When Ahmad Thomas started his new job as CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group last August, he walked into a role in the South Bay business world that had only opened up once in the past 23 years.
He was previously the director of Barclay’s investment banking, in a notoriously competitive and high-stakes industry. Now Thomas would move to a big tech lobbying coalition—founded by H-P co-founder David Packard in 1978 as the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. According to a 2019 public filing, the organization had a budget of $5.6 million and paid its CEO $890,000.
His new role would have influence that could ripple to everything from the smallest businesses to regional ballot measures, local politics and even the occasional 5K race, signatures of his predecessor Carl Guardino, who successfully crafted sales tax measures to expand regional transportation systems and affordable housing.
Thomas believes his experience in investment banking and as a legislative assistant to Sen. Dianne Feinstein will help him liaise between Silicon Valley’s business and public policy sectors—whatever that looks like in a region still reeling from the historic pandemic.
“Clearly the success that our companies have is well known, but I think we’d be hard-pressed to find a region where corporate citizenship is stronger,” Thomas said. “I believe it is implicitly in the best business interest of our companies and business leaders to be strong partners in our community.”
And with that in mind, Thomas knows what the Leadership Group—and therefore many of the region’s businesses—will focus on in 2021. The year will be full of mending the scrapes and gashes from an economic downturn and, hopefully, rebuilding with both public and private help.
To do that, the leader of the Leadership Group says the business world needs to focus on basics: housing, healthcare, equity, transportation and diversity.
“The corporate citizenship issues are revenue and money issues,” he said. “When we invest in our communities and we have a better quality of life, we have happier employees. Diversity is a business issue—it’s a business competitiveness issue.”
But Thomas has tempered his optimism about the new year.
Though everyone gleefully said goodbye to the worst year ever on Dec. 31, the challenges that 2020 brought haven’t disappeared. Now it seems 2021 will be the ultimate test of whether companies and electeds will live up to the lofty promises about innovation and transforming the world.
“It’s about coming back from Covid even better than we were before,” Thomas said. “Covid has highlighted significant equity issues; clearly black and brown communities have been far more deeply impacted.”
To address those issues, Silicon Valley itself will have to change.
Some of that change has already started. Major tech companies, like Facebook, Google and Apple, have begun to play a role in catalyzing more housing and assistance for low-income residents through billion-dollar commitments. But new homes from those efforts won’t start appearing for another year or more.
While tech companies have acknowledged the need for more diversity and promised inclusion, progress has been slow.
Small businesses have been among the most innovative in Silicon Valley, adjusting repeatedly to the pandemic’s oscillating restrictions, but have gotten little help to power through a crisis with changing rules and no end date.
Maybe 2020 will be the kickstarter the region needed, Thomas suggests.
“When we have tax policies in place that enable growth, when we have innovative financing mechanisms that don’t tap general funds, it’s allowing us to make the Bay Area and Silicon Valley a better place to live in, a better place to do business,” he said. “I’m incredibly optimistic, balanced with a recognition that this is an inflection point, which makes 2021 an incredibly important year."
New Year’s resolutions aren’t for everyone. But for Silicon Valley influencers looking to the other side of this pandemic, they’re a start.
South Bay thinkers from four sectors—arts, business, tech and politics—were asked to chart the road to an improved future over the next 12 months. It’s likely this group won’t RSVP to the same post-pandemic happy hour. And yet, their New Year’s resolutions all centered around a singular philosophy: 2021 is a year for equity.
That’s not a new idea in Silicon Valley, where advocates have long criticized how the region could featherbed some of the world’s richest people alongside a staggering homeless population and struggling service class. But 2021, the year of rebuilding, might be the best shot the region has had to fix some of those imbalances, our subjects say.