In the late 1990s, Sarah Drinkwater said every model of tech startup success came from a white dude with a wealthy background. Their business philosophy revolved around moving fast, breaking things and hustling to scale. They marketed themselves as a counterculture and a democratizing force, but in many cases have fallen short of the hype.
Today, Drinkwater, an entrepreneur who spent over six years at Google, believes interest in responsible tech is rising, as evidenced by surging tech employee interest in activism, unionization, alternative methods of funding and building more intentionally.
“I have a really powerful belief that technology can help us be and do more,” Drinkwater told Built In. “At the same time, I also believe that many of the world’s most dominant companies right now do not help us achieve those end goals.”
In January, Drinkwater moved from London to San Francisco to serve as director of beneficial technology at the Omidyar Network, a “philanthropic investment” arm launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar in 2004.
On Wednesday, the Redwood City-based impact investment company launched the Ethical Explorer Pack, a free toolkit aimed at helping product managers and engineers make a business case for building responsible tech. The toolkit — which offers physical copies of its exercise cards, as well as digital downloads — highlights how to start conversations around surveillance, disinformation, exclusion, algorithmic bias, addiction, data control, bad actors and outsize power. It is the second iteration of a free ethics guide, Ethics OS, Omidyar built in 2018.
Built In recently spoke with Drinkwater about the Ethical Explorer Pack, trends in responsible tech and the direction she believes the tech industry needs to move in. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
* * *
Why does the tech industry need this tool?
When you think about these massive topics, like addiction or exclusion, there’s often a sense you have to have a Ph.D. to discuss them, right? We think that responsible tech is a muscle that you build with practice. We think that amazing companies will create space for these conversations. And it won’t be about coming to a definitive conclusion in one conversation. Can you imagine talking about addiction and thinking one conversation is enough? It’s just not, right. The whole point of the toolkit is it’s designed to be a digestible, accessible resource that people can use to find a way into this conversation.
Now feels like an auspicious time to launch this product. Is it?
There’s this brilliant open conversation around the reckoning that companies are seeing around how they’ve treated Black employees and Black users. I think a lot of questions that we as a society are asking ourselves and asking each other, we are asking our companies that we give money to, like “How do you serve us? How do you make our lives better?” I think for the last couple of years, there’s been this bubbling conversation around data ethics and control monopolies. At the same time, a lot of this conversation was in quite an academic space. It was really hard for those who worked in technology to kind of see themselves in it.
What is the business case for building responsible tech?
It’s more important than ever, in 2020, that you lead with values. It’s what your board is going to ask you, it’s what the press is going to ask you, it’s what your talent that you hire is going to ask you. I think talent risk is a very real way of getting into this conversation right now.
Look at companies like Glitch and Buffer that have incredible reputations externally. People would die to work for these brands. But I think more broadly, this is what your customers are asking of you. If you think about launching a new product in 2020, there are really dominant companies out there. So you have to work out your angle.
I was looking at this company called Dumpling yesterday. I’ve worried a lot living in the United States as a new person, like we don’t have things like Instacart back home. I’m always like, “Is this person getting paid enough? How is this not risky for them going out and getting my shopping for me?” Dumpling’s whole thing is that it’s a way of making sure that person is treated well. So for consumers like me, I’m going to use that product.
I think scale and size is the source of many of our problems.
I know you’ve also spoken about the challenges addressing equity and inclusion for women, LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, people of color, and differently abled individuals within tech. What makes you an expert on these topics?
As a woman and a queer person with a disabled son, I’ve built a lot of programs and projects around democratizing access and entrepreneurship. That was my bread and butter.
I’m on the boards of a couple of Europe’s most successful communities of Black founders, helping them get access to money. I don’t think I’m an expert. I think I’m an ally and a participant. I also ran Women at Google for a long time as a side project. That’s the kind of community grassroots organizing function for all women inside the company and in the region I was in. It’s just been a passion of mine for a long time.
I come from a low-income background myself, I’m the first member of my family to go to university. I just feel really strongly about access and I think about this with my son all the whole time. He’s got one hand and nearly all the products I use do not work for him. And this is outside of tech as well.
Teletext got invented for blind TV watchers, and then it took off with a larger audience. The same with text-to-voice. There are so many examples of amazing things that we use every day, that came out of welcoming in an audience that are differently abled.
What topics within the pack do you expect to resonate the most?
I think topics that will most resonate are things like exclusion, and particularly with the last couple of months, the social justice movement. I think companies have been thinking really deeply about the ways in which they failed marginalized communities who use their product.
“How does the business model they have, how does that product reinforce biases we might not want to?” I think that will be a particular topic that people will love finding a way into because these topics are emotional, they’re personal, they can be difficult. We think it’s really important to have space for conversation, and to find a way in.
What tech industry trends are you excited about right now?
I’ve been really excited by the push toward bootstrapping, the push toward alternative VC, the push toward more sustainable growth models. This is my old bread and butter, working with really early stage founders to help them work out, “What does success look like for them?”
It’s a ton of risk starting a company. It involves incredible bravery and time. I think it’s an incredibly satisfying thing to do. You can make the thing you want to see in the world come to life. But it’s up to you as a founder to put the right people around you, and the right structures around you, to help you ask these questions, all the time, every single day, “Is this what I want to work on? And how does this align to my values? How does this make the world a better place?”
I’m pretty excited by the wave of interest in worker power. I’m really excited by the wave of interest, certainly in an election year, around asking hard questions of our largest companies. The core of Silicon Valley dominant companies have done an amazing job marketing themselves to us as counterculture forces, but they’re not. Now, they’re the establishment. And what happens when you have an establishment is you get alternative scenes bubbling up, which is always exciting to me.
Any companies you’re particularly excited by?
I’m particularly excited by Basecamp and Hey, which are completely self-sustaining and remote-first. I think of companies like Savvy Cooperative, who raise money from indie VCs, they’re a cooperative structure. I’m really fascinated by co-ops right now, I think that’s going to be a massive trend in early stage startups.
It’s really hard to think of dominant, household name tech companies that have done a great job, to be honest with you. I think that speaks to the fact that, first of all, these things are hard to get right. Second of all, many of these companies are really wary of going on the record of what they’ve done, because they’re scared of getting something wrong tomorrow, which they might do.
We’ve held up models as heroes for a long time, like Elizabeth Holmes, for example. I remember seeing Elizabeth Holmes talk at Disrupt six years ago, and I was blown away, I’d never seen a woman on the main stage at a tech conference before like that. Now I’m like, “Of course, I was willing to be suckered in, because she was the only woman on stage.” If we had more women on stage, we would pick up the charlatans earlier, right? Because it doesn’t matter what demographic you’re from, you can still be kind of a charlatan.
In general, the tech scene needs to move on from hero worship of very particular people. I don’t think it’s good for us.
What would success look like for the Ethical Explorer Pack?
We have these sources of unchecked power that, because of their business models, are really kind of harming us as users, harming the societies that we live in and harming our democracy. We really want a tech system that is fair, inclusive, accessible and innovative. I think often people tend to think that responsibility in tech means doing less and being less innovative, but I don’t really think that’s the case at all. We think what needs to happen is we need to have clear regulation for those massive companies. We need to have startups that have different kinds of governance models, different ambition, they don’t want to be blitzscaling their way to success. They want to build really sustainable, amazing companies.
I want engineers and product managers to pick this tool up who’ve never thought about this before, but that they want to do good, but they’re not sure how. After using this, I want them to be activated to ask these questions. That, for us, will be absolute success.