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Biden picked an ex-VC to run Commerce. Her ties to tech might be too close

As governor of Rhode Island, she brought in Salesforce to deal with the pandemic. Will she get tough on Silicon Valley when warranted?

Biden picked an ex-VC to run Commerce. Her ties to tech might be too close
[Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images]

Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, the Biden administration’s nominee for Commerce Secretary, once worked as a venture capitalist and has been friendly with the tech world. These affinities are seen by some in Washington as strengths, and others as liabilities. Either way, they’re bound to shape the way she runs the Department of Commerce.

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Raimondo, who was shortlisted to be Biden’s VP, was cofounder of a venture capital fund called Point Judith Capital backed by Bain Capital before she became treasurer, and then governor, of Rhode Island. Last November, Fast Company‘s Innovation Festival  featured a conversation between Raimondo and AOL founder Steve Case on how to build the next Silicon Valley.

When confronted by the pandemic, Governor Raimondo turned to Big Tech–specifically Salesforce–to replace legacy systems with new cloud solutions for contact tracing and case investigations as well as workforce retraining and other initiatives aimed at keeping Rhode Islanders working. Raimondo called Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and explained Rhode Island’s problems to him, the story goes. He had people on the ground in the state the following Monday.

Actually, Raimondo and Salesforce ended up building something new that Salesforce is now selling to private sector companies faced with the challenge of dealing with the pandemic and getting employees back to work. It’s a platform and a series of employee apps called Work.com designed to help maintain contact and trust between employers and employers during the pandemic and beyond. The platform also provides wellness services, collaboration spaces, and IT support for mobile devices.

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If confirmed, Raimondo will take the reins at Commerce in a period of flux. During the pandemic, businesses of all kinds hurried to make themselves into ecommerce businesses, if they weren’t before. That migration by businesses has pushed the development of the infrastructure needed to tightly integrate online businesses and payment systems and credit card systems, explains Daniel Elman, an IT analyst at the consulting firm Nucleus Research.

“Now that they have some infrastructure in place, and they’ve established some best practices,” Elman says, “this will continue to evolve and the end result is that commerce is more tightly integrated with tech.” This evolution will keep going after the pandemic is over, he adds.

Based on her past work, and her relationship with Big Tech, Raimondo is likely to look to high-tech approaches to helping businesses across the country adapt their businesses for pandemic–and then post-pandemic–life.

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The Commerce Department will also be involved, with Health and Human Services, in efforts to contain the coronavirus. “Contact tracing in interstate travel and in federal buildings is a pretty immediate concern,” Elman says. Raimondo might be inclined to look to major tech companies such as Salesforce for help with a federal-level solution for that, too.

That job is bound to be controversial. It’ll entail building and introducing the systems in a way that eases people’s concerns about privacy. Unfortunately, there’s not much good will built up to give Big Tech solutions the benefit of the doubt.

One of their own

The tech industry has a lot at stake in who runs Commerce, and it’s likely pleased with Biden’s pick for Secretary. Jeff Hauser at the Revolving Door Project points out that the agency also influences intellectual property rules and plays a big role in creating and enforcing U.S. trade policy. Tech giants saw both their supply chains and profit margins threatened by the Trump Administration’s trade war with China.

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Hauser believes Raimondo’s relationship with tech companies might be too close for comfort. “Given Raimondo’s history of self-dealing and coziness with right wing billionaires like (real-life Gordon Gekko) Paul Singer, progressives are worried that Raimondo might deliver for Big Tech at the expense of, well, everyone else,” Hauser says in an email. Before Raimondo took office, the state pension fund invested $5 million in the VC firm she co-founded and ran, Point Judith Capital. The state remained invested even after the 10-term contract ran out in 2017.)

Finally, Raimondo could have some influence over the Biden Administration’s posture on tech antitrust issues. The government has now filed major antitrust cases against Google in October and Facebook in December, and all of the “big four,” including Apple and Amazon, face antitrust investigations at the state or federal levels, or both. There is lots of interest on the Democratic side to pursue these cases, and to move to limit the unchecked power of major tech companies through sweeping new regulation.

While many U.S. businesses struggle to stay alive during the pandemic, large tech companies have flourished, performing 30% higher than peers in other sectors since last March.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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