Silicon Valley has found its presidential candidate in Andrew Yang

Key Points
  • Tech workers say they support Yang because he understands tech's complicated societal implications.
  • Yang donors include Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Y-combinator president Sam Altman.
  • Workers say they like Yang's data-centered approach to political arguments.
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks to media outside the Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Just before Elon Musk unveiled his latest plan for brain implants in San Francisco Tuesday night, people waiting for the live-stream to begin watched the comment section flood with "Yang Gang" and "Yang 2020!"

The terms described Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who was trending on Google Search.

The same response was echoed in physical center of the tech world.

Approximately 200 Silicon Valley engineers, graphic designers, and product managers crammed into a sold-out, standing room-only discussion at a civic community space called Manny's in San Francisco's Mission District Tuesday night. Workers from all different areas within tech gathered to hear Yang deliver dry-humored responses ranging from healthcare to memes.

Democratic candidate Andrew Yang explains how his plan for universal basic income would work
Andrew Yang explains his plan for universal basic income

Yang, who is polling around 2% in most polls of Democratic primary voters, has a surprisingly devoted core in the tech community. When he held a rally in March in San Francisco, nearly 3,000 people showed up. He attracts Silicon Valley Democrats, libertarians and even a few conservatives, all of whom have given up on politicians who don't understand them. Yang connects with them because of his approach to data, his unrehearsed — and sometimes awkward — candor, and a perceived understanding of the moral dilemmas surrounding the tech industry.

He also speaks tech's inside language. On Tuesday night, he had answers to audience questions from childhood trauma to pessimism around automation, and even e-sports.

"I feel like I get characterized as an Asian tech bro," he told the San Francisco crowd Tuesday, which got a large laugh from the crowd. "But I spent the last several years at a nonprofit and that's very wholesome."

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang hi-fives supporters in San Francisco.
Jennifer Elias | CNBC

"I know everyone in Silicon Valley and I've never met you," said interviewer and Recode founder Kara Swisher. "But you're the candidate of Silicon Valley."

After Swisher's interview, Yang asked if the event "the first political thing" they had been to. About one quarter of the people in the room raised their hands.

"Most politicians are just responding to culture whereas he is the culture and anticipates the future," said Joel Scoles, a food and beverage worker who serves tech workers daily in San Francisco.

'An Asian man who likes math'

Yang appeals to SIlicon Valley tech types in part because of his straightforward and quick-witted responses, which are delivered with with few political embellishments or emotions.

For instance, Yang cracked a joke about his parents, who met as graduate students at University California of Berkeley -- his brother Lawrence is named after Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science.

"We used to joke that's where our parents got busy," Yang told Tuesday's crowd, garnering roaring laughs.

Yang supporters often wear hats and shirts with the acronym "MATH," which Yang said stands for "Make America Think Harder." Tech workers say this refers to Yang's habit of answering questions with multiple data points at the drop of a hat.

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang is giving this New Hampshire mom $1,000 a month to show UBI works
Candidate Andrew Yang is giving this mom $1,000 a month to show UBI works

"I'm going to be the alternative to the establishment that grows the whole time," Yang said about the presidential candidate process.

"And I'm the man for that job because the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math," he added as the room erupted in laughter and applause.

Several "Yang Gang" groups have formed around the San Francisco Bay Area, according to Dylan Enright, finance director for Yang's campaign.

Andrew Barakat, a product manager for a major tech company which he asked us not to name, said he likes Yang because he's a numbers guy.

"We're in a stage in economic development where people shouldn't be on the verge of bankruptcy or being in debt all the time," he said. If you start to measure what actually matters and then incentivize people to pursue those things, you have a real chance at changing the economy."

Andrew Barakat, a product manager for a FANG company wears Yang gear that stands for "Make America Think Harder."
Jennifer Elias | CNBC

Barakat, who has a background in data analytics, economics and behavioral studies, pointed to venture capitalist John Doerr's book "Measure What Matters," which dissects the popular tech business concept of measuring objectives and key results.

"That system is the backbone of how Silicon Valley has developed its biggest companies — it's focused on OKRs (objective key results) that are numerical and trackable, and Andrew wants to do the same thing."

"He actually answers questions and when he evaluates an argument, he refers to studies and data," agreed Ash Hussain, who works as the head of finance for a tech startup in San Francisco that he asked us not to identify.

Free money for everyone

Yang's platform centers on the concept of universal basic income, and he proposes a "Freedom Dividend" that would allow each U.S. resident to receive $1,000 a month.

"What I say is that it's not socialism. It's capitalism that doesn't start at zero," Yang said.

He believes the dividend will build a "trickle up" effect because that money will go right back into the economy. He views the only reason people are resisting it is because we've been programmed to assume that there's a limited amount of resources to go around.

"A neuroscientist put it to me best and said, 'Andrew, you're going to be fighting the human mind because the human mind is programmed for resource scarcity," he said Tuesday.

The freedom dividend has attracted donations from some of the most well-known tech leaders. That list includes OpenAI CEO and former Y-combinator president Sam Altman who gave $2,700, Google G Suite product lead Scott Johnston who gave $2,700, and Gerald Huff, principal software engineer at Tesla who gave $2,000.

Yang also caters to tech workers who face moral dilemmas about their effect on complicated societal issues such as automation and data privacy.

"Being in the Bay Area, you know first-hand the impacts of AI: You have peers working on technologies to streamline and make processes more efficient — which effectively automates away millions of jobs," said Eric Quach, a product lead for a Silicon Valley tech giant, which he asked us not to name.

Quach, who said he considers himself a Democrat, volunteered to organize parts of the "Yang Gang."

"I am supporting Andrew Yang because he understands better than any other candidate how technology and artificial intelligence is affecting the workforce of today and tomorrow."

Yang points out flaws of popular workforce retraining solutions touted by both corporations and politicians, which resonates with tech workers. That includes the concept of "turning coal miners into coders," Yang said Tuesday.

"I was just at a truck stop in Iowa, and if I said, 'Hey, have any interest in a coding career?' they'd be more likely to punch you in the face."

Breaking up Big Tech

Techies also appreciate Yang's relatively nuanced thoughts about breaking up Big Tech, which has become a popular topic for politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Yang said there are some instances where Big Tech should be broken up but also knows that it's more complicated than other politicians think.

"The business plan for many entrepreneurs is getting acquired," Yang said. "It's not trying to build a business that will last for decades. It's like 'oh, well if we become a big enough threat that Facebook's gonna buy us' and that's bad for innovation over time."

He quickly followed up with a joke about how difficult it is for competitors to dislodge dominant technology. "No one here is Bing-ing anything, or using the fourth best navigation app," referring to inferior search tool Bing.

Yang said he's more concerned about how tech affects anxiety and depression, specifically for teenage girls.

"That's something we have to counteract as quickly as possible and breaking up the ownership of the company may not make that any easier — it might actually make it harder."

Ironically, the stark separation between Silicon Valley and Washington was never more apparent than earlier that Tuesday, where several tech executives gathered at Capitol Hill hearings. Congress members seemingly failed to grasp some of the basics of how technology companies operate, leaving many on the opposite coast rolling their eyes.

Corrections: This story has been updated with the correct acronym for Yang's "MATH" slogan. In addition, a previous version of this story cited a report saying that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes had donated $250 to Yang; that report has since been updated to reflect that it was a different Chris Hughes.

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