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There’s a lot of focus right now on the tech industry and its big personalities. As well as what they’re doing to help (or possibly hurt) society. However, one tech founder is trying to be a smaller personality while still leaving a big footprint on issues like education, support for military families, equality in tech and journalism. Craig Newmark founded Craigslist Inc. in 1995 and the site basically looks the same now as it did then. Though it still bears his name, Newmark isn’t involved in the day-to-day at Craigslist. Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood spoke with Newmark about why he’s chosen philanthropy over being an entrepreneur in an effort to effect change. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Craig Newmark: I still do a certain amount, a very small amount, of customer service to stay in touch with what’s real. I have a minor involvement in corporate governance, but that’s it. I haven’t been involved in management for a very long time.
Molly Wood: And when you say that you’re involved in customer service does that mean that some lucky user occasionally gets an email from you? What does that look like?
Newmark: People find ways to contact me and I try to help, but usually I have to delegate that to people in the team who are smarter than me — which means all of them.
Wood: So, it’s occasionally involuntary customer service?
Newmark: I welcome it because the only way you stay in touch with what’s real in a company is customer service.
Wood: And I should also clarify that you still have an ownership stake in the company at some level?
Newmark: I do, but I spend all my time thinking about the philanthropic stuff I do.
Wood: I want to talk about that in a minute. I want to ask you though, there are many who think of Craigslist itself as a missed opportunity in some ways. Some of your cohorts from that period, like Yahoo, are gone, but others like Amazon, Microsoft, Google or eBay have reaped incredible value. Do you ever have thoughts about what could have been?
Newmark: Mostly I focus on things like, well Craigslist is a good place to help people put food on the table. It’s a good place to help find a table. And it’s a good place to find a roof under which to put the table. That means a certain amount of obsession and just straight ahead looking.
Wood: So, talk to us about the philanthropic work. You started Craig Newmark Philanthropies in 2015 with kind of a buffet, it seems like, of initiatives: the promotion of trustworthy journalism, evening the gender gap in technology and improving the electoral system. Is there a through-line do you think to the work that you’re trying to do?
Newmark: Well on a lot of years of reflection, you know doing customer service, I figure that America was based on some basics like fairness and opportunity and respect. So, what I figure I’ll do is support the people who fight for that. That particularly includes folks like teachers, journalists and also veterans and their families.
Wood: You had an interesting Twitter exchange recently where you were accused of wanting to become a mainstream publisher. And you responded and said, “maybe I’m kinda discreet, trying to do the best for everyone I can which often means side channels and quiet diplomacy.” We’re at a moment where a lot of tech founders are very loud, and I wonder if you feel like that’s one of the reasons that you left Craigslist or if you believe that doing this work this way is ultimately more effective.
Newmark: Well I had left Craigslist management because people around me helped me understand how much as a manager that I suck. Regarding people who get loud about different things, the world doesn’t need more loud people giving their opinions. Maybe what we need are people who work together quietly for common good. That often means working in back channels trying to encourage the people who want to do a better job for everyone. And you know, that seems to work.
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