Barack Obama was, in many ways, the first president who was truly plugged in. Over the course of his 2008 campaign, Obama famously embraced social media like no candidate previously had, and upon assuming office, he became the first president to appoint both a chief technology officer and chief data scientist. Last fall, Obama hosted South by South Lawn, a festival inspired by Austin’s South by Southwest that quite literally celebrated the “spirit of innovation” at the doorstep of the White House.
During Obama’s last days in office, Fast Company asked execs from the tech industry and leaders of social entrepreneurship what Obama’s presidency has meant for startups and the tech industry–and to explain what, if anything, made the 44th president an arbiter of innovation. Here’s what they had to say.
“From day one, Obama was an innovative president,” says Katie Jacobs Stanton, CMO of genetic testing startup Color Genomics, pointing to the Memorandum of Transparency and Open Government, a commitment Obama signed a day after taking office in 2009 to making federal agencies to embrace collaboration and more public accountability.
“Eight years later, we take these things for granted and [they seem] obvious,” Jacobs Stanton says, “but at the time, this was a tremendous breakthrough.” Also on Jacobs Stanton’s list: Obama’s decision to create a chief technology officer (CTO) role for the government and bring in the team that formed the first-ever U.S. Digital Service (USDS), choices Jacobs Stanton says have since “made it easier for tech rockstars to come in and serve their country.”
Meika Hollender is cofounder and co-CEO of the female-friendly condom brand Sustain Natural, a venture that’s had to wade through a slew of cultural and political issues since its founding in 2013.
“What’s been really special about creating Sustain with Obama in the White House,” says Hollender, “has just been that all of these issues that women have faced, and have been taboo for so long, were sort of brought front and center in many ways, even starting with Obamacare.”
With the fate of the Affordable Care Act now hanging in the balance under a Trump administration, those issues don’t seem likely to slide to the margins. “It’s crazy,” Hollender adds, “My sister, who is 21, can’t even remember what it was like paying $50 to get your birth control every month. We’ve watched unplanned pregnancy decline; we’ve watched teen pregnancy decline. Women have so much more affordable access to birth control—which is really, in my opinion, the keys to their future—than they ever did before.”
Should any of that change in the years ahead, consumers of products like Sustain Natural’s will have more at stake that they can fight to preserve than they did eight years ago. And having launched such a business under Obama, Hollender suggests, further validates its importance. “It’s been so incredible to build this business alongside a president and an advocate for all of these issues.”
“I think what really separates Obama from most is his long-term thinking,” says Tristan Walker, founder and CEO of Walker & Company Brands, a health and beauty company for people of color. “And if you think about the applications of technology and what we do, that’s all we can think about.”
In Walker’s view, Obama understood the American economy’s need to move from manufacturing to new forms of work, and “to educate a new type of workforce” to do it. That long-term vision, Walker believes, extended to health care and medicine, urban infrastructure and “thinking more deeply about clean energy,” and more–all of which signaled to innovators in the private sector that they and Obama were all thinking in similar timelines. For instance, adds Walker, “A president that believes in climate change is the type of president that I care a lot about.”
Laura Weidman Powers, cofounder and CEO of tech diversity nonprofit Code2040, points out that Obama “was the first president to leverage social media as a tool for mass communication, and his presidency coincided with the rise of important technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and self-driving cars.” Yet, crucially, Weidman Powers believes, Obama “saw technology as a human issue. He understood that America is stronger and more effective when we empower all of our citizens with the tools to build the innovation economy.”
That’s given validation and urgency to efforts within the tech community to widen diversity, says Weidman Powers. And at a personal level, it’s “what convinced me to accept an offer to join U.S. CTO Megan Smith [the third, after Todd Park and Aneesh Chopra, to hold the role] at the White House for a six-month ‘tour of duty’.” During that stint, Weidman Powers worked with Smith to “compile a best-practices report on diversity in the tech workforce,” an action plan she hopes can continue to guide the tech sector’s efforts on those fundamentally “human” issues in the years ahead.
Obama recognized that infrastructure was more than just roads, bridges, and tunnels, says Linden Tibbets, cofounder and CEO of task automation service IFTTT. He saw that “in the future our digital infrastructure will be no less important. Obama’s administration, arguably, was the first to try and tackle this on a large scale.”
Tibbets points to the creation of the Open Data Policy and the launch of Data.gov, two efforts to encourage more API-driven government services. “Data.gov is mandated to publish publicly,” he notes, and “in machine-readable sets, any data the government collects that is not private or could impact national security.”
For the federal government to make a commitment to promoting open data, Tibbets says, “That’s huge! No app or website can be as transformational as the right data in the right hands. It can empower government, businesses, and—most importantly—individuals. Access is how we build a more connected world.”
For Miki Agrawal, founder and CEO of period-proof underwear startup Thinx, Obama’s relative youth played a big part in his innovative approach to governing. As she sees it, Obama “understood and appreciated the current entrepreneurial landscape, which has had a boom in the last decade.” Agrawal sees the decision to house South by South Lawn, which she attended, as a powerful way “to show the relevancy of the White House and how much [Obama] cared about new innovation.”
The message that sent will continue to resonate among younger Americans even after Obama leaves office, she believes. “I think I am not the only millennial to think that the White House is antiquated and that its processes are slow and dated.” But “Obama brought a young spirit to the place,” says Agrawal, “and I really appreciated him for that. I also think he called on young people to give their opinions on various matters way more than most presidents have done in the past.”
“Our organizations are as effective as our systems,” notes Amy Sample Ward, CEO of the Nonprofit Technology Network, an organization that helps nonprofits leverage technology for social change, as well as a Fast Company contributor. That means, as Weidman Powers agrees, that technology is first and foremost about people, an idea that the Obama White House led by, says Sample Ward.
“Obama’s campaigns and continued engagement strategies while in office focused on the strength of community organizing, and showed the power of collective action.” That’s had a clear impact, she believes. Today, Sample Ward says, “I see so many organizational leaders taking on this same focus—encouraging their staff and aligning their strategies with community-powered processes and programs.”
Finally, she adds, “There’s something about Obama’s earnestness—that when he speaks, even a speech that is obviously prepared and rehearsed, he is truly speaking his own mind and opinion honestly.” That may have nothing to do with technology per se, but Sample Ward still sees that quality as innovative. “That has set the expectation for leaders to be able to articulate what the community may be feeling or needing to hear, whether it’s in difficult times or inspiring moments.”