President-elect Biden has already stacked his transition team with people who are deeply steeped in tech. Now, he's picked another one to be his right-hand man.
Ron Klain, who Biden announced as his chief of staff Wednesday, may be best-known for his role as the "Ebola czar" under President Obama and for his work as one of Vice President Al Gore's lawyers during the 2000 Florida presidential recount. But inside the tech world, Klain is regarded as a keen-eyed startup investor who has bridged the often expansive gap between tech and politics, advising dozens of tech companies both inside and outside of Democratic circles.
As chief of staff, tech leaders say they expect Klain to be a pragmatist, not a Pollyanna, about tech's potential. But they're also optimistic that his experience working with startups and small businesses across the country will help him advise the president-elect through what is bound to be a difficult economic recovery.
For much of the last 15 years, Klain has worked alongside AOL founder Steve Case as a partner at Revolution Capital, a D.C.-based venture capital firm that's focused on investing in companies outside of Silicon Valley and New York. Through Revolution's Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, Klain has traveled the country, scoping out and promoting businesses in cities like Indianapolis that are often overlooked by traditional venture capital. "Ron has been instrumental in building Revolution into a major venture capital investment firm," Case said in a statement Wednesday. "We applaud Ron's decision to return again to public service, and wish him all the best as he takes on this task."
Since 2017, Klain has also served as chair of the advisory board for Higher Ground Labs, another investment firm focused on tech for progressive organizations and campaigns, which is backed by Silicon Valley leaders including investors Chris Sacca and Ron Conway, as well as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. "We love Ron," Sacca told Protocol on Wednesday, noting that Klain was among the first people from the Obama administration to embrace the use of digital tools in campaigning. "It's precisely that insight that we need to make government work again," Sacca said.
Conway echoed Sacca's praise. "I have the highest possible respect for Ron Klain," Conway said. "Ron will bring a unique combination of government experience, political skill, policy know-how and trusted relationships to the Biden administration, and he will be vital in helping the president-elect steer this country through the pandemic and back toward economic recovery."
According to former Obama White House staffer and Higher Ground Labs co-founder Shomik Dutta, Klain was key to recruiting top tech donors like Sacca and Conway to back Higher Ground Labs. "I think were it not for Ron's involvement with Higher Ground Labs, we'd never be anywhere close to where we are today," Dutta said, describing Klain as a deeply involved investor and adviser. "Despite having literally hundreds of things better to do than deal with Higher Ground Labs, he would always respond to us within a few hours," Dutta said. "We'd get emails from him and look up, and he's on MSNBC."
As chair, Klain has hosted yearly meetings for all of Higher Ground Labs' portfolio companies, as well as its investors, and has become a mentor to some of the group's most successful companies, including Mobilize, a platform that helps progressive groups and campaigns manage events. "Ron has been in the guts of businesses like ours," said Alfred Johnson, CEO of Mobilize and another former Obama staffer. "That experience understanding what a small business goes through and what a tech company goes through is really significant from a policy-making perspective."
But just because Klain has experience working in tech doesn't mean he'll be a Big Tech sycophant. Klain didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment for this story, but in an interview with Protocol in May, he spoke at length about the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic and why expectations that tech could provide a magic bullet for testing or contact tracing were overblown.
"There's this pattern that's really interesting to me. Every time we have a big public crisis, there's a lot of noise that some combination of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple are going to solve it, and in the end, what role do they play?" Klain said. "Why does it keep on repeating itself?"
During the Ebola crisis, Klain said, Microsoft was working on wearable devices that would enable people returning from Africa to automatically report their temperatures to the authorities. But, Klain said, "It turned out it was better for us to give people, literally, the cheapest, oldest burner cell phone so they could dial a number and tell us what their temperature was than to give them some fancy tech device."
This practical approach is similar to what Andrew McLaughlin experienced working with Klain as deputy chief technology officer of the United States under the Obama administration. At the time, McLaughlin said the newly created CTO's office was working on divvying up stimulus funding for tech projects like expanding broadband and had some grandiose ideas about how it might work. "Ron's attitude was: Don't get distracted by esoteric stuff. Let's just get the basics right, here," McLaughlin said.
When Biden assumes office in January, tech policy will likely take a back seat to containing the pandemic. In May, Klain said the most important thing tech leaders could do to help was to donate some of their tremendous wealth to research and help Americans cope with the economic downturn. "I think their generosity is important," Klain said at the time. "It's a question of channeling it the right way."
There is one exception: Klain said he considers Bill Gates "one of the world's leading experts on this topic" and applauded the investments the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made in vaccine development and distribution. Gates has repeatedly butted heads with the Trump administration over its response to the pandemic and has become a right-wing conspiracy theory boogeyman. But Klain seemed not just receptive to Gates' contributions to the cause, but reverential toward them. "He's in a category by himself," Klain said. "He is a global health leader, and so he stands alone."
Given how much the relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley has soured since the Obama years, Klain's ties to tech are bound to draw as much scrutiny as praise. He has relationships with people like Jay Carney, Biden's former communications director and Amazon's current senior vice president of global corporate affairs, as well as Chris Lehane, Airbnb's head of global policy and communications, who worked under Klain when he was Gore's chief of staff.
But Lehane told Protocol he doesn't expect Klain to show the tech industry any particular favor. "Will it be good for the country to have someone who has a deep understanding of the business sector that is having such an impact on all of society? Of course," Lehane said. "He's also going to bring that level and depth of knowledge to finance, to agriculture, to trade. He's one of those guys who goes deep on any number of issues and is a rare talent."
The key, McLaughlin said, is that while Klain has spent years serving as a "sober translator" between Silicon Valley and Washington, he isn't like all the other tech leaders parachuting into politics claiming to know better. "Ron is very much a Washington person who came to tech," McLaughlin said. "He's so deep into the tech, but his starting point was always as a D.C., mission-driven progressive, trying to pull off progressive policy objectives by putting tech to work."
Additional reporting by Emily Birnbaum