Y Combinator president Sam Altman's heart grew three sizes today as he announced the American Civil Liberties Union would join his startup incubator in order to manage its massive influx of funding. The ACLU received $24 million in donations this weekend alone, and though it's far from a "startup," that's what's known in the tech biz as a very good seed round.
Altman made the announcement today on the company blog. "The ACLU has always been important, but has a particularly important role right now," wrote Altman, linking to a post written by ACLU executive director Anthony Romero celebrating the group's success Saturday in securing a stay blocking President Trump's anti-immigration executive order.
In response to that executive order, Altman took personal action, joining a protest at San Francisco International Airport.
This is an extreme first world problem, but I'd really love to stop getting pitched at protests. Kinda kills the vibe.— Sam Altman (@sama) January 30, 2017
There's a degree of precedent to the ACLU's inclusion in Y Combinator, as Paul Graham, the incubator's original head honcho, announced that the incubator would begin including nonprofits "in every YC batch" starting in winter 2013. And so far, Y Combinator companies appear to have been welcoming to the new member of their cohort.
25 YC founders offered to go help at the ACLU in the first 30 mins since I sent the email. ❤our community.— Sam Altman (@sama) January 31, 2017
Can't wait to see what the ACLU will have for Demo Day, the big showcase for YC incubees. But there's also a bit of a conflict here in Altman and Y Combinator's association with Peter Thiel, an advisor to President Trump and high-profile supporter and donor to him during his campaign. In October, Altman said that he wouldn't cut ties to his pal because "diversity of opinion" is important.
3) Thiel is a high profile supporter of Trump. I disagree with this. YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee.— Sam Altman (@sama) October 17, 2016
6) Diversity of opinion is painful but critical to the health of a democratic society. We can't start purging people for political support.— Sam Altman (@sama) October 17, 2016
As the Y Combinator president wrote in 2015 to announce Thiel's addition as a part-time partner: "We generally won’t bring on people that are involved with other investing firms given the obvious conflict, but Peter is so good we felt like we had to make an exception."
Gizmodo — no fans of Thiel, who secretly bankrolled the lawsuit that destroyed its original parent website Gawker — levels the charge that Altman is a "coward" who "won’t do the one thing within his power that could actually be construed as a rejection of the Trump Administration."
As they frame it, "It’s hard to know exactly why Altman refuses to do this—is it because it will eventually affect Y Combinator’s bottom line, or is it because Altman just can’t bear to cut ties with his friend?"
Probably both, and also because Thiel is Altman's escape pod from Trump's mess. "If the pandemic does come, Altman’s backup plan is to fly with his friend Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, to Thiel’s house in New Zealand," the New Yorker revealed in a profile of Altman this past fall.
"I try not to think about it too much,” Altman said of apocalypse, as caused by anything from a synthetic virus to an AI takeover. “But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.” Good to know he'll be fine.