to
improving economic
Jenna Wortham:
Yes, thank you.
We’re really
thrilled to be here.
This is so exciting.
Okay, I did a very short
bio, but I’m also going to
ask our panelists to talk
a little bit more about
themselves and their
companies and the problems
that they’re trying to solve
and what motivates them.
Jukay or Chris, who wants to
start and go down the line?
Chris Redlitz: I’m a venture
capitalist, but my real
mission is way outside of
the realm of investing.
I started a nonprofit called
The Last Mile with my wife
Beverly Parenti.
We cofounded it in 2010 and
it’s a technology training
program for incarcerated men
and women, because we really
believe that having a job
is the key to successful
reentry and reducing
recidivism in America.
We started the program as an
entrepreneurship program,
and Beverly and I — when
we started it we did it
ourselves and we basically
went into prison two nights
a week for 40
straight weeks.
And the — I had never been
in prison before, didn’t
know anybody in prison, but
we were really introduced to
this issue.
When we started the program
I had no idea about
incarceration in America.
I had no idea about the
extent of the problem.
I had no idea that we were
spending over $50,000 a year
per inmate and the
recidivism rate across the
country is over 60 percent.
Those are numbers
that I didn’t realize.
When I was invited in
initially to give a talk on
entrepreneurship, the
reception I received was
beyond what I could imagine,
that there were many men in
San Quentin who wanted to
start their own businesses,
who wanted to be successful,
who really had a desire to
create a better life after
they served their time.
So I convinced Beverly, who
wasn’t necessarily thrilled
about sending her weeks in
prison, but she warmed up to
it very, very quickly
because she saw the impact.
She’s a very powerful woman
and a huge support network;
she’s now the executive
director of The Last Mile.
About two years ago we went
beyond entrepreneurship and
we started to teach coding
in prison, which is not an
easy task considering we
don’t have connectivity, and
there was a misconception, I
think, at the time that you
can’t teach prisoners
Many of the people, the
guys, in San Quentin are
lifers, had never been
on the web before.
But today we have a
technology incubator we’re
building in San Quentin;
it’s 22,000 square feet.
When it’s fully finished
we’ll have five classrooms;
we have a joint venture
with the state that we just
started last week, a web
development shop inside San
Quentin so private companies
can outsource into the
prison instead of sending
their coding jobs/web
development jobs overseas,
and we’re also expanding
in California.
We’re currently in four
prisons including a women’s
prison, Folsom Women’s
Prison, and we’re expanding
within California.
The support that we received
has been incredible.
I know we’re going to talk
a little bit about how the
community relates and
how they contribute.
But it’s been a phenomenal,
life-changing experience for
me, and it’s become
our life mission.
Jenna Wortham: Thank you
for the work that you do.
Nina Tandon: You know,
I think a lot of us are
interested in how we can
repair the body, or history
— right?
— and for me, the history
of how we view the body is
an interesting topic.
You know, up until very
recently, only maybe about
100 or so years ago, when
things went wrong with the
body we didn’t really have
much we could do about it,
and as we developed things
like interchangeable parts
on the assembly line, we
started to view our bodies
in similar ways; if you
were sick, you might need a
device or take a pill.
But we were treating
ourselves in many ways
like machines.
What’s interesting to me now
is that we’re — in science,
we’re learning that we’re
not just like machines, like
C3PO, but we’re actually an
ecosystem of many different
types of cells living in our
bodies, most of them not
even human.
And by collaborating with
those cells, we can start to
think about new ways
to repair the body.
This is what we
do at EpiBone.
We are seeking to address
the world of skeletal repair.
A lot of people don’t know
this: we have an organ
donation crisis on our
hands, and after blood, bone
is actually the most
transplanted human tissue.
This is millions of
procedures, billions of
dollars worldwide, and even
now, the only way to get
human bone if you need it
for any of these procedures
ranging from cancer to
trauma or congenital defects
or so on, is to cut
it out of a human.
Considering that we’re made
of all these cells that are
alive, that are constantly
building our bodies and
breaking them down every
day, why can we not
collaborate with those cells
to make — to help our
bodies repair ourselves when
our injuries overwhelm our
capacity to repair?
For me, I think this is
a really exciting time,
because that same idea can
be applied not just in
medicine to help us repair
our bodies and help solve
that crisis — the White
House hosted a daylong
conference about just that
topic a couple months ago —
but also towards making —
just disrupting the whole
drug development process,
helping us understand how
diseased bodies work in the
lab so that we can test
drugs and develop
therapies even faster.
And what I think is even
more exciting is that that
same type of
technology-biology doesn’t
belong to medicine alone
anymore; if you think about
bio-architects — I know we
have at least one in the
audience here — and people
doing work in fashion and
art and a whole range of
biofuels, a whole range of
technologies that don’t
sound like medicine.
I think that the next
industrial revolution is
going to be a really
interesting one to watch.
Jenna Wortham: Thank you.
Stewart Butterfield: I have
to admit to having massive
imposter syndrome being
on this stage with these,
because I’m just
representing a very standard
venture capital-backed,
for-profit, capitalist
technology business.
Stewart Butterfield: I’m not
the kind of person who can
take credit for the good
work that people using our
tool do, so Nina,
(inaudible) —
Nina Tandon: We’re
happy users, yes.
Stewart Butterfield:
Thank you.
But that’s, you know,
a happy side effect.
I was raised by pretty
hardcore hippies and I think
that a little bit of that
ethos has been translated
into this capital system.
I worked at — I was the
cofounder and CEO of a
photo-sharing site
called Flickr.
Stewart Butterfield:
Thank you.
In 2005 that was acquired
by Yahoo and I had this
experience that I think is
really common, not just
necessarily in technology,
but in finance and in
government and in other
places where there’s this
incredible group of people,
like, who work in the same
part of the same building,
like, just adjacent to
me organizationally.
And I think back on that now
and what a huge advantage
that gave me.
This is 2006, and one of
those people was Jeff
Weiner, who’s now the CEO of
LinkedIn; another is Bradley
Horowitz, who’s a VP at
Google who handles photos
and social stuff; another
one is Andrew Braccia, who’s
a VC at Accel, one
of our investors.
Another one is James Slavet,
VC at another top tier firm
called Greylock; Rob
Solomon, who’s the CEO of
Groupon; I could go on.
When I left that, I
had these, you know,
relationships with people
at all these different
companies, and if we needed
something from them, or I
needed a favor, or if I
needed, you know, a business
relationship with the
companies that they now
worked for, I had it.
And it’s — you know, it’s
not a coincidence, I think,
that all of those people I
just mentioned were men who,
with one exception, were
Jewish and just like —
including me — and —
Stewart Butterfield: —
again, that’s not — thank you.
Stewart Butterfield:
L’shanah tovah!
(laughter and applause)
Stewart Butterfield: And
again, you know, that’s not
a coincidence.
I also — it’s not a
conspiracy — right?
— but it is like attracts
like, and people build
these networks.
I think one of the
opportunities we have with
Slack, because we have been
extremely successful — you
know, we’ve grown really
rapidly and we came up in
kind of the perfect moment;
capital markets love us;
we’ve been able to raise
lots of money — is to widen
the network of people who
were included in that.
You know, one of the
things you don’t — tech
entrepreneurs will talk
about changing the world,
but they won’t really talk
very much about making a
whole pile of money.
Silicon Valley is the engine
for “wealth-spiration.”
If you look at the biggest
companies, the most valuable
companies in the world
now, they’re almost all
technology companies.
They’ve displaced energy,
they’ve displaced financial
services, and if we don’t
start including a broader
array of people in that,
you know, the same group of
people is going to
rise to the top.
There’s a real — I think
at this moment in history
there’s a real set of forces
that push up people who are
above this line and push
down people who are below
the line, and one of our
big causes is diversity
and inclusion.
Stewart Butterfield:
Yeah, thank you.
This is a fantastic,
supportive audience.
Jenna Wortham: I know.
Are you sure it’s
not alcoholic?
Like, the bars
aren’t open yet?
Stewart Butterfield: So
we’ve been doing a lot of
work there and I think we’re
just still scratching the
surface, but that’s one of
the hopes for this company
in addition to building a
great tool that is used by
wonderful people and having
an impact in that way, that
we’re able to kind of
broaden the network.
Jenna Wortham: Thank you.
Jukay Hsu: Great.
Thank you, Stewart.
Thank you and Slack for,
you know, focusing on these
issues that, you know,
just speaking about.
I think what Stewart’s
talking about in terms of
network and who’s
participating and the
innovation economy and just
the tremendous changes
happening right now, the
wealth that’s being created,
the products that are being
created, for us at C4Q, you
know, that’s what we’re
really trying to tackle.
How do we try to expand
those opportunities to
more people?
We’re focused on Queens.
It’s in New York City;
about two million people.
It’s a most —
Jukay Hsu: Yeah, give
it up for Queens.
Queens is the most diverse
county in America, one of
the most diverse
places in the world.
Jukay Hsu: Yeah, give
it up for diversity.
(laughs) You know, and
for us, we want to help
transform Queens and New
York City, propel New York
City (inaudible) so that
ultimately it’s reflective
of everyone in
our community.
And you know, it’s very
reflective — you know, we
want to help train and
create pathways out of
poverty so that more people
can access these things.
We teach adults in poverty
to code and help them get
jobs in tech and also create
these future products
and companies.
It’s very measurable
and tangible.
Going through our program
is completely free.
Last year we increased
people’s income from $18,000
starting out to $85,000
the year afterwards.
Jukay Hsu: We’re really
lucky; our graduates at
working at companies,
whether it’s Pinterest — we
have a great partnership
with them — or Kickstarter,
and at the same time, it
serves an audience that’s
reflective of our community.
It’s half women, 60 percent
black or Hispanic, half
immigrant —
Jukay Hsu: — and that’s
really just the demographic
breakdown of Queens
and New York City.
And so, you know, we want to
help create the future tech
community as reflective of
that, and most importantly,
beyond gender and ethnicity,
we’re really trying to think
about who has access to
technology in terms of
economic opportunity.
Most New Yorkers don’t go to
college; 65 percent of New
Yorkers don’t graduate from
college, and most
Americans don’t.
And, you know, if you want
to take a moment and think
about that statistic —
like, I think I’m very
open-minded, care about
diversity and inclusion, but
at the same time, all of
my friends, and generally
people I know, went to
college and went to, like, a
few select universities.
But most people
don’t, right?
That’s your highest
determinant for, you know,
economic income.
If you never go to college
in New York, your average
lifetime income
is $27,000 a year.
So how can we think about,
you know, as technology’s
rapidly transforming all
these different sectors —
you know, we talked about
disruption of workers or
industries; thinking about
all these people out there
that may be incredibly
talented but may not have
access to these
opportunities, and really
creating that transformation
from that outcome to, you
know, $80,000, $90,000 a
year, a pathway to the
middle class, you know.
And for me, you know, I
helped start this five years
ago with Dave, my cofounder
— he’s in the audience
right now.
Thinking about it, you know,
I was in the military before
this and moved back to
Queens originally wanting to
create a civic tech company,
you know, for-profit
company, and just saw how
much there was a huge
disconnect between my home
community and the technology
that’s happening.
And looking at those that
don’t go to college — you
know, I was in the military.
You know, all the soldiers I
served with, you know, never
went to college, but some
of the hardest, you know,
working, smartest people
I’ve ever met, you know,
were able to be really
successful because they got
the training and access
to networks that do
these things.
Similarly, if we’re thinking
about inclusion and
diversity in tech, you know,
we want to try to think
about what are other ways to
open that for more people.
Jenna Wortham:
Excellent, thank you.
That was great.
What I love about this
collection of people up here
is that everyone is tackling
very different types of
challenges and is focusing
on very different
types of things.
But I’m also wondering — I
mean, when we say that we
want to fix big problems and
real problems, do we have a
sense — and I mean “we”
collectively; people who
work in a problem-solving
industry or even just as a
society — do we have a
sense of — do we all agree
on what those big/hard
problems are, or do we have
a sense of what
they should be?
Stewart Butterfield: I bet
there’s a couple that we
could all agree on.
I mean, criminal justice
reform would be a big one.
Equal opportunities
would be another.
Climate change would
be another one.
Those are ones that — where
technology is more or
less applicable.
But there’s, like, a broad
set of challenges that we
would all identify as the
biggest one to be faced.
Nina Tandon: Yeah.
I would also add to that the
escalating healthcare costs
as the populations age
and the world globalizes.
Chris Redlitz: I agree.
I mean, obviously I’m very
close to the criminal
justice reform, but, you
know, that has an impact on
the economy.
Obviously, the economy is
a big issue for us today,
creating jobs.
Matter of fact, there’s a
data point saying that by
2020 we’ll have a shortage
of software engineers.
That’s a good opportunity.
So we’re talking about
shifting legacy jobs into
something new, and I think
that’s a big challenge.
You’re taking some sort of
status quo and moving it
into sort of a new economy,
and frankly, that’s kind of
what we’re doing: we’re
taking people out of their
comfort zone, teaching
them something new to be
productive and additive
to our society.
You know, it’s definitely
the economy and criminal
justice sort of interwoven
together somewhat.
Jukay Hsu: Yeah, I think
these are all — obviously,
there are huge problems
facing, like, our society
and communities right now.
The jobs and income
is a huge thing.
I think, tying into just how
technology’s changing cities
and how quickly things are
changing and who feels —
and how communities feel if
they’re participating or not
— I mean, one thing is
the very tangible “who has
access to these jobs and
these opportunities
and education?”
I think you’re looking at
different cities, whether
San Francisco or New York,
and the impact that the
growth of companies is
having and the anxiety
that’s causing on, you know,
housing or commercial space,
I think, is actually tied
into a much kind of larger
issue about, you know,
access and how people feel
about the change that is
occurring, and I think
that’s a harder kind of
issue to tackle with when
it’s the formal housing
or transportation.
It’s all like kind of nested
in some way in terms of
societal transformation and
technology changing, but
other things are changing
quickly enough to, like,
adapt or meet those
opportunities, those problems.
Nina Tandon: Yeah, I
too have seen that.
We have a biotech company
and we’re based in
Brooklyn, New York.
You know, Brooklyn is a
borough that’s really being
— it’s just being
transformed, and in a way,
there’s a parallel housing
crisis that’s developing for
where people are going
to live and also where
businesses are
going to live.
And we feel that, you know,
in biotech, for example,
there’s just so much — if
you want to have — foster a
biotech hub, let’s say, like
the Bay Area has done so
well, and the Boston area,
you think, “Well, where are
those companies going to
live, and what are all the
intersecting issues that
would impact that?”
whether it’s something like
zoning or things like that
that you don’t expect to
intersect with that issue.
It’s interesting, you know.
I think it’s going to be a
real challenge and our urban
planners to make sure that
we keep those two changes in
step with each other.
We need our businesses to
support our people and our
people to live in symbiosis
with our businesses.
Jenna Wortham: That leads me
to the next thing I wanted
to have a conversation
about, which is that, you
know, since we have
perspectives here from
within and beyond the
valley, Silicon Valley, I’m
really interested in
thinking through and
interrogating how the
culture of Silicon Valley
and big tech companies that
we all use all the time, you
know, and how they shape the
priorities about what we
consider to be the things
we need to work on
for the future.
I mean, I have spent as
much time as anybody else
watching hover board videos
on Vine and YouTube, but is
that the thing, the big
change that we need to see
in our lifetime?
You know, I feel the same
way about driverless cars
and new ways to outsource
laundry and meals.
I mean, these things are
very cool and interesting,
but should we be
thinking bigger?
Chris Redlitz: Well, as an
investor, yeah, we — there
are some fundamental
shifts in how we operate.
I mean, Slack has
fundamentally changed how we
communicate internally, in
your company; Facebook has
fundamentally changed the
way you connect with people.
So there are, you know, sort
of incidental companies that
are created that you think
they’re not that important.
In the midst of that,
entrepreneurs are fixing
human need problems.
The thing that has really
touched me is that when I
started this program with
Beverly we really didn’t
know if we’d get a good
reception within the
Silicon Valley community.
We weren’t sure whether
we’d get support.
Frankly, we weren’t sure
whether it was the good
thing for us to do
professionally, because it
was pretty controversial.
I have to tell you today
that the amount of support
that we received from
volunteers, from large
companies and small —
we have HP and Adobe and
LinkedIn and Microsoft
You know, Stewart and Slack;
Stewart has been in San
Quentin, talking
to the guys.
We have 90 volunteers just
in San Quentin alone.
So there is definitely a
social consciousness in the
valley and that really
starts with the leaders, but
it trickles down to —
throughout the community.
Unless I experienced that, I
would have never known that
and would have never
anticipated that.
But there is a clear vision
and purpose with many, many
companies that are being
created today, and again,
it’s just been an amazing
experience for me to be part
of that.
Nina Tandon: You know, we
were talking about diversity
of the people that
you choose to serve.
In our case, when you think
about personalized medicine
you need to make sure that
your approach is going to
work for everyone, but you
also got me thinking about
the diversity that we seek
— you said on all
axis, right?
And I’m thinking for us — I
was struck because I think
our investor group
represents some diversity
compared to what you might
see for typical companies.
We’re developing a therapy
that has a really long time
horizon, should it be
approved; a lot of hurdles
in the way between where we
are now with animal test
subjects and moving towards
clinical trials and so on.
So, in a way, we attract
certain kinds of investors
that are more like social
impact investors, or people
in the venture
philanthropy world.
These are words I didn’t
know went together until we
started EpiBone.
To me, it’s really
heartening to see that the
world of venture capital and
philanthropy are kind of
also moving in a positive
direction towards handling
some of the tougher
problems, and we’re really
grateful for that
type of support.
We’ve noticed that there’s
been a bit of diversity of
types of funders for our
projects, everything from
grants to professional
Stewart Butterfield: Yeah,
it’s — we should be careful
not to conflate tech in the
broadest sense with just
Facebook and smartphones or
something like that, because
technology is, you know —
if you think back throughout
human history, things like
— spoken language is a
technology, written language
is a technology, and there’s
a set of changes that
started maybe like in the
1850s where we saw much
more rapidly accelerating
technological change, like
the railroads and the
telegraph and the radio and
television and jet travel.
And it’s transformed who we
are as human beings, you
know, like, uprooted people
from a lot of traditional
cultures; people
move to cities.
I think of technology as
something which increases
the choices and maybe
is an amplifier.
You know, compare digging
a ditch with a shovel to
digging a ditch
with a backhoe.
Everyone would choose to dig
a ditch with a backhoe, but
you can still apply it
to different purposes.
Like, there is no — I don’t
think technology comes
attached with a moral
direction, so you can use a
backhoe to dig mass graves,
or trenches for trench
warfare or something like
that, and then there’s also
the more prosaic and
benign uses of ditches.
I wouldn’t want to live in a
world where we said people
shouldn’t invest their
resources or their time or
energy making frivolous
or silly applications.
While that’s going on,
though, I think there is,
like, really significant
technological changes.
Like, we just saw solar
power under three cents per
kilowatt hour for the first
time and I didn’t think that
would happen for another 15
years, and that’s going to
have a pretty profound
impact on, like, the shape
of our countries.
So it’s a tough one, because
I think part of what gives
us the good results that
we want is that unfettered
exploration of all the
possibility space, and
people kind of trying
out different things.
Jukay Hsu: Yeah,
piggybacking off that, you
know, it’s the most
enabling thing.
So, talking about what’s
being created, whether it’s
useful and to whom, etc. —
I think what’s beautiful is
that, you know, it’s like
an individual
determination almost.
Well, not — I mean,
it’s building teams and
communities and companies,
but we’re able to create
ideas and products
(inaudible) that we find
valuable in our own lives,
and I think — you know,
who’s to say what is a
frivolous product or not?
Although I do think there’s
a huge need, and a lot of
needs aren’t being
addressed, and that is why I
think it’s important that
we have more inclusion and
diversity, that there are
more entrepreneurs from
different backgrounds along
those different axes,
whether it’s gender,
ethnicity, or socioeconomic
background, because I think
their perspectives and what
they want to create and the
issues they’re trying to
tackle and the solutions
would be very different.
Stewart Butterfield: It
occurs to me that Twitter is
actually an amazing example
of all this in one thing,
because when it first came
out it was what did you have
for breakfast today; people
would criticize it; it was a
ridiculous thing.
And then, on, like, the
negative side of humanity
and culture there’s a lot of
harassment, and there’s a
lot of hate, and we talk
about that quite a bit.
But on the other side, you
know, Black Lives Matter
wouldn’t have happened
without Twitter, and the
Arab Spring.
There are a lot of political
movements that it enables.
It is like an amplifier for
both our best and our worst
tendencies, but gives us a
lot more facility to impact
the world.
Jenna Wortham:
All great points.
I mean, you know, Chris,
I loved the anecdote you
shared about feeling a sense
of social consciousness from
within the investors and
entrepreneurs that you
interact with.
And Jukay, I really
appreciated your point about
acknowledging that there is
a — Stewart, you made this
point as well — but that
there is a place for things
that seem kind of light and,
I guess, fluffy at first to
evolve and take
on a new role.
But one thing I am curious
about, though: are there
clear blind spots?
I mean, are there areas, or
even ways of thinking, that
we should be hoping to see,
or things that we kind of
would benefit from emerging?
Does anything come to mind?
Jukay Hsu: Definitely.
I think that’s true.
I don’t know if I know all
the blind spots, but having,
I think, different
perspectives on it is really
important, and different
voices (inaudible) the
products, you know.
If all the products and
companies are created by,
you know, a small segment
of our society, what — how
they choose to think about
it or create — it just — I
think it’s like an axiom
almost; like, you’re not
going to be able to solve
all the problems that are
out there, you know.
But there’s such a range
of issues; I mean, I know
there’s been a lot of
change, but I feel like
we’re just at the
very beginning.
Obviously, long, long
history in terms of
different technologies, but
things are going to continue
to change, and I think there
are so many large issues out
there that are waiting
to be tackled, you know.
Yeah, that’s not very
specific, but I feel like I
encounter problems all the
time that more people should
be tackling with
these things.
Nina Tandon: I think it’s
important — whenever, you
know, I’ve gotten a chance
to mentor startup teams
through my work at Columbia
Business School, and I often
ask the teams, you know,
“What’s your target market?
What are they — what does
that composition of those
people look like?
Then ask yourself what does
your leadership team look
like,” you know.
What do your
investors look like?
You know, and slice in the
different ways that are
relevant, and then even
maybe ask the question, is
that target market
diverse enough?
I think — I’d love to hear
those questions be asked of
teams in both directions,
teams of their investor
groups, and just see, you
know, are there giant
mismatches there.
Chances are, if there are,
there’s an underserved
community at work
that can be uncovered.
And in my experience, once
people realize that there’s
something missing like that,
it’s an exciting opportunity
to grow in a new direction.
Chris Redlitz: Yeah, I was
just — you know, as far as
blind spots go, you know,
whenever you introduce a new
technology, you’re not sure
what the impact’s going to
be, and it’s — there
was just an announcement
recently that Facebook and
Google, Microsoft, IBM, and
Amazon created a consortium
around best practices for
AI, because we don’t really
know, or — you know, AI has
all these different
applications potentially.
What happens when that is
actually put in practice?
How does it impact
the workforce?
How does it impact what
we’re currently doing?
So, to be conscious about
innovation and the impact of
that, I think, is
To me, that’s just
one example of that.
Stewart Butterfield: I think
there’s also some things
that aren’t necessarily
blind spots but are just
going to be on a longer time
cycle, because there’s no
approval process for someone
to release an iPhone game,
where if you want to —
and there are many people
engaging in really
interesting projects in
education, in healthcare,
in medicine in energy, and
there you have, you know,
the regulatory environment
that you have to deal with.
You also just have — you
know, there’s more at stake,
and there’s a larger impact.
So I think we’ll see over
the next decade, next couple
of decades, much larger
changes that just — they’re
operating on a different
kind of time cycle.
Jenna Wortham: Great.
Well, you mentioned a word
I wanted to segue into the
next question with.
You said the word
Since we’re here, you know,
and we’re at the White House
and it’s the first South by
South Lawn, I thought it’d
be interesting to sort of —
to talk about kind of the
evolution of how technology
companies work and deal with
the government.
You know, as a tech reporter
for a long time, you know,
you would ask startups about
sort of their roads to
innovation, or kind of why
they did things the way they
did, and they would often
say, “Well, we have to
sidestep regulation, because
that’s like kryptonite to
innovation and progress,”
or “it’s the antithesis of
getting things done.”
I’m curious to, you know,
hear from our panelists, or
what your experiences have
been and if we’ve come, you
know — that — for me, that
was about five years or so
ago that I was having those
conversations, and I’m
curious to hear from you
guys if the thinking had
evolved or changed
since then.
Chris Redlitz: Well, I can
speak directly to that.
First of all, I think it’s
so cool that we’re doing
this, to having this event
on the White House lawn.
It’s pretty amazing, so
kudos for everyone for
putting this together.
It’s pretty awesome.
Chris Redlitz: Just looking
at the Oval Office, just
cool to at least be on
the outside looking in.
But we’re building a
technology incubator inside
a prison.
That means you have to have
a lot of cooperation
with government.
For us, really it was not
that we couldn’t do it, but
it was — we had to follow
a process, and I think that
that’s the big thing you
have to get in your head,
and it’s hard when you’re
in Silicon Valley and
innovation happens every
day, and we’re looking,
going zero to 60 overnight.
That doesn’t happen in
government and there are
reasons why, and I
appreciate those.
For us, it was a matter of
understanding the internal
mechanism, getting champions
inside, building trust.
For us, really, it was trust
of the guys in the yard,
you know.
I mean, when you think about
it, you’re going in prison;
you have to have trust at
the very fundamental level,
but then trust in the
administration, trust in the
government, and then just
operate and begin to sort of
evolve that.
So if I said to Jerry Brown
in 2010, “Jerry, we want to
build a technology incubator
in San Quentin,” he would
have said, “There’s the
door; see you later.”
Today, Jerry Brown is one of
our biggest proponents and
endorsers of
what we’re doing.
Scott Kernan, who’s the
secretary of prisons, has
been in multiple times.
Gavin Newsom is lieutenant
governor, you know.
All of the people who make
those decisions now trust
us, and as of last year, we
started to get funded by
the state.
When we started we
self-funded the program;
then we got some donations
from foundations and so
forth; but the state of
California now is the
primary funder
for our program.
So it’s moving from really
sort of questioning and
concern about disruption
to a trust factor.
And also, to be honest with
you, it’s even further
beyond at the top.
You know, President Obama’s
the first sitting president
to ever visit a prison,
which was kind of
mind-blowing to me when
he did it this year.
Chris Redlitz: He signed an
initiative to outlaw private
prisons in prison.
He’s commuted over
500 life sentences.
That’s more than between
when Calvin Coolidge was
president to now.
So he’s done some
really amazing things.
And we had the opportunity
to host Valerie Jarrett, who
is senior adviser to
President Obama, about a
month ago, and she
came in San Quentin.
So it’s that type of
education, understanding
that you need — people are
saying, “Hmm, wow, this works.”
It’s a long answer to your
question, but it’s starting
at a very fundamental level,
having trust and a plan, and
operating to your plan, and
treating people right and
making sure that the right
people get credit as well.
And then you can get to
where we are today, where
that — we’ve had incoming
rom 21 states in our country
who want to have our
program, and for us, we’re
still a — you know, we have
14 employees, so it’s —
you know.
It’s still small, but we
know that in the future
we’re going to be able to
address all of that demand.
But it really starts at
that very fundamental
trust level.
Jenna Wortham: Great.
Nina Tandon: I love
that word, “trust.”
You know, I think that word
comes into play in our field
in so many different ways.
You know, we have patients
that write us emails every
day talking about the
conditions that they suffer
and asking if there’s a way
that we can help them, and
that’s a very different
dynamic than what you see
more widely in the industry
with patients and how they
feel towards large
bio-pharmaceutical companies
with overgeneralizing.
So there’s this idea that
patients sort of see
scientists like us and small
teams that are working to
help them sort of as being
on their side, and that’s, I
think, a really
important thing.
And then when we think about
regulation, you know, we’re
on the other side — in
terms of regulation, we
think “we want to make sure
that we don’t rush in and
try and help people before
we’re sure that this is
going to not hurt
them,” you know.
And what precedent do we
have instead if in the past
therapies looked like pills
and devices, and now we’re
moving to a world where
therapies are alive?
Wouldn’t you like to know
that that science has been
done in a good way before
that’s being tested in you?
So I think that we find
ourselves on the same side
as the regulators in terms
of wanting to get that right.
No one — we all want to
see this move forward.
We all want to see no one
get hurt along the way.
So I think that’s a really
good relationship there, and
then when I think, you
know, “Okay, well, what’s
happening more widely in
biotechnology right now?”
it’s pretty easy for us to
have consensus about the
idea of living technologies
being used for human
therapies, but more widely,
this question of tinkering
with biological material, I
think, is one that’s very
important for us to address.
It’s one of these big issues
coming up online for us as
biology becomes the new
data, and it is becoming the
new data.
We can now — we’re at a
Gutenberg moment in terms of
not being able to just read
the human genome but also
cut and paste to the genome.
So if we think about cells
as living factories and we
can now cut and paste —
there’s been a programming
language released for
bacteria this year by
MIT researchers.
What does that mean for
the world, and who are our
allies, you know, in terms
of thinking it through?
You brought up the Victorian
internet, you know, our
experiences with the
telegraph and so on, and how
that transformed society.
We got through that and now
we have questions like, is
tinkering for genetic
material for the sake of
humans and plants and yeast
and bacteria —
is that equivalent?
Is tinkering with it for the
sake of therapy or for the
sake of education or for the
sake of entertainment the same?
If there are more bacterial
cells than human cells in
our body and you can take
the human cells out of our
body and grow a new body
part, put it back in our
body, and our cells don’t
know the difference, what
are the boundaries of the
human body anyway, and what
does it mean to say that
we’re human, right?
And regulation is going to
come into play in helping us
sort through these issues,
and I think that we’ll have
allies in places that are
unexpected to help us deal
with that.
I love seeing the rise of
the community biohacking
groups that you see popping
up all over the country at
GenSpace, Biocurious in the
Bay Area; I mean, they’re
everywhere and I think we’ve
seen government agencies
reach out to those
communities as kind of a
neighborhood watch.
I actually see that as a
positive development when we
think about, you know, what
do we want our neighborhood
watch to look like for
bioterror and big questions
of food security where
we don’t really think of
biology as
traditionally residing.
I think, you know, within
medicine, I’m very heartened
with what I see happening
in regulation as we try and
move this forward, but I’m
also — I want to make sure
we pay the proper attention
towards, as biology no
longer belongs to medicine
alone, what that’s going to
mean in terms of our
regulations keeping up
with that.
Jenna Wortham: Anyone else?
Stewart Butterfield: I think
Nina made a great point and
I want to underscore it,
that I think the amount of
change that we went through
over the last 10 years is
something that’s going to
take a couple generations
to unpack.
I think it is the internet
as, like, an additional
appendage of everyone’s body
is transformative technology
and we’re not going to know
how to deal with that for a
couple generations, just
in the same way it took us
generations to deal with
steam power and it took us
generations to deal with the
telegraph and telephone
and television.
As for the regulatory
environment, I think, you
know, it’s easy to
cherry-pick examples of
things that seem ridiculous,
especially out of context,
but we mostly benefit and
we mostly appreciate the
benefits of regulatory
environment, like the FAA
has made commercial
air travel safer.
There’s no —
Stewart Butterfield:
Yeah, regulation!
A couple people from the
agencies here, the FAA.
All right.
Stewart Butterfield: You
know, at the same time, I
think you have to wary of
regulatory capture and the
lobbying efforts of
incumbents to use regulatory
systems to protect
I think the EpiPen situation
is just as much an
interaction of
“misfunctions” or
malfunctions between the
Patent Office and the FDA as
it is, like, the fault
of some evil grinning
capitalist back-room
conspiracy, and that will
happen and we have to kind
of accept that as the cost
and just be committed to
continuous improvement.
Every — this is only
my second time ever in
Washington, but I have been
impressed with literally
every single federal
employee that I’ve met, and
their commitment to what
the purpose of their
organization is.
It’s just not
easy, you know?
Like, this is an
organization of six million
people trying to deal with
some of the most complicated
things in their world.
So I think that there are
places where we can, you
know — at the margin,
say that it
inhibited innovation.
But broadly speaking, it’s
to the benefit of people.
Jukay Hsu: Yeah, and just
— I think trust is really
important — what Stew is
saying as well about how —
like, there are obviously
important roles in
government for a lot of
these things, and going back
to what Jenna was asking
about how tech companies
approach this, it’s hard
for me to say, but if we’re
talking about hard problems
and real problems, I think a
lot of the hardest problems
you have to work with
government; you can’t do
things independently.
Like, whether it’s
healthcare or education or
housing, you know,
it’s really hard as an
independent company or
entrepreneur to completely
ignore those things and
create solutions because it
affects so much of
society and life.
So if one wants to take
those hard problems, that
kind of trust and ability to
work with these different
kinds of stakeholders is
really important, you know.
And we see that a
little bit in our work.
You know, I think
we’re really lucky.
We have amazing backers, you
know; our three main backers
are — give them a shout-out
— Robin Hood Foundation New
York, Blackstone, and Google
for Entrepreneurs — and you
kind of see they’re across
business, technology, and
philanthropy, and we also
work with the city council
government as well.
It’s how do you work with
these different perspectives
on creating solutions
that actually move
things forward?
Ultimately, in terms of what
we’re trying to do, you
know, getting people into —
involved in tech, you know,
having the trust of the
technology industry —
ultimately, the people we’re
training become, you know —
ultimately, it’s not
philanthropic or charitable
because they become the
peers and coworkers of
people working in tech
companies, so that trust and
ability to not only work
with, you know, our larger
tech community but as well
with business and the
philanthropic community to
create those shared goals
for action.
I think doing that on larger
levels, how to solve these
larger, hard problems
that we’re talking about.
Jenna Wortham: Yeah,
that’s excellent.
Nina, I wanted to touch on
a comment you made about —
you know, you were talking
about seeing the emergence
of biohacking groups and
these community-organized
groups that basically just
approach an issue or problem
with science and then just
kind of, you know, work
around it or hack, or they
just experiment or
come together.
I find that really
encouraging, just that we’re
starting to see the
emergence of new frameworks
for thinking through some
of these big problems.
I guess, you know, since
we’re — you know, we’re all
— everyone on stage is
affiliated with a tech
organization in some way,
I’m interested to hear if
you guys think that — have
we reached the limits of
what, you know, working with
the tech industry can do?
I mean, should we be
thinking beyond the
entrepreneurial model?
Is it more working with
nonprofits or kind of more
community organization
groups, or is — when we
look ahead, I mean, how —
do we need a new framework
for thinking through some
of these big problems that
we’re trying to tackle?
Nina Tandon: Well, actually,
I just wanted to build — it
sort of dovetails in because
I think a role for not just
government in terms of
regulation, but in terms of
what we’re doing also in
terms of tax incentives,
because part of the — you
know, we’re located in
Brooklyn in a place where,
you know, we’re eligible for
a biotechnology tax credit
and where we’re eligible for
tax credits for helping to
create jobs, and that really
has made a huge difference
for us in our community.
I think that’s another place
where a government can play
a role and help foster some
of the economics there.
Yeah, sorry?
Jenna Wortham: No, go ahead.
Nina Tandon: Wait, can you
just repeat the last part of
your question then again?
Jenna Wortham: Well, I guess
I was trying to raise the
question of if we should
be thinking about other
frameworks beyond the
entrepreneurial model,
because it’s so based on
scaling and returns, a very
specific institution.
Nina Tandon: I think we
need to weave the fabric of
entrepreneurship into almost
every — the way we approach
everything, whether it’s,
you know, school — thinking
entrepreneurially and
thinking about creation of
jobs, transitioning from
thinking about ourselves as
we’re going through
education as information
consumers and information
creators and critical thinkers.
And I think it’s a reframe
that does sort of — that
I’d like to see happening
that’s almost imbuing
into everyday life.
I’d also love to see the
almost de-commercialization
occur in parallel, to
say something a
little provocative.
I think there’s the role to
be — to think about, well,
what is your mission at
all moments of the day?
What’s important to you in
terms of your values and how
does that express itself in
every moment in your life,
and then what does that
therefore push you to think
about choosing?
I’m seeing both of those
trends happening when we see
people choosing access over
ownership of property; when
we see Kickstarter proving
business models for
altruism, when we see,
you know, philanthropists
popping up that are mixing
models with venture
capitalism like the Breakout
Labs Foundation that was our
first investor from Peter
Thiel’s foundation, or from
the New York City
Partnership Fund.
We’ve seen different people
working together, and so
what I think that really, on
a meta level, is saying is
that entrepreneurship can be
sprinkled into the fabric of
our day-to-day life, and
so can a certain almost
high-mindedness be
sprinkled as well.
Chris Redlitz: I was
going to just interject.
As of last Monday, we
actually are in partnership
with the state of
California in a business.
We launched the first
web development software
engineering outsourcing
facility in the country
behind prison walls.
As I said before, it’s trust
and (inaudible) proven
that time.
We’re in business with them
to a degree with a group of
prison industry authorities,
Cal PIA and led by Chuck
Pattillo, who’s the
general manager.
We now have a web
development shop that
private companies can
outsource business
to the prison.
So that is sort of a
different twist on things.
It’s actually now
even getting a
closer relationship.
The business is run by
us; they’re basically our
landlords to a great degree,
and the guys in the program
actually are on our payroll.
But what’s great about it is
that now they’re going to
segue into jobs, but they
also get to create some sort
of reserve for when they get
out, because in California,
if you don’t have a job and
you haven’t been able to
generate any money in
prison, you get basically
$200 and a bus ticket
and you’re gone.
So this is going to create
something that is much more
sort of fundamental and
create a long-term impact
of reentry.
But the fact that we
can actually have a
public-private partnership
— I would have scoffed at
that 10 years ago, but the
fact that we have this
partnership and it’s working
is really encouraging to me.
Jenna Wortham: Excellent.
Jukay Hsu: Yeah, I think
thinking about frameworks is
really interesting.
You know, if you’re a
technology company you’re
creating platforms and
frameworks for how, like —
you know, like Twitter or
Slack — how people on it
interact and how to engage
a size, organize, etc. But
you know, it’s so much
harder to do that in real life.
(laughs) And I think it’s —
I wouldn’t want to put an
opposition, like new
frameworks versus
I think it’s both important.
Actually, you have to
be, like, really, really
entrepreneurial to create,
like, a new societal or new
societal frameworks to
tackle problems, but I
think, like, some of the
hardest problems, whether,
like, housing right now,
whether it’s in New York or
San Francisco, if you can’t
build it, like, what are the
frameworks you to need to
create to be able to
achieve that?
And there are these obvious
failures right now that
require new frameworks, you
know, and I think
that’s important.
I wish I knew what the
solutions were, but, like,
that, that’s actually —
yeah, the parallels are
really interesting.
Jenna Wortham: Great.
Stewart, I have a kind of
specific question for you,
although anyone should feel
free to jump in if they
I’m excited that you’re on
this panel because Slack has
done a lot of really
interesting work about —
around diversity and
transparency, and just sort
of addressing
it very head-on.
I read an interview with
Leslie Miley, who I think is
here, who’s the director
of engineering at Slack.
He said in an interview that
Silicon Valley is hostile to
diversity and he went on to
sort of elaborate on how
historically the tech
industry and the tech world
have benefited white men at
the exclusion of women and
people of color, and that
has both shaped sort of how
we think about the problems
that are urgent to us,
whether harassment on
Twitter is a big deal or
not, and also, Jukay, you
mentioned before, you know,
talking about wealth — you
mentioned this, Stewart,
actually, as well — but
talking about wealth
disparity and sort of that
the tech companies that are
being created right now
are — they’re minting and
they’re so much money and
sort of the people that have
access to that money
is still very
racially disparate.
You know, there’s still a
gap there, and so I’m really
interested in kind of
what Slack has done.
You’ve spoken very openly
about trying to hire people
of color and sort of putting
them in prominent positions
and making that a part of
the culture of your company
which is — I mean, you were
kind of saying you have
imposter syndrome up here,
but that is actually a very
interesting and tangible
change that does affect the
valley, and it’s a big deal.
So I’m curious to sort of
hear you talk a little bit
more about making that
decision and embedding that
in your company and what
people can learn from that.
Stewart Butterfield: Sure.
I think we started when we
were — and I think this is
the trick, as it were —
when we were pretty small.
I think it’s much harder to
change things when you have
thousands and thousands of
people than when you have
dozens of people.
You know, there’s one thing
— it’s not that I’m hiring
women and people of color
and putting them into
powerful positions.
Like, we actually — Leslie
is there, director of
platform engineering, and he
was the best person for
that job.
April Underwood’s right
there; VP of product, Slack.
And she — you know, there
are arguments that diverse
teams will produce better
business results, and you
know, I could say, like, oh,
maybe if we have a woman in
charge of product, then
she’ll catch certain things
that a man wouldn’t have
caught, or something like
that, which seems totally
plausible to me and I can
get behind it.
But I don’t think
that’s why we do it.
April is the best person for
that job and Leslie is the
best person for that job.
We just have to look in more
places and I think we also
— either people are
underrepresented or
they’re not.
And they definitely are, so
there are going to be fewer
people who have the
experience and the
background to take those jobs.
I think the thing we can
really double or triple or
quadruple down on is
ensuring that we don’t fail
them once they arrive
at the company.
You know, I’m not sure that
exact formulation of tech is
hostile to diversity.
I think tech lives inside of
a society that still has a
lot of systemic racism and
it’s not — like, doesn’t
stop at the boundaries of
the tech industry, but
neither is it especially,
you know, exacerbated by
being around technology.
But it is maybe exacerbated
by the irrational
decision-making of people
who are trying to make money.
If you’ve ever been in a
casino or you’ve ever, like,
gambled in a casino, we get
a little crazy when it comes
to that stuff.
“I’m wearing these socks”
or “I’ve got to be facing
northwest” or something like
that, and so you see Google:
Stanford CS PhD dropouts.
Okay, now I’m going to go
see what other Stanford CS
PhD dropouts I can find
because that’s, like, a hot
ticket, or Microsoft and
Facebook dropping
out of Harvard.
So, like, now we’ve got to
find some other
Harvard dropouts.
And that’s, you know —
that, plus the overall
context of society, I think,
creates a system that with
— in the absence of
deliberate, conscious, like,
intentional effort is going
to perpetuate itself.
Jenna Wortham: Absolutely.
Jukay Hsu: Yeah, I mean,
just speaking — I mean,
this is the most
important thing.
Jenna Wortham: Yeah.
Jukay Hsu: This is the
most important thing.
Like, the way to create
change is hiring people and
giving people opportunities
to have the access to
networks and the skills in
building up that experience.
And I totally agree; like,
ultimately it’s about
finding the best
possible people.
But how do you open up — I
mean, a lot of people just
don’t know about the
opportunities, or don’t have
the trajectory to have the
same baseline to get the
skills if you’re not tapped
into the same networks, or
because the large societal,
like you’re saying, implicit
bias or systemic racism,
etc. — but I think that
doesn’t mean we shouldn’t
focus our attention and
effort on that and try to
create avenues for that,
you know.
That’s, like, real and
(inaudible) and tangible change.
That’s what we’re trying
to do all the time.
Like, ultimately, besides
creating entrepreneurs and
changing the larger New York
City ecosystem, every person
we get from an underserved
background into a technology
company as an engineer not
only transforms their life,
but ultimately transforms
companies from inside, and
even if it’s just an entry,
beginning position, they
build the skills and
networks that, as you did
originally at Flickr, and
then all these
people proliferate.
Like, every person is so
important and that, like —
I think, you know, I see
my own biases in terms of
hiring, in terms of growing
our company, even though I
try to be very
conscious of it.
I think it’s
difficult not to be.
But, you know, being
intentional about it and
thoughtful about it —
that’s why it’s great that
Slack and other companies
are trying to address
these issues.
Jenna Wortham:
Stewart Butterfield: I think
it’s — like, the best
possible outcome that we
could have is that there is
this next generation
of success.
We hired a VP of engineering
several months ago; as part
of the search, there were
no black women candidates.
There are no black women
who are VPs of engineering.
But the hope is that we can
graduate one out of Slack,
that there is going to be a
generation — because it’s
going to be a generational
shift, that we can build
those networks and we can
foster the talent that we
find, and we can encourage
and support and mentor and
sponsor so that, you know,
10 years from now, whoever’s
in our position looking for
making that hire can
find people.
Jenna Wortham:
I love that perspective
because I’m a
natural optimist.
We’re kind of reaching the
end of our session, so I was
wondering if anyone had any
other final thoughts or any
final takeaways from today,
or things we should be
thinking about in terms of
using tech to fix our world.
Chris Redlitz: Yeah, I think
that what we are seeing is
that the guys that now,
and soon to be women, are
getting out of our program
are — music is starting —
are really showing that you
shouldn’t be afraid of tech
and that it’s not beyond
reach, that now people are
going back to their
We require that all of our
graduates do community
service; they go back to
their neighborhood and they
serve, because we’re very
much of a reactionary
program, but we want to
be a proactive program.
We’re doing this like Teen
Tech Hub and the city
(inaudible) in the East Bay,
being led by one of our
graduates, James Houston.
It’s a coding school for
afterschool kids,
at-risk youth.
It’s not a technology thing,
but Ray Hartz, another
graduate, is going in the
East Bay and Pittsburg,
California, opening
community gardens.
We have guys like Vin Winn
who came to prison at 15
years old, served 22 years,
and every Wednesday night he
speaks to at-risk youth.
Those types of things
are not all necessarily
technology-related, but
we’re trying to inject
technology into those
communities, and it’s really
starting to work.
Jenna Wortham: Excellent.
Well, we’re being actually
played off the stage by the
next stage.
I just want to thank all of
our panelists and I want to
thank you guys for being
such a great audience.
(applause and applause)
Stewart Butterfield: Thank
you, Jenna, for moderating.
Jenna Wortham:
You’re welcome.

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