i3 | August 10, 2017

Phone2Action's Dr. Ximena Hartsock

Cindy Loffler Stevens
Phone2Action's Dr. Ximena Hartsock

The headquarters of startup Phone2Action in Rosslyn, VA, resembles a beehive humming with energy and busting at the seams.

The headquarters of startup Phone2Action in Rosslyn, VA, resembles a beehive humming with energy and busting at the seams. The company has already nearly outgrown the space they moved in to last year. Clusters of engineers and marketers strategize to further enhance the advocacy platform that was launched in 2013 and its new Social Impulse tool that was just released.

Dr. Ximena Hartsock, founder, chief operating officer and president of Phone2Action, along with Co-founder Jeb Ory are leading the team of 55. They produced the inaugural Good Tech Summit in June to celebrate how technology is being used for social good and to make the world a better place. In May, the pair were named among the Washingtonian’s 100 top Tech Titans and Hartsock recently participated in International Women’s Day sponsored by Ann Taylor as part of their “Inspired By” campaign.

This venture-backed, civic engagement and communications technology company is the brainchild of Hartsock who worked to develop the platform to bring people and lawmakers together. A pioneer in advocacy, the company is making a positive difference creating a new way to communicate with lawmakers. Although born in Santiago, Chile, she is responsible for many advances that have improved Washington, DC’s low graduation rates and enhanced its athletic fields, parks and pools as well as the opening of the Nationals stadium while she was a member of the executive cabinet of former Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, serving as the Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, and later as the Chief of Staff of the City Administration. Hartsock was also DC Public Schools Deputy Chief for Teaching and Learning and has worked in DC Government as an educator, federal project administrator and school principal.

Phone2Action won the SXSW Interactive Technology competition and in 2015 the Reed Award. Hartsock holds a doctorate in Policy Studies and Administration from the George Washington University and serves on CTA’s Board of Industry Leaders. She recently shared her thoughts with i3.

You have an interesting perspective, growing up in Chile. Could you tell us more?

My father was very resourceful and read the paper every day. I loved books too so I majored in philosophy. When you read about great philosophers, it makes you think about what else you can do. It also opened a window to the world for me because Chile is very far away – the southern-most country in South America. I grew up thinking about big universities – Georgetown being one of them because I was raised Catholic – so I thought of Washington, DC. When I came to visit a friend, I fell in love with the equity that the United States has and the opportunities that it gives to people who want to work very hard.

Can you talk about your civic engagement?

In DC, I taught and also worked as a program coordinator and in 2004, I finished the doctorate program in administration and policy at George Washington University. When Adrian Fenty became the mayor of DC, he asked me to join the transition team for schools. We worked to reform outdated schools and make them less bureaucratic. I was appointed as the deputy chief of teaching and learning for the academy programs and then as the director of parks and recreation and chief of staff. A lot of the foundation for DC – the parking meters, bike lanes, dog parks, the Wilson Pool and new sports facilities – was done during that time. It was a really good opportunity to work with a man who had a big vision for the city and great to see how that vision has dramatically changed the economy. Fifteen years ago the city had a very different reputation and now it has a vibrant community, especially in technology. That happened because of changes that were made to make it more attractive to millennials and professionals.

Is DC becoming a tech hub?

DC is ranked as one of the best places to work for women but also for technology companies. In the past the biggest job generators were the government and the embassies. This is certainly a hub for government and politics but there is a new emerging market for technology.

What are your views on immigration?

The immigration debate has been highly politicized and we have lost perspective on the issue. One consequence has been the increasing perception that there are two types of immigrants: the good ones who are the professionals with STEM skills and the bad ones who work in construction or the service industry. Immigration is a worldwide challenge and many governments are responding to it taking into account their unique geographic positions and economic opportunities. We live in a world where boundaries are being redefined by technology and where the competition for talent is high. Our laws should take in consideration the opportunity for countries to continue to grow and compete with each other.

What is the value immigrants bring?

Immigrants are in survival mode. When you remove a person from the comfort and security they know and put them out in the world, they will try to survive with their intuition, instincts and whatever skills they have. In survival mode people can achieve more because they are on the highest sense of alert, making them more innovative. The creativity that comes from immigration should not be ignored. When immigrants have the opportunity, they succeed because they tend to go faster, take risks and recover faster from failure because it is the natural instinct of moving quickly.

What mobilized you to found Phone2Action?

After I finished my work in the DC government, I joined a national education association and was traveling state to state talking to lawmakers about education policy. I saw a disconnect among constituents and lawmakers. I would ask constituents, “Have you talked to your lawmaker?” They would say, “I don’t know who my lawmaker is and I don’t know how to contact them.” The idea for Phone2Action came because I saw a need and came up with a solution that made it easy for people to contact their lawmakers and share their issues. My advocacy was always making sure the kids would have a better education. I felt that lawmakers have such an important role in writing policy that improves the schools but they actually knew very little about the schools. I was shocked by the gap between people and those that represent them. I realized that politics, or advocacy, was not something that mainstream people would do. It does not make sense that civic engagement ends with an election when in fact, that is when it should start. And in 2012, I also thought smartphones would democratize civic engagement but I wasn’t trying to be an entrepreneur at the time.

Can one person make a difference?

Yes, the most interesting aspect of advocacy today is that one person alone can launch a movement. Social media has changed the game by empowering people to share their opinions publicly. Writing a tweet or Facebook post on a lawmakers page can get the attention of the legislator faster than a traditional email. In the past you needed massive numbers of people to get lawmakers attention but today one person alone with a powerful story can change the view of a lawmaker about an issue.

How has social media changed advocacy?

We just launched SocialPulse, the first advocacy tool that allows organizations to see all their advocates’ social media advocacy activities from our platform. It tells them who their ambassadors are because they are taking action on their behalf. Social media is changing the game in advocacy. In the past, conversations with lawmakers happened via email or behind closed doors. Now, 100 percent of Congress uses Twitter and Facebook, and it is unheard of for a politician to run a political campaign without a social media presence. Social media and technology have equalized the communications between people and their elected officials, making this a two-way interaction where both are equally able to communicate.

What challenged you as a startup?

The biggest challenge was to talk about an industry that didn’t really exist yet. It was hard to talk about a new type of product that wasn’t defined, especially talking to investors who wanted to know what the market was and what revenue model we were going to use. Building a civic grassroots technology application was new – there wasn’t anything like it in 2013 when we launched that people could understand. Civic advocacy is an industry that we are still defining. Twenty years from now people will say 2017 was the year of advocacy. But three years ago, advocacy wasn’t cool or mainstream.

Why did you create the Good Tech Summit?

We started seeing this conversation blaming technology for human decision making and social media being called bad. People were talking about fake news, manipulated media and the skepticism about artificial intelligence and robots vs humans. We were concerned about this negativity around technology. We started exploring the idea of a conversation about the fact that most people make the choice to use technology for social purpose. People use this technology to build community, connect with one another and drive positive change and that should be highlighted, showcased and celebrated. In DC, people are using technology to connect folks with the government in order to make a difference. The greatest part is that when you start to see technology as an ally, then you see it in a less intimidating way. At Patagonia for example, they are using visual reality and story-telling to create empathy in people to take action. The more that we are open to that power, the more we can use it to solve real problems.

What are the key issues before Congress?

To me immigration and the border adjustment tax are two big issues. If the border adjustment tax comes into effect, many companies are not going to be motivated to keep their businesses here and we will lose the products, jobs and innovation that those companies bring to the U.S. Both issues put our national innovative engine at risk.

What are your views on the gig economy?

The internet and smartphone adoption are dramatically redefining how people work. Employees see new income opportunities and flexibility in the jobs created by the gig economy but governments are challenged by the conflict with old policies. In Washington DC, there is a current battle between the city council and homesharing lovers. DC has the highest number of Airbnb guests and hosts in the U.S. Many of those hosts are closing the “hospitality gap” in parts of the city where there are only a handful of hotels. DC residents are frustrated about this because DC’s economy benefits from welcoming tourism. In 2016, there were 20 million domestic visitors who spent $7.3 billion. In general, the gig economy is just an example of the transformation the workplace is going through. Fostering the right ecosystem for the jobs of the future is challenging for lawmakers but constituents can help by sharing their stories and educating them on how these issues play out in their districts.

What is the next big thing?

I think that the future is in partnerships. Companies should no longer see their success in individual terms but how they work with others to create a better value proposition to customers. In my opinion, competition should be smart and strategic. If we are smart we can create a really good ecosystem of product opportunity for people where we all can benefit if we complement each other. Technology gives us that opportunity through APIs and open source technology. We should be less worried about competition and focus more on how we build upon each other’s platforms and successes to move the industry forward working in parallel.

How has the economy changed?

Our customer-centric economy means customers are ambassadors for the products they choose to buy because they feel social alignment with the values of that company. Company founders should be talking more to one another. It’s a completely different world. New companies can disrupt old companies but together they can build something better and bigger. Partnerships and opportunities to piggyback on each other’s innovations are the future.

What has being a member of CTA meant to you?

The opportunities that CTA has made available to us go a long way because a startup needs to move faster, smarter and with less resources than other companies. The media, market research and networking opportunities at events have been critical. Ultimately, the mentoring from the people that I meet at CTA is important – we met two of our board members at CTA. But our biggest mentor has been CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro. He knows how to connect people. First, I joined the Small Business Council, then the Startup Working Group and then I was honored to join the Board of Industry Leaders. I also went to the CES Asia launch in Shanghai. I come from Santiago and I would never have had that opportunity. It is being part of a community and supported by a team of people that are so great. You feel like you are riding this wave with the technology giants where you can have conversations about the future and about technologies that are critical for the world.

How do you relax?

I love the team here so I find it very relaxing to bounce ideas around with them. People are so creative and everyone has something unique to offer. When you start asking, people are so good about sharing ideas. I relax by laughing with my team, they are very supportive and make me feel loved.

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