Alec Ross speaks with Ruth Goran, founder of Glassceiling.com
Alec Ross is a Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland. He was formerly Senior Advisor for Innovation in Hillary Clinton’s State Department and is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Industries of the Future. He is the co-founder of a tech non-profit focused on increasing access to internet for marginalized communities and led tech policy for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Ross moved to Baltimore 23 years ago to be a 6th-grade teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, and still lives in Baltimore City with his wife, Felicity, who is an educator in Baltimore City Public Schools, and their three children who all proudly attend city schools.
So you are running for the governor of Maryland. What made you make the decision to run now? Can you describe your background and what brought you to this point?
It’s been a long path to this point, but this run for governor feels right. What really spurred this decision was a feeling that we had to inject some energy and fresh ideas into our politics. The presidential election in 2016 was a wake up call to many of us, especially those of us who have built careers based on advancing equity, innovation, and acceptance. I’m running a campaign for governor of Maryland focused on increasing opportunity for all and injecting a much-needed can-do attitude into our politics.
I grew up in coal country in and worked my way through college partly working as a midnight janitor and on a beer truck. I came to Baltimore as a Teach for America (TFA) teacher at Booker T. Washington Middle School teaching social studies to kids from one of the toughest areas of the city. I fell in love with the teacher across the hall who was also working for TFA, and we have made our lives for the past 23 years in Maryland. It was there that I first recognized one of the key tenets of my campaign for governor – that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. The kids I taught in West Baltimore came from severely disadvantaged communities and were offered very little opportunity in society, by no fault of their own. After my time as a teacher, I worked on voter registration in communities of color during the 1996 election cycle before working on affordable housing issues in Maryland. In 2000, I co-founded a non-profit called One Economy that works to bring broadband internet access to low-income communities. Our timing was right, and as the internet boomed, we grew rapidly into the world’s largest digital divide organization. When then-Senator Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he asked me to run technology policy for his campaign and later to serve in his administration as Senior Advisor for Innovation in the State Department. I worked at the intersection of innovation and foreign policy, leading a team focused on crafting creative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing crises.
This career in service has led me to this point, to a run for a governor of Maryland, and to a firm belief that we must open the doors of opportunity for all Marylanders, regardless of race, religion, country of origin, or the zip code that someone grows up in.
We know you have worked for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – champions of women both! What did you learn from them about fighting to empower women, both in the U.S. and around the world?
From Hillary, I learned that gender issues should not be viewed as a silo, but as something that crosscuts all other issues. On issues ranging from transportation to economic development to education, she stressed the importance of promoting policy that at its core empowers women and girls, no matter what specific issue it is directly addressing.
From President Obama, I learned that the tone you set in the workplace as a leading male really matters. He created a culture that was the opposite of the kind of “locker room” talk model that so often pervades male-led workplaces. Any behavior reminiscent of that type of culture never would have been tolerated working for Barack Obama. He worked very hard to make sure he fostered an environment that was empowering to women.
One thing I learned from both of them is that for working parents, especially mothers, you have to not just say you support accommodations for them, but you have to demonstrate it. When I worked for Hillary at the State Department, there were many of us, men and women alike, who were young parents. And she knew that we wouldn’t leave the office as long as she was there. So she would leave at 6pm so we could go have dinner with our families. She knew we would be back online at 9pm, but she clearly left the office so young parents felt like they could go home to be with their families. The fact that she did that consciously really made it an environment that was friendly to working parents, especially working moms.
We are at a pivotal moment in a long-overdue national conversation on sexual harassment and sexual violence. As a man running for office, and as a leader in the community, what are your responsibilities in this conversation and in this moment, and how do you hope to further the conversation while you are running as governor?
First, I think we need to hold people accountable who have been abusive. When there is a backlash from those who think this has “gone too far” (and I think there will be), we need to make sure this isn’t a two steps forward, one step backwards situation. I already hear the whisperings among men that this has gone too far, and I think the responsibility of leaders is to say, “no, this hasn’t gone too far; it’s addressing a long-overdue problem and we need to make sure that the shift in norms become permanent.” This is an opportunity to chart a new course and address long-standing wrongs.
Of course a lot of other issues are involved in breaking the glass ceiling. What role do you think government can play, and what role do you think you can play as governor in realizing an America where all people – regardless of gender, race, or background – can have equal opportunity and the full chance to contribute to society?
First, I’m really proud of my history on this issue. I’ve had many, many women work with me who have been absolute rock stars, and they’ve gone on to even greater things. I think part of the success we had in empowering women was in allowing them to set the culture in the office, rather than just trying to make accommodations so they would feel comfortable. I allowed the women to shape the culture in the office and on my teams, and ultimately, that didn’t just make it a workplace that was acceptable to women, but one that was very welcoming and empowering.
As governor, I think I’d have the ability to enact change through policies as well as acting as a role model. I’d put in place policies that would hopefully model what an ideal workplace looks like. I also think it’s important to empower women into very visible positions of power and authority so that they are not just figureheads, but also showing that there is strong representation of women across all ranks of executive government. On this, my history is clear. I was a feminist start-up executive. My book The Industries of the Future has been accurately described as a feminist text, and I would be a feminist governor.
We know that you are an expert on innovation, having published the New York Times bestseller The Industries of the Future. What does the future hold for women in the economy and in society? How can they play a role in the innovation economy and where do you see gaps that can benefit in particular from women’s contributions?
My book was fairly controversial in some countries because the core argument I made was that the standing of women in the economy and business didn’t just correlate to innovation, but that there is actually causation involved. There is a fascinating study from the Peterson Institute where they surveyed publicly traded companies and found that the greater the number of female executives, the higher a company’s profits. I wrote that those states and societies that do the most to intentionally advantage women in the economy and business are those that will be best positioned in tomorrow’s world. My argument is not that an organization or society should empower women only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s a clear way to maximize shareholder value in your company or maximize benefit to society for government.
The issues of race and gender have sometimes been seemingly pitted against each other, but we know that the intersection of the two places African-American, Latina, and Native American women – among other racial and ethnic minorities – at a particular disadvantage. How do we build a coalition among women from all backgrounds – and among women and men – to work toward common goals? What role can you play in your campaign and how can we assist you?
The multiple identities that each of us have are inherently connected, and we need to take that into account in our policy making. We cannot achieve full equity without breaking down systemic oppression for everyone. To achieve this vision, we need to build a coalition of diverse, empathetic people. This starts by listening to our communities and bringing them together as we discuss solutions and ideas to our biggest challenges.
As for the role my campaign can play, I’m striving to lead by example — talking about an intersectional agenda on the trail. Maryland cannot succeed as a state unless Marylanders in every zip code have the same opportunities. So no matter which zip code I’m in, we’re talking about the same issues, and while some problems may be greater in certain parts of the state, we must commit to addressing all of them to enable the rise of all Marylanders. We’re focused on digging into the issues and addressing the systemic barriers to equity. This means looking past frequently cited stats that are true only for certain, privileged groups. For example, many have heard that the gender wage gap is 79 cents on the dollar, but that only applies to white women. It’s 63 cents for black women, and for Latinas, it’s even lower at 54 cents. So, we have to look beyond gender and recognize that our policies must also address systemic racism and inequities in education, among other issues.
For anyone looking to help, we would love for you to join our campaign. Sign up for updates from me and my team at AlecRoss.com/join and then follow along on Twitter and Facebook to help amplify our message.
We know that you are a proud husband of a 20-year-long veteran schoolteacher. What can we be doing, as parents and as a society, to support our teachers and to make sure that our children receive the education they deserve?
I am only where I am today because of a woman that my friends called “Becky the barbarian” – my mother. She was a tireless advocate for my siblings and me. We didn’t want to let her down in anything we did, and she made sure that we had access to the best education possible. While I am eternally grateful for my mother, not every child has the same type of support system. The conviction that we have to widen the doors of opportunity for everyone is one of the main drivers of my run for governor in Maryland. We must improve our funding models for public education, provide computer science education to all students, and ensure that educational opportunity is equally distributed in all zip codes.
Lastly, as a former teacher and the husband and friend of many, many current educators, I believe we must elevate the teaching profession and make sure that those who are responsible for the instruction of our children are properly rewarded and trained. This is essential if we want our children to be properly prepared for the future. I’m running for governor because educational equity and innovation are of the utmost importance to me, and as parents and community members, we must be supporting leaders and policies that contribute to our society’s advancement, not its regression.
We know that you are the father of two sons and a daughter on the verge of entering their teenage years. As they approach this pivotal moment in their lives, what are you telling them about gender relations and about their role in society? What do you hope will be achieved by the time they hopefully have children of their own?
The last chapter of my book is titled “The most important job you will ever have,” and I argue that in this changing world, still, the most significant role we will have is in parenting our own children, or those that are like children to us. I am constantly thinking about how I can help my children compete and succeed in tomorrow’s world. When it comes to talking with them about gender and diversity in society, the lesson that Felicity and I teach and model is quite simple: as individuals and a society, we are infinitely better when we embrace diversity and help people of all genders to advance. Any other attitude will simply harm us all.
I hope and predict that by the (unimaginable) time they have children of their own, gender, racial, and sexual diversity in the halls of business and government will be the norm rather than the exception. I hope we will have held firm to our intolerance of any type of degradation or aggression towards people of any gender so that all members of our society can truly flourish and face the future.