fintech| fintechauthorBenjamin PimentelNoneGet access to the Protocol | Fintech newsletter, research, news alerts and events.f6ea366a38
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Protocol | Fintech

Expensify CEO David Barrett: ‘Most CEOs are not bad people, they're just cowards’

"Remember that one time when we almost had civil war? What did you do about it?"

Expensify CEO David Barrett

Expensify CEO David Barrett has thoughts on what it means for tech CEOs to claim they act apolitically.

Photo: Expensify

The Trump presidency ends tomorrow. It's a political change in which Expensify founder and CEO David Barrett played a brief, but explosive role.

Barrett became famous last fall — or infamous, depending on whom you ask — for sending an email to the fintech startup's clients, urging them to reject Trump and support President-elect Joe Biden.

"Anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy," Barrett said in the email.

It was an unprecedented political maneuver by a CEO-founder in Silicon Valley, and one that drew praise from a preeminent historian of the region.

"This was a moment that utterly transcended politics as usual, and his statement utterly transcended politics as usual," futurist and historian Paul Saffo told Protocol. "I'm sure investors got a little bit of a case of indigestion over this. It was a bold move and I would say it was made with considerable character."

And it wasn't a one-off: Barrett sent another email to Expensify customers over the weekend, telling its users about its plans to spend $3 million on fighting inequality, while also railing against the "domestic terrorists" who invaded the Capitol earlier this month.

Barrett talked to Protocol last Friday, before the latest email, about the coming transition, which he reflected on in a celebratory mood even as he looked back on the controversial episode. "We just survived Trump. This is going to be an amazing year," he said. "The economy's coming back. The vaccines are rolling out. Travel is going to restart. We got a new administration that's going to make reasonable decisions. We avoided a civil war. Everything's on the up and up."

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You sent that email taking a position on the election. I've talked to a lot of CEOs in Silicon Valley who'd rather stay in the middle. They're not going to say what they think or even who they voted for because it's safer.

My opinion is a little bit different. I think this idea of "Oh, we're apolitical," I think that's kind of bullshit. I think there's no such thing in a democracy as being apolitical. Every action you take is your position. I think that a large number of these tech companies, by saying, "Oh, we're apolitical," that's a very convenient way of saying, "No, I'm voting for the status quo. I support the current administration, and I'm not going to take actions to do anything about it because it's actually good for business." I think it's actually pretty cynical.

There's going to be a change, and there will be new issues. It's probably not going to be as intense as Trump, but there will be issues. How do you navigate them? It can be a slippery slope when you start to take positions.

I think the litmus test is: What is the real-world potential impact of this? I don't anticipate to weigh in on the normal issues. It sounded bombastic back then when I wrote the newsletter: "Hey, I am genuinely concerned that we're going to have a true civil war, and that's going to be really bad for business. My business is great. We're profitable. We're growing. We're surviving the pandemic. So long as we don't descend into civil war, we'll be fine. But Trump is saying he's not going to leave office, and is anyone reading this crazy shit? We should take it seriously."

This is not normal politics. This is not taxes or health care or whatever. This is like the destruction of our nation up for discussion. The only reason I felt it was important as a CEO to weigh in was that the stakes are too high to be neutral here.

Even right now. The guy's still not out of office, by the way. The FBI's warning that we're going to have attacks on every state Capitol. Never has that happened in the history of the nation before. This is so wild, what we're talking about.

I feel that we need to keep reminding ourselves just how beyond the pale this is. As business leaders, it's just shameful to just sit out this entire thing. It's like, "Oh, remember that one time when we almost had civil war? What did you do about it? Oh, fucking nothing? Oh, good job."

What was the reaction to the email like? Did any of it give you pause?

Expensify is not a product you adopt overnight. You also don't leave it overnight. We just didn't know what the reaction was going to be. We saw this thing just go so much bigger than we expected. We were like, "Oh, fuck. OK. That's exciting."

Most people ignored it, or agreed with it, or vented about it or whatever. The vast majority of people, they're too busy. And in this Twitter news cycle, sustaining anger for more than like 10 seconds is hard. It's like, "Fuck Trump! Oh, such a cute puppy!" It's so hard to do anything.

Where does that come from, that belief in taking a position? Can you talk a bit about your background?

My background has always been in hard engineering. Never been in finance. Never been in politics or any of that stuff. I think what you're getting at [is]: Why are you so outspoken? I'm in a lucky position to do that. I run a very profitable business that has a very distributed customer base.

I think most CEOs, it's not that they're bad people, they're just cowards. They're like, "Yeah, I would like to take a stand, but I can't because of investors, customers and things like this." It basically comes down to, "I care more about hitting the next quarter results than preventing a civil war," which is so fucked up. They're more afraid of their investors than they are of militants. I'm in a lucky position where I don't have to be afraid of my investors. I'm super profitable. I can't get fired. There's no majority on the board that can fire me. So I think that I am in a position [where] I can take these stands much more than others.

I've heard from a lot of other CEOs [about speaking up, and they say]: "I can't. I wish I could. I feel bad. I feel ashamed. But I kind of can't." I feel I can give an example of, like, "Guys, speak up. The water's fine." Defending democracy is not actually a bold choice because most people agree with it.

Sure, we got a lot of shit on Twitter, or whatever. Those people weren't our customers anyway. It had no negative impact on revenue. If anything, I think we're gonna look back and this is going to be an incredible brand building event. We didn't expect this to go as viral as it did. It's like, "Shocker! Getting massive coverage for defending democracy is good for business, actually."

I think that CEOs need to have the courage to actually step up for things that matter, and be less sort of afraid of the impact on their businesses. Because most customers, especially the people who are actually buying the software, they care about stability, they care about democracy.

Would you consider politics after your business career?

No, that sounds like a huge pain in the ass. Plus that assumes that there is an "after my business career." I just made this giant profitable business, and it's fucking awesome. I want to work here forever. My goal is just to stay here forever.

Power

Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

Keep Reading Show less
Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

Keep Reading Show less
Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Policy

A Bloomberg-backed ‘tech co’ is building campaign tools for the left and right

The stealthy firm, which has been buying political tech firms for more than a year, is backed by Emma Bloomberg's philanthropic group.

The new firm, called Tech co., is backed by Michael Bloomberg's daughter, Emma Bloomberg.

Image: Clayton Cardinalli

A new company backed by Michael Bloomberg's daughter Emma Bloomberg has been quietly buying political tech firms and going on a hiring spree, as it seeks to create a digital organizing platform that operates "outside of a traditional 'Red/Blue' partisan paradigm."

Neither the existence of the firm, called simply Tech co. for now, nor its high-profile funder have been previously reported, though it's been up and running for at least a year. But a spate of recent job listings seeking data scientists, behavioral scientists and engineers have circulated through the insular political tech whisper mill, sparking curiosity as the startup prepares to emerge from stealth mode this spring.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Latest Stories