Daniella Ballou-Aares, CEO & Co-Founder of the Leadership Now Project and a Senior Advisor at Dalberg, joins David to discuss how corporate CEOs and corporations are taking direct action to support voting rights and how they are looking for an innovative model of sustained and strategic engagement to fix democracy. Most importantly, Daniella identifies with precision and clarity why measuring big data is important in preserving democracy, how supporting voting rights and a sustained democracy serves the interests of corporations and their shareholders, and why private sector leadership in this area is important, not only for democratic principles but for the long term interests of shareholders and business success.

Listen to “Daniella Ballou-Aares: CEO of The Leadership Now Project | The Impact of Business on Democracy and Voting Rights – Episode 46” on Spreaker.

Episode Transcript

Dominique Shelton Leipzig:

Welcome everyone to Decrypted Unscripted. My name is Dominique Shelton Leipzig. This is the opportunity that my partner, David Biderman and I have to really unpack what’s going on in privacy and data security and data in general.

David Biderman:

We talk about privacy, data, information in general. We cover everything from national security to mom and pops getting ransomware attacks. It’s just great to spend some time with Dominique talking about these issues.

Dominique Shelton Leipzig:

Data is everything. If a company is not digital and they are not using technology and data, they’re really not a company in today’s world.

David Biderman:

Thank y’all for listening. Welcome to Decrypted Unscripted. This is a podcast with Dominique Shelton Leipzig and me, David Biderman, where we look at privacy, data and social justice, frankly. We want to look at social justice and we try to relate it to data as close as we can, but we’re very interested in that. And in that connection, we’re extremely fortunate to have Daniella Ballou-Aares. Did I pronounce that correct, Daniella?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

That’s great.

David Biderman:

Pretty close. Who is, was the founder and is currently the head of a project called Leadership Now. Which is basically a group of professionals who are also in businesses who are pursuing some key principles. I think most relevant now are voting rights, but there’s a variety of principles that are listed, that science matters, that the economy must work for all, and diversity is an asset.

David Biderman:

So with that all being said, Daniella, thanks. Thanks for coming. I know you really are… Sounds like what you’re doing is amazing. And I wanted to have you share that with our listeners. And what we usually do and what I’m going to do here is just tell us about yourself. I’ve got a way, you can tell us what street you grew up on, we go that deep. So what’d you grow up on, where’d you do, how you got to this particular place in your life, because it’s cool, everybody’s life is cool. So there’s funny things in everyone’s life.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Absolutely. Yeah, well, I’m happy to have been here and it’s a pleasure to be here and have this conversation. And I actually really love data and have tried throughout my career to deploy different ways of looking at problems and data in unexpected places. So I’m looking forward to touching on that. I’m a New Yorker. I grew up in New York. I grew up mostly in Brooklyn, I went to New York City public schools and I always did like Manhattan.

David Biderman:

I’m not trying to age you, but you must have grown up in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was like hip and cool.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

It was, yes, it was. Even a neighborhood that’s still not that hip and cool, even now. Just to give you a flavor.

David Biderman:

Well, what’s the neighborhood called though? If you put it on this podcast, people will start to move there.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Yeah, I’ll be rich. So part of the time there, I moved around a bit. I also did Chelsea for a time, but yeah, New York was a different place then. Thinking of New York these days because I just knew back from, my family and I spent the last nine years in Washington DC. And I find that I appreciate both places for different reasons and I have complaints about both places for different reasons. But look, I’ve been really fortunate that in my career I’ve been moved between different spheres.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

When we were talking before the podcast started, I studied engineering at Cornell Operations Research at what would be called today’s data science, I wasn’t calling it that yet. And I went on to work in strategy consulting, but I was able to do that around world in South Africa, in London and really became interested in the questions of how do… I saw all of this innovation happening on the analysis side, on the way companies were addressing problems in their supply chains or in their… And my big question was, we are solving all these issues in inequality, at that time the HIV crisis as where I was living in South Africa was just starting in the late 90s.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And I really wondered, why can’t we deploy the kind of analysis and assets and strategies that you see in the private sector to solve some of these bigger social challenges? And so my career has been a mix of doing that in different contexts, starting a firm, and now one of the largest global social impact strategy firms called Dalberg serving in the Obama administration under two secretaries of state and now starting Leadership Now project and trying to bring those pieces together, the policy side, what is it that we need to do in the world to solve problems? And then how do we take data and new business models to solve that.

David Biderman:

Yeah. Tell us a little bit about Dalberg if you don’t mind. I know it was important in the Obama administration and tell us how you came to found it and what its goals were and what you did.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Dalberg, I joined when we were seven people and sitting at Barnard office space in 2002. And really with this idea that we could bring, many of us came out of strategy firms, I’ve been at Bain, others at McKinsey, but we wanted to work on the bigger issues of the day, whether it was climate change, global health, et cetera. So we worked with anyone from the UN to a foundation, to nonprofits on solving those problems.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

I focused on the HIV crisis on how we could get drug price reductions, better distribution at a state and a country level and Africa, building institutions around responding to the crisis. And that was about nine years of building the organization and the team, building offices across Africa and Asia, Latin America. And that led me to… We didn’t do much work with governments at all, but we were asked to take a fresh look at some of the U.S. Government assistance and how things could be done differently.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And after that, I was asked to join the administration as an advisor to Secretary of State, at that time Clinton and later Kerry around, how do move from a more traditional foreign assistance orientation to one that looks at emerging markets and countries that are moving up the development spectrum really treats them as partners and looks at the full range of investment that the U.S. can do, whether that’s at the business side, whether that’s as the philanthropic or the pharmaceutical side. So I spent a lot of time negotiating the sustainable development goals, which were really interesting data driven way, looking about what is the world trying to achieve by the year 2030.

David Biderman:

And tell us how private sector businesses whose ultimate goal is to make money, how they get involved and why they get involved in those kinds of efforts.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

I think about two different elements of the role of business and business people in solving problems. And that applies to work I’m doing now focused on higher democracy. One piece of the picture is, as an individual who has built a certain set of skills and we’ve seen a huge amount of innovation in the last 20, 30 years around data, analytics, around business models, I think there is a lot of learnings from that that can be applied to social problems. So there’s a talent and new way of thinking piece to having business people or those with a business and training be part of the solution.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And frankly for people to go across sectors, to work in government, to work in policy, et cetera. So I don’t think that’s only business people, I think there’s the exchange of skills with whether it’s policy, law, engineering, we need a mix of skills rather than silos because the problems we solve are too great. So my piece of the picture is that I understand and I have built I feel like amazing networks over the years of people with a business background who want to contribute to changing the world and want to work with others in doing that, of all different backgrounds.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

The second piece is businesses themselves. What is the role that they play in society, how can they impact those problems? And I see that as twofold. There’s one which is a do no harm piece. This is they’re actors, they can do good things or bad things in the world depending on their business model and how they interact with systems. And so when you look at, for instance U.S. politics, the question is, the largest lobby organizations in the country are the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Round Table.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

They’re impacting the political system, we can argue sometimes for good or bad. So we want companies to think about the role that already they’re playing in the political system and make sure that’s supporting democracy. And then also think about the positive proactive role, make sure your current business is doing the right things for democracy, and then as you think about new ways to contribute, how can you, for instance, make it much more accessible for your employees and customers to vote, that’s the innovation side.

David Biderman:

Yeah. Well, let’s talk a little bit first about the skill side and the transfer of skills. Would you give me an example of systems or a concrete example of the skills transfer and how it was sort of operationalized on the policy side?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Sure. I think there’s a lot of spaces where that’s possible. So let’s take, for instance in… I’ll take the HIV crisis for a minute and then I’ll take an example in the U.S. Democracy context. So when the HIV crisis was really at a rapid growth rate in Africa, there was this recognition by academics, by advocates that the prices of HIV drugs were just untenable. It cost $10,000 a year, you were having millions of people in Africa who were getting the virus and it was just not going to be possible for people to be treated.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And so there was a very significant advocacy movement to push and seek reductions in drug prices to seek differential treatment of patents in different regions. And that was important that did push, but what you needed as well was the ability to both work with different pharma companies to say, okay, what’s the business model here? So you had the advocacy, but then how are we going to do the distribution? Once the prices were lower, what was the actual distribution structures, the costs, the funding needed, the entire business model for building a new distribution infrastructure in Africa.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And for that, you were going to need business skills and analytical skills plus policy skills to do it. And so we saw that all come together. It took more time than everyone would’ve wanted, it wasn’t always perfect. There were actors who weren’t happy and who was but in the end, I will say and this is a program that I had oversight of when I was in the U.S. government, that the U.S. government’s HIV program, which ultimately president Bush signed and is ongoing and billions of dollars each year has treated millions of people in Africa with HIV treatments.

David Biderman:

Oh yeah. You don’t hear, maybe it’s me, but you don’t hear as much about HIV as in the past. So I’m assuming-

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

This treatment is accessible and there was a lot of people who said it could be done. They were like, could we really get treatment to Africa, are people going to take it, et cetera and adherence rates in Africa were just as high if not higher than anywhere else. So I think that was an example where you saw those pieces together. When we look at in the current context in the U.S. And the current state of American democracy, and where there’s a lot of frustration and a feeling that the system is really not serving citizens or responsive to citizens.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

I think there are numerous ways. We saw, for instance, Snapchat recently did a voter registration drive. And in a month they had more people register than traditional efforts. I don’t have the data in front of you, but the traditional efforts had in years. Once it was communicated through that platform and they partnered with NGOs they weren’t doing the drive directly themselves, they were providing platforms to organizations who are supporting people who not only wanted to register, but run for office, et cetera.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And so we have just such an ability to use new platforms to get people engaged in the system, not to mention… And all of these things could be for good or for bad. Of course, we know that right now we’re facing very significant disinformation that is going through data platforms, there’s various kinds, social media platforms. And so the same time, the ability to turn that around is also going to come from innovations and data and social media, et cetera. All of these, all of the technology communication technology that we have now exists.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

It’s not going to go away, and of course there is regulation and other things you can do to provide some guardrails, but you’ll also are going to need the innovation. I was talking with someone the other day, who’s working on anti-authoritarian tech which I thought was a good term. And you’re going to need the technology innovation to respond to what’s very serious threats of disinformation in the ecosystem right now.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So I feel like there’s this need to invite all skill sets into renewing our democracy and politics. Ironically feels very exclusionary to many, even those who would… It only asks you to vote or write a check depending who you are and not much else, as opposed to really bring all of your skills and all of your assets and that works to be part of the solution. And I think that’s what we need.

David Biderman:

That brings us the second prong you identified as why businesses would be involved and which was their goals and the do no harm. And just curious about why do businesses get involved in say, voter registration. I can see why some platforms wouldn’t want disinformation obviously, but what prompts businesses to get involved and things that are really adjacent to what their ultimate goal is, and it would be the way to say it.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So I’d like to redefine the problem a little bit, because I actually think this is core to business, and how we think about at first is risks. So right now, we as the nation have pretty well described election risks, that we’re facing risks to the legitimacy of future elections, risks to the economy that come from that disruption, and you risk to our system of government, which unfortunately we know what it looks like when you have sliding of democratic norms and the ability for leaders to abuse the system.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And so our entry point for this problem and what we discuss with companies and what our members are very concerned about. Our members by the way are individuals, they’re not companies, they’re individual business leaders, is we need to really have a very broad coalition who is working to ensure that our elections are legitimate, it’s really concerning that a third of Americans don’t trust the results of the last election, that creates a lot of discord and risk of even instability and violence.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So we think that’s a core risk issue for companies. It’s not a side issue that’s discretionary to understand, to know about. We see ESG investors who are increasingly concerned about it, we hear about it from international investors, from international companies all the time are raising it with American businesses. So I think that’s one piece. I think the second side is issues like voting and participation.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Companies are certainly hearing from employees and from their customers that this is important to them. It’s in a company’s interest, I think to make sure that their employees and communities and customers can participate in the system, can have faith in the system. So I think that’s another area where, of course, different companies that have different capabilities to bring to the table on that. If you’re a small company helping your employees be informed on when they can vote and where, and all those things is useful.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

If you’re a big company that has big reach, I mentioned Snapchat earlier, then there’s a whole set of other things you can do. And there’s 1200 companies now that have joined something called the Civic Alliance, which basically gives companies a playbook to inform their employees and customers about voting. And that’s many branded companies that are doing that as well. So I think some of this is not discretionary and some of it is.

David Biderman:

Wow, okay. That’s the first time, I’m not kidding, the first time that someone has articulated for me the reason why companies ought to be involved in these efforts. It is risk and that’s a great way to think about it. And it’s funny you should say that international companies are particularly concerned. Is that true?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Well, I would say U.S. companies when they’re interacting internationally, it’s getting raised with them. It’s getting raised by international investors. It’s getting raised by companies and business leaders in other countries that are their partners. So they’re saying, what’s going on in the U.S.? It seems risky now. We used to know the U.S. was a reliable democracy and now it seems like there’s a lot of discord and problems and people don’t even trust in elections. People are watching.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

The world watches the U.S. for good or for bad, and they’re concerned. Other democracies are concerned about what they’re seeing and we’ve slid in the, if you look at international indices of democracy, like the EIU and Freedom House and others, I mean, we’re sliding in all of them we’re moving down from a full democracy to a flawed democracy. And you look at academics, the number of whether it’s how democracies die and there’s Ziblatt and Snyder out of Yale.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And there’s many that are looking at basically, what does the data tell you about warning signs for a democracy, warning signs that there could be failure in the system. And unfortunately we have many of them. There’s this lack of a shared fact base, there’s erosion of, the polling says, especially millennials and gen Z have very little faith in our system and institutions, we have extremes on both sides. So there’s a lot of risk factors. Right now, the positive story is that if you look at history where business stands on democracy could have a very significant influence on outcomes.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So in South Africa, during apartheid, ultimately business stood on the side of moving to a multiracial democracy. I wouldn’t say they were always there in the street, but they were really important in pushing the apartheid government as was the financial communities, as they had sanctions and others were started to cut off their ability to access capital. So business was really a part of the reforming of the nation that came next. You know, the flip side is, I think you would hear, we’ve heard from business leaders in Turkey that they waited far too long to say that the country was going in the wrong direction.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

There’s a lot of concern to business leaders in Brazil right now about backsliding there. And if you look at World War II and Nazi Germany, business did not stay on the side of democracy fully. And we obviously know where that went. So I think if we acknowledge that business is collectively powerful politically and are both because of their presence in Washington and lobbying, but also because of being employers and influencers, I think the challenge is business often wants to be neutral.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

They want to be neutral, they don’t want to be seen as partisan, et cetera. And I think our argument is that democracy shouldn’t be partisan. Standing on the side of democracy, frankly, standing on the side of voting rights, that shouldn’t be partisan. And if it’s being made partisan, if stances is that support, for instance, ensuring election and administrators aren’t threatened in their state, if that’s being made partisan, you can’t accept that position.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

We have a group of members in Wisconsin who are leading an effort in that state, a group of Wisconsin Businesses Leaders for Democracy. You just wrote letters to every election administrator in the state, thanking them for their service, saying that business is supportive of nonpartisan election administration and their ability to do that without feeling at risk at a personal level.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Our members and our networks have been routinely since the 2020 election, coming out publicly in support of the legitimacy of the election, importance of acknowledging the results and the importance of making sure the core of our system is functional. And I don’t want to see any business leaders or companies who feel scared to do that. And unfortunately we see that some political leaders actually really try to push back on companies standing out on these issues, which I think is really problematic.

David Biderman:

Oh, that’s really interesting. Well, I’m just curious. Can you just give me an example of the pushback? Because I remember when people, what they move is the World Series, tell me about what happens when something happens like that.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Well, there’s a couple of different kinds of pushback, but I mean what you saw in Georgia, when companies stepped out like Delta and the legislature starts to threaten unfavorable tax policy or regulation. We’ve seen that in Texas, as well as companies stepped out that the legislature was willing to say, if you’re pushing back onto this in these issues, you’re going to feel it. Look, I think that kind of willingness of political leaders to suggest retribution for businesses for exercising their free speech, I would suggest, is really worrying and it is another indicator of an unhealthy democracy.

David Biderman:

Oh yeah, interesting. I just have to correct myself. It was not the World Series that was moved, it was all star game that was moved. And that’s where they took some heat. And a couple other things just related to that. Have you seen those Ray Dalio, have you seen the books that he’s been writing and how he’s predicting this very ominous crisis and split? I mean, is that mainstream or how do you view that? I’m just curious because he’s obviously in business big time, that’s his job is to invest money. But he’s got these observations and historical correlations and he goes to enormous efforts to look at these things and his outlook is not good. So I’m just curious, what are your thoughts about that?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Part of what we’re dealing with is the confluence of a dramatically changing economy instead of institutions that were innovative when they were formed, but no longer are. And a set of citizens who are rightfully frustrated then in a dramatically changing world where there’s a whole set of people who are struggling to adjust to that don’t have institutions that could do anything for them. So our best hope is that we come out of this with the innovation renewal. I’d like to think we’re already close enough to crisis that we should be working to really dramatically change the way that we’re doing things so that we come out of this on the other side.

David Biderman:

And in that connection, are you thinking principally of voting rights or are you thinking about other things also?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Oh, certainly other things. I think the question is I like to be careful not to equate democracy and voting rights. Voting rights is an element of democracy, but a functional democracy is the result of a whole set of institutions where we the people are able to choose our leaders. And those leaders addressed are responsive to you, our needs and demands. And behind that sits a whole set of institutions in Washington that should be designed to respond to the needs of the public. There’s a whole set of institutions in every state and then local councils.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And so you can’t change everything at once, but I think our thesis is you need to work in tandem with improving the rules of the game, addressing things like voting rights and gerrymandering and structure of campaign finance with supporting the leaders who are willing to drive that transformation. We don’t have time for my opinion to wait for a whole set of structural fixes to change the incentives, to get new people in.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

There’s like a lot, but we need to do them in tandem and who are the kinds of leaders that are going to see us out of this, have that multifaceted set of experiences and perspectives everywhere from your local town council to Congress, to the presidency, we’re going to need a drive towards more innovation. And then at the same time, make sure the core, the system, voting rights, the design of districts is not creating all the wrong incentives for who participates.

David Biderman:

That’s interesting. You tie it to innovation and it really is. So I’m going to jump ahead a little bit. Well, first I’m going to jump back. So you were talking about businesses partnering with government to take care of the HIV problem. Our prior president, needless to say, the president was controversial. Project Warp Speed, was that a good example of that kind of combination, not withstanding that was basically undertaken under with a president who doesn’t otherwise stand for those kinds of partnerships and things?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Look, I haven’t looked in detail at the structure of the partnership. We obviously got vaccines quickly. So from an outcome perspective, I don’t know if you can attribute it exclusively to that, the design and setup of project Warp Speed, but we certainly did produce vaccines that are now saving all of our lives. So I think that ultimately you needed business in that partnership obviously to get us to a place where you could get vaccines quickly.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So perhaps it was the design of that, perhaps it was the design of that partnership. I can’t say for sure, but I do think there is always a tension between different sectors of society, between business and government, between labor, all of those things exist and need to be worked through over time. I don’t think that should prevent us from recognizing that this country has crazy assets. We have extraordinary assets. We have extraordinary capabilities.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

We have extraordinary ability to solve problems and innovate and bring different types of ideas and actors to the table. And it’s like we’re not using that. We’re not using that to solve the problem of our democracy right now. We’re not using that in climate change, do you see some of that? Where you do see this, you see quite a bit of it actually. There’s a lot of innovation happening on the technology side. You see businesses acting sometimes in really good ways.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Other times they’re being unhelpful, and lobbying and Washington against good climate legislation which I wrote about in my business review recently. But this is the duality of where we are. We need that innovation, we need that forward leading, we can’t do it without all those capabilities that sit within the private sector in the U.S. But you also need to recognize where that influence is being deployed unhelpfully and work to solve those problems together.

David Biderman:

And you say a lot of that innovation is in the private sector that needs to be, is that a fair statement, that needs to be-

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Yeah, there’s definitely innovation that happens in the public sector or in nonprofits, I’ve been in all of those realms. It’s not that there’s no innovation there, but the reality is most people work in companies of some sort, smaller, large. Just like the bulk of people and the bulk of analytics, innovation, new business models, all of those things has happened in spades over the last 30 years in companies.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And so we can either be concerned that not all of that innovation has been good, which is certainly true, and so not use it, not use that. Or you can say, look, these are a whole set of capabilities that should be deployed. I was always struck by graduating as an engineer. I had so many job opportunities coming out of college that were interested in using these analytical skills to solve problems, et cetera.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

But in the political space, no one would’ve known what to do with that, because the skills that were valued would be like writing the memo. Nothing wrong with writing a good memo, words over time how to write good memos, but the power of all those other skills were deeply underutilized. So you see them used more in government now for sure as well, but I don’t think you can just kind of… For sure they don’t sit sufficiently within our public institutions to alone solve those problems.

David Biderman:

Okay. And then let’s talk about Leadership Now project. Just tell us the whole story, why you decided to do it. I’ve looked at the members and it’s amazing, but I’ll let you talk.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Well, Leadership Now project is a membership organization of business and thought leaders committed to renewing American democracy. Our members are across the country and our organization has chapters in multiple cities. We’re in seven cities now with chapters, but also a member base, we have members in more than 20 states. And the main focus of the organization is to make sure we have a well-informed activated group of business professionals who are ready to stand up for democracy and innovate for it to service through the next 200 years of our country.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And those are heady goals in a certain way. And I spoke earlier about how, when you look historically business being on the side of democracy is really important when democracy’s threatened. So that definitely is some of the genesis, but then the reality of the organization practically is we bring a group of people together. We analyze this problem together. We work with academics to understand what’s really going on at a national level, a state level, where are the biggest problems?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And then who could we with either by partnering with an organization, investing in organization, working with political leaders to solve that problem. So that could mean advocating for federal legislation on voting and elections. It could mean supporting voter participation in a particular state, or it could mean our members being visible in the business press on what election risk is and what it means and why that’s a core systemic risk to your business.

David Biderman:

And I’ll just ask, how did you recruit your members? I mean, the key members, those that appear on the website, how did you recruit them?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So the origin of the organization is I joined in 2017 with a group of other Harvard business school classmates who were concerned with the state of affairs. I had been building a company and then in government. So I had been close to what was happening in Washington, but what I found was many of my peers, some who’d been politically involved, some who weren’t were very concerned with the state of affairs. And that wasn’t only Trump being president, but it was recognizing that we had a system that wasn’t working.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And so our goal was to engage in the system in a way that was smarter. We wanted to understand what was the core problem we were facing in our democracy, not just show up and write a check to a candidate or show up at the Women’s March where many of us met together to plan this out. And we took some time to go, we went back… At the beginning, we worked with Harvard academics, particularly how we worked with academics across country.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

But we really went to those who’d been studying the state of our democracy for a long time, whether it was Larry Lessig or recent Mike Porter had done work of this at the business school, David Gergen, others. And we really said, what is your assessment? Where are the problems? What are the core underpinnings of this? And we started to build a group of members from our networks who were worried about the same things, and that turned out not to only be Democrats, for instance.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

It turned out to not only be people in one part of the country and so we came down quite early in 2018 that voting, redistricting, campaign finance and new talent in politics were the themes. And we set off since then to both educate our members and our networks as they’ve grown, provide real opportunities to invest time and money against those problems. And then increasingly since 2020 as an organization, we’ve been a public voice for business representing a forward leading business community who’s concerned with the state of democracy.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

We led statements in 2020 around that in the lead up to the election with business leaders like Reid Hoffman and Seth Klarman and others. We’ve done statements around, we just did a kind of the recognition of the anniversary of January 6th. So we have a constant stream of our members who are making the case for democracy. We’ve done amicus briefs to the Supreme Court on the importance of voting rights. We’re not only the actions of our individual members, although those are critical and can havemore impact. It could be the most impactful things, but we also are increasingly at the table as a business group that’s collectively standing up.

David Biderman:

And when you say the individuals can have the most effect, I mean, could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Sure. So one of our members, for instance, in Texas, who’s a senior executive at a large company was really a critical voice on voting rights in the state when the state laws came, and then also was very influential in the industry associations in the state. And so we armed her to be that voice with the data and the analysis, and also had other partners from the voting rights world who really could help navigate what was really going on with the legislation, et cetera.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Similarly in Wisconsin, we see that where the business leaders in that state are now visibly, as I mentioned, supporting election administrators. That’s them driving that. We’re providing the analysis and the understanding and guidance on what could be done, but then many of our members are taking that forward. So we do some things directly ourselves, but we do a lot to arm our members to be leaders in their own spheres as well.

David Biderman:

The leaders that you talked about or your individual members, when they take those kinds of actions, do they take those in their role as an executive of the company, or do they take those actions as a role of a concerned citizen?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

A mix, it’s a mix. So we’ve seen a lot of our members actively, they’re senior executives in their companies, they’ve actively been part of reviewing corporate pack contributions, for instance. And are able to have that conversation internally about what those contributions mean and what the impact on democracy might be. So I think there’s a big recognition that civic education in this country is weak.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And I think our members and myself included have really seen the need to be well educated on the system, on what’s happening, to have the data behind the information so that they can be better leaders. And I would argue that any leader of any company in this country should really understand our democracy and really understand how their organization is participating in it, and that’s a baseline.

David Biderman:

Wow. All right, we’re going to quote that. Those two sentences are going to be the quote on there. But seriously for two things. One is if you were to rate the state of our democracy on a one through 10 level, well, where would you rate it and then why?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

I’m assuming 10 is the best?

David Biderman:

Yeah. Good question.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

I give it a 5.

David Biderman:

Oh, you’re kidding. Wow, that bad, huh?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

I think 5 is a space that recognizes the challenges, but isn’t hopeless.

David Biderman:

But you think basically the principles of democracy are such in the United States right now that really, you say they’re 50/50. I mean, is that fair?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Well, I’m not sure that I equate the 5 to like a 50/50 chance that we turn into an autocracy in the next few years. What I equated to is the combination of deliberate efforts to undermine institutions. And I think it’s not inaccurate to say deliberate, not just benign lack of attention. So we have a lot of lack of attention, that’s a problem. So we have this just lack of engagement, institutions just becoming out of date and ineffective, people not even knowing who their representatives are, all of those things.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

That’s very significant. Very few Americans know really who represents them, they can maybe name the president. There’s just huge, huge gap in just even knowing the system and how it works. And then what you’re seeing right now is a very deliberate effort to write laws that allow for partisan interference in elections, and to create litmus tests in elections that suggest that only those who are willing to say our elections are illegitimate are going to gain support in their primaries, for instance.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So I think those are big warning signs that are deliberate undermining of democracy. And then I think there’s also, it fairly pronounced just lack of faith in the system. So there’s the disengagement, but when you look at the data, I mean, in the 60s, I think 60% or 70% of Americans trusted government most of all, this whole, and that’s going down to 25%. So you have this distrust in government numbers, pew tracks are really dramatic.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

But what’s even more worrying is when you dig into millennials and gen z, there’s a real detachment from the system, a lack of sense that democracy is a system that matters or that serves them, et cetera, not with necessarily an alternative, but that that data is really worrying about just faith in the underpinnings of the system and some of that is lack of civic education and awareness, et cetera and some of it is seeing a lack of results.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So we have a big… I give it a 5 because we have a massive collective consciousness problem and we also have a structural problem. But all of that said, I think if you can harness the assets, like I said, the assets of this country, you can solve that, but you have to give a sense of hope. There’s a lot of lack of hope right now in the polling that suggests people feel like things aren’t going well and not only in democracy, but in the inequality of the economy and all of those things.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So we have to turn a big corner in terms of a sense that we can solve problems together again, but I’m not without hope. I see a level of energy and activity in this space that certainly I didn’t see when we started. In 2017, there was just a lot of people worrying about the election and those kinds of things but now I see a formation of activities towards solutions, that is encouraging and we just have to move quickly.

David Biderman:

That’s cool. Well, that’s good news. So in that regard, in the business involvement, when you mentioned the civic alliance, which is businesses align, and maybe you could describe that and how it interacts with what you do. That’s for question number one. And then question number two is, you know that letter that Ken Frazier wrote about fair elections, what have been the consequences of that? Has that had an impact and are these individual executives concerned about these things and doing things about these things?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So the first on civic alliance, what civic alliance has done is provided a set of tools to companies to help them offer time off for voting, support civic engagement. So they offer basically a toolkit and they help companies both internally and externally demonstrate their commitment to that. So they play a very different role than we play, but a very complimentary one, which is what’s the toolkit that your company needs to engage in voting time off, time off for poll working, those types of things. On the second question about Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier’s letter…

David Biderman:

Former CEO of American Express and former CEO of Pfizer, right?

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Exactly. At that time current, but now former CEO of Pfizer, Ken Frazier. So they led an effort after seeing what was happening in Georgia on voting rights. They led an effort to have CEOs across the country of the biggest companies sign on to make clear that voting rights was something that they supported and was the interest of American business. We were part of hosting a group of CEOs last April where Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier launched that letter.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And we saw, it was actually a meeting we pulled together with the Yale School of Management and in a very short order, we and Jeff Sonnenfeld and others who were involved in organizing were able to pull together CEOs onto this Zoom call, because they were really concerned about what was happening in Georgia and Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier were part of that group and were starting to galvanize, or had already galvanized CEOs and subsequently put out this letter that showed that commitment.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And I think what that showed was CEOs were concerned that democracy could be threatened. They were concerned about voting rights because it was a basic right and core pillar and important for their employees and their communities. What happened subsequently was there was a lot of pushback around companies and CEOs participating in suggestion that this was either not a real issue or that these were woke CEOs playing in the lane that wasn’t appropriate.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And this has continued. This, frankly, lack of clarity around the issue and what we see, there’s a lot of suggestion that voting rights isn’t really an issue or that the concerns were misplaced or that this is not the place for CEOs to weigh in. And I think what our counter to that has been, and the executives that we work with is what I talked about earlier, which is these were not just isolated bills. They were part of an effort to pass a suite of legislation across states across the country that restricted voting, allowed for partisan interference in elections and reinforce the narrative that the 2020 election was stolen.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So any particular bill may or may not be extremely restrictive. And part of the reason why some of the bills like in Georgia and Texas were restrictive, but not as bad as they could have been is there was very intensive negotiations, including weighing in by business to make them less bad. And the intention would’ve been to make them worse, but the overarching reason that these bills have been pursued is to reinforce the electorate who believes the election was stolen, that there was a response needed to an unfair election.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

And that’s what’s almost most damaging about the whole thing is that all of these laws are just reinforcing risk and are creating a system that people don’t have faith in. And for that, we see a lot of concern from the business community. The idea that Americans are no longer going to believe in elections creates the risk of violence, uncertainty that could hugely impact their businesses and the markets and their lives.

David Biderman:

That’s why it’s in the shareholders’ interest for those CEOs to take those positions. Is that fair? Is that what you’re [inaudible 00:49:51]

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Certainly, that’s what we’d argue, that look, none of us are great at handling risk. I mean, you are a lawyer, so you’re probably better than I am. But often every financial crisis will tell us that we’re not good at predicting future risks. There are maybe a small group of people are typically, generally are not good at predicting risk. And what I would argue is we have the opportunity now to reduce and mitigate future risks. There are things we can do now that will make it less likely that we have an election crisis, a legitimacy crisis, violence, market crashes, et cetera. I hope that in 2024, everyone says, oh, you guys are overestimating the risk because that means we prevented it, right?

David Biderman:

Yeah, alright.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

So look, I really don’t like to be alarmist in any ways. And I think, as we’ve been doing this analysis and seeing the risk factors, I think we’ve always been quite measured in how we look at what the factors are that are creating risk. But look, Ray Dalio is going out there saying pretty soon we’ll have a civil war. I don’t see him as someone who bases his opinions based on just his latest fancy. I mean, there is real analysis that suggests that could happen. So whether you think that’s a 5% risk or a 40% risk, in either case it would be well worth doing some things now to prevent it.

David Biderman:

All right, on that note, we are going to conclude the podcast, but I really want to thank you Daniella for spending this time with us and for the work that you’ve been doing. It’s amazing that you took that skillset that you had, that you got at Harvard as an MBA and you got at Cornell and ultimately translated into something that addresses these issues. So thank you for being a leader in this area and thank you for joining us.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation and look forward to all of us working towards better democracy in the years ahead.

David Biderman:

Oh yeah. Well I tell you, you really hammered home to me why it was important. And I wrote it down, every executive of every major company should care about democracy. You really hammer that home because I didn’t think about the effect of those kinds of activities and that risk it has on commercial enterprise. So you opened my eyes and I appreciate it.

Daniella Ballou-Aares:

Oh, thank you, David. One person at a time.

David Biderman:

Yeah, that’s right.

Dominique Shelton Leipzig:

Thank you for listening to Decrypted Unscripted, a podcast by David Biderman and Dominique Shelton Leipzig.

David Biderman:

If you’re enjoying the show, please rate, review and subscribe on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen

Dominique Shelton Leipzig:

To learn about the podcast, you can also go to our website.

Print:
Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
Photo of David T. Biderman David T. Biderman

David Biderman, a partner in Perkins Coie’s San Francisco and Los Angeles offices, focuses his practice on mass tort litigation and consumer class actions. He heads the firm’s Mass Tort and Consumer Litigation group. He has represented a wide variety of companies in…

David Biderman, a partner in Perkins Coie’s San Francisco and Los Angeles offices, focuses his practice on mass tort litigation and consumer class actions. He heads the firm’s Mass Tort and Consumer Litigation group. He has represented a wide variety of companies in state and federal courts in California for 30 years.

On consumer class actions, David represents packaged food companies, coffee companies, dairy companies, footwear companies and others whose nutritional or health claims have been challenged. He also has represented search engines and other online companies. He has a record of favorable results for clients. He successfully tried a major consumer fraud class action on behalf of one of the world’s major search engines in a case involving online gambling advertisements. For that same client, he negotiated a favorable settlement of a class action challenging its online advertising pricing. He represented a major coffee retailer in defeating a class action on standing grounds. He also has litigated pre-emption defenses arising out of food labeling and obtained a dismissal for a client whose nutritional statements were challenged.

For fifteen years, David managed the firm’s full-service product liability team responsible for defending over 1,000 toxic tort cases pending in Los Angeles and Northern California state courts. These cases entailed ongoing trial activity at various levels for several trials set each month. The highly experienced and well-coordinated team has handled thousands of asbestos toxic tort cases for a variety of clients, including FORTUNE 500 companies from such industries as consumer products, aerospace manufacturing, household goods, dry cleaning and industries that generate electromagnetic fields, such as electric utilities and operators of wireless communications systems.