Clinton campaign snares CEO in courting young tech millionaires

2015-06-03 19:28
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives for a roundtable with educators and students at the Kirkwood Community College's Jones County Regional Centre, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall, AP)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives for a roundtable with educators and students at the Kirkwood Community College's Jones County Regional Centre, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall, AP)

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San Francisco - The last time Hillary Clinton ran for the White House in 2008, Aaron Levie was too busy building his start-up company to pay much attention to politics.

But earlier this year, the 30-year-old Levie led his company, Box, through an initial public offering, helping free a small portion of his time to support the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. A few weeks ago, Levie, whose company is worth more than $2bn, agreed to host a fundraiser for Clinton.

He sees big stakes for the tech sector in this election, Levie told Reuters, on issues ranging from improving the patent system to securing visas for foreign workers and limiting government surveillance.

"There's more intersection between the technology industry and policy than ever before," said Levie, whose trademark mad-scientist hair showed signs of grey, countered by youthful bright orange sneakers. He said he was backing Clinton because Democrats' social policies, for example on marriage equality, resonated more with him than Republican ones.

The campaigns of various White House hopefuls are looking to reel in the younger Silicon Valley influencers like Levie who could help raise some money for their candidates and also bring along some of the tech sector's energy and cachet.

Levie, whose company helps store data remotely in the "cloud," is among several young Silicon Valley executives Clinton's campaign has been courting.

"Young, innovative entrepreneurs are key to growing and strengthening our economy," said a Clinton campaign spokesman.


But recruiting tech entrepreneurs can prove a challenge. Many lack enthusiasm for politics. For example, in April venture capitalist Marc Andreessen told Fortune he was "struggling between the anti-science party and the anti-economics party" and felt tempted to sit out the next election.

Fundraising officials who declined to be named said they hoped the imprimatur of a few will make it easier to attract others, and Democrats have a long list of prospects.

"The next crowd is Twitter, Facebook, Airbnb," said venture capitalist Steve Westly, who served on President Barack Obama's national finance committee during the 2008 election. While some of those companies have been around for years, many of their employees are relatively new to their wealth.

Twitter and Airbnb representatives didn't respond to requests for comment. A Facebook spokesperson declined comment.

Many in Silicon Valley gravitate toward Democrats, because the party is seen as more in sync with the tech community on social issues such as gay marriage. But Republican 2016 hopefuls such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are trying to woo the technorati on economic and regulatory issues. A packed room of start-up workers at his San Francisco office opening last month suggested he may be having some success.

Some big names in technology are already involved in politics. Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo is a longstanding Democratic donor, while Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg gives to candidates of both parties.

College dropout

Levie said he has donated only once to a candidate, Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York. He still hasn't registered to vote in California, his home for almost a decade, relying instead on his parents to forward him his ballot from Washington state.

A dropout from the University of Southern California, Levie founded Box with some friends and ran it for a time out of his uncle's garage near San Francisco before landing hundreds of millions in venture capital backing.

Friends and business associates such as Emanuel Yekutiel, deputy finance director for Clinton, helped spark his interest in her campaign, Levie said.

The clincher: A May 1 meeting in Palo Alto where Clinton campaign officials, including chief technology officer and former Google executive Stephanie Hannon, met with about 50 executives and venture capitalists and highlighted the importance of building a cash reserve for the campaign.

Among the invitees: Palmer Luckey, the 22-year-old co-founder of Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality company bought last year by Facebook for $2bn, according to someone involved in the event.

Though Levie says campaign support will take a back seat to running Box, he weighs in on election issues with vigour.

Last month, he criticised Rand Paul on Twitter over his comments at a congressional hearing where he compared the "right to healthcare" to the enslaving of doctors.

"Dude, you should be a script writer for The Hunger Games, not running for President," Levie wrote on Twitter, referring to the movie about death matches in a dystopian, ruthless society.

Read more on:    hillary clinton  |  us  |  us elections 2016

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