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For Austin tech Trump means uncertainty, mixed with opportunity

Thursday, January 19, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

On issues ranging from immigration to support for clean energy technology to the future of media, the coming Donald Trump presidency brings a whole lot of uncertainty and possibly some opportunity to the tech scene in Austin.

That was the prevailing logic Wednesday at the Austin Tech Alliance’s panel discussion “Trump’s Impact on Tech in Austin” at Capital Factory, which saw national and local pundits weigh in on what’s ahead for the country once one of its most unorthodox commanders in chief ever takes office.

Given its location at one of Austin’s most prominent tech incubators, the discussions were intended to help the roomful of hopeful tech entrepreneurs – and those in adjacent professions – get the lay of the land locally and beyond for the coming four years.

The issue with probably the most impact for all tech communities is Trump’s emphatic but sometimes contradictory positions on immigration. Because immigrants make up a large portion of tech talent and founders, creating barriers to entry or enacting widespread deportation would likely make it even more difficult for tech communities in Austin, Silicon Valley and elsewhere to find badly needed employees and executives.

Ainee Athar, Texas director of immigration rights group, said a number of pro-immigration policies are threatened by Trump and cabinet candidates such as attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions.

That could threaten H-1B visas for workers in specialty occupations, the 800,000 residents covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and the still-new International Entrepreneur Rule, even though Trump has said in interviews that he has the best interests of technology companies in mind and wants to take care of them.

Athar said the impact of strict immigration restrictions would likely be felt quickly in Texas, where one quarter of all tech startups have at least one international founder.

“That’s under threat, and it’s hard to know what he’s going to do,” she said, disclosing that local tech companies are collaborating on a joint letter set to be released next week that advocates for preserving DACA. “Now is the time to find an issue you care about and show up for it.”

The session was broken into two portions, the first featuring entrepreneur, political analyst and possible U.S. Senate candidate Matthew Dowd sharing his thoughts on the social and economic shifts that made Trump’s victory possible and what might lie ahead for the nation.

Dowd’s talk had many of the linguistic hallmarks of a prospective political candidate – he said the presidential race was a “battle between demography versus geography” and that the country is now locked into a contest of “reformation versus transformation.”

But he also pointed at entrepreneurs as the group most capable of reviving civic dialogue and battling the rise of fake news that led to a misinformed citizenry. The rise of fake news, he said, shows how technology has created “an increase in knowledge that has equaled a decrease in wisdom.”

The panel discussion featured Athar joined by Shalini Ramanathan, vice president of origination for the clean energy company RES Americas; Ian Clarke, CEO of the tech company Stacks; and Omar Gallaga, technology reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.

The panel members shined a spotlight on their respective industries. Ramanathan admitted that Trump likely would have less support for clean energy than President Barack Obama, but said the market and global corporations like Apple and Microsoft have already committed to converting almost entirely to clean energy soon. For a pro-business president, those kinds of actions will resonate and are likely to bring Trump around to solar, wind power and more, which will almost certainly open up opportunity and investment for further clean tech innovation.

Others in the Austin tech community who attended said the uncertainty of what’s ahead under Trump could make it difficult to plan for growth or investment in the near term.

Chelsea Collier, founder of the Digi.City blog and an advisory board member for Texans for Economic Progress, said that recent data from the Federal Reserve suggesting a possible slowing of the Austin economy is butting up against anecdotes of strong growth at local companies.

“I see all these stats from the Federal Reserve and don’t know if it’s a slowing or if the writing is on the wall that Austin is about to go through a bust,” she said, pointing to a recent PitchBook report that found venture capital funding in Austin down nearly 25 percent in 2016 compared to 2015.

“I hear things that are completely all over the place,” she continued, “about accounts being lost and layoffs on the way versus other companies planning for big expansions and doubling down on growing their workforce.”

Collier said it’s likely the investment environment for Austin companies could remain tight until there is some certainty to the rhythm of Trump’s administration, but a pro-business state like Texas is likely to handle disruptions better than other parts of the country.

“Predictability is important, and on a local level it’s been hard to know what’s coming next,” she said. “If I was a founder looking to expand right now, I wouldn’t know where to turn at the moment, but some things remain true in that Texas people like to make sure the state has an ‘open for business’ climate. Thankfully we weathered the (2008) downturn fairly well, and Austin has a fairly diversified economy including tech.”

Photo by Gage Skidmore made available through a Creative Commons license.

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