Three U.S. Mayors On Their (Very Real) Challenge To Silicon Valley’s Dominance

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, and Austin Mayor Steve Adler speak on why Silicon Valley’s hold on the tech industry may be weakening.

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Mayor Francis Suarez took his seat on a beautiful Miami afternoon, with a blue sky, bay, boats, and palm trees visible behind him. He was in good spirits, happy to again be talking about Miami’s potential as a tech hub. “This,” he told me, “is not a virtual background.” 

The notion that any city could challenge the Bay Area’s tech dominance seemed ludicrous even a few months ago. But a full year of remote work can change things. Over the past two weeks, I've spoken with Mayor Suarez, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway about why they believe the tech industry may grow more dispersed, not concentrated, as the pandemic ends. And though I came in skeptical — especially after publishing data last year that dispelled some tech migration myths — I walked away believing it’s indeed possible that Silicon Valley won’t return to normal when we all do. 

Silicon Valley — the place, not the idea — is more vulnerable today than any time in recent memory. Though the tech industry has thrived in the Bay Area for years, it now feels decidedly unwelcome. “Techie go home” gets spray-painted on sidewalks in San Francisco. Tech shuttles get attacked on the freeways. Tech workers apologize in the “occupation” field of their dating profiles. And tech donors get ostracized. All this is happening as tech work and tech networking (hello Clubhouse) moves virtual, giving many the option to honor the spray paint’s request. When a California lawmaker tweeted “F*ck Elon Musk” last year, Musk replied, “Message received.” A few months later, he confirmed he’d moved to Austin. 


What struck me about the mayors’ pitches was their focus on the heart, not the pocketbook. Every Bay Area resident knows the region’s cost of living is astronomical, yet that’s done little to dislodge its tech dominance. So the competing mayors have instead zeroed in on making tech workers and executives feel wanted. Instead of calling them the problem, they’re telling them they’re part of the solution. And the pitch just might work.

Mayor Suarez needed just a few minutes to demonstrate why so many in the tech industry have taken a liking to him. In a discussion of how tech has contributed to rising Bay Area real estate costs, and hence political ill will, Suarez grew heated. “To blame that on an industry, to blame that on a company is insane,” he said. “And it's ludicrous and counterproductive.” Suarez pointed to housing constraints, something government can fix, as a key culprit, while also not letting the tech industry off the hook. “It's a shared responsibility,” he said. 

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Though the tech industry can point fingers and not take full responsibility for its actions, Suarez is betting that working with it — instead of alienating it — will lead to more tech firms moving in, and better outcomes for his city. Miami still hasn’t experienced a mass wave of tech worker migration, per LinkedIn data I published last year. But if anything could generate a movement, this messaging may be it. “Miami won’t supplant Silicon Valley,” one Bay Area VC told me. “But it will move from being nothing to tier two.” 

Over in Austin, Mayor Steve Adler made a similar, if more restrained, pitch. “We have challenges here,” he told me, “and we're looking for people that want to be neighbors and get involved.” Austin wants tech companies, he said, because they bring the middle-skill jobs it needs. But it also wants civic participation, and welcomes it.

Adler’s actions back up his claims. Austin didn’t offer Amazon any taxpayer-funded incentives in its HQ2 ‘competition’ and then lost out. But the Austin area did attract Musk, and one of his gigafactories (and its middle-skill jobs), with its more welcoming tone. Now, Oracle is moving its headquarters to Austin as well. “They need to be invested,” Adler said of Oracle. “And I trust that they will be.” 

Though Austin and Miami have garnered the most buzz, the pandemic’s normalization of remote work is having the most immediate impact on midsized cities like Madison. Tech worker migration accelerated faster to Madison than any other city in the country, according to the LinkedIn data. “What can I say?” Mayor Rhodes-Conway said. “Madison's a great place to live.”

But beyond quality of life, Madison’s quietly built a strong tech community, a big draw for many considering the city. Bolstered by the presence of health tech companies like Epic, Madison is recreating some of the spontaneous discovery of people and ideas that make Silicon Valley special, albeit on a smaller scale and with some Midwestern nice. “There is a lot of comradery and collaboration,” Rhodes-Conway told me. “Which I think then spurs additional startups, additional people wanting to be part of that.”

And though Madison and its counterparts will likely never match the size of Silicon Valley, the rise of audio-first social media like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces might help tech workers supplement smaller physical tech communities with larger virtual ones. When I asked on Twitter whether Clubhouse’s virtual Silicon Valley makes the physical Silicon Valley less crucial, I surprisingly didn’t get ratioed. “Yes,” responded Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. “Probably!” said civic-minded investor Kim-Mai Cutler. It’s not outlandish to consider. 

A more dispersed tech industry seems like a net positive. Growth could be more distributed. Tech workers and founders could spend more time learning about problems in the real world. And real estate costs could keep falling in the Bay Area. So what Suarez, Adler, and Rhodes-Conway are doing is intriguing. Even if their efforts — along with those in New York, Boston, and Seattle — are imperfect. As these mayors speak directly to the tech industry’s feelings, the Bay Area seems content to let them shoot their shot. Out of the four mayors I contacted, only San Francisco Mayor London Breed declined to talk. 

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Listen to Mayors Suarez, Alder, and Rhodes-Conway make their case on Big Technology Podcast

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Thanks again for reading. See you next Thursday.