Chicago tech leaders come out swinging on Trump’s immigration ban

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Amid a tumultuous weekend spurred by President Trump’s executive order on immigration, Chicago tech leaders sounded off – from tweeting updates at O’Hare protests to making a six-figure donation to a refugee organization.

The executive order, which drew nationwide protests this weekend, temporarily halts immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, including by individuals who already have valid visas, and puts an indefinite hold on Syrian refugees.

The move drew concern and criticism from tech leaders in Chicago, Silicon Valley and beyond.

Maryam Saleh, a vice president of programs at health-tech hub Matter Chicago, is a citizen of Canada, Britain and Iran. She said she realized over the weekend the ban could apply to those in the U.S. with green cards, which includes her.

“I think it’s sorted out, but basically for a few days essentially I couldn’t leave the country, which is really unfortunate,” she said.

Saleh said she’s keeping an eye on the news to see whether she would be able to travel to Canada without having problems. She said if the bans take off, she’ll have to reconsider where she lives.

“I don’t want to live in a place where I’m not welcome,” she said.

Other tech leaders also let their voices be heard. Cards Against Humanity co-founder Max Temkin, PayPal director of software development Harper Reed ⇒ and others tweeted from protests Saturday at O’Hare International Airport.

Kate Garmey, founder of creative consultancy Drink Tank, attended the Saturday night protest at O’Hare with friends, including YWCA Metropolitan Chicago CEO Dorri McWhorter ⇒. Garmey and others tweeted that they left ORD Camp, an invite-only innovation summit that took place over the weekend, to participate in the demonstration. She said she took part in the Women’s March the weekend before; it had been her first.

Garmey said she did not previously identify as political, but opposing the ban is “something we owe to one another as Americans.”

“I think for many this has transcended a feeling of choice. There’s a real obligation that many people feel to be present,” she said. “This isn’t an issue that directly affects my family but, make no mistake, this is an issue that affects all of us.”

Others spoke with their pocketbooks: Jason Fried ⇒, co-founder and CEO of Basecamp, said he would donate $200,000 to the International Rescue Committee, doubling his initial donation after at least 100 people sent him receipts from their own donations to the organization.

Fried told Blue Sky it was a personal donation and not related to Basecamp, so he was not discussing the issue with employees.

It was “just something I did because I believe it was the right thing to do,” he wrote in an email.

Some leaders spoke from personal experience as they rebuked the order. Shradha Agarwal ⇒, co-founder and president of Outcome Health, formerly ContextMedia, spoke out in a Facebook post on Saturday.

“I landed in the United States of America on Sept 4th, 2004. That’s 12+ years ago. And I’m still not a citizen. Not because I don’t want to be,” she said. “I want it so bad – to have my vote count. But it’s because that’s how broken our system is.”

Terry Howerton ⇒, founder and partner at TechNexus, wrote in an email to Blue Sky, “I’ve largely remained silent since the election, more focused on business and those close to me. But I can’t – and won’t – stay silent.”

Howerton said he has employees who can’t leave the U.S. now, and that he is an investor in companies built by immigrants. On a personal level, he said he and his family care for a teenage girl, a classmate and friend of his daughters, who is trying to get a green card. The girl grew up in America but was left behind when her parents moved abroad, he said. He placed blame on Congress for failing to pass “comprehensive and rational immigration reform.”

He sits on the executive council of TechNet, which lobbies on behalf of the technology industry.

Sprout Social CEO Justyn Howard ⇒ shared a message with employees, writing, “on the topic (of) human rights there is no gray area. We do not support President Trump’s unconstitutional immigration policy.” He also tweeted several times about the ban.

“Speaking publicly about polarizing subjects always carries risk but silence-for-profit is not a business we want to be in,” Howard wrote in a statement to Blue Sky. “We respect the varied beliefs of our team, our customers and our families and don’t take a stance lightly.”

Dick Burke, CEO of Chicago-based Envoy (previously called VisaNow), said the company has been involved in the aftermath of Friday afternoon’s order. He said the company, an immigration services provider that helps workers and employers through the visa process, had attorneys at O’Hare to help anyone that needed it.

He cited the company’s strong legal talent and proprietary technology as boons to employers managing global workforces, and a strength for his business.

“We know that the need for high-skilled labor in the United States is real with nearly 2.4 million STEM jobs expected to go unfilled in the United States by 2018; we know that immigrants drive innovation and growth – both on Main Street and throughout STEM industries; and we know that the continued ability of employers to hire, deploy and manage a global workforce … plays a crucial role in helping our country remain competitive in today’s economy,” he wrote in an email to Blue Sky.

“For these reasons, I don’t worry about the impact on our business, and we are hopeful that President Trump, his advisors and our lawmakers will keep in mind the numerous benefits of bringing high-skilled talent to this country to inform additional immigration policy changes,” Burke said.

Other leaders said they’d help employees and customers that needed it.

Kunal Kapoor, CEO of Morningstar and an immigrant from India, wrote to employees that when considering which new policies might affect the company this year, he did not expect immigration policies to be one of them.

His message to employees read, in part: “We are monitoring the situation closely for both the well-being of our employees traveling globally and for longer-term consequences. We are actively reviewing our immigration data so we know who in our community may be affected and can take appropriate action. And we will follow up. If you know of someone impacted personally or concerned for their status, please reach out to your manager or HR representative for guidance.”

Todd Connor ⇒, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Iraq War and CEO of veterans incubator Bunker Labs, took issue with the executive order.

“This executive order is un-American, anti-business, hurts entrepreneurs ability to start and grow businesses, and is inconsistent with the values that military veterans have fought for,” he wrote in an email to Blue Sky. “The Bunker Labs is full of people that have spent time in the countries now banned from travel, and the consensus belief is that this is going to do far more harm than any conceivable good.”

Steven Collens ⇒, CEO of Matter, called the executive order “insane.”

“For any business that’s operating internationally, this is a challenge, and for a lot of the smaller entrepreneurial businesses that ultimately have an eye on a global presence, (this) could make it a little harder – or a lot harder.”

Shawn Riegsecker ⇒, founder and CEO of digital advertising and media management software developer Centro, said to his knowledge none of his employees were directly affected by the executive order. But he said the company did lose one employee a few months ago because she feared what might happen as an immigrant.

“We did have someone in our engineering department make the decision to leave … and go back to her home country, because she just did not like the tenor of what was going on at the national level, and just didn’t feel like, as an immigrant, she felt like this was place she wanted to raise her 2-year-old son,” he said. “We actually lost a great employee.”

On a personal level, Riegsecker said: “I just feel that fundamentally we should be focusing on much more impactful and important issues in our economy, and I think this is confusing, I don’t think it’s helpful, and I think the first week is a show of poor leadership right now as it relates to what are the issues that we need to be focusing on,” he said.

Brian Fitzpatrick ⇒, chief technology officer of Tock and co-creator of ORD Camp, called the immigration order “immoral and illegal.” He said it hurts Americans, including green card-holders, who have family abroad.

“Cutting these people off doesn’t make any sense, but more importantly, it creates stress and distraction that is completely unnecessary,” he wrote in an email to Blue Sky. “Every American business needs employees focused on winning in global markets, not spending their time worrying about their grandparents getting stopped at airports or deported.”

aelahi@chicagotribune.com
mgraham@chicagotribune.com