The ACLU Just Joined A Silicon Valley Startup Incubator

Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has joined the winter 2017 class of startups hosted by Silicon Valley startup incubator Y Combinator (YC), which in the past helped companies like Twitch, AirBnb, and Reddit achieve and manage initial growth. The ACLU, a 97-year-old nonprofit, falls outside the profile of a typical YC company, but the incubator has invited nonprofits to participate since 2013.

In a statement, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, “We’re thrilled to have the help of Y Combinator to help us reach new audiences and be at the leading edge of technology. Beyond financial contributions, the Silicon Valley community can help organizations like ours harness recent membership surges and spread the word about what the ACLU is doing.”

The ACLU raised $24 million this past weekend — six times its average amount of annual donations — after it wrested a stay on President Trump's immigration order from a New York federal court.

Public outrage over the order, which barred refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, fueled protests at airports around the country. The crowds there were jubilant at the news from the ACLU. Several prominent figures in the tech industry matched donations to the ACLU. Most notably, Lyft gave the organization $1 million in a deftly timed move in its perpetual fight with Uber, which recently turned political.

The ACLU and Y Combinator began speaking weeks ago when YC partner Kat Manalac reached out to Romero for feedback about YC’s upcoming call for civic tech startups. Manalac told BuzzFeed News that Romero responded with a request for help on the ACLU's own projects, which led Manalac to recommend it for YC's incubator, and YC founder Sam Altman and Romero “worked out the details yesterday.” Several YC mentors will travel to New York to work with the ACLU.

In a statement, Altman wrote that YC itself will donate to the ACLU and give it “full access to the Y Combinator network and community.” The accelerator won't have any financial interest in the ACLU. As part of its participation in the program, the nonprofit will also present to venture capitalists at YC Demo Day in March.

Altman wrote that the ACLU plays “a particularly important role now”; he invited engineers in particular to work with the organization, signaling that the nonprofit may have come to Silicon Valley specifically to attract some help from the area's technical talent. Altman said on Twitter that 25 startup founders responded positively to the call.

YC has funded nonprofits before, declining to take its usual equity stake in favor of a donation. The incubator put out a call for civic technology companies in 2014, but the niche industry faces funding problems, and VCs are hesitant. Nevertheless, Altman put out a similar call the same day that the ACLU was accepted.

Like many of its fellow tech companies, YC traveled a bumpy road during election season and after. Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire and prominent Trump supporter who is now a member of the president's transition team, sits on Y Combinator's board, which has drawn criticism from many in Silicon Valley. Sam Altman vigorously defended Thiel's role in YC, though Altman himself did not vote for Trump.

After Trump's victory in November, Altman told BuzzFeed News he was “officially very worried.” Most recently, Altman has come out strong against Trump's immigration order, offering support and a job to recently fired attorney general Sally Yates.

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