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Can technology transform politics?

Tech tools can be a “great equalizer” in politics, says MBA student

October 1, 2015

2015-Conn

Lisa Conn

Firm in the belief that government has a lot to learn from the technology industry, campaign organizer and activist Lisa Conn, MBA ’17, is at MIT Sloan to gain the skills she needs to transform the U.S. political system.

“I’d like to make the voices of people more powerful than the voices of big money or lobbyists, and I think technology can be that great equalizer,” said Conn, whose career goal is to establish a technology company that helps government be more responsive. “I want to be able to manage and lead technologists, and MIT—I think above any other business school—is the place to learn that.”

Inspired by a speech given by then-Sen. Barack Obama in New York in 2007, Conn began her career in politics by volunteering for a congressional campaign in her native Los Angeles. She then joined President Obama’s 2012 campaign, rising through the ranks to become a regional field director in the battleground state of Florida.

“What I really loved was helping people understand what they’re good at, training them, and managing them,” Conn said.

After Obama was re-elected as president, Conn took a job as campaign manager for a city council candidate in the “Silicon Beach” area of Los Angeles, nicknamed for its popularity with tech startups. That’s where she discovered how much the technology community had to offer.

“There’s a lot of thought leadership in tech. If you can get tech CEOs, entrepreneurs, and engineers in a room talking about government, amazing ideas are born,” Conn said, noting that her candidate went on to win the election and put several technology tools in place—for example, providing firefighters with digital maps to improve emergency response times.

Lisa ConnLisa Conn and Michelle Obama at a Florida rally in 2012; Photo: Zara Rahim

Conn said she sees a lot of parallels between the U.S. political system and the product development cycle, except that the feedback loop for government is much longer and filled with glitches. “What I’ve heard over and over is that the key to developing a successful product is having good feedback mechanisms,” Conn said. “What I found interesting about government is that the same feedback happens, but it comes at very long intervals.”

Since officials receive most of their feedback from widely spaced elections, in the interim they are left listening only to those who are the loudest about specific issues, said Conn.

“The biggest problem is that it seems the airwaves are already taken up by the most persistent, but there is room for all of us to communicate more,” Conn said. “There is a huge role for innovating this feedback process.”

Conn saw this in action in her most recent job, where she served as national organizing director for FWD.us, an advocacy organization launched by tech industry leaders—including Dropbox founder and MIT alumnus Drew Houston. There, Conn led a team that organized hackathons to address political challenges, and the work led to several new digital tools—including a story-sharing platform used for gathering first-person narratives from immigrants. The work cemented Conn’s interest in technology solutions to problems in politics, but also revealed the gap in her education.

“Building organizations, building culture, building best practices, managing budgets, hiring—all these things are really hard,” Conn said. “[I realized that] if I wanted to be the best leader I could be in companies that are built to last, it wouldn’t just happen. I wanted to go back to the classroom for some advanced training and education.”