Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield on fixing real problems

At a panel today at SXSL in Washington, D.C., Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Transmedia Capital Managing Partner Chris Redlitz, EpiBone CEO Nina Tandon, Coalition for Queens founder Jukay Hsu and Jenna Wortham of The New York Times Magazine discussed technology’s role in solving some of the country’s most critical problems.

To some, the U.S. is not the land of equal opportunity, and the so-called American Dream — that everyone can succeed with hard work and determination — is a myth. The existence of systemic racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and anti-semitism makes it so that the American Dream will never come true for so many people. Those discriminatory barriers ensure that only white people have an unencumbered shot at it. So, it’s no wonder why we see that some of the wealthiest tech companies are led by white men.

“Silicon Valley is the engine for wealth creation,” Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said at South by South Lawn today. “They’ve displaced energy, they’ve displaced financial services and if we don’t start including a broader array of people in that, the same group of people is going to rise to the top.

“I bet there’s a couple we could all agree on,” Butterfield said. “Criminal justice reform would be a big one. Equal opportunities would be another one. Climate change would be another one. Those are ones where technology is more or less applicable.”

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SXSL was inspired by President Barack Obama’s visit to SXSW earlier this year. During Obama’s remarks at SXSW, he outlined three ways in which technology can improve our country: making the government work better through tech, tackling big problems in new ways, and using big data, analytics and tech to make it easier to vote.

In alignment with Obama’s previous remarks on tech being used for on-demand food delivery, Wortham noted how technology is producing frivolous products like hoverboards and on-demand laundry services. But while some uses of technology are more admirable than others, Butterfield said he wouldn’t want to live in a world where people weren’t able to spend time making seemingly frivolous or silly innovations.

“While that’s going on, though, I think there is really significant technological changes like we just saw a solar power under three cents per kilowatt hour for the first time and i didn’t think that would happen for another 15 years. And that’s going to have a pretty profound effect on the shape of our world’s countries,” Butterfield said. “So, it’s a tough one. Part of what gives us the good results that we want is that unfettered exploration of all the possibilities and people trying out different things.”

He went on to say that Twitter is a good example of that. At the beginning, people were tweeting about what they had for breakfast.

“On the negative side of humanity and culture, there’s a lot of harassment and hate, but on the other side, Black Lives Matter wouldn’t have happened without Twitter,” Butterfield said. “And the Arab Spring. There’s a lot of political movements its enabled [Twitter is] an amplifier for our best and worst tendencies, but gives us a lot more facility to impact the world.”

In order to really impact the world, the tech industry does need to work with regulators, which means that things might not change as fast as we want them to. So, in areas like education, health care and medicine, tech companies have to cooperate with pre-existing regulations.

“There you have a regulatory environment you have to deal with and there’s more at stake,” Butterfield said. “You’ll see over the next couple of decades much larger changes that are just operating on a different type of time cycle.”

But we’re not going to be able to solve all the problems that are out there if only a small segment of our population has the opportunity to do so. That’s just one of the reasons why Butterfield has made diversity and inclusion a priority at Slack.

“I think the thing that we can really double or triple or quadruple down on is ensuring we don’t fail them once they arrive at the company,” Butterfield said. “I’m not sure that exact formulation of tech is hostile to diversity. I think tech lives inside of a society that still has a lot of systemic racism and doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the tech industry. But neither is it especially exacerbated by being around technology. But it is maybe exacerbated by the irrational decision making of people who are trying to make money.”

Butterfield went on to say that the irrational decision making is what leads companies to keep hiring computer science dropouts from Stanford and engage in other types of pattern-matching, which “creates a system that in the absence of deliberate conscious intentional effort, is going to perpetuate itself.”