Why the CEO of POPVOX thinks D.C. could benefit from a good dose of Silicon Valley
Marci Harris didn’t mind giving up the primness of the District for the nonchalance of Silicon Valley. The former Capitol Hill staffer now spends plenty of time in both worlds—returning to Washington often in her role as CEO of POPVOX. Doing so, she’s acquired a unique perspective on what makes political technologists in both worlds tick.
Harris founded POPVOX in February 2010. The nonpartisan public advocacy platform supplies legislative data to the masses. Individuals and advocacy groups are invited to share opinions on pending legislation, and that information gets relayed to Congress.
With teams in Silicon Valley and D.C., POPVOX is one of a handful of political technology startups attempting to bridge the innovation gap. C&E sat down with Harris to get her take on the shrinking divide between D.C. and Silicon Valley and what it means for political technology.
C&E: What do you see as the major differences in the D.C. and Silicon Valley approaches to political technology?
Harris: I tell people frequently that I felt like an exchange student when I first got out to Silicon Valley because people dress differently and they talk differently—completely different culture. There’s a lot more formality in Washington, and it’s the culture. This is the nation’s capital. People are working on very serious things. Silicon Valley is much more of an innovation center. One of the things that I kind of started to experience early on that impressed me is the attitude of the entrepreneurial world—the very collaborative, very open, very helpful people who work in the startup space.
D.C. can feel like a zero-sum game. But I think the two worlds are starting to learn a lot from each other. There are a lot of people in government who are working very hard to understand how to apply some of the lessons of the startup and the innovation culture to legislating, and I’m hopeful there are good things to come from greater interaction between the two.
C&E: Is the D.C. mindset stifling at all when it comes to political technology?
Harris: There actually is a vibrant and growing start-up scene in D.C. What we see now with D.C. tech and meetups is pretty amazing, and some of the people who are participating in the growth of the D.C. tech scene are coming out of government and have some amazing engineers in this area. There have been people who have offered theories about why Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley, but who’s to say what it is. D.C. has something unique to offer, and the growth of technology here will be in line with its own personality and culture and that’s not a bad thing.
C&E: How is the D.C. tech scene reemerging?
Harris: Everyone knows that you have the big companies that are based here, whether it’s Zipcar, LivingSocial, HelloWallet, or Personal. The D.C. Tech Meetup is now the largest tech meetup in the country. There’s mentoring that’s happening now. It would be great to see more interaction between the political world and the D.C. tech world because there are just a few people that have a foot in both. But you also see the tech companies that have policy shops based in D.C., whether it’s Microsoft or Google or others, making themselves known on the D.C. tech scene.
C&E: This being an election year, what trends have you noticed with POPVOX?
Harris: For us, it’s more that the campaigns create a catalyst for people to pay attention. We saw a bump in people checking out Paul Ryan’s get-to-know page that lists all the legislation that he’s sponsored or cosponsored. To the extent the campaign highlights legislative issues, we see a lot of activity.