On a foggy day in San Francisco in May, politicians and tech moguls gathered outside Salesforce Tower, the tallest office building west of the Mississippi, to celebrate the skyscraper’s grand opening. This was peak San Francisco — a display of power and influence topped off by Marc Benioff holding hands with the mayor of San Francisco as a blessing was said over the cone-shaped, vaguely phallic 61-story tower.
San Francisco is, for better or worse, a tech city. The tech sector creates tens of thousands of jobs annually in the nine-county Bay Area, making it the single biggest engine of the local economy, though that job growth is starting to slow.
As startups blossom, attracting a wave of entrepreneurs and investment dollars, the tech industry has achieved significant clout in local politics. We rounded up the tech and business luminaries who emerged as political power players in San Francisco.
Airbnb’s Brian Chesky tangled with city officials and hotel unions to keep Airbnb alive in San Francisco.
Title: CEO of Airbnb
Biggest power play: In 2015, Airbnb spent more than $8 million to defeat a San Francisco ballot measure that would have severely restricted short-term home rentals, including those listed through other services such as Craigslist and Vrbo.
Employees of the San Francisco startup have given Gavin Newsom — the politician who helped beat the measure, and who is now running for California governor — $228,000 in donations.
Ron Conway, known as the “Godfather of Silicon Valley,” has funneled money into hundreds of startups as well as political campaigns for moderate and tech-friendly candidates.
Title: Angel investor and founder of SV Angel
Biggest power play: Conway, one of the tech industry’s most prominent and powerful startup investors, also backs political hopefuls. He’s poured reported millions of dollars into local elections, including $275,000 in 2012 to pass a ballot measure that lowered tax rates for tech companies that he invested in such as Airbnb, Twitter, and Zynga.
Conway was a longtime friend and advisor to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, whose death from a heart attack in December catapulted Supervisor London Breed — a fellow recipient of Conway’s political contributions over the years — into the hot seat. Her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors moved swiftly to replace her as interim mayor, saying publicly that they did so to send a message to Conway that “San Francisco can’t be bought.”
Conway has denied making any attempts to sway the Board of Supervisors’ vote.
Salesforce’s Marc Benioff has been spreading his billions over several causes near and dear to San Francisco residents.
Title: Cofounder and CEO of Salesforce
Biggest power play: Benioff and his wife, Lynne, want to end family homelessness in San Francisco by 2019, and have donated $11.5 million to Hamilton Families, an organization that puts families on the streets into permanent housing, to do just that.
The San Francisco power couple has contributed millions of dollars to causes from schools to hospitals, writing two $100 million checks to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland. In 2018, Benioff gave big to sponsor a San Francisco ballot measure that, if passed, will go toward raising teacher salaries.
San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell took an unpaid leave of absence from his venture capital firm the night he was sworn in as mayor.
Title: Mayor of San Francisco and managing director of Thayer Ventures
Biggest power play: After city officials bounced Supervisor London Breed from her seat as interim mayor, they elected Farrell to replace her through the special election. Farrell, who represents one of the wealthiest districts in San Francisco, worked up until then as managing director of Thayer Ventures, an investment firm that has raised $38.5 million to invest in startups that focus on the travel industry.
The interim mayor said he plans to leave politics after the special election in June (he’s not running in the election for a permanent mayor), while his firm’s website says Farrell will make a full-time return to tech investing.
Twitter cofounder Ev Williams is selling 30% of his stock, with plans to up his philanthropic giving and political contributions.
Title: Cofounder and CEO of Medium
Biggest power play: Williams has been throwing money behind Supervisor London Breed, the leading candidate for mayor of San Francisco. The Twitter cofounder, who began selling off a minority of his company stock in 2017 in order to invest more “in things I care about,” donated at least $100,000 through super PACS supporting Breed.
Tech founder and investor Aneel Bhusri is quietly funding the political ambitions of mayoral candidates who are kind to the tech industry.
Title: Cofounder and CEO of Workday, and an advisor to venture capital firm Greylock Partners
Biggest power play: Bhusri, whose company makes cloud-based financial and human resource management software, was among the tech luminaries who funded the late Ed Lee’s successful mayoral campaign. According to local progressive news site 48 Hills, the tech CEO put up $50,000 in 2018 to back Ron Conway’s mayoral pick, Supervisor London Breed.
Stripe cofounders Patrick and John Collison are fighting back against the San Francisco housing crisis with a $1 million donation.
Titles: Patrick Collison is the CEO and John Collison is the president of Stripe.
Biggest power play: The Collison brothers were fed up with the housing crisis in their adopted hometown of San Francisco. They took action in May, with their payments startup Stripe making a $1 million donation to California YIMBY, a pro-housing advocacy group.
Business Insider’s Matt Weinberger wrote in May that “while many of its peers in the tech industry … like Cisco have tackled the housing crisis by working with local nonprofits and other organizations, Stripe’s donation to a pro-housing advocacy group indicates that it’s willing to take a stronger political stance on the housing crisis.”
Napster billionaire Sean Parker is one of the tech industry’s biggest individual donors for political hopefuls nationally.
Title: Executive Chairman of Airtime and Brigade
Biggest power play: Parker was among the 60 biggest individual donors during the 2016 elections, writing checks to politicians nationally on both sides of the aisle, according to campaign spending watchdog site OpenSecrets. But the Napster billionaire, who splits his time between California and New York, reserves much of his generosity for causes in the Golden State.
In San Francisco, Parker kicked in $50,000 in 2014 to pass a San Francisco ballot measure that is slowly raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, on top of a $200,000 contribution that year to improve the city’s public transit system, Muni.
HONORABLE MENTION: Twitter brokered the infamous “Twitter tax break” that temporarily exempts companies from payroll taxes if they move into San Francisco’s blighted Mid-Market neighborhood.
Biggest power play: In 2011, the social media company, then located in a San Francisco neighborhood known as SoMa, told the city it planned to relocate south, where so many other tech giants are. It would stay and continue to feed money into San Francisco offers, the company said, if it got a free pass on a payroll tax levied inside city limits.
City officials made a compromise: The 1.5% tax on employee salaries would be temporarily waived for any company that agreed to locate in the blighted Mid-Market neighborhood. Since then, tech firms including Zendesk, Uber, Pinterest, Dropbox, Airbnb, and Dorsey’s other company, Square, have taken advantage of the so-called “Twitter tax break.”
Dick Costolo was CEO of Twitter in 2011, while Jack Dorsey was executive chairman.
HONORABLE MENTION: Tech journalist Kara Swisher said she plans to run for San Francisco mayor in 2023.
Title: Executive editor of Recode
Biggest power play: TBD. But Swisher, a tenacious reporter who was once described by New York magazine as “Silicon Valley’s most feared and well-liked journalist,” said as recently as September 2017 that she’s plotting a San Francisco mayoral run in 2023.
She aims to tell the tech industry to buck up and contribute more to their city.
“If I do this, I’m going to do it my way,” she told Rolling Stone.
Axel Springer, Insider Inc.’s parent company, is an investor in Airbnb.