While rancor and posturing drives most of today’s political discourse at both the national and state levels, those of us in the real world are focused on the economic realities of growing our businesses, serving our clients and, in my case, nurturing my latest digital enterprise while writing another book.
The divisive and too often duplicitous primaries and caucuses unfolding around us; the questionable ethics of too many corporate cultures that ignore the public good, while living large on the fruits of the climate government nurtures, when we’re surrounded by news of public officials doing little to protect the health and the welfare of the publics they were elected to serve, like in Flint, Mich.; or, closer to home, the latest round of state budget deliberations in Harrisburg, where folks bicker while schools struggle to survive — all of these things make it easy to become cynical about change here in Pennsylvania.
But perhaps there is something we all can agree on: making the places we spend most of our days, our workplaces, centers of fairness and harbors of meritocracy. What is more American and politically uniting than the notion that all of us should get a square deal — no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter how we started — in making a living and providing for our families?
That is why I believe so strongly that we have the ability to overcome today’s political divisiveness and to come together on a piece of legislation that I hope all our legislators will support — R, D or I, whether from Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, Scranton or Erie. My expectation for support is high because the issue is so fundamental, so much at the core of what makes us all Americans. I’m talking about the fight against discrimination.
The Pennsylvania Fairness Act (House Bill 1510 and Senate Bill 974) updates Pennsylvania’s current nondiscrimination law, originally drafted back in 1955. Over the years, there have been updates to the law to address discriminatory practices that developed as society changed. Language addressing race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin and disability have been added to update and strengthen the law. We’re not living in the ’50s anymore.
But today’s law has not been updated to include LGBT protections. Sure, gay marriage is now the law of the land, and people are much more tolerant and relaxed about sexual orientation, especially millennials, but as fundamental as nondiscrimination is, current Pennsylvania law does not protect this right for gay and transgender individuals in employment, housing and business services. That’s worth repeating because it’s so incredible: Pennsylvania law does not protect gay and transgender individuals from discrimination in employment, housing and business services. That’s right. You can be fired, kicked out of your house or apartment and discriminated against as a business just for being gay or transgender, and you can’t do a damned thing about it. In 2016, 61 years after this law was first put on the books, such fundamental human rights have yet to be codified.
This is completely at odds with Pennsylvania’s heritage as the Keystone State, and it places Pennsylvania on the losing side when it comes to economic growth. The law is simply outdated and, like any other software, needs an update.
As a co-founder of the nation’s first digital advertising agency — Einstein and Sandom Interactive, which grew to become the nation’s largest digital-marketing services firm in the world — and as an investor, author, publisher and chairman and CEO of Mnemania, Inc. (the company behind photo app and cloud service MemoryBox, centered right here in Brewerytown), I’ve been privileged to experience my fair share of dynamic workplaces. One of the central tenets of my business life has been to create environments that inspire innovation. That’s what being a good business leader is all about, in my view: finding ways to liberate and to grow — often to everyone’s surprise and delight — the innate talents of the people around you. I’m highly mindful of the fact that Benjamin Franklin, a hero of mine whom I feature in my novel “The God Machine,” came here to escape the puritanical confines of Boston because Philadelphia was then, and remains to this day, one of the nation’s leading hubs of innovation and creativity.
I grew up in Europe, went to college in Massachusetts and, after a couple of decades in New York City, have chosen Philadelphia as the city in which to locate my latest enterprise, MemoryBox. I helped found Silicon Alley in New York. But that city has changed. Much of the creative talent that was around when I lived there has been forced, due to housing costs, to relocate — first to Brooklyn and Queens, then out to the Bronx and New Jersey. Philadelphia is one of the last affordable cities in the Eastern megalopolis, that patch of artificial light you see at night from space stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C. It’s also highly diverse, full of interesting neighborhoods, uniquely historic, a great food town, chock full of universities and colleges and primary medical resources, and has more investment in public art per square mile than any other city in America. One of the main reasons we’re so blessed is because our city is the crucible of fundamental human rights, and still the fountainhead of American democracy.
While I’m proud to say the city of Philadelphia does provide legal protections for gay and transgender individuals, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not. We can all agree that this causes uncertainty, even distress, for fellow gay and transgender citizens. Why, when you go a few miles from Center City, do your rights suddenly cease to exist? Doesn’t the rest of the state deserve the same privileges? Are people out of the main urban centers somehow unworthy of protection? I don’t think so, and I doubt you do either.
The digital economy requires a culture of innovation and mental permissiveness. And I’m happy to say that, contrary to what folks normally associate with Silicon Valley’s so-called bro culture, we value diversity — of thinking and outlook, which is why so many techies are immigrants. [Full disclosure: Our CTO, Penny Goodwill, is a gay woman. She would not have relocated to Philadelphia if this city did not fully protect gay rights. The state, on the other hand, does not.]
I’m writing this op-ed as a call to action with two urgent requests, asking all those who read this to:
Please contact your local legislators to express the importance of their support for the Pennsylvania Fairness Act. Visit http://www.legis.state.pa.us/ and click on Find My Legislator. Then, call or email them today. It only takes a few minutes.
Reach out to any and all of your connections, your friends and those you know will support this measure throughout the state and request that they contact their legislators too. Urge them to support the Pennsylvania Fairness Act.
It’s called the Fairness Act for a reason. But it’s not just the right thing to do; as an entrepreneur, I know it’s good business. We need to bring Pennsylvania into the 21st century if we’re going to remain competitive as a state, and if we’re going to nurture and grow our tech industry.
J.G. Sandom is chairman and CEO of MemoryBox.