Horrified by Trump, Silicon Valley Leaders Debate Cutting Ties to Peter Thiel

Thiel's support of Trump has sparked a conversation around his relationship with the noted startup incubator Y Combinator.

Sarah Jeong

Sarah Jeong

Y Combinator's Sam Altman. Image: TechCrunch/Flickr

On Monday, Silicon Valley diversity initiative Project Include officially cut ties with influential startup incubator Y Combinator, citing YC's continued employment of venture capitalist and prominent Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel as a part-time investor.

"We agree that people shouldn't be fired for their political views, but this isn't a disagreement on tax policy, this is advocating hatred and violence," co-founder Ellen Pao wrote in a blog post.

Thiel's support of presidential candidate Donald Trump has been highly public. In July, Thiel gave a speech at the Republican National Convention, where Trump officially became the party's nominee. In an email, Pao said that the breaking point was Thiel's intended $1.25 million donation to Trump, which the New York Times reported Saturday.

Pao called the donation "a direct contribution to creating hate and instilling fear."

In her blog post, Pao acknowledged that Project Include—which tracks diversity statistics and offers resources and advice to companies looking to diversify—had "hope" for Y Combinator: "YC has openly acknowledged bias and harassment problems in tech, and it has made progress in diversity and inclusion in its own organization over the last few years. We saw an opportunity to work with YC companies interested in building vibrant and diverse organizations, and we actively invited YC as a contributor to our VC Include program to gain access to its nearly 1,000 companies and CEOs, who are greatly admired and emulated."

That connection has now been severed. Pao said via email that Project Include would still work with YC companies, but directly, rather than through the incubator.

Prior to co-founding Project Include, Ellen Pao worked at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, which she eventually sued for gender discrimination. Afterwards, she became the CEO of Reddit, but left within the year during a site "revolt," where the front page devolved into abuse targeted at her. At the same time, Reddit Chief Engineer Bethanye Blount also left, and went on the record to say that Pao had been pushed off a "glass cliff"—a phenomenon in which women are placed in leadership roles in a crisis period where failure is more likely. Blount went on to be one of Project Include's eight co-founders, alongside Pao.

"One thing I agree with is that companies' boards should reflect their end users"

Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, was (and still is) on the board of Reddit during that time. I spoke to Altman about Project Include's decision. "I have great respect for [Pao] and disagree in this particular case but understand her position," he said to me.

As for the question of firing Peter Thiel, he said, "Given the danger of Trump and what he represents, and my belief that we got him as a candidate because of years of increasing polarization and lack of communication, I feel it's extra important to try to convert his supporters, not to cut them off and say they're idiots, which will only make the problem worse."

I asked him if he felt like he had no choice. "I liked the choice I made," he responded, and pointed to a recent blog post where he justifies keeping Thiel at YC, despite how Thiel's support of Trump has been a "strain" on their relationship. Altman said that he would "continue to work to change [Thiel's] mind." (Thiel could not be reached for comment for this story, while a spokesperson for Thiel offered no comment when the Times asked about his plans to donate to Trump.)

Shortly after I spoke to Altman, Erica Baker (also a co-founder of Project Include) tweeted in response to Altman's blog post. "Firing an average employee over supporting an average political candidate doesn't make sense," she said. "Trump is not an average political candidate. Trump is a fascist. He has never called himself this, because fascists rarely announce themselves. We learn who they are by deed/word.

"Thiel is not an employee, let alone an average one. He is a part-time, unpaid partner, little more than a volunteer," she continued. "A partner in name only. If Thiel is a partner in name only, does not depend on YC for his livelihood, [and] is contributing little, why keep him on? What's the benefit? To that end, what YC companies would still want Thiel's advice? Who would want to remain associated with a man funding a campaign of hate?"

When I asked Altman about Baker's comments, he was in the middle of conducting YC interviews and could only respond in brief. He said that Thiel was "not a partner in name or practice," meaning that "I could single-handedly fire him and he doesn't make decisions for us." But, he said, "I think [that's] the wrong thing to get wrapped around the axle on."

In his RNC endorsement, Thiel offered a free-market-focused speech in support of Trump.

Earlier, by way of comparison, Altman asked me if I'd keep Thiel on Facebook's board given the choice. (I'm not a billionaire who's paid to make these kinds of decisions, so it's easy for me to give a hypothetical no.)

As for Altman, he suggested that Thiel actually added diversity to Facebook's board. "So one thing I agree with is that companies' boards should reflect their end users. And although I think they are utterly wrong, probably 43 percent of Facebook's users [in the US] are Trump supporters. I think a company like Facebook should target having a board that represents the community they serve. And although I think supporting Trump is a bad thing, it's sort of hard for me to say Trump supporters should be disqualified from the board."

Altman however added that it was probably "less important" than increasing gender or racial diversity on Facebook's board. Facebook's board is made up of eight people, two of whom are women. All are white. When the latter fact was pointed out, Altman replied, "That seems like the most important thing to talk about?"

I asked him if there was a problem with having a board member "represent" a demographic of the United States invested in a bigoted candidate, while no board members "represented" people of color in or outside the United States.

"If the question is if I think Facebook needs board members that truly represent the people that Trump's disgusting comments put at risk, the answer is absolutely yes," Altman said.