At more than 750,000 members, the ACLU is hardly a fringe group. Founded in 1920, it first came to fame during the Scopes Trial, in which the group defended a Tennessee high school teacher who was prosecuted for teaching human evolution. It prominently opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and racial segregation in public schools during the civil rights movement.
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But after Trump's wild first few weeks in office, the ACLU has an unexpected and substantial war chest and — some powerful new supporters. Its deepening ties to Silicon Valley culminated last week with the announcement that the organization had an intriguing new ally: Y Combinator, the prestigious Silicon Valley incubator that gave birth to Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, and other billion-dollar companies.
The alliance between the ACLU and Y Combinator was Sam Altman's idea. Altman, who became president of the incubator in 2014, was a vocal opponent of Donald Trump who helped organize a $1 million voter registration drive during campaign season. After getting to know Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, Altman offered to help him any way he could. "This guy Anthony incredible," Altman said in an interview.
Since 2013, Y Combinator has enrolled nonprofits in its accelerator program. In some ways, nonprofits and for-profit companies go through the same steps. They spend a season working together in Silicon Valley, often sharing a house as they work to grow their respective organizations. (Each group picks a single metric to optimize around, such as revenue growth or new donors.) They attend Tuesday night dinners together, trading notes with peers and listening to talks from tech-world luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreessen. At the end of the program, they present their work at Demo Day, hoping to attract money and other assistance from the venture capitalists in the audience.