Bonin won. Conn headed directly for the intersection between the tech industry and politics. She was one of the first hires by FWD.US, a group co-founded by tech titans including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Dropbox founder Drew Houston, focused on immigration reform and improved U.S. education. As eastern director, then national organizing director, Conn was charged with leading a team of organizers in tech-sector hubs across the country to engage with people in the tech community.
“The model that we came up with was essentially a hack-a-thon model. You see these bright minds kind of come together in short timeframes to address challenges. We wanted to take that same model that is used in technology and apply it to political advocacy.”
Her team engaged tech-industry volunteers and helped organize the FWD.us DREAMer Hackathon in November of 2013. There, young undocumented immigrants built apps designed to “hack” immigration reform, including the “Push For Reform” app, which the FWD.US engineering team then further refined. The app allows citizens to type in their zip code, see who their members of Congress are and how they stand on immigration, and use the platform to ping politicians on social media, call their offices, contact them by email, even send them a “selfie for reform.””
REPRESENTATION THROUGH ITERATION
At FWD.US, Conn was immersed in tech, and came away with an even firmer belief that digital innovation in politics would strengthen democracy, making it easier for people to interact with government and politicians, and easier for government to serve the public and for politicians to represent their constituents. When she read Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup, she began seeing political engagement in terms of feedback loops, in which constituents are the consumers, and elected officials need to iterate constantly in response to consumer wants and demands. Democracy, she believes, “is intended to be built that way.”
When Conn was at FWD.US, the organization used a two-pronged approach to address the issue of political exclusion, she says. “We built several tools to address this problem by building technology to make it easier for constituents to figure out who their representative is and to communicate with that person . . . and we developed a grassroots community organizing program to help mobilize otherwise politically quiet constituents,” Conn says.
As Conn moved deeper into the zone where politics and technology meet, she began to realize that she wanted go beyond creating opportunities for the tech sector and politicians to work together.
NEXT STOP, SLOAN SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT
“I wanted to have the skills myself to both understand the abilities of technology in solving the problems that I’ve observed, and have the skills to manage the process of building that technology myself.”
So her next stop was the Sloan School. “There are tons of technologies that have the potential to change civic behavior and governance, and as a society, we are constantly creating new ones,” Conn says. “I’m trying to do everything I can over the next few years to explore systems thinking for social change, the influence of digital media in social interactions, and existing behavioral science experiments on civic engagement. I’m trying to meet interesting people doing meaningful work in this space. I’m looking to learn as much as I can, so that ultimately I can create something that makes real, lasting impact.”