Rhys Lindmark: Hello listeners. Today I'm excited to chat with Sarah Drinkwater. Sarah is the Director of Responsible Technology at Omidyar Network and has supported an amazing variety of great projects in the space. Sarah, thanks for being on the show, and welcome.
Sarah Drinkwater: Thanks for having me, Rhys.
Rhys: Yeah, excited to dive in. And beforehand, Sarah and I were just talking about… I'm just hyped about all of Sarah's work, and Sarah and the Omidyar Network, in general. They support a lot of great projects that I'm into and so I just want to dive in on that, understand how Sarah thinks about these projects, and then also later chat about the nonprofit versus for-profit space.
So to start, Sarah, what's your theory of change here, in building a Responsible Tech Movement? How do you find these great projects? And what's your one-year, five-year vision?
Sarah: Well, first, thank you for saying that. I still feel like I walk in this space is pretty new and the scope feels enormous. So I really appreciate you liking our work so far. You know we spent over a decade as a major network impact investing from the early noughties. Instead of red delineated areas like civic tech, financial inclusion, education, and particularly post-2016, post-election, I think I had a kind of “Aha” moment. All right, okay.
Investing a discrete for-profit nonprofit companies alone isn't enough. We have to go the upstream and particularly in technology. I think for me, I came to Omidyar in 2018 to start this team and grow it. I've been in technology for a long time and I've been observing a lot of challenges. I think, firstly, for me, being not American, this challenger on the Silicon Valley growth narrative, for better or for worse.
I kept seeing get in the way of founders in Europe where I'm from and so a lot of our work in this space began from the point of view of “Okay how do we help tax fix the promise that originally gave us?” I do this work because I like technology, and I care about technology, and I think it does bring us even now when it's a complicated, incredible convenience, incredible connection. At the same time, where we've come to with the notion of a responsible tech movement.
When we started this work, we thought, “Okay, if you want better products that have better outcomes for more people. You talk to five people at the top of those companies, and that's what makes change.” And that was much about 2018, and I think we learned a lot in that year. First of all, we learned that even if you got in the room with these people, they were so bound up in the structures they work in. The boards, they had to answer to, up into the right kind of hockey stick growth. It was very hard to make real change happen. At the same time, there were all these really interesting trends.
For me, having been an executive at Google, I was in the middle of the company, right? You had the SVP's over in California, making up all the rules. You had many people, the canteen workers, the security guards, content moderators building the company and I was somewhere in the middle. And what's been interesting to us is observing that a lot of the change that we seek, we think, is going to come from a lot of this model. These are the people that have the skills to build technology companies.
These are the people that have really been looking around, certainly, the last year and realizing, wow, what I'm doing now isn't enough, and whether these people are inside of big tech companies pushing from within, whether that outside building very new kinds of companies with different revenue models. That's been kind of part of our theory of change is that you know to shift the industry, you need to shift the people who we center and the people that we center we believe are currently in the middle.
But to be honest it's still very early days. I think tech worker organizing is a space that we were very excited. I think that was a trend that we observed in 2018. That's been going incredibly well with like Medium news last night that feels like an incredibly fruitful area. But at the same time, the space is very new it feels like a lot of actors are coming together at the same time. Whether they’re technologists, academics, activists, policymakers. A lot of people are kind of pushing for change in the industry in different aspects and we hope to fund and support many of those players.
But when you talk about where we find projects, to me this is kind of interesting because I really want to be very transparent in this podcast, we're very open to proposals being pitched on Twitter where people can get hold of us. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
But places that have worked for us. We tend to track what's happening. So, for example, Ethical Source is a recent investor of ours. I write about them. Two of my brothers and my dad all open source developers.
Rhys: It’s funny.
Sarah: Yeah, well, it's funny because I'm the least technical person in the family and one of them texted me last year saying hey, have a look at this and it was an article in a very technical magazine about calling and her teams work and I thought, well, this is cool, began following her on Twitter. We began emailing and it was just another thing whereas they were pivoting from being a volunteer-led organization into an institution that was seeking their first funding, we happen to be tracking them at the right time.
But other times we have to really hunt for things or we have in the past come up with an idea and partner with somebody to make it happen but we are always open to new proposals and always open to new projects.
Rhys: Yeah, cool, I think we'll kind of dive into some of those areas that you're looking into in a quick second. As you said, at the beginning, you were like, “Oh sweet, let's chat with the people with the most power and then...” Which makes sense.
Sarah: Thinking back, thinking back. We had some really old-fashioned assumptions that I think we had to unlearn.
Rhys: Yes. I think it's connected to our networked reality where maybe back in the day if you were trying to change a railroad company it was easy. You maybe had to go from the top or you could go down, down, down with the big unions or whatever.
But now there's this new middle area that you're talking about where the folks who can build companies, like the power of the Internet, like clubhouse or whatever, has 10 employees and 4,000,000 people on the platform. Instagram had 13 employees and so you can have that too with responsible tech folks or the amount of reach that you can have with a small crew is really powerful.
Sarah: Well, and I think that's what can be very hard to understand for the institutional gatekeepers of Old World Order. Look at why certain policy teams have had such a hard time getting their hands around technology, and it's because it's transnational.
My friend was on the founding team of Instagram, and when they got bought, again, it was 10 people. Being sold for this incredible amount of money and I think it's hard to understand. If you think about the Alphabet Workers Union that went live last month the initial group that went live with that was comparatively small. It was a hundred or so. I think it was a couple of hundred people in an organization of 200,000 employees, but I think it's really about bringing people together and helping them understand their common goals and this is something that we feel.
I think there's a couple of common challenges in this space. One is that the definition itself of responsible tackets. It's so personal, and I think that I have a very particular definition that I would describe to it that might be different from yours, Rhys, and both are equally valid. I think it's about creating a language that galvanizes and brings people together while at the same time if you look at Tech For Good and how they got captured by other people while creating space for other perspectives to come in.
Secondly, there's something we've observed is that this space is still quite new. If you look at the first part that we have made Center for Humane Tech, they’re still, even three years in, they’re a comparatively small organization with incredible impact but still comparatively small in terms of people. Something that I'm really passionate about is how do we create community layers or places that bring different organizations together to help them all organize, have more impact. Especially in small companies, it's exhausting being a founder. It's incredibly tiring, and I worry about founders burning out the whole time.
Rhys: Yeah. I think that's an interesting piece when you're trying to build a movement, and this is something that you're trying to both invest in specific companies, but you're also, or not invest, but give grants to specific companies.
Sarah: Yeah, fund. Yeah.
Rhys: Yeah, fund and you're also trying to create a kickstart-like category itself. There's a funny thing within traditional VC investing, which is like, “Okay, I am Andreessen Horowitz and I want to invest in clubhouse and it's a zero-sum game, me versus the other venture capitalist who's trying to get in on that versus y'all.” If somebody else like the Ford Foundation or whatever gives money to public infrastructure like you're happy about it. How do you think about that and how does that change your mindset around building the movement itself?
Sarah: Oh, I so prefer. As my background is very much been in building community products. I'm a long-term community person and I just prefer collaborative approaches. I think with us, something I'm most proud of in the last couple of years is how many other funders we've been able to bring with us on the journey. We are so small compared to others, let’s say, for example, like a Ford or a Rockefeller, they have a lot more heritage than us. They have a lot more money than us. And they have very fully formed theories of change, so I think the fact that we now have co-funding in place with a lot of these organizations where we've been able to test out funding a certain organization that then has become big enough and substantial enough for them to come in on the next round as such.
I think actually even this year you're seeing Minderoo and Archewell begin to take strides in this space, which to me is very exciting. I think it's a very big problem, so we need as much money as possible behind it.
Rhys: Yeah, what were those two places that you said you are in now?
Sarah: Minderoo has just joined. Minderoo is an Australian-based foundation that's just become funding in this space, and Archewell is the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s foundation, but also has just begun funding into space too.
Rhys: Cool. Today I learned that it's mind-de-roo, not min-de-roo? Is that right?
Sarah: Oh, I’m mispronouncing it as mind-de-roo. Okay.
Rhys: No. I'm saying, I think you probably have it correct.
Sarah: I don't know.
Rhys: Maybe we're both pronouncing it correctly.
Sarah: I think it's pretty interesting you have phases of philanthropy and I think that definitely was a phase where solve every problem with an app and that feels very archaic now. Then we had the narrative phase, solve everything with a narrative campaign, and I hope now we're in a space where it's far more about, “Okay, how do we fund communities and coalitions and kind of get out of the way?” because I really observed us shift from…
Early on when I first started, a lot of the grants we did a project-based, you funded someone to do something, whereas, because our organizations are so small and so early my preference really is for co-funding where you found the organization to be who they are, and I think particularly in a COVID-19, in this world that we're in the idea of projects going entirely according to plan is a bit funny and not possible I think.
Rhys: Well, one thing I wanna double check on here which is, something that we often talk about on the podcast, like, “Oh, I'm very do-gooder kind of person,” but it's also like anti-competition and at the same time what you're talking about doing co-funding, collaborating with other funders or whatever, competition must show up in some aspects there, is it in terms of status or are you still competing over funding different projects or how does it show up?
Sarah: It actually doesn't in the way that you might think, maybe I'm new to this space, and I'm probably hopelessly naive, but so far what I've observed, and I should note that I'm sure this is not, maybe, this is a contrarian point of view. I don't see that competition. It could be because my area is so new like I'm sure if you work in this information, for example, or responsible AI, it's a far more built out area where I guess there is more jostling for position, but we have the incredible luxury of helping a space take shape and to me worth than I staged where the more collaborators, the better. I can't imagine a time when I'd be, “Okay, the money is done, we have enough of it, please go away.” That would be a little trim situation. I think for anybody who cares about this problem.
Rhys: Yeah, that's interesting. I guess I'll be curious to see if you're continuing to be successful in one, three, or five years if the space continues to get bigger. If it turns into something more crowded space like this info or whatever, where it's more. Yeah, I’ll be curious to see that.
The other question I have here is, I think both you and I have some of the, “Oh, Silicon Valley, growth tech is good side,” but also a lot of the, “Oh, God. We gotta make sure like things are…” One thing that's in this space in for me, coming from the crypto world like more libertarian and seeing unions, let's chat about unions.
I love the idea of decentralized ownership, decentralized governance. That's all great. Also, I see some of the downsides of unions like in America. We have these teachers’ unions who are, again it's like they don't have plans yet. I want these unions to be amazing and beautiful. What does that look like right now? What do these tech unions look like and why should I be a libertarian excited by that?
Sarah: Yeah, I think something that attracted me to tech was the beautiful diversity of it, the freedom of it. I think for me, having come from journalism that was very constrained by structure. Certainly, in the noughties, I liked the Internet and nobody else there did and we very much liked if you had an idea for a feature you have to go to your boss’s boss and pitch it. It was very different.
For me, when I first came into startups, the idea that I could just go and do a thing was incredible. And I think probably for my younger friends who work in tech, that's really hard to understand that it's not a given that you get to do or you want the whole time in other industries.I think with unions, what's interesting is as you look at the massive tech companies and I think they have a particular use case in the mega tech companies. I think if you're a tiny company there are more opportunities to create the culture as you go.
When I first joined Google in London, there were a couple of hundred of us. It was a really small team and they were mostly engineers and it was a very free space. We talked about a lot of things. My work has always been really important to me. It felt like we had a lot of openness from what we could discuss, but at the same time, there were certain things many of us held there.
Nearly all of us were left in terms of our politics, for example, different shades of left, and I think what's really interesting is as these companies have got larger. It’s very different going from a 400 person organization to being multi hundred thousand person organization.
It's harder to find out information internally. It's harder to find out. You read in the press what your company is doing and I think what's really interesting is, particularly in Google, where you have this long-term culture of dissent. This long-term culture of speaking up. I have my brothers at Amazon, I've got close friends at all tech companies. I still observe that Google has the most free-thinking culture in that way. I think what's interesting is over time they've been this kind of cultural chasm between what the workers are talking about on what the exact of thinking and you have such a structure where you manage are 10 people up designed the thing that has complete significance for your entire organization.
I think that becomes really untenable after a while, so I think what's interesting about unions is it's a way to build community and build muscle at the worker level, at the junior level, because I think once you become a manager it's very hard to be involved with unions because you get caught between who actually most responsible to.
I think what's interesting is looking at Medium. Their union announced yesterday is organizing and tech is comparatively new and organizing is messy personal business. It takes time and care and something that I think is interesting is in the tech world, in general, we're used to things being quite fast. We're very used to, you start a thing, you try a thing. It doesn't work out. You close it.
Organizing is very different and that it's very much about consensus, is very consensus-driven. I think there's a myth in some ways that tech teams are consensus-driven, but they're kind of not. They normally have some process where decisions get made, but it's not entirely. It's not egalitarian in the way that organizing is, so I think it's a really interesting trend. I think it's a way for workers to clearly express what they do and don't like and want.
Then managers can choose whether they care about that or not, and I think what's interesting is if you look at regulation, for example, it's very clear that tech regulation is coming. You have to be a fool not to see that. That's a risk to these companies, but at the same time, what they care about more is talent risk. Hiring engineers, as you know, is very expensive, so I think there's I think that's a really interesting leverage point around. If you're an individual, how do you get heard? If you're an exec, the execs decide to listen to their workers are signaling a certain things people they want to hire. The exec, wants to listen to their shareholders signaling a different thing. What I care about is how do we have companies that are doing the right thing?
And if they don't want to do the right thing, that's cool that you're going to do that. But ultimately there will be some accountability for that. So I think unionizing as a whole is a really interesting trend and I'm also curious, like a year ago, if you said to me, this time next year there will be three or four recognized unions in household name tech companies that have been like in no way.
So I think that the change of that has been incredible. But I also think as well to a point around libertarianism, there are always going to be some people that a union is not the right place or there are always going to be some people that don't want to be in this collective approach. And I think we have to respect individual choice.
Rhys: Yeah, if you want that you can go work at Coinbase, you know, apolitical.
Sarah: [unintelligible] The Coinbase example is hilarious for a lot of reason. First of all, because of the incredible luxury of thinking that those finances are not apolitical. But also, Brian did a great thing in lots of ways. He told his employees who he was and then they can make the choice. And that's up to them, right? I think we need more transparency like that, to be honest, because he will attract a certain worker and that's complicated of course, but at the same time, I'd rather that happens when somebody goes there who actually finds out it's not a good fit and then leaves. And that's more messy, I think.
Rhys: I think it's okay to have lots of difference at the microscale, to have one group is libertarian, another group is more consensus-driven or whatever. That's okay, like homogeneity within the subgroups at the micro level produces like heterogeneity at the macro level, which is good. I think that seeing both of those is nice.
I agree with what you said around. I mean the regulation risk versus talent risk, and I think that the talent risk for these folks is interesting. I mean you noted earlier. But since the striving for meaning, it's like okay, you can either go to… Some of my friends in the Bay, they work at Google and they make $500,000. It's just, “Oh my God, you're like 28.”
Sarah: It's really hard for me to extrapolate between my own personal experience and experiences of friends and what's happening more broadly. But you look at the last year, and I think we've gone through so many crises and I think we've observed looking at our community and surveys that we've done that for some workers in tech, that's really pushed them towards, “Okay, and it have more meaning in my life if I've only got limited time on this earth what’s that meaning look like for me,” and that's a very individual choice. Then of course other workers have been like, “Okay, gotta earn this dollar, gotta lock it down,” and I totally respect either choice.
I think people you know we're living in capitalism. You have to do what makes sense for you and your family and your individual circumstance, right?
Rhys: Yeah. I agree and I think that there's a different strokes for different folks, but overall the movement towards unions and decentralize ownership and or governance is a good part.
Do you know by the way, like the decentralized unions have some aspects of decentralized governance a.k.a. “let's listen to the workers here.” I know employee stock ownership plans like a Google, some of the employees have ownership but obviously a lot of it is still at the top or within Wall Street or whatever. Is there a movement within tech unions or tech organizing? It's like get ownership distributed better as well?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean it's fairly early. I think. I think even AWU are still designing their biggest asks. I think what's interesting about, I'm particularly interested in new forms of governance, like the cooperative models that we're seeing in the startup landscape. To me a kind of really exciting. If you look at Twitter, for example, they're incredible in the last year, all of a sudden they finally got their act together and then loads of really interesting product innovation, like spaces and fleets and bob watch, and you can tie that back very clearly to an activist investor that bought stock last June.
I don't know if you remember this, Rhys, at the time, but basically they tried to get rid of Jack Dorsey and I have to assume that some bargain was made whereby Twitter finally committed to actually making product change.
So I think activist investment, whether a small or large scale can really make changes to companies, and I think also what's interesting is I am interested in decentralized. When blockchain as a concept was first coming out, I was so excited by it.
I think what’s been really complicated about that is at the time was running a space for entrepreneurs in London where we had a huge volume of events. We have four things every single night and it was naturally a home for a lot of the early community around blockchain and Bitcoin and the various early products that came out at the time and what was interesting is the community that seemed to come around that notion of, particularly, Bitcoin were very particular community, very young dudes but pushed out a lot of other people that also were interested in the space, and so I think I have not come to any, like I've been quite interested in crypto out recently and what that looks like, for example, like Zora launching.
I think there's a lot of interesting course of test there. I worry that people who have not previously been involved in anything around the blockchain look at it and think, “Oh, it's not for me because of XYZ.” So I feel there's a list of marketing job to be done and, okay, the potential of these protocols is this. How do we invite in very different kinds of perspectives? And I don't know how you go about that.
Rhys: Yeah, crypto libertarianism and the Bitcoin, especially the version of it with early Bitcoin. I think there's some explorations there like Ethereum is kind of a push back against that. It's like, oh, unicorns and all this like crazy stuff. So yeah, we'll see what happens there.
So I have a question though, kind of switching gears here around. For you, what in your mind are requests for projects in this space? You know, requests for startups kind of thing.
Sarah: Oh, I want to keep it really broad because I don't want to put off anybody listening who's not doing something that we would love. I think I'm always interested in, particularly, as I said earlier around language. Right now, what is responsible tech mean? I think experiments around language is really interesting to me. I think tools are always useful, for example, Ethical Explorer, which came out last year. That was a toolkit to help product managers, designers, et cetera find their way into conversations around topics like power and AI bias.
The main reason that we made that ourselves. We kind of went looking for similar kinds of things and didn't really find. A lot of the models that we found had a different focus, so I think resources and tools for people in these roles at companies, how do you operationalize this work, is a core problem. I think communities that bring together those that care about this work are always going to be interesting to us. We funded Logic School and a spin out from Stanford in the last year. Both of them are running evening classes that people who work in tech and come and educate themselves, but also meet other people who care about the same topics as them.
We funded that as a way of building more community in this space. And I think also particularly in the entrepreneur side. We haven't really done enough so far with startup founders. That's something that is a really strong passion of mine.
My principal Aniyia Williams who joined in the autumn is the co-founder of Zebras Unite, who are ex grantees of ours. She’s very well known in the startup scene and I think with her joining us, there's a very strong opportunity for us to be thinking about, “Okay, if you're a founder starting now, what other programs that are useful to you in a world where there are 3000 accelerator programs and most don't have that much value.”
What do you need when you're starting out to reimagine things? And also something else that we've never quite cracked like we're quite interested in alternative business models. If you look at all these theories that this is the other ad tech will finally collapse, but the advertising model of the Internet will finally collapse. How do we monetize what we do online? We are super interested in ideas in that space. We spent quite a long time in 2019 looking into it and it felt a bit early, but I think the time is different now.
Rhys: Yeah, cool. That's a great example to experiments around language is something where it's hard for a startup to monetize that or for an Angel investor to invest in that. But look, we're trying to actively change the meme sphere here, and so we're trying to change language.
Sarah: A good example in that space just, but it sounds a bit vague. Now I hear it back, is New_ Public. This New_ Public is Eli Pariser and Talia Stroud, they began doing research two years ago around what makes digitally healthy public spaces. Their theory was always that places like Twitter are like a modern version of a library. That's a place where you can be in public for free. You would never expect to see somebody in the library give a Nazi salute because they'd be kicked out and so they spent two years doing research and talking to other people.
But really, when they launched their work with the festival in January, they brought together this amazing community of entrepreneurs, urbanists, big tech people, academics. What they tried to do really was to argue for the need for digitally healthy public spaces whether these places are owned by…
A lot of their thinking was around all through history. Whether it's been the Acropolis in Athens, London coffeehouses, places that have been used for public conversation often owned by private companies. That's not a new thing. We shouldn't think of that as a new thing, but their research was really designed to help both those in large social companies and those who are building new ones do it better, so that's an example of both language, but also tools that I think has been really successful so far.
Rhys: It's a very very simple metaphor where you're just like, “Okay, let's think about our digital spaces as parks or as public libraries.” What would that mean? And just by that really simple switch, you're like, “Oh crap, like Facebook doesn't look like that. It could have a bunch of other more positive things like a library.”
I'm personally just very interested in language. Are there other aspects of language that interest you?
Sarah: I think another good example when I think about it is Zebras Unite. They created this identity that was very powerful. That basically said, we think of entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur's goal is to be a unicorn, but actually unicorns aren't real, zebras are. That black and white at the same time. They make money and do good. I think that's a narrative shift that also has an identity behind it that people want to follow and be part of and I think that's very compelling. I guess when I think about language, it's more… I don't think somebody is going to merge tomorrow, and serviceable tech is this.
But how do we create the mechanisms to bring a broad group together to come to some definition. I think the groups that we were inspired by, if you look at the environmental scene. Everything changed when the notion of climate change emerged, brought together loads of previous ills under one easily consumable name and that happened because a couple of organizations got together and said, “Okay, we're not cutting through.”
How do we convey the harm that we're seeing to the general public? They came up with this term, now, there's a shift towards climate emergency instead, which feels more appropriate for the kind of where we are now. So I think narratively is to a point it's really hard to fund. It often sounds super wacky, but I think it's actually quite important. You look at time well spent and the change that shift is made in our heads. The idea of that being a valuable thing. Who doesn't want to spend their time well? To me, that's the most basic thing in the world.
Rhys: Yeah. It's like metaphors and I think that the zebra is one of the great examples. They're very simple terms that allow you to flip over like, “Oh, I've been thinking like a hyper growth mindset this whole time. Let's think in this other way.” So yeah, I think that there's a lot of good experimentation happen there.
I guess the other thing I want to double click on is the alternative business models. That one is the tough one because it is like, “Oh, God,” and it's at the root of your initial issue when you went to these, the folks at the top of these tech companies and you're like,
“Yo! Zuck can't you just like let's make less money?” and he was like, “Nah!” How do you think about non profit or co-op?
Sarah: We're lucky in that we're very flexible with our funding so we can fund for profit work. Let's be clear. I haven't done it very often around so far because so much of what I funded has been non profit. But I think what I'm excited by is, if you look, like Mozilla had this program, Builders, last year. That was kind of cool and it basically was like a mini accelerator. If you think about Mozilla, we think of them as being about the better Internet, that's what they’re known for, and this program is basically an accelerator that took through 20 companies who have really early.
These companies were everything from Block Party who do anti-harassment tools for Twitter, to a lot of decentralized work around, okay, how could you do micropayments for content? As an ex journalist, I'm curious about models for news particularly. I don't think we're searching for one startup that is fixing it all. I think it's more about how do we help 20 or 30 founders get free to spend time thinking about this and testing out new solutions. I don't think one solution is ever going to fix anything, but I think it's about how do we open the minds? You know, particularly with my Angel investing hat on.
It's so interesting how few companies I see in the B2C space you have any kind of business model because they've been taught, collect the data and then sell the data.That's really challenging because first of all, we’re in a different era now to Facebook's early days. Data is fragmented, the root system making money is harder than ever, which means you're probably doing worse and worse things to make money and at the same time it limits your imagination.
I think back to really simple insights like when Bezos started Amazon for all of the complexity of Amazon and the terrible things they've done, let's put that to one side for a second. His insight was, I want to start e-commerce on the Internet. What is a thing I can sell where you're never going to work and walk into a shop and see everything you need?
Books. I'm a big book lover that is very straightforward. I'm never going to walk into a book shop and find the variety on Amazon. At the same time, I'm never going to Amazon and have the same kind of experience. I am going to an amazing local bookshop where they're going to know me, they're going to recommend things. You know what I mean. So I think it's about when you have such dominant companies like Facebook, and Google, and Amazon's now. It kind of kills our imagination and I really want to help founders to get free of that and think, “Okay, if I had a blank page now what would I do? How would I design my company?”
Rhys: Yeah, interesting. To some extent back to the language piece where it's like these people have a mind virus like no, you’ll have to, you’re B to C, you just have to get hyper growth and make as much money as you can out of data long term, once you get hundreds of millions of users. What are other ways to get value from folks?
So, in general, you're also in addition to your work at Omidyar Network, you also do Angel investing. How do you think about the difference between grantmaking versus Angel investing? What has it been like for you?
Sarah: To be honest, I'm really new in both. I've been grant making for 2 1/2 years. I've been Angel investing for about the same period of time. If you think about Angel investing in my last life I was working with early stage founders the whole time. That was my day to day, my bread and butter. It struck me that as an Angel investor, if we're talking about going back to the last question you asked me around, alternative business models.
The early stage of a company is when you're most able to have flexibility. That's when you could really experiment. That's when you can test how you make money and a lot of the values and principles you set in stone that will stick with you as you grow.
And that's why I was so excited to think, “Okay, how could I help that founder at that stage? How could I learn from them? How could that work influence my day job?” I'm very lucky that Omidyar gave me their blessing and I've been working with Atomico, this amazing very well-known European investor, who gave me this incredible gift of basically $100,000 of free money to go out and find companies with. And it was interesting because I think everything you're saying yes means no to something else. So you have to be very thoughtful about who you're funding and why.
I guess the difference of grantmaking is, in both cases there's a complicated power structure. You are the person with the money. You're kind of holding the purse strings. I think the Angel investing scene is a bit more equal because you know they're building a thing. You're backing it. You're owning part of it. Your success is their success, saving got making in lots of ways. But at the same time I'm really aware of the complications of how little funding there is in this space.
Lot of the companies that we fund, two or three people, they're very small. You know margins are tight. They're going through COVID-19. I think there's a lot of privilege in the grantmaking world that I want to be very thoughtful about. We at Omidyar tried to be very intentional about how we act and behave and always on a journey improving our transparency. You know, learning in public, et cetera.
Rhys: Yeah, interesting. Trying to think about the hundred thousand gift is not, you're like, “Oh, here's $100,000.” And you're like, “I will not put this in my pocket.”
Sarah: It's a little bit like a Scout programs are so new in Europe. It's been pretty amazing watching the Scout program as an ocean take seed in Europe. That's kind of cool to see.
Rhys: That is cool. It’s a classic part of the ecosystem. When you think about the venture capital ecosystem. It's a very powerful one because you get these huge winners back in the 90s and 80s and now the 2000s and Google and Facebook, and whatever. Then those people, the employees at these companies become Angel investors and then you just get a very robust ecosystem of people who can fund new experiments.
Sarah: Yeah, that's what I think Europe is still missing is like, you know we haven't had enough. You know we've had a couple of significant exits. But at the same time, technology in London is not the same as San Francisco. We're still working on getting enough operators and also like everyday investing.
I actually wrote a piece about this because I was thinking about it so much having lived in Silicon Valley. I can't think of a single friend in the US who doesn't have stocks and shares. It's very commonplace. It’s different in Europe. We don't do that. My parents don't have that at all. The education around investing is at a very different stage. There's a lot more room to grow.
Rhys: That's funny. I didn't know that.What do your parents have? Bonds or something?
Sarah: No, they just put money in savings accounts. It's just very different. You know, remembering that the UK has a state pension and healthcare is free. It's just different. So I think there's pros and cons to that and I think particularly with startup investment, it means that Angel investors tend to be either family money or the very small amount of serial entrepreneurs have been through the loop and can put that money back in the system.
I think part of the reason why I'm so excited about the Scout programs is, my theory is if you change is doing the Angel investing, you change who gets money and you change the outcomes for everybody.
Rhys: I think the venture capital ecosystem has a very powerful feedback loops and bottom up this with the Angel and I'm thinking about like similar things within the responsible tech ecosystem and in like nonprofits, generally. The tough thing with that is that like the Venture Capital One is just funded because these companies, “Create lots of value for the world.”
Which is true in many ways and not in other ways, but create lots of value, and then that value can just be pumped back into the system and to some extent, Omidyar is also a function that works like eBay and then like the value gets pumped.
What I want to ask you is because you were talking about how people in America and fast people in Europe don't invest in stocks as much? It made me think about something that we wanted to chat about before the show which is this movements versus mobs. How do you think about creating movements and not mobs?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean I've got it so hard because ultimately like the Arab Spring happens and we're cheering it on, Kpop takeover, takedown Trump and we're cheering it on, and GameStop happens originally I'm like, “Yeah, so cool, activism,” and then I think about it, I'm like, “Oh so complicated.”
I just became very aware at a particular point in the GameStop Robinhood loop that exactly the tactics that have been used to make this happen could be used for not come that I strongly disliked. I'm always going to be curious about when the stock exchange gets revealed as a massive game because it’s a kind of it. That's something that I think is useful for more people to know about, but I think it's really confusing and I think we're going to see so many more examples of this swarm behavior online and I don't think Robert Hirt knew how to deal with it, and that's a cause for concern because they didn't have that future planning in place.
But they braze more money and that's how they dealt with it. Reddit didn't really know how to handle it, but they also raised more money. So who's winning? It's really hard to work out in that particular situation. Who's winning and who's losing?
Because you could argue that it's a bunch of money people on both sides of the table playing a game, and it doesn't really have any real world impact until you think about the GameStop employees, many of whom… I'm hoping their employees have some stock in the company, and I'm hoping they cashed out at the right time. I think there’s a super weird thing happening where or has been happening for the last decade or so where the Internet behavior is bleeding into real world behavior, and I think this goes back to Eli’s metaphor around parks.
I've been part of, and I've nurtured many of these online forum communities in the past where you get these very strong characters emerge. These collective ideas emerge. A thing takes hold. People get behind it and it's really unstoppable, and in many ways it's kind of what happened with Trump. It's what happened with the Donald. This hilarious idea to start with four, five years ago, however, long ago it was like, “Oh God, what if this person became president?” Ends up in a ton of really awful extractive ghastly billboard outcomes for pretty much everyone that we know.
So the first clubhouse right now. How on earth do you plan ahead for this kind of thing? I'm not even sure. It's impossible. I mean, let alone the complexity of audio moderation. But how do you think about swarming? I certainly hope Reddit are putting some of their billions or millions however much they raised. They've taken some hard choices in the past. They banned nude pics, they've banned certain forums.
Ultimately, r/wallstreetbets was working as it was intended. It was a place for people to share Wall Street bets. They did that. They didn't break the rules. The next time it happens, what if the target is very different? We don't know.
I think there's just so many implications that I'm still working through, but I think it's a story that is dangerously fascinating to me in lots of ways because as a community person I was thinking about how would I have moderated this. How would I guide my team to moderate this and I had no idea how it even got into that conversation with them.
Rhys: Yeah. I guess a couple of notes. One is, I'm like, “Oh the winners versus losers” It's like, yeah, Wallstreetbets initially like, “The crowd was making money and this is amazing.” But if you look at the outcome, tons of people, obviously, it went back down. GME and one of the hedge funds made $700 million off of the trade. So there's winners and losers there.
So I'm currently writing a book called Terra Sapien which is about the rise of our like Borg and it makes me think of the swarming behavior that you're talking about. I guess I just want to double click on that for a second. Also, just selfishly to get your take on our rise into a networked organism or whatever. How should we positively steward this swarming thing as it emerges?
Sarah: That is the $1,000,000 question, right? If you think about it when you think about the notion of like a borg or a tentacled being, all of us already exist in relation to others. You have your parents, you have your friends. Some of us have partners or kids. Or you know that we exist in context. I think it's very hard to live entirely on your own. No man is an island and all that.
And I think what interesting about for many of us that were on the Internet a lot in the 1990s, you know who you are. I definitely was one of them. It was the first time that I had online friends and in many ways, I was able to have conversations online, but I couldn't have offline at the time I was able to talk about my sexuality online in a way that I couldn't as a 14-year-old girl in a very straight kind of place.
And I think what's interesting is you have to ask, what needs are not being met in the real world? I think there's something around healthy living as a whole around it, not in the kind of archaic notions of wellness and running and stuff. But I think we're living in this time of profound economic crisis. I think a lot of people have jobs that are not meaningful to them. I think there's a massive disconnect between how we live in our government.
I think there are just these massive trust gaps everywhere that you look, and I can totally understand why in that context, it's a very seductive idea to have a community online. Whether it's kind of QAnon or Wallstreetbets.
But I think what's complicated about that is the platform, and this goes back to 230 arguments. We've seen in the last couple of months whether it's the Indian farmer’s standoff. That's happening right now in India. Obviously, with Indian farmers. Or whether it's Trump that platforms have the power to act, they have the power to decide what is this place for. At the same time, I think in the last year we've seen loads of places launch like Telepath, Somewhere Good, Eternal.
Well, places that want to be healthy, positive destinations. Explicitly saying, come here to feel good, and I feel like we’re going to see a lot more of that places bubble up. For me, Facebook, I go there and it's a lot of school friends and it doesn't give me as much value and that sounds very transactional. But I go to Twitter, I get links for things. It's a place that I can go to and I know what I'm getting. I personally find a lot of joy in Twitter still, which is a controversial take these days.
But I think we're going to see a lot more places that actively market themselves as being about compared to feel happy. At the same time, we're going to see more places, like Polo that are, “Okay, come here to do exactly what you want.”
A part of me thinks, “Oh, that's terrible. We need more pluralism. We need to meet people who are not like us.” I think that's something that I know. All of us were alike. I worry about a lot like I'm in such a bubble. At the same time, part of me thinks it was always a dream to have one space that works for everybody. It doesn't really work in the same way that with the park.
Even in the park, you have the kids playing in the kid’s area. You have the joggers going around. We're not altogether in a park, we’re in different places.
Rhys: Yeah. I think if the people who are barbequing with beers or whatever. I'm thinking about the needs thing that you're talking about. I think that's a crucial piece here which is that so much of the Internet in the end we're just trying to meet human needs and so whether it's the folks who are doing LARPing stuff with QAnon and…
Sarah: Yeah, to each their own.
Rhys: Yeah. To each their own.
Sarah: [unintelligible] in the real world. To each their own, walk away.
Rhys: Exactly, exactly, you can lurk on your own time, but don't end up having it harms in the real world. There's a bunch of small nudges within these platforms that we'll be able to make that will hopefully trend them towards meeting these human needs in a good way. I agree with that there's going to be lots of different spaces that do different things and I think it's okay to have these consequentialist style things like look if there are actual harms happening in the real world. That's bad. So that's I think a powerful piece of this, like there's a borgs and there's all these little micro borgs that are happening.
Sarah: Yeah, well, I still believe there's everything to play for. The borg is what you make of it and the borg will be co-created by all of us.
Rhys: Yeah, exactly. It's not just like something that emerges like, “Oops!” Final two questions here and then our final couple minutes. A little overrated and underrated section at the end where I just ask you something and you say, well, it's overrated, underrated. These are kind of general but I think they could work. Do you think the negative impacts of social media on society are overrated or underrated?
Sarah: Oh, that's a really hard question. I mean, it depends on by whom like all of these questions depend on what perspective you're looking at it from. I think so often when we say social media we mean Facebook and I think there's so many more kinds of social media than that. I would say that if we're talking about the broader strokes of social media. Perhaps a little bit overrated. Just because I, you know, I can think in the last year like we commissioned some work by Caroline Sinders at Mozilla.
Looking at how people using community platforms at the start of the pandemic. So we're talking like karaoke parties for their kid in a different country. Mutual aid networks. And the biggest thing I took from that project was just the incredible joy in it and the incredible ingenuity of humans. They were basically making it work. So I think for all of their problems and all of their complexity, if I think back to the 90s and the joy that social media first gave me, I still see a lot of value there. And I would argue that perhaps the negative impacts of social media are slightly overrated.
Rhys: Yeah, my second question is, are the positive impacts overrated or underrated? It sounds like we both agree that the negative impacts are a little bit over... well both you and I are like maybe the most aware of all the negative impacts like, “Oh God, they're like actually really bad.” But also it's probably overrated like it's not as bad as people say and it's like the positive stuff can we embrace that a little bit more 'cause it's pretty sweet.
Sarah: Yeah, well I think we take it for granted, right? I take it for granted that I can leave my house, press a button and a taxi turns up where I'll have the drivers license ahead of time. I think that's why this conversation is so difficult is we have to hold two very different things in our head at once.
You know, I can believe that you Uber gives me incredible convenience. At the same time, I think they should pay their drivers a bit more but I think we're now in a position where I've been paying Uber prices for so long, but it's really a lot of friction involved in me paying them more. So that's why this work is so hard and so meaningful I think.
Rhys: We're at time but again, thank you for the conversation today, Sarah. I guess for our listeners, do you have any call to actions or things that they should check out either both for Omidyar but also like where are you online?
Sarah: Yeah, I’m @sarahdrinkwater on Twitter, which is my preferred medium of choice. You know, you DM me on Twitter. I’m very open to Twitter connection. I'd love to welcome any proposals but also if you disagree with me, I would welcome that too. I love critique, conversation, and challenge. Thank you.
Rhys: Thank you. So yeah hit up Sarah. I hit up Sarah just in here. I slid into her DMs and that's how this conversation happened and you too can slide in there and either critique or say I got a cool project for you. Well, thanks again listeners for coming and thanks again, Sarah, for being on the show. Goodbye, everybody.
Sarah: Thanks, Rhys.
Rhys: What’s up you all? I hope you enjoyed today's episode. I’m going to do big points here, one on bottom up communities and one language.
The first on communities. Yes, Sarah is talking about how they're funding now. Look, you gotta fund the movements, you got to fund the coalitions, you got to fund the networks. Instead of trying to talk to Zuck himself and go top down, you gotta go bottom up. You got to create an organized worker movement or an organized build or movement or whatever it might be, and that is that makes sense and that also just aligns with so much else of what's happening in society.
If you're trying to do a political thing, you should probably make it a meme on Reddit. If you are creating a company or doing something like that you should probably go bottom up and always be community building or what have you. So that all just makes sense to me and is aligned with. It's cool that the nonprofit world is also doing the same kind of shared meta pattern or template that other communities are doing.
The second piece, and possibly more interesting, is on language, and I think that it's cool to see Sarah emphasize this. And just think about some of their investments, really, these language ones are crucial. I mean, time well spent is great. Zebras Unite, also great. Digital public spaces, also great. So those ones seem just really good to me. It makes me just think about what the new languages should be?
You know it's like, time well spent is a change in metric. Instead of saying oh we want engagement, it's a no no. We want the time to be well spent, not poorly spent. And so maybe there are other changes in metrics that we should think about as a society.
I think the time well spent one is like the most obvious. But maybe there's something about like bottom up communities and making them movements, not mobs, and somehow optimizing for that. I guess another thing is connected to this from a language perspective is like the stakeholder versus shareholder economies. It's tough to say exactly what that looks like. It's changing metrics and I think it's yet moving to a more holistic metric system.
I'm just vocal processing out loud here, but I think. I'm not sure I'd be curious if any listeners have any thoughts on this, because I think what kinds of metrics we want to change is mainly this move towards more holistic metrics value based metrics and I mean maybe GDP. That's another example in language changing gross national product versus gross national happiness.
That's the I think not Burma and Myanmar but place that I am forgetting the name of right now near Nepal, Bhutan. Thank you. Yeah, Bhutan as international happiness. So those experiments are interesting. I think the change in metrics and the change in language that results from changing metrics is very important and juicy.
The second one is like Zebras Unite, that's all about saying, no, no, we're not trying to look for unicorns here. We're looking for zebras, which are multifaceted and you know, blah blah and I think and they actually exist in the real world. And what that does is it takes an existing metaphor, an existing goal, and reframes it. I'm not sure of the other goals that could exist like that. The other metaphors that are powerful like ah, the goal is blah blah blah.
Maybe it's like the American dream, is metaphor that currently exists and that people are, you know, trying to achieve. And maybe there's some kind of American meme, or some other version of reality that is like, oh, this is actually what we should be going for a society. So I guess that was thinking from a template perspective. It's a change in changing metaphor on the goal.
The final one there's digital public space and saying, oh, is Facebook a digital public space? No. it ain'. It's a feed. So what could it look like if it was more like a park. Even that one was a good like feed versus park is a good example. So I think that owns one where you're mapping the existing world onto the digital world. Some other ones in the space or stuff like ownership, economy. Doing blank economy is like a classic like we're trying to make a movement around this new idea that we're spearheading. So yeah, I think those experiments language are very powerful and very necessary are up weird source of a surprising amount of impact in society. Great, I hope you enjoyed today's episode. Goodbye.
Thanks to Alfred Malaza for the transcript.