Update from the Silicon Valley Organization Board of Directors

December 9, 2020

We are deeply humbled and saddened by the recent San Jose City Council District 6 ads run by our Political Action Committee (PAC). The ads were racist in nature and showed a serious lack of sensitivity towards our community. We take full responsibility for the ads - they never should have been developed and there is no excuse for stoking fear and division in our community.  We also recognize the recent ads were not isolated incidents and there has been a pattern of insensitivity in PAC ads.  On behalf of the SVO, we sincerely apologize to the entire community and our members who represent a broad and diverse segment of our community. The SVO and its board take full responsibility for the posted image and do not blame the consultant or anyone else. The blame rests solely on us.

Over the last few weeks, we have worked to address internal shortcomings that allowed the creation of such ads. Today, we are sharing things we have learned from the investigation conducted by attorney Jen Cornell of CDF Labor Law, LLP. The investigation revealed that no single individual was responsible for the ads.  The PAC operated largely independently with little oversight and direction from the SVO Board and executive management. As such, their activities were operating outside of clearly defined SVO policies and procedures. Staff were not adequately trained on and did not adhere to SVO policies and procedures and were not provided effective project oversight.

Several immediate actions have been taken to correct these issues, including:  

  • First, we dissolved the PAC on November 2, 2020, and immediately ceased all activities.  We are no longer engaged with the Storefront Political Media consultancy firm who was integral in creating the PAC campaign ads and imagery.  
  • We accepted the resignation of SVO President & CEO Matt Mahood on October 29, 2020.  This will allow SVO to rebuild its internal workplace and better execute our mission and work going forward.  
  • To steer us forward over the next 3-6 months, we have installed Robert Linscheid as Interim President & CEO effective immediately. Robert brings a wealth of advocacy, community engagement and strategic planning experience to the role.  He has held numerous high-profile positions in business and education, including as the President & CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.  Click here to view his profile, https://www.linkedin.com/in/boblinscheid/
  • Starting in mid-December, the Board will hold a series of Listening Sessions with members of the nonprofit and business community to hear perspectives and suggestions on how SVO can improve its sensitivity and better engage with the broader community.
  • We are committed to ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion play an integral role in SVO culture going forward. We have already integrated DEI in our 2021 work plan and strategic framework. DEI training for all SVO staff will also be a strategic focus of early 2021.  

These immediate actions are critical, but we recognize that there will be much more work to do in the coming months. We will conduct an internal review of SVO's values, mission, and work to ensure our organization reflects the values of our members and are respectful of the broader community. We will work to broaden the diversity of our Board of Directors Executive Committee to expand the perspectives and experiences represented on our leadership team.

Finally, we will work to ensure our daily Chamber, Foundation and SV Forum activities reach out to and engage more members of our diverse community, including ethnic Chambers, minority owned businesses, small businesses, and nonprofits.

For 133 years, the SVO has been driven by a fundamental belief that when business succeeds, our entire community thrives.  While this has been a difficult time for SVO and the community, we ask for your ongoing patience and support as we address our shortcomings and build a stronger organization. We have been touched by many people and members who have affirmed the value we bring to the community, support our mission, and share our desire to see SVO succeed.  We have a great opportunity to help prepare the business community to foster respect, understanding, and cooperation in an increasingly complex, diverse, and global society.  Our activities will be mindful of and sensitive to all our communities with the goal of encouraging cooperation and unity in Silicon Valley. We are dedicated to restoring our community’s trust and look forward to building our next chapter together.

To view what SVO has learned from the investigation, see below.

INFORMATION LEARNED BY SVO FROM INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION

December 9, 2020

On October 26, 2020, a certain and overtly racist image came to be published on the SVO website.  The image was publicly viewable on the SVO website landing page from a Facebook ad that stated "Do You Want to Sign Up For This" referring to the defund police movement.  The ad and landing page were part of the SVO PAC activities related to the approaching election.

On October 27, 2020, the then CEO of the SVO ordered that the image be taken down, and it was.

On October 28, 2020, attorney Jen Cornell of CDF Labor Law, LLP was engaged by the SVO Board in order to conduct an independent investigation into how the racist image came to be published on the SVO website, and to provide factual findings and legal advice regarding same.  The SVO has had no prior involvement with Ms. Cornell or her firm, which was selected for their expertise.  

The independent investigator was given unfettered access to documents, electronic data (emails and social media analytics), current and former employees of the SVO (including the former CEO), outside consultants and independent contractors, and board members of her choosing.  That investigation has now been concluded.  Given the sensitive nature of the investigation, the privacy rights of individuals involved in the investigated activities, and in order to preserve the Attorney Client privilege, the original Independent Investigation Report must remain confidential.  Here, however, we provide a summary of what we have learned without risking invasion of privacy, disclosure of confidential information, and waiver of attorney client privilege.

WHAT WE AS A BOARD HAVE LEARNED

The SVO's Employee Handbook contains a legally compliant harassment and conduct policy and every SVO employee witness confirmed that they had read and signed the Handbook.    

The SVO also has a Procedures Guide that contains policy and procedures relating to communications – including publications and marketing collateral.  It provides that the Communications Department of the SVO must approve all publications and marketing collateral.

Not all SVO Employee witnesses were aware of the SVO Procedures Guide.  Those who were aware of the Procedural Guide did not believe it applied to the work of the PAC.

The CEO of SVO had made diversity and inclusion training programing for all SVO staff a strategic priority for 2021.

The SVO PAC, which has now been disbanded, was a standing committee of the SVO, that operated under a separate set of "by-laws," and whose purpose had been to allow the SVO to become involved in state and local candidate and ballot measure elections.  Any member of the SVO in good standing was eligible to join the PAC.  SVO staff performed the administrative duties for the PAC.

The PAC had routinely engaged political consultants to assist in the production, printing and dissemination of political material.  

In August 2020, the PAC engaged a political consultant with whom the SVO had no prior experience.  

The consultant created political content included in mailers – ads that were mailed to voters either in support/opposition of a candidate or a policy position – and web ads that reached potential voters either as Facebook ads, banner ads, or narrative ads.

In or around May 2020, the SVO was forced to reduce its staff as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, related County Emergency Orders, and declining membership revenue.  The reduction in staff included those involved in Communications and Public Policy. This left the remaining staff to take on larger scopes of work.

Leading up to the election the PAC met weekly along with SVO Staff to, among other things, review content of mailers.  The PAC did not separately review digital ads, including landing page content, in large part because such content typically mirrored approved mailers.

An SVO employee posted the image on the SVO website as a landing page.

The SVO employee who posted the image believed that political content was to be posted on the website at the direction of the political consultant.  

The political consultant requested that the SVO employee source an image of a defund the police demonstration or a riot scene.

The image was sourced from a free source website.

The image in question was posted on the SVO website by the SVO employee after that employee believed the image had been approved by the political consultant.

The consultant denies approving the image.

No one else at the SVO appears to have reviewed or approved the image before it was published on the SVO website.

The mailer that was a precursor to the Landing Page image contained an image of peaceful protestors with 'defund police" and "abolish police" signs.  This image was approved by the subset of the PAC for publication through a mailer.  This image is very different from the image at issue.  

All witnesses agree that the image posted with language tying it to the Defund the Police movement, is racially offensive.

The image was viewable as a landing page for approximately 26 hours.  It appears to have been accessed 149 times by 66 unique users.  Of the 66 users, 43 were direct traffic – meaning they typed the URL or the name of the Landing Page directly into the browser, suggesting they were alerted to the existence of the page and sought it out.

The former CEO of the SVO acted promptly to remove the image from the SVO website once he became aware of it.  He became aware of the image from a third party SVO member.

The SVO employee who posted the image did not receive diversity and inclusion training or implicit bias training, particularly as it pertains to communications such as those that were the subject to the investigation.

CONCLUSION AND ACTION ITEMS

It is not possible to identify a single actor or action that allowed the Landing Page, in particular to be published.  Instead, this incident appears to have been the result of a combination of factors, including a lack of communication and a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, compounded by a reduced staff navigating fast paced political campaigns.  It also appears to be due in some part to a lack of diversity and inclusion training for those with responsibility to make sure images like the one at issue do not get published.  We know these circumstances do not excuse what happened.  

As a result of this incident, the Board has tried to act promptly and responsibly.  At the top, the SVO is undergoing a change in leadership with the resignation of the CEO.  A nationwide search is underway to find a suitable replacement.

In the meantime, at an administrative and management level, the Board has determined that there have been violations of SVO policies and procedures.  As such, the Board has taken personnel action.  In addition, process and procedures have been reviewed to ensure that proper training, oversight, and supervision is provided to all SVO employees so that, among other things, all items published by the SVO and on the SVO website are reviewed by multiple people before they are published.  

More importantly, plans are in place to provide all SVO staff with continuing training on implicit bias, and diversity and inclusion principles.

In addition, the Board immediately suspended the activities of the PAC, and has now dissolved the PAC.  The relationship with the political consultant has also been terminated.

While we recognize that these actions may not be enough for some, the independent investigation has provided the context in which the incident occurred. The investigation provides a framework for which the SVO Board of Directors can re-establish governance and organizational values representative of our members and respectful of the community we serve. As a board we pledge to ensure an incident like this never happens again.


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