Enterprise

After years harnessing data for Democrats, these political vets are going corporate

At 42, Democratic tech leader Lindsey Schuh Cortés is a three-time CEO, but don’t expect a partisan mission statement on her new data startup’s website.

Lindsey Schuh Cortés

Lindsey Schuh Cortés wants a new challenge: “I love to build; I am a builder.”

Photo: Statara

Lindsey Schuh Cortés, Matt Taverna and Bryan Whitaker spent the last decade dragging Democratic voter data and analytics strategies into the modern age. Now they’re leaving politics.

The trio, hailing from data organizations that have been integral to how Democrats use voter data, has launched Statara Solutions, a commercial data and analytics startup serving nonpartisan clients like nonprofits, trade associations, universities and corporate clients. These three won’t be the first campaign junkies to take their experiences in the electoral trenches to greener industry pastures.

“I need a little break from politics,” said Lindsey Schuh Cortés, Statara’s CEO.

At age 42, the Statara leadership role makes Schuh Cortés a three-time CEO. Schuh Cortés, who has a direct yet warm demeanor that comes across even on Zoom, also led progressive analytics shop BlueLabs as CEO and more recently served as CEO at the Democratic Data Exchange. The exchange launched late during the pandemic-dampened 2020 campaign cycle to share voter contact information among Democratic state parties and like-minded advocacy groups, an approach that had already been taken by Republicans.

Leaving the young voter data operation “was definitely not an easy decision,” Schuh Cortés said, adding that the organization has yet to announce her replacement. Her departure comes at a crucial moment when Democratic control of Congress hangs in the balance. Not only do midterm congressional elections loom, but supporters might actually be able to take full advantage of Democratic Data Exchange information to help door-knock and get out the vote through actual in-person interaction this time around as pandemic restrictions ease. Schuh Cortés said the exchange now holds more than 2 billion voter records.

But Schuh Cortés wants a new challenge: “I love to build; I am a builder.”

Her co-founders, Matt Taverna, 40, and Bryan Whitaker, 42, are also veterans of progressive data tech efforts. The pair has spent the better part of the past decade providing data and services solely to Democrats and left-leaning groups at TargetSmart, the party’s go-to voter file management company. Whitaker also worked in data roles alongside Schuh Cortés during her days steering political and strategic partnerships at the Service Employees International Union.

Both Whitaker and Schuh Cortés also served in top tech roles at the Democratic National Committee: Whitaker as CTO from 2011 to 2013 and Schuh Cortés as deputy CTO and interim CTO from 2017 to 2019.

But don’t expect a partisan mission statement on Statara’s website, said Whitaker, who serves as a principal.

“There's no red or blue or even purple,” Whitaker said, explaining that the company wants to focus on working with organizations that need help with things like donor outreach. Still, he said, “there would be guardrails” on who the company works with. “We're confident that our reputations will speak for themselves,” he said.

A team of seven, Statara will provide analytics services and help clients run advertising and marketing campaigns using custom data and models built from both commercial data and, when regulations and licensing allows, voter information. It’s also offering packaged, Statara-branded data for ad targeting in a cloud marketplace.

Statara is owned by TARA Group, a holding company that also owns TargetSmart. The companies have separate leadership, structures, processes, staff and separate data from one another and other TARA Group siblings.

Sharing a wall at SEIU HQ

Schuh Cortés and Whitaker got a taste of what it would be like to work together under immense pressure while working in offices that shared a wall inside SEIU headquarters in Washington, D.C. In early 2008 when word came down that the union would endorse then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama just a few days before the Wisconsin primary, “Literally everybody in the SEIU political department started scrambling,” Schuh Cortés said.

She focused on travel logistics for transporting hundreds of SEIU members to Wisconsin, while Whitaker handled data to determine which doors they should knock to help get out the vote.

“Doing that over many, many, many states gives you the sense that you can go into the trenches with any single one of those people and be able to come out on the other side: one, successful, but two, still smiling. And that's Bryan,” she said. “It’s one of the war stories that Bryan and I have together.”

That “campaign trenches” trope was real enough that Schuh Cortés and Whitaker trusted in one another to launch Statara entirely through virtual interactions. “We all have little kids, so we've all been a little anxious to get together because none of our [younger] kids can be vaccinated yet,” Schuh Cortés said.

Competing with entrenched players

Keeping track of how and where to contact people has always been an elementary need for unions, advocacy groups and political campaigns that want to find likely supporters or hit up previous donors. Now, amid upheavals in digital tracking and targeting technologies, the ability to identify people within today’s data and privacy constraints has become increasingly important to political and commercial organizations.

Taverna and Whitaker said Statara’s ability to identify an individual and match historical information about that person over time is core to the company’s overall capabilities.

“Bryan, Lindsey and I learned from politics that there's nothing better than knowing a real, hard fact about someone and putting that in a single record or a single ID,” said Taverna.

The company hired former TargetSmart data technologists who have been building Statara’s proprietary relational database and identity resolution system, which incorporates tech from Microsoft Azure for identity management and Alteryx for data transformation and analysis. Statara’s data architecture and science team includes former TargetSmart CIO Jeremy Kane and its former analytics director, Collin Pace.

The company, which launched in stealth mode last November, is betting that accurate data and analytics models used to determine how best to engage voters will work to turn out college alumni to donate and help fundraise.

“You're asking 10 of your friends to register to vote. That's not unlike finding alumni and getting them to activate their alumni network from when they were in college to participate in a class fundraiser,” said Schuh Cortés.

Still, it’s unclear whether people feel as strongly about getting their friends on board to support their alma maters as they might to help a candidate win a tight election.

Meanwhile, Statara also faces headwinds from nonpartisan data operations such as political and commercial data consultancy L2 as well as smaller nonprofit fundraising agencies and bigger data services such as Acxiom, Experian and Merkle.

L2, which offers voter file data to left- and right-leaning organizations as well as commercial data, also works with universities, assisting in fundraising using its consumer data services.

Matt Taverna “Bryan, Lindsey and I learned from politics that there's nothing better than knowing a real, hard fact about someone and putting that in a single record or a single ID,” Matt Taverna said.Photo: Statara

“We produce this thing to inform the voter file; why don’t we make it an independent product?” said Paul Westcott, L2's executive vice president of Sales and Marketing, explaining why L2 works with customers outside politics. Westcott said he has seen a “big appetite” among nonpolitical customers for user-friendly data tools and quick turnarounds, things larger data services firms “tend not to have but [are] critical for political [clients].”

Jeffrey Kaplan, CEO of Popsycle Digital, worked with Whitaker and Taverna while they were at TargetSmart and he was in the Consumer Insights and Targeting division at Experian. Statara’s strong data, speed and platform integrations might help it compete, he said.

“These consumer data giants continue to concede the marketplace and the high-touch, in-depth analytical knowledge needed to understand the ever-evolving digital advertising marketplace,” said Kaplan. Popsycle Digital, an agency that executes digital campaigns for nonprofit and education customers, has partnered with Statara during its ramp-up.

Ownership, and the problem with partisanship

The decision to establish a nonpartisan data consultancy comes with political baggage — and so does its ownership model.

TargetSmart, which has been the key keeper and cleanser of the Democratic voter file for years, has made a point of declaring its dedication to working with Democratic candidates and left-leaning groups, while excluding Republicans. Indeed, political campaigns and advocacy organizations involved in election politicking typically are reluctant to work with consultancies that also work with the other side.

But TARA Group and its other subsidiaries don’t have the same allegiances, a fact spotlighted in a damning October 2021 Mother Jones article detailing a TARA Group subsidiary’s work in support of Republicans.

As co-founders of TARA Group’s newest subsidiary, Whitaker and Taverna declined to comment for this story regarding the Mother Jones expose or its impact on TargetSmart. However, they said it had no effect on their decisions to leave the company to start Statara, a project that had been “proactively” underway two months before the article came out.

TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier had only good wishes and thank-yous for Taverna and Whitaker in an email sent to Protocol. TargetSmart, he said, will stick to its mission to “help win campaigns, build organizations, and elect Democrats.”

A sly and fearless communicator

Schuh Cortés flashes a deliberate smirk in a black-and-white profile photo. It leaves a complicated impression. She appears friendly and confident, but she might be up to something.

That moxie has helped her climb to high places, fast.

“I can do this job better than anyone else you will interview, and I will work harder than anyone else,” she told Forbes, recalling what she said to the union’s political director Patrick Gaspard while interviewing to direct its political action committee, a weighty role involving the management of millions of dollars in candidate contributions. “He looked at me and said, ‘OK, you've got the job,’” Schuh Cortés added, “That job totally changed the track of my career. It was a moment where I had to say what was in my gut and be unafraid to say it out loud.”

Bryan Whitaker Bryan Whitaker is a veteran of progressive data tech efforts.Photo: Statara

After helping launch and run BlueLabs, she was ready to get another startup off the ground. This time, the stakes were high. Democratic Data Exchange, the Democrats’ answer to the GOP’s own Data Trust data exchange, is a system for sharing up-to-date voter contact information and tracking interactions with voters through door-knocks, phone calls, emails and text messages — data that complements the information TargetSmart manages for use in other campaign functions, like advertising.

Taverna said Schuh Cortés’ ability to speak externally to the needs of clients while making sure internal teams are on the same page is rare. “That's a very hard thing to do. I have tried and failed,” Taverna said. “She's always been really great at being able to keep both perspectives in mind.”

Taverna, whom Schuh Cortés described as someone who has “done more to educate the democratic progressive ecosystem about political data” than anyone, said that like her, he’s ready to step away from politics. “My beard is getting whiter by the day,” said Taverna. “We have helped to elect a Democratic president. This pandemic has been quite a thing. The stars are aligned.”

But away from the pressure cooker, some people who leave politics have a tendency to get bored, said Grace Briscoe, senior vice president of Client Development at digital ad company Basis Technologies, who has worked closely with its political campaign clients for years. “You have to be a sort of adrenaline junkie to work in politics,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Democratic Data Exchange's origin. This story was updated on Feb. 23, 2022.

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