“I know you don’t want to hear this from me. But we are facing an unprecedented attack on the foundations of democracy itself,” the email begins. “If you are a U.S. citizen, anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy.”
You might expect this note to come from the Biden campaign or any number of political groups invested in ensuring that Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. But it actually came from David Barrett, the CEO of expense management software company Expensify.
In the email, which was sent to all of the company’s customers, Barrett explained the business case for voting Trump out of office.
“At every layer, democracy is our core competitive advantage—both as a company, and as a nation,” he wrote. “But that advantage is only as strong as the clarity of our rules and the fairness of their application. Any attempt to disrupt the rules or apply them unfairly is a direct threat to the strength of our company, and the strength of our nation.”
He went on to point out why businesses shouldn’t stay neutral when it comes to politics.
“As CEO of this business, it’s my job to plot a course through any storm—and all evidence suggests that another 4 (or as Trump has hinted—8, or more?) years of Trump leadership will damage our democracy to such an extent, I’m obligated on behalf of shareholders to take any action I can to avoid it. I am confident our democracy (and Expensify) can survive a Biden presidency. I can’t say the same about Trump. It’s truly as simple as that.”
Barrett’s email also includs a Q&A that addresses several counterpoints, like “Isn’t Trump just trying to prevent voter fraud?” and “Isn’t Biden just using more widespread voting to get elected?”
His rebuttals point out a central reality in this election—Biden wants more people to vote because he believes that will help him win. In contrast, Trump is trying to suppress the vote, in part by making misleading claims of voter fraud, for which there is no evidence. In an interview with Fast Company, Barrett says that he fears that Trump ultimately won’t leave the White House, even if Biden wins.
“If there isn’t an absolute landslide election in one way or another, I genuinely worry he’s not going to leave, and that’s bad for business, that’s bad for everyone. We have no idea how this gets resolved and it’s probably some kind of civil war,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s a high probability but it’s higher than I like. I feel as business owners trying to defend our business and economy we have an obligation to do everything possibility to ensure that low probability event doesn’t happen.”
While it’s normal for politicians, celebrities, and public figures to announce endorsements, it’s more of a rarity for business executives to do so. CEOs of large companies tend to stay away from politics, even if they or their companies are involved in lobbying or fundraising efforts behind the scenes. (Ahead of the 2016 election, some high-profile tech folks did make clear who they were voting for, including Marc Benioff of Salesforce and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, as well as investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel.) However, startups and smaller companies have a bit more leeway, which led some to start endorsing Clinton in the last presidential election.
Expensify, with its approximately 130 employees, is still relatively small as companies go, and has an unusually democratic structure. In an interview with Fast Company, Barrett says that he first introduced the idea in the company’s #whatsnext Slack room, where anyone can float a new project and get feedback. Then, any claims he was making—like that Trump is a threat to democracy—were debated by everyone in a separate #factcheck Slack room. Once everyone had a chance to weigh in, Barrett says that Expensify’s “top tier” employees, a group of about 20 that are the most senior and well-respected employees in the company, evaluated the fact checks and determined that the Trump is in fact a threat to democracy—making that the official company position. Two-thirds of the top tier group proceeded to vote in favor of the letter, which was then workshopped company-wide with edits and more feedback.
Expensify’s approach contrasts with that of another startup, cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, which announced in late September that it would ban all political discussion at the office and would assume a neutral political stance. While Barrett claims that Trump’s reelection poses an existential threat to both Expensify and the country, Coinbase’s CEO wrote in an open letter on Medium that political discussion and activism has “the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.”
Not everyone received Barrett’s email well.
Our entire company just received this email from Expensify. How dare you use our email addresses for your personal political action! Are you giving our contact information to Democratic organizations? pic.twitter.com/nx9gISrCoG
— Todd Sherman (@TTSherman) October 22, 2020
— Micah Jones (@lmnjones) October 23, 2020
Despite the backlash, Barrett says it was more important to stand up for his beliefs.
“I would say the impact on the business was not top of mind,” he says. “I guess ultimately you just have to do what’s right… We have an obligation as citizens to do what we can to defend democracy.”