Thought Leadership

Obama to SXSW: Step Up and Get Involved

TL;DRChantielle had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see President Obama’s keynote at SXSW. His message: the tech industry needs to step up and help solve the nation’s most difficult problems. 

There are very few things I’ll wait hours in line to experience. I don’t care how good the band sounds, or how delicious that all-organic-burrito-fusion-taco-bagel is rumored to be, there’s no way I’m going to stand in a line all day to check it out. But on Friday, I made an exception. Because Friday was the day I scored a ticket to see President Obama’s highly anticipated SXSW address.

SXSW Obama Keynote Ticket

It isn’t every day that you get to see the President give a keynote.

When it comes to POTUS, you make an exception.

How could I not? Obama’s keynote address at this, the 30th anniversary of SXSW, comes at an interesting time. Let’s not forget, the American government is currently at odds with Apple over the company’s refusal to weaken security measures. To make matters even more interesting, many of the biggest names in tech, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have recently come out in support of Apple’s position. Needless to say, the mood inside the auditorium was an interesting mix of excitement and curiosity when the day’s first speaker, Casey Gerald, Co-Founder & CEO of MBAs Across America, took to the stage.

The Gospel of Doubt

If you’ve never heard Gerald speak, do yourself a favor and Google his Harvard Business School 2014 Class Day Speech. At just 29 years of age, Gerald has, as he put it during his SXSW address, lived life from the bottom of America (his parents abandoned him in his youth), to the very top (he has two Ivey league degrees and a resume that would make the average 50-year-old jealous).

“How can we lay fiber optic cables under the ocean, but we can’t lay water pipes in Flint?” – Casey Gerald

Speaking as if from a pulpit, Gerald quickly set the day’s theme—civic engagement—by challenging the tech elite in attendance to question, well, pretty much everything. An engaging and at times highly entertaining speaker, Casey delivered what he called a “Gospel of Doubt”, explaining how the current state of senseless suffering in America’s underprivileged populations demands tech’s attention. (Gerald himself admitted that the growing digital and social divide has caused him to not just rethink the direction of MBAs Across America, but to end the organization entirely. He announced at the conference that the program will now be offered through an open, inclusive, and accessible model.)

“How can we lay fiber optic cables under the ocean, but we can’t lay water pipes in Flint?” he asked at one point, referencing the toxic state of Flint, Michigan’s tap water. His message was clear; not all of the world’s problems are technological. Innovation needs to inspire more than just iPhones. It needs to make America better for everyone, not just those who can afford it.

'I’m trying to solve every problem.' - @BarackObama #SXSW2016 Click To Tweet

“At a conference like this, we represent the gospel of technology. But at what cost? What about the millions of people left behind?” In an industry known for frivolous trends and billion dollar valuations, it was a powerful message of civic responsibility. And the perfect preface to the main event.

99 Problems

'It’s easier to order pizza in this country, than it is... to vote.' - @BarackObama #SXSW2016 Click To Tweet

“It’s easier to order pizza in this country, than it is for you to do the single most important act of democracy: vote.” Ten minutes into his keynote, and it was clear all in attendance that Obama is a man haunted by the Gospel of Doubt. Obama is a man who wants desperately to make America better for everyone. As the President, that’s his job. As he said at one point, “I’m trying to solve every problem.” The hardest problems. Literacy, poverty, education; while tech companies are making it easier to buy organic groceries, POTUS is trying to ensure kids have access to school lunches.

'How can we harness the next cool thing so that everyone benefits?' - @BarackObama #SXSW2016 Click To Tweet
Obama on stage at SXSW

Obama really is larger than live.

The social and economic divide is real and it’s big. And yet, Obama insisted that, “these are solvable problems,” the only problem is, the tech community is passively waiting for others to solve them for us. “Tech can’t just focus on the next cool thing,” he explained. “How can we harness the next cool thing so that everyone can benefit from it?”

The slogan was, “Yes, WE can.” Not, “Yes, I can.”

If the office of civic engagement is, as Obama put it, the most important office to hold, then it is our collective responsibility in tech to convene and make America better. Take unemployment and the on-demand economy, for example. What if government and tech worked together to create new employment classifications that made it easier for un- or under-employed members of society to participate in this self-directed economy? And, what if the platforms facilitating job creation in this new economy of access made it easier and more affordable for individuals (banked or unbanked) to access their earnings? What if, together, tech and government could create an economy where the barriers to entry were almost non-existent and where people are empowered to succeed?

Making it easier for people to get paid. That’s always been @Hyperwallet's goal. Click To Tweet

At Hyperwallet, we work with tech companies to build better, faster, smarter outbound payment solutions. But under that, we’re ultimately trying to make it easier for people to get paid for an honest day’s work. That’s always been the end goal. To do good. And to make America better for everyone who chooses to live here.

via GIPHY

Because as Casey Gerald said on Friday, you don’t have to believe in God, or in anything, to believe that you are on the planet to do something bigger.

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