Unless you’re invited to Graydon Carter’s private dinner, the cocktail party at San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building is supposed to be the highlight of the annual Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit, a high-end business conference for the coastal elite. On Wednesday evening, guests were escorted from the Yerba Buena Center to the Embarcadero by trolley and greeted by a six-person mariachi band who played through the selfies. But a little past 6 p.m., the crowd in the cathedral-esque lobby had already thinned, save for black-clad waitstaff and a few chefs dutifully cranking out mini pies with duck or mushroom at the pizza station. Everyone else was huddled together in a small alcove bar where two TVs had been set up to show the final presidential debate. Investment guru Mellody Hobson and her husband, director George Lucas, snagged themselves a couple chairs in front of one screen. Most stood. It was hard to hear over the din, but when Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump a puppet for Vladimir Putin, the crowd cheered in unison.
Vanity Fair’s conference, now in its third year, draws from some of the right wing’s least favorite industries, like media, entertainment, and Wall Street. Conan O’Brien showed up to the cocktail party, as did CBS CEO Les Moonves, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, billionaire investor Yuri Milner, and 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, who brought her mom and daughter. Many of the speakers who took the stage, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and Priscilla Chan, who co-founded the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, were culled from the magazine’s annual "New Establishment" list. It was a gray-haired, blue-state audience, and speakers addressed everyone as though they were voting for Hillary Clinton. The two most crowd-pleasing panels were Fran Lebowitz’s rapid-fire roast of the GOP nominee and the interview with Bezos, where he said Trump’s recent comments about contesting election results “erodes our democracy around the edges.”
Trump is an unavoidable topic for Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, but the rise of Trump cast a shadow even over the more straightforwardly tech- and business-oriented panels. At turn after turn, attendees were made to grapple with the fact that Silicon Valley’s rapid consolidation of power and wealth — and its vision for a world forever altered by its products and services — might be hastening the same anger over inequality that has fueled this toxic election.
"I do understand what’s driving a lot of Trump support,” AOL co-founder Steve Case said on stage. Case is now CEO of the investment firm Revolution LLC, which has backed Zipcar, LivingSocial, and Sweetgreen. A couple years ago, he launched Rise of the Rest, a bus tour that hosts startup competitions in different cities and invests $100,000 in the winner. “There are a lot of people that are frustrated and scared and fearful and feel left out, got left behind by globalization, digitalization, and are really concerned about the future," he said. "They’re mad."
Last month Case, who hadn’t endorsed a candidate in 30 years, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post to explain why he’s voting for Hillary Clinton.
During a session called “Where’s the Juice?”, panelists, including venture capitalists Chamath Palihapitiya and Mary Meeker, were asked about industries affected by that globalization and digitalization, and the 3.5 million truckers who might soon be out of a job because of self-driving technology. Palihapitiya said cities could charge these new services to bring in immense revenue and municipal debt relief. Meeker brought up programs that Amazon and AT&T have already put in place to re-educate their workforce, potentially for jobs with another employer.
In the crowd, it was easy to spot familiar faces like Derek Blasberg, “the Truman Capote of Instagram,” or Uber board member and VC Bill Gurley, or angel investor Ron Conway typing away on his laptop or thumbing through a file folder.
Earlier in the panel, Meeker said “democracy was agitated” and that Trump had raised important issues that “made people reflect a lot more.”
“I feel like everyone has had a wake-up call to this deep unhappiness and unrest,” Lexi Reese told BuzzFeed News. Reese worked at Google before joining Gusto, a human resources and payroll startup for small businesses. “I want people to understand what the world looks like outside of New York, LA, and San Francisco," she said.
Trump’s name also cropped up on a panel called “What Are They Thinking? Man Meets Machine,” which featured Sebastian Thrun, CEO of the education startup Udacity, who is best known for founding Google X, the corporation’s big ideas division. Thrun was asked about the potential digital divide that could widen if “privileged people” have access to AI applications while the less privileged have less access and less knowledge about how the technology works. Thrun agreed that more could be done to close this gap. “It’s something I think in Silicon Valley we should be doing because [the industry can be] very myopic, looking inside, but there’s all of America. These days I scratch my head — how come so many Americans are voting for this guy called Trump?”
A couple minutes earlier, Thrun had shared his vision for AI: “When we stop doing repetitive mindless work — the type of stuff most of us do in the office every day — and unfold our creativity, we’re going to have amazing great new jobs!” The audience did not look entirely convinced.
In general, for all the self-consciousness spurred by the rise of Trump, tech leaders seemed more sure-footed envisioning an egalitarian future than explaining persistent inequality in Silicon Valley today, where the statistics are grim. Case, the bus tour CEO, said that black and Latino founders each only have access to 1% of the total venture capital funding invested and that 90% of venture capital funding goes to men. The audience muttered in surprise.
The tech industry has been flooded with venture capital during the tech boom. The topic of who gets access to that funding came up in a panel about how to find the next billion-dollar idea.
The moderator, Andrew Ross Sorkin, asked Michael Moritz, a general partner with Sequoia Capital, about the time Moritz said he didn’t want to invest in anyone over 27 years old. “You can’t say that legally in the state of California, I deny ever saying that,” the investor replied, seemingly in jest.
Sorkin asked the question again, noting, “I’ve heard Peter Thiel say 30 years old is the cutoff.”
Moritz replied that entrepreneurship is “far easier” when someone is “age of 18 or 19 or 21, which is often when we intersect with people who start the most interesting companies around — you have no sense of how difficult it’s going to be, and by the time you’re age 30 or 35 with all sorts of other obligations, you know how difficult building anything [can be].”
Later, Moritz tried to explain another potential employer violation: a TV interview from December where he said Sequoia had no female investors because the firm was not prepared to “lower our standards.” Onstage to his left were two top executives, both women, including Mary Parent, the Hollywood producer who is making a film about Theranos. When Sorkin read his “standards” quote aloud, Moritz slouched back in his seat and fidgeted, awkwardly stacking one foot on top of the other, patterned socks plainly visible.
“All of us have unconscious biases,” he said later. “Look at the four of us here. Imagine being a black or a Hispanic and trying to get a job as a senior position in Silicon Valley? It is brutal. Outrageously unfair.” The next day, Sequoia announced that it was hiring its first female investor after 44 years in business.
Thiel’s name had come up in other panels as well, but in relation to Donald Trump. Since Thiel’s speech at the Republican National Convention, the billionaire venture capitalist has become a reminder that for all its #StayWoke T-shirts and transparency reports on diversity, Silicon Valley is still ruled by at least a few white male oligarchs determined to conserve their own power. In fact, Vanity Fair’s conference landed just as the industry was mired in a debate over the news that Thiel donated $1.25 million to Trump’s presidential campaign. The donation was made not long after the release of a tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault and after numerous women came forward with sexual assault allegations.
Thiel is on the board of Facebook and a part-time partner at Y Combinator, a very influential incubator in Silicon Valley. Facebook and Y Combinator have both loudly voiced their commitment to diversity and benefited greatly from the goodwill that followed. Both were pressured to cut ties with Thiel to demonstrate a commitment to their stated company values and as a sign that they didn’t support Trump’s fascist and racist threats. Facebook and Y Combinator both opted to let Thiel stay in place.
It highlighted a position many tech leaders find themselves stuck in. The missions they espouse to the public are benevolent, but their decisions are inevitably governed by self-interest. They choose not to acknowledge that, leading to tortured statements like the ones written in defense of Thiel.
Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive who has donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said onstage that if Thiel were on the board of his investment firm, Thiel would be out, but Palihapitiya emphasized that his decision is possible because he has retained control of his firm.
“I think this is a free world. They’re entitled to their opinions,” said Meeker, who donated to Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC. Levie suggested that Facebook put its relationship with Thiel “on temporary pause.”
Bezos tried to put it all in perspective. “Peter Thiel is a contrarian first and foremost, and you just have to remember that contrarians are usually wrong,” he said. “My view is even though I would have a dramatically different opinion [from Thiel], I think that going down that path of tying everything to everything lies madness. You cannot say you don’t want to live in a country where you can’t associate with people who have wildly different political opinions from yourself.”
At the end of the panel on artificial intelligence, a young black woman asked Thrun whether bias in machine learning “could perpetuate structural inequality at a velocity much greater than perhaps humans can.” She offered the example of criminal justice, where “you have a machine learning tool that can identify criminals, and criminals may disproportionately be black because of other issues that have nothing to do with the intrinsic nature of these people, so the machine learns that black people are criminals, and that’s not necessarily the outcome that I think we want.”
In his reply, Thrun made it sound like her concern was one about political correctness, not unconscious bias. “Statistically what the machines do pick up are patterns and sometimes we don’t like these patterns. Sometimes they’re not politically correct,” Thrun said. “When we apply machine learning methods sometimes the truth we learn really surprises us, to be honest, and I think it’s good to have a dialogue about this.”
A couple hours later, the conference ended with an outdoor cocktail party in a closed off area of the park. Annie Leibovitz was sitting in the corner of a makeshift wooden booth. Waiters passed around bite-sized lobster rolls and little discs of steak. As the guests streamed in, women stopped by every so often to tell the person who asked about bias that they really liked her question.