Billionaire investor Peter Thiel’s support for presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to confuse Silicon Valley, and now it’s creating awkwardness in some of his business relationships.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Thiel, who spoke at the Republican National Convention in July, donated $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign. By Sunday, some members of the the industry took to Twitter to ask whether Y Combinator, the prestigious startup accelerator where Thiel is a “part time partner,” is considering cutting ties with the investor given his participation in Trump’s campaign.
Both Paul Graham, Y Combinator’s co-founder and former president, and Sam Altman, its current president, argued that Thiel’s political views shouldn’t be reason to do so. In fact, shunning people with different political views is the wrong approach to take, Altman argued in a series of tweets.
It should be noted that Altman has publicly voiced his opposition of Trump and continues to maintain that position.
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And yet, Y Combinator’s business relationship with Thiel is undoubtedly challenging. While businesses tend to err on the side of setting aside diverging views and preserving relationships, Trump is a candidate unlike any the U.S. has seen before. In addition to the numerous sexist, racist, and otherwise bigoted comments Trump has made before and during his campaign, things reached a new level after a decade-old tape of him bragging about groping and kissing women without their consent surfaced a couple of weeks ago. It was immediately followed by several women’s accounts of being sexually assaulted by Trump after he attempted to characterize the tape as just words, or “locker room talk.”
For Silicon Valley—a place that’s only recently begun to openly acknowledge its industry’s gender inequalities—this side of Trump is more than problematic.
To be fair, Y Combinator has to strike a fine balance. As some have argued, “firing” or cutting ties with people because they have different political views is a dangerous path to take, especially in a country that prides itself for having freedoms like religion, speech, and so on. And were Thiel an actual employee of Y Combinator (as a part-time partner, he simply spends some time advising startups), firing him for his political beliefs would be illegal discrimination (at least in California, where Y Combinator is based).
At the same time, he’s an influential tech investor whose affiliation with Y Combinator acts as a sort of stamp of approval—perhaps not for all of his actions and beliefs, but at least for some part of him, whichever part Y Combinator values. Unfortunately, that can send a message to prospective entrepreneurs, for example. As one female engineer on Twitter expressed to Altman, Thiel’s continued affiliation with Y Combinator would dissuade her from applying to the program if she were a startup founder.
What’s more, Thiel has argued in the past that women women’s right to vote has been problematic for “capitalist democracy.” He also co-authored a book in the mid-1990s that was critical of Stanford University’s movement for the study and acceptance multiculturalism, though years later he somewhat backtracked on his criticism of his alma mater.
Perhaps the one lingering question in this debate is where should the line be drawn.
In a blog post published on Monday, Altman says while he doesn’t plan to fire Thiel over his support for a major party’s nominee, “of course, if Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator.”
That line, therefore, seems to be right in between support for a party or candidate, and directly espousing and expressing the same hateful views as that candidate.
But for one organization, Thiel is just too much. On Monday, Project Include, an organization co-founded by a group of prominent women in the tech industry, including former venture capitalist and Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, and Tracy Chou, who kickstarted the diversity reporting trend among companies when she worked at Pinterest, said that it’s cutting ties with Y Combinator because of its continued relationship with Thiel. The organization aims to collect and share data to help increase diversity among tech company employees.
“Thiel’s actions are in direct conflict with our values at Project Include,” Pao writes in a blog post, on behalf of the organization. “Because of his continued connection to YC, we are compelled to break off our relationship with YC,” she says, adding that Project Include hopes “this situation changes, and that we are both willing to move forward together in the future.”
Read Altman’s entire blog post here, and Pao’s here.
The story has been updated with more information about employment discrimination based on political affiliations in California.