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Exploring the challenges & opportunities at the intersection of national security, VC, & technology

June 16, 2021

In 2020, In-Q-Tel, the non-profit strategic investor supporting the U.S. intelligence and national security community, and BLCK VC, the non-profit seeking to empower and advance Black venture investors, partnered to expose challenges and opportunities at the intersection of national security, investing, and technology. These wide-ranging, poignant conversations offered the audience tactical, solution-oriented food for thought. We designed this piece to capture the speakers’ insights to ensure they will not be lost. Thank you to the speakers: Katherine Boyle, Michael Crow, Nadia Eghbal, Charles Hudson, Josh Wolfe, and Amy Zegart. Thank you to the IQT and BLCK VC teams that contributed to making this program a reality!

Embrace diversity as a state of nature.

Make government cool again.

Celebrate the rebels.

These quotes, all from the National Security Insights (NSI) speaker series, epitomize a series of seismic societal shifts. These shifts are toward broadening inclusivity, modernizing public sector workforces, and recognizing and equipping innovators with the tools they need to succeed. The National Security Insights conversations are, fundamentally, about a changing world. They reflect the existential questions that arose from a year in a world that was in many ways on pause. National Security Insights focused on a world dependent on fragile digital infrastructure, and a litany of analog systems and policies that are in a curious phase of evolution.

In each fireside chat, communication and conviction emerged as unifying themes. The six speakers have collectively written 12 books, put hundreds of millions of dollars to work supporting technological innovation and national security, and are working to build a more equitable and diverse future. They excel at communicating ideas and helping entrepreneurs build concepts into reality and weave tangible stories together to pull the future forward. Lacking the ability to physically meet in 2020, the NSI guests doubled down on writing as a mode of communication. “Embrace the power of words,” they suggested. “The best way to put out information is to share a conjecture and subject yourself to criticism,” is an idea that particularly reflects the popularity of tech Twitter during the pandemic. But they also reminded us to be introspective and to think deeply: “if you follow what experts tell you, you will miss important trends.”

It therefore feels only natural that I reflect on the NSI sessions with a written piece.

Discourse between tech and government is often strained.  One of the NSI panels included a fascinating discussion about “making government cool again.” The idea stuck with me as poignant and galvanizing. The fascinating discussion reminded me of a phenomenon I’d observed coming out of school: very few people sought work in government, and not for lack of passion or desire to change the world, but for lack of awareness. According to The New York Times, “In 2019, 79 percent of Army recruits reported having a family member who served. For nearly 30 percent, it was a parent — a striking point in a nation where less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military.”

In a moment in history where defense is becoming digital, the day-to-day gap between a government worker’s job and a tech worker’s job is narrowing, yet something is getting lost in translation. In reflecting on this, I realized Kevin Xu, author of the Interconnected newsletter, had identified an important corollary in his May 9, 2021 analysis of semiconductor competition.

Xu writes, “The nice thing about a large economy, like the US and China, is their vast resources in terms of land, people, money, and the capacity to push boundaries of innovation that small countries would never dare to try. So to make ‘making stuff’ cool again by only recreating the wheels of semiconductor manufacturing won’t work well, when Taiwan and South Korea already did that in the 80s and 90s, and especially when Moore’s Law is approaching its limit. Instead, a national call to action that motivates the best and brightest to make stuff to tackle climate change, quantum computing, space travel, or biotech — all of which will need more semiconductors anyways — is what big countries can uniquely deliver.”

As a country, we have to motivate a diverse group of the best and brightest to serve a mission aligned with their worldviews, in such a way that it is attractive for people to dedicate their livelihoods to serving the country. As Xu suggests, perhaps a call to action that communicates the imperative of national service for our country’s future, is necessary. How can we level the playing field so national service is as attractive as a tech career? How can we ensure people from any creed or circumstance hear this message and have the opportunity to participate?

In looking to pop culture — specifically film — which influences how we perceive many aspects of society, I think of Hidden Figures. The film highlights an overlooked group of brilliant women, who were driven to make a change. They thought differently than their coworkers because of their life experiences. Despite odds stacked against them, Hidden Figures tells the story of these women, who drove a NASA breakthrough, breaking the mold of how things had been done. In realms as human-centric as national security and entrepreneurship, individuals with different skills, methods of problem solving, and backgrounds view the world’s problems differently, which often lead to the advances we need in this messy, global ecosystem.

The NSI conversations called for civic-minded innovators to build solutions for our climate, well-being, and forward progress. The value exchange between citizens and society should welcome and represent change-makers of all stripes.

Our nation’s security is also viewed as a public good, so we need people with diverse perspectives to participate and build in redundancies so it is more of a fail proof system. Similar to open source software or ecosystem services (the benefits people derive from healthy ecosystems (for example – the provisioning of food, fresh water, and medicine, or regulatory services that maintain air and soil quality), as defined by the Department of Agriculture), a small number of people are relied upon to build these vital systems, and when and if they fail, it is everyone’s problem.

IQT and BLCK VC are eager to double down on our efforts related to diversity of perspective and experience. We continue to emphasize the imperative of civic-mindedness and national involvement to help us meet and solve future challenges. As John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

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