Technology CEOs have found their collective voice in the past week, rallying against the Indiana law that they predict will allow businesses to discriminate against gay people, especially those seeking to marry.
Technology leaders are looking beyond an Indiana battle over gay rights that united them in the past week and are calling on all states to enact anti-discrimination protections for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
More than three dozen chief executives and other senior Silicon Valley leaders issued a joint statement on Wednesday, asking state legislatures to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes to their civil-rights laws.
Max Levchin, a co-founder of PayPal and the chief executive of Affirm, a payments startup, organized the statement, which was signed by the chief executives of Twitter, Airbnb, Lyft, Evernote, Salesforce.com, Yelp and other companies.
The statement follows a firestorm over a new Indiana law signed last week by the state’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, that supporters said would protect religious freedoms in the state. An array of critics from business, entertainment, sports and politics have criticized the law as a thinly veiled attempt to let businesses deny service to gays, including same-sex couples seeking to marry. Arkansas passed its own version of the law on Tuesday, and at least a dozen states are considering similar measures that critics say could allow businesses to refuse service to gays.
The specter of additional state laws is part of what pushed technology executives to ask legislatures to change civil-rights laws.
“Religious freedom, inclusion and diversity can coexist and everyone, including LGBT people and people of faith, should be protected under their states’ civil rights laws,” their statement reads. “No person should have to fear losing their job, or be denied service or housing because of who they are or whom they love.”
A number of states already have such laws in place for different aspects of public life. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights organization, 17 states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit discrimination in restaurants, shops and other public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
For the states like Indiana and Arkansas that are enacting the new laws, Levchin said the group is asking legislatures “to explicitly state that the law does not provide persons or businesses the right to refuse service to anyone, including LGBT people.”
The technology industry’s leaders have found their collective voice on this social issue in the past week, rallying with great intensity against the Indiana law that they predict will allow businesses to discriminate against gay couples. The heads of Apple, Salesforce.com, Yelp and Square have all publicly criticized the law, as have some leaders from other industries.
But on many other issues of the day that ignite strong passions — from race relations to income inequality to gun control — tech leaders are much quieter.
The contrast is a reminder of the balancing act happening in the executive cubicles of Silicon Valley. On the one hand, there is the dread that nearly every corporate leader has about taking strong stands on issues that might offend customers, partners and employees. On the other, there is the exuberance of an industry just learning to embrace its role as a cultural and business leader, one often animated by grandiose corporate mission statements about wiring the world and empowering people with information.
“So many tech companies have embraced a mission that they say is larger than profits,” said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, an online real-estate firm. “Once you wrap yourself up in a moral flag, you have to carry it to the top of other hills.”
Until recently, tech leaders have waded into political battles when there was a direct connection to their businesses, staking out positions on immigration reform, copyright legislation and Internet service regulation. Many of them write checks to finance candidates and ballot initiatives — to Democrats and progressive causes, more often than not.
With gay rights and same-sex marriage though, any remaining hesitation has vanished.
In an opinion article published online on Sunday by The Washington Post, Apple CEO Tim Cook declared, “With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it’s time for all of us to be courageous.”
Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, which has a significant presence in Indiana, canceled all company events in the state, and on social media has exhorted others to follow suit. But in an interview Tuesday, he said he had deliberately sought to make a business case — not a moral case — for his objection to the Indiana law.
“I’m a CEO,” he said. “I’m not a pastor or politician or a civil-rights leader.”
The last generation of tech leaders, including Steve Jobs of Apple, Andrew Grove of Intel and Bill Gates of Microsoft, were more focused on building their companies than on social issues, at least while they were running them, said David Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School.
“The great success at companies such as Apple and Salesforce, in combination with more socially conscious CEOs, has made it easier to speak out,” Yoffie said.
Technology companies are wellsprings of support for gay rights. The industry is centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, long a bastion of gay culture, and most large tech companies have large, active gay-employee groups. Cook, who last year announced he is gay, leads the world’s most valuable firm.
Tech executives on the other side of the same-sex marriage issue have found themselves out of a job. Last year, Brendan Eich, chief executive of Mozilla, a Web browser maker, was pressured into resigning after it emerged that he had donated $1,000 in 2008 to support a California measure banning same-sex marriage.
Technology leaders as a group have not shown the same kind of full-throated support for other social issues. In a joint statement, Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, who run the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, Calif., said Silicon Valley had done a commendable job of taking a stand against overt discrimination, including in Indiana. But the companies, they said, have been less effective at increasing the “dismal representation” in their workforces of other groups, including women and minorities.
Big technology companies are taking steps to increase the diversity of their workplaces by encouraging more girls and minorities to study computer programming in school. The fault lines over that issue were further exposed by a gender-discrimination lawsuit by Ellen Pao, who sued her former venture-capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. A jury ruled against Pao’s claims on Friday.
Technology leaders have been hesitant to inject themselves into broader discussions about race relations, even as the national debate over police treatment of black men became a national issue over the last year. One exception was Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter and the chief executive of Square, an Internet payment company. He posted to Twitter extensively last August from demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown.
Starbucks is a cautionary tale of how even well-intentioned efforts to stimulate dialogue on race can go awry. In March, CEO Howard Schultz shelved an effort to encourage baristas to write the phrase “Race Together” on coffee cups, after the plan to start conversations with customers was widely ridiculed.