Silicon Valley Gets Potomac Fever

Doerr. Barksdale. Cook. Andreessen. Polese. Minor. They've changed business forever. Now they've set their sights on Washington.

John Doerr had delivered his slide show dozens, maybe hundreds of times, explaining his theories of how the Information Revolution was transforming business, creating a new economy built on flexibility, decentralization, customization, and innovation. But he had never faced an audience quite like this.

Arrayed down a long and elegantly set table in a penthouse suite of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles were some of the most prominent names in high tech: Marc Andreessen of Netscape, Kim Polese of Marimba, Jerry Yang of Yahoo, Scott Cook of Intuit, Halsey Minor of CNET, and half a dozen more digital celebrities. All were familiar faces to Doerr; as a principal of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley's elite venture capital partnerships, he had been present at the creation of many of their companies.

But it was the man at the center of the table, sipping a glass of wine, who made the evening so unusual. Vice President Al Gore looked a little tired, but he listened attentively as Doerr unleashed his barrage of numbers and ideas, his ode to the personal computer and the Net.

For nearly two-and-a-half hours the group dined on steak and salmon and traded insights on how digital

Technology was driving change. The conversation was relentlessly high-minded -- like a "graduate seminar on the new economy," one participant later said. It never stooped to such grubby particulars as campaigns, fund-raising, or legislation.

Yet a few weeks later the session yielded a tangible political benefit for the Clinton administration when, at Gore's request, Doerr brought 200 high-tech executives to a White House ceremony to endorse the president's call for national educational standards. And three years from now it's likely to produce even richer rewards for Gore, as he launches his own campaign to move into the Oval Office.

The budding alliance between Gore and Doerr and his colleagues marks a milestone in the emergence of a new kind of political machine -- or more aptly, a new political Net. After reshaping the face of the computer industry over the past 15 years, Doerr now aims to launch an assault on politics with the same intensity -- and the same logic -- he's applied to business. Together with a coalition of high-tech leaders, he has founded a new organization called the Technology Network. Its mission: to apply the principles of flexibility, decentralization, and innovation now remaking the business world to education, government, and almost any of the nation's pressing social problems. Its business model: assemble a broad-gauge network of Web-savvy business leaders from all parts of the political spectrum who share a general dissatisfaction with the current entrenched approach to governmental problem solving. Its strategy: turn information technology loose, first to open up and then to rewire the system.

"We are creating something that's a new political form," Doerr says. "It's not a PAC. It's not a trade association. It doesn't represent a particular industry group. There's already plenty of those around. What it will be is a network of individuals and enterprises who are concerned about education and making the new economy go.''

Gore's solicitude -- the vice president has met with the group virtually every month this year -- testifies to Washington's belief that this alliance could become a significant source of endorsements, ideas, and money by the year 2000. In political circles, business -- especially high-tech business -- is now as hot as Hollywood has always been. And Doerr's group is not just wealthy and well-connected. Its thinking about work, change, and organization is in the sweet spot of the moment: it seems to have an answer to where technology is taking society.

In practice, however, politics is a demanding sport that is rarely hospitable to amateurs -- however successful they are in their own pursuits. To build the kind of sustained influence that Doerr envisions, the Technology Network will first have to reduce its intriguing insights into a tangible agenda and then advance those ideas with a level of perseverance, pragmatism, and unity of purpose that even some of its own participants aren't sure it can muster. And like most startups, this high-tech political hybrid already has its share of skeptics and naysayers, party regulars on both sides who are lining up to capsize Doerr's boat before the vessel can even get launched.

The Politics of the Valley

The entrepreneurs and technology executives joining this alliance, many of them young, many in small, rapidly growing companies, enter the arena with a few clear beliefs. They are united in their conviction that the microchip and the Net are fundamentally changing first the economy and then society -- and will continue to change them at an accelerating rate into the next century. "Those of us who are at ground zero are watching profound changes and saying, This is what it must have felt like to be in the Industrial Revolution in London," says Steve Westly, senior vice president for business and market development at Who Where, a Mountain View, California company that provides online collaboration and connections. "The only difference is this is happening over the course of a few years, rather than a few decades."

They are also united by weariness with traditional political formulas. Though the group contains both Republicans and Democrats, the majority isn't at home in either party. In classic swing-voter fashion, they find Republicans too rigid on social issues, Democrats too loose on fiscal ones. At the same time they reject the reflexive conservative argument -- which finds plenty of adherents in Silicon Valley's cyber-libertarian community -- that the key to strengthening society is merely reducing government.

"Like a lot of people in this group, I'm not a Republican or a Democrat," says Halsey Minor, founder of CNET, a producer of online and television programming about high technology. "I'm too much of an economic libertarian to be a Democrat and too much of a social liberal to be a Republican."

Kim Polese, the exuberantly optimistic founder of Marimba, started on Minor's left but has migrated into almost exactly the same position. "I like the Democrats' open mind and the focus on moving forward and bringing people together, but I don't like the fat,'' she says. "I like the Republicans' focus on execution and individual responsibility, but I don't like the rigidity. So the centrist view makes the most sense to me -- the best of both worlds."

This Network, which was formally announced at a July 8 press conference, connects most profoundly around the belief that the technology-driven reinvention of business provides a compelling model for social reform. Its catechism runs like this: most major public institutions -- the schools, the government -- still employ the command-and-control hierarchy of the Industrial Age. But the Information Age is overthrowing the old pyramid approach and writing a new set of rules for success. Now the challenge is to apply those new, more flexible principles of economic success to public institutions. "The model for the new economy is a networked model, not command and control," says Doerr. "It's lots of cooperating independent entities that are really responsive to local needs."

The Network's initial priorities reflect the two issues that together sparked its creation. The first item is an outgrowth of the campaign that Doerr spearheaded against California's Proposition 211, a ballot measure that would have made it easier for shareholders to sue companies for fraud and hold their directors personally responsible. At the top of the Network's agenda is passing national legislation to preempt state rules on such shareholder lawsuits -- making further state-level campaigns unnecessary.

The second item is an outgrowth of NetDay96, an effort organized by Sun Microsystems's John Gage to mobilize tens of thousands of volunteers to link every K-12 school in California with the Net. The Network's approach to education begins with the belief that a better educated workforce is the key to both social cohesion and economic prosperity. "There's a tremendous shortage of skilled people," says Netscape's Marc Andreessen, "and the shortage is a barrier to growth." But generations of reformers have broken their picks trying to improve the schools. What makes this group different?

The answer is less a set of specific policies than a general angle of vision. Doerr and his team would like to see more authority devolved from school boards to principals and teachers; they favor overturning state-level legal barriers that make it difficult for voters to increase education funding by raising property taxes. At the same time,

Doerr wants phone companies to provide cell-phones for teachers and voice mailboxes for parents. As an overarching approach, the group supports Clinton's proposal for national math and reading tests for fourth and eighth graders -- not necessarily to reward or punish, but to provide a common performance benchmark. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it," says Andreessen, "and if you can't manage it, you can't improve it."

Some of the Gore-Doerr agenda is already being translated into action. In late June, at a Gore-sponsored conference on the campus of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Doerr announced the creation of a $2 million venture-capital fund to help subsidize the startup costs of charter schools. The near-term goal, Doerr said, is to have the fund reach $5 million.

Kim Polese followed Doerr's announcement with a demonstration of a prototype of the group's second initiative: the Education Dashboard, a Net tool that would allow parents to download real-time information about their childrens' schools. With Gore at her side, Polese confidently unveiled the Dashboard with the kind of patter usually reserved for product announcements at trade shows. She walked the enthusiastic audience through the opening image of a school front and into a classroom where parents can access information on their children's attendance records, test scores, or grades as well as copies of homework assignments, lesson plans, and reading lists. The software also lets parents join chat rooms with other parents, seek tutoring help, and exchange email with teachers and school administrators -- opening up the home-school connection. Two firms in the Network have already committed to providing free email to students and teachers in California schools.

The venture fund puts real money on the line. And the Education Dashboard makes the promise of Web-based connectivity seem relevant and plausible. At the same time, some of this agenda sounds trivial -- how much value would really come from handing out cell-phones? And none of it directly addresses questions of unequal resources between rich and poor districts. But the insights are genuinely powerful: Gore has already begun using the group's lens in making his case for reinventing education. "The gridlock of traditional politics," says Andreessen, "is opening an opportunity for the issues that we're raising."

The Valley of Politics

Intriguing as these ideas may be, Doerr and his allies will be only a fleeting force if they can't overcome their high-tech colleagues' disdain for politics. "The conceit of Silicon Valley is that we think that what we are doing is more important than Washington, so historically people have chosen not to engage," says Paul Lippe, vice president for business development at Synopsys Inc., a design-automation software company in Mountain View, California.

That sentiment is starting to erode. Proposition 211's legacy is that it politically motivated an entire generation of Silicon Valley leaders who had earlier been indifferent -- none more important than Doerr. The son of Republican parents, Doerr grew up in St. Louis and went to Rice University and Harvard Business School during the Vietnam era. In general, says Doerr, he didn't "have any strong political bearings." After college he joined Intel, first as project manager, then as a frenetically successful sales representative. In 1980 he jumped to Kleiner Perkins; since then he's funded companies that have changed the face of the economy: Compaq, Lotus, Sun Microsystems, Netscape, Amazon.com, and more.

Throughout all this, Doerr's experience with politics was little more than glancing. Yet when he turned to politics in the battle against Proposition 211, Doerr proved a natural: he had extraordinary energy and focus, and, just as important, a unique position to reach out across the industry. It was during the fight against 211 that Doerr and his allies first conceived the idea of a permanent organization. To plot strategy, the group would gather at 7 AM Monday morning "dawn patrol" meetings at Kleiner Perkins. One of Doerr's early realizations: the campaign was teaching them an expensive lesson. They needed an ongoing political presence. "We realized that spending $40 million to keep a bad thing from happening was kind of the way that Silicon Valley had always done politics,'' he says.

Doerr did not seem at all daunted by the prospect of building a political organization in a community famous for its hostility to both politics and organization. According to Wade Randlett, a Democratic political operative who worked against 211 and is now helping to organize the new group, Doerr's attitude was, "I start companies. This is a crappy little $2 million-a-year organization. Why wouldn't I be able to start that?''

"Organizing" may be the wrong word for the structure they are assembling. Doerr and Randlett are insistent that the Technology Network fit the fluid model of the best new companies. The model, says Doerr, is "shared information but individual action." If one member of the group in Texas likes Gov. George W. Bush, for example, he or she would be free to canvass for contributions and endorsements for him by email or fax throughout the membership. If another Texas member wanted to canvass for Bush's opponent in next year's gubernatorial race, he or she would be free to do that.

It also hopes to reach into both parties. Worried that it is becoming too identified with Democrats through the connection to Gore, the group has recruited Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, an unwavering Republican, as its cochair, and hired Dan Schnur, the sharp-tongued former press secretary to California Governor Pete Wilson, as one of its consultants. "You can drink beer with Al Gore, but if Jim Barksdale can have drinks with Trent Lott as well, you've doubled your chance of success," says Schnur.

Still, the group's center of gravity seems clearly located on the Democratic side -- at least the postideological New Democratic synthesis that Clinton constructed after the Republican landslide in 1994. Most of the key figures, like Doerr and Polese and Cook, supported Clinton in 1996; many of them are likely to support Al Gore's campaign to succeed him. But the allegiance is more to a set of principles -- social tolerance, education reform, fiscal restraint combined with targeted government investments -- than to either party. "People will flow to where the new synthesis is," says Cook, "not traditional partisan roots, because the traditional roots are not as meaningful as they once were.''

The Valley Meets the Beltway

In brilliant late-afternoon spring sunshine, John Doerr is standing in the driveway just outside the press room at the White House. Standing beside him is Kim Polese, along with Delaine Eastin, the California superintendent of schools, and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Five television cameras and a dozen reporters, busily scribbling in notebooks, cluster around them.

Doerr is still faintly vibrating with the buzz from the afternoon's event in the East Room. Over 100 high-tech executives, sitting on the gold chairs usually used for press conferences, had cheered as President Clinton renewed his call for states to embrace national education standards. Sitting just a few feet from Clinton and next to Al Gore at a table at the front of the room, Doerr became so impassioned when it was his turn to speak that he pounded his fist on his notes, promising that the executives would lobby every governor in the nation to embrace the idea. When the event was over, Clinton waded into the crowd to shake hands -- crutches and all. Everyone filed out feeling virtuous and important.

Now Doerr is in the driveway taking questions from the press. One reporter wants to know why there isn't anyone from Microsoft on the list of executives endorsing the idea. No particular reason, Doerr says; there just wasn't much time to organize the event and no one from Redmond responded quickly enough. Just as Doerr finishes, Marc Andreessen walks by, hulking over him in a natty cobalt shirt, jet-black suit, and silver-and-black tie. "Actually," Andreessen says dryly, "they just haven't figured out how they can monopolize education yet."

That exchange helps explain why groups like this often have difficulty making their way in Washington. Doerr's response reflected the belief common among well-intentioned outsiders that good ideas can bridge all boundaries. But Andreessen's biting edge reflected a sensibility common in the political world itself, where contending interests, some of whom actively wish each other harm, carry clashing agendas into daily combat.

Like many reformers, the Silicon Valley techies instinctively present their ideas as beyond politics. And like many reformers, their sentiment is hopelessly naive: no public policy is truly beyond politics. But if Doerr and his allies build the kind of organization they have in mind, they may be greeted not as saviors but interlopers and presumptuous dilettantes.

Already there are some in both parties who find the Technology Network's emergence unsettling. Some GOP strategists express concern that so many traditionally Republican executives now feel comfortable with Clinton and Gore. Ken Khachigian, a veteran GOP consultant who ran Bob Dole's campaign in California, says, "You're already hearing Republican state legislators say, We're the ones who get you guys tax breaks, the ones who help you deal with issues like workmen's comp. Now you're turning around and supporting Democrats because they pick two or three issues that are sexy. Republicans are beginning to say, Why should we take any hits for your business if you're going to jump into bed with Bill Clinton and Al Gore?''

On the Democratic side, doors are opening for this group so fast the hinges seem loose. The senior White House staff and House and Senate leadership always find time to meet with the techies when they swoop into town. But Doerr and his allies are setting their boat onto the ocean when the waves inside the Democratic Party are becoming rougher. The Clinton-Gore vision of the Democratic party is coming under a counterattack from traditional forces -- labor, urban liberals, minorities -- and from Gore's rivals who are working to deny him the nomination in 2000. If the Technology Network grows as visible as Doerr hopes, it could find itself in the line of fire.

But for all these obstacles, Doerr and his allies can offer politicians one of the most valuable assets in American politics: the imprimatur of the future. "That is the single most important part of this," says Schnur, the Republican consultant working with the Network. "People look to this community and they see the future. The National Widget Association can give the same amount of money, support the same candidates, and say the same thing, and they'd barely make a ripple.''

One of the greatest failings of the computer revolution has been the refusal of those at its forefront to participate in interpreting its meaning and implications for the rest of us. They do have an indispensible perspective -- one whose absence has diminished the political debate. But just because this mobilization is long overdue doesn't mean it's guaranteed to succeed. "There's a paradox in starting new ventures," says Doerr. "You need at once to have an incredible sense of urgency to get things done, because time is your enemy. But at the same time -- it seems like almost the exact opposite -- you've got to be patient. You've got to nurture these projects. Patience pays." In Silicon Valley, Doerr has been almost unrivaled in his mastery of this paradox. Now he faces the same test on a stage that is far more visible and, in many respects, far less forgiving.

Ronald Brownstein (Ronald.Brownstein@LATimes.com) is national political correspondent for the "Los Angeles Times."

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