David Chavern, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
David Chavern, U.S. Chamber of Commerce ()

Four months ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it was launching the Center for Advanced Technology & Innovation “to better meet the needs of its tech members.” David Chavern, the chamber’s then-vice president and chief operating officer, was named president of the Silicon Valley-centric center. Chavern talked with The Recorder about the initiative’s progress—and its search for a permanent home in the Bay Area.

Q: What’s the center been doing for the last four months?

A: I’ve been meeting with companies and local folks in the business association community, the local chambers and local business and political leaders to talk about A, what the chamber does and what we’re hoping to do in the future, and B, why being there in the Bay Area will be a benefit not only to the companies but to the policymakers out there who are trying to help drive good change in Washington. So in particular I’ve been talking a lot about immigration reform, which, as you know, is a huge issue for the chamber. We’ve been pushing for comprehensive immigration reform for probably 15 years now. And even though it’s looking a little rough, particularly after the [congressional Majority Leader] Eric Cantor defeat, we are continuing to push because all policy wins in Washington, particularly these days, come after long, long-term efforts.

Q: Are you finding that the chamber’s agenda is a good fit in the Valley?

A: Well, listen, I have a brand problem in that the chamber is viewed as an establishment organization and in the tech world your objective is to disrupt establishment organizations, right? But the reality is, if you scrape away the label, scrape away who you think is establishment, non-establishment, you just focus on the issues.

Let’s take immigration reform as a perfect example. There’s nobody who’s been more active and more out front in pushing immigration reform than the chamber. No organization. Once you get away from the assumptions people have and talk about the issues they care about—immigration reform, tax reform, I could go down the list—the fact of the matter is, our agenda is the tech agenda. And part of what I do is convey that to people.

Q: Is there pushback on other chamber issues? Climate change comes to mind.

A: I have 300,000-plus members. I have somebody that disagrees with me on every issue. And obviously there’s, first of all, a political issue to get over. There are a lot of Democrats in the region. We do support Democrats. We do support a lot of Republicans, and we have to get beyond those labels. The country as a whole has gone through a lot [of discussion] on what kind of debate you have on climate change. Would we end up disagreeing with some of the individuals and their companies? Maybe. But if you look at the bulk of our agenda, again, if you really care about immigration reform, you should be supportive of the chamber’s efforts. Or if you really care about tax reform. Or infrastructure investment. So there’s always going to be differences. I’m not particularly worried about it.

Q: Where are you in the staffing process?

A: I’ve got a couple offers out to folks and I hope to have some staffing announcements to make in the next couple of weeks.

Q: Do you have an office in the Bay Area yet?

A: I’ve been negotiating intently with a landlord in San Francisco and hope to be able to have an address to announce very, very soon. Landlords in San Francisco these days are tough to negotiate with. If you haven’t done it lately, it’s quite an experience.

Q: Why does the chamber need a physical presence in the Valley with all the technology we have to connect people these days?

A: People like to see you around. They like to see you in the office. They like to feel that you understand them. And that’s hard to do from 3,000 miles away. We had several business leaders in Silicon Valley talk to our CEO, Tom Donohue, about the fact that if we want to better represent the tech industry, if we want to have more tech members, more involved tech members, then we actually have to be out there. It sounds like an anti-tech kind of attitude, but it’s a practical one in that people want you to understand their community.

Q: What’s the response been from industry in the Valley?

A: Everybody sees the need, sees the role for the chamber to play on important issues. I think they want to see how committed we are, actually being out there and taking some hard positions in their favor. We’ll just have to prove ourselves over time.

Q: Have you been able to attract new members?

A: I’ve got a couple new members and a couple of expanded members. We want more. But it’s been a good start.

Q: You’ve mentioned immigration reform, tax reform and infrastructure. Are there any other issues the center will be making a big push on?

A: There is a whole range of longer term issues on cybersecurity, on patent reform, legal reform—a whole range of issues where we’re keeping up the fight. We don’t really expect a whole lot of legislative change before the election but we’re picking up the fight for the future.

Q: How will we know whether the center’s been a success?

A: In the advocacy space you measure it by whether people view you as having influence. I started the Center for Capital Markets with the chamber 10 years ago or so, and at the time the chamber had no presence in the whole financial regulation space. And we built that up and now we’re clear leaders in that space and people look to us to support their issues, to take on fights, to try to restrain bad government behavior. And we have conferences that are oversubscribed. And we’ve got demands from our members that are overwhelming. So we measure it in terms of whether people expect us to help them or not, and I expect that a lot of people will be asking us to help them.

Q: There’s been no pushback from existing advocacy groups already in the Valley?

A: No, actually, because we do different things. We’re a very big national organization. We’re not dealing with local issues. We’re not dealing with hyper-specific tech issues. We take the lead on stuff that it’s very hard for local or small organizations to take the lead on.