In the aftermath of the slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Lisa Conn was sure this latest American bloodletting must lead to tightened nation-wide gun laws. The massacre followed by only five months the killing of a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater. In the wake of Aurora and Sandy Hook, some 9 in 10 people in the country supported expanded background checks for firearms purchases.
“It seemed like a no-brainer,” says Conn, an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “What I saw was the legislation fail. Previously I thought that if you elected the right people the right things would happen. I had this disheartening revelation that it doesn’t always work that way.”
Conn, 26, had worked in 2011 and 2012 as a field director and organizer for the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama. She had been, she says, “pretty optimistic about the power of grassroots enthusiasm.”
The absence of legislative response to the 2012 mass murders left Conn feeling she had a choice: forget about politics and stop believing democracy could represent the will of the people, or start working on ways to close the disconnect between the people and the politicians.
“I am the kind of person that doesn’t give up easily or take no for an answer,” she says, “and I love this country.”
FROM LIBERAL ARTS TO BIG DATA AND LEAN STARTUP
As she saw it, the country had a problem. Elected representatives were cut off from vast swathes of the electorate. Many citizens simply didn’t vote. And public engagement during political campaigns withered soon after the last ballot was cast. Without broad, direct input from the public, elected representatives were operating without knowing what their constituents wanted, and were often swayed by the noisy, angry folk, the wealthy, the gun lobby. “The channels are left open to domination by very persuasive voices,” she says.
Conn, who had earned high honors on her way to a 2010 BA in social and cultural analysis at NYU, was to choose a path that would take her back into politics, introduce her to the power of technology, big data and the “lean startup” methodology, and land her this fall at MIT for an MBA.
After finishing her campaign work for Obama in late 2012, Conn went straight to the job of campaign manager for a Los Angeles city council candidate named Mike Bonin. She chose to work for Bonin in part because he too had serious concerns about the gulf between people and politicians, she says. “He and I really shared this passion for what happens after election day, how do people stay engaged, how can we use attention from elections … to build an infrastructure of community support that lasts.”
LOOKING TO ‘SILICON BEACH’ FOR POLITICAL INSIGHTS
Then came a series of meetings that began to open her eyes to a new world of possibility in the political realm. Bonin was aiming to represent a Los Angeles district home to the tech-industry hub known as “Silicon Beach,” and he convened meetings of experts from sectors including real estate, entertainment, technology, and entrepreneurship, to discuss approaches to urban troubles such as homelessness, traffic, and emergency-response time.
“I saw then the completely different voice and perspective that was brought by the engineers, and the founders, and the entrepreneurs,” she says. “It kind of clicked that this is the answer. Technology is, I think, the answer to a lot of the problems that I’ve seen.”