Can technology unite a divided nation?

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How entrepreneurs and investors can prevent the seemingly inevitable path of a more broken America

America’s rage and divisiveness is scary.  Red vs. Blue, 99% vs. 1%, coastal vs. fly-over. Despite being in the midst of the longest economic expansion period in U.S. history, divisions run deep and our country struggles to find common ground in the midst of immense national dissatisfaction. This runs contrary to economic indicators showing unemployment levels at record lows and strong markets with IPOs minting  billionaires. However, the true measure of a country’s prosperity has always been the health of the middle class. Unfortunately, that middle class is disappearing due to economic policies largely driven by political interest groups. I believe we should turn to technology as a tool to promote middle class prosperity, and in the process, reduce partisan rhetoric.

We feel the ratcheting national anxiety levels in the 2020 election dialog alongside predictions by many economists of a looming recession. But a key factor that pundits fail to acknowledge is that the decline of the American middle class is happening largely because we are failing miserably in our efforts to up-level the antiquated industries employing huge swaths of the middle class — like farming and manufacturing. As international competition and unpredictable trade policies mount, workers in these verticals see increasingly dire prospects. When faced with uncertainty around future paychecks, are we really surprised by the high levels of “deep boiling anger” and pessimism penetrating our country?

So much of the country envies the prosperity of Silicon Valley, but also resents its “know-it-all” attitude. That’s because the tech community failed to foster the view of being relatable or empathetic to middle-class America.  Unfortunately, this stigma is slowing the implementation of important technologies that could drive efficiency and create sustainable, stable economics for the small and medium-sized businesses that make up America’s backbone.

After all, the IT sector in the US accounts for just 5% of the economy.  Many in the technology and financial worlds marginalize the remaining 95% — where the technological revolution has been slower to take hold. Despite older sectors being some of the most ripe for use of emerging technologies like data analytics and software platforms, they are held back by fear and resentment. As was noted in The Atlantic, “Humans often converge around massive technological shifts—around any change, really—with a flurry of anxieties.” This attitude only will change if technology is a benefit to everyone promoting equality, democratization, and a better quality of life.

To leverage technology and bring prosperity back to the unforgotten 95%, two things need to happen:

  • We must become intentional about bringing technology to these industries that have traditionally been void of tech in a humble manner consistent with and respectful of how that industry traditionally conducts business.
  • We must help established players in these industries meet us halfway in viewing technology not as a threat, but as a tool to improve efficiency and create higher value jobs.

Our current generation of entrepreneurs and VCs can be defined as energetic, imperious, idealistic, and socially conscious. Collaborative and respectful are not adjectives we often hear. We need to change that. If we care about bringing America together, the technology community needs to demonstrate willingness to learn and earn the trust of the small family cattle rancher in Nebraska, and the warehouse operator in Ohio. Let’s also acknowledge that a data scientist or a coder working in oil and gas is rudderless without domain expertise and understanding around what problem to solve.

Take for example Performance Livestock Analytics in Ames, Iowa. While not birthed in a technology epicenter like Palo Alto, this 35-person software company is developing a platform to drive better economics for cattle farmers. Their customers previously relied on pen-and-paper to operate their 10,000+ head feedlots at thin (and sometimes negative) margins. The benefits of their technology span economic and social spheres.

First, feedlots that were previously struggling to get by now are advised on streamlining operations.

Second, farmers’ acceptance of technology is growing as customers use the platform on-average 4.5 hours per day.

Third, Performance Livestock Analytics’ offices in Ames and Grand Forks, ND are employing happy programmers, data scientists, marketing professionals, and customer success experts at salaries far above the median for those geographies. And finally, Performance Livestock Analytics has garnered investment from Silicon Valley VC, family offices, and strategic investors all outside of Ames.

Since feeling left behind fosters panic and fear, bridging the divide might just lie in the prospect of utilizing technology in older industries to foster a healthy and satisfied middle class.The effects of this investment will undoubtedly be  more powerful than their financial returns.

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