Could Minnesota’s Progressive Tech Mogul Become the Next CEO-Politician?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the next wave of liberalism might come from the boardroom.
This is a good time to talk politics, Scott Burns says, because he finally feels free to speak his mind. “Working with 1,000 government clients, I kept my mouth shut,” the founder of GovDelivery says with a laugh. The tech company handles digital communications for local, state and federal governments, most famously driving millions to healthcare.gov during the Affordable Care Act rollout. In September, Burns sold the public company after 17 years for $153 million — although his share was a fraction of that.
Since then, the 41-year-old has been anything but quiet. This spring, the Minnesota native joined the Saint Paul Innovation Cabinet, a group working to add city tech jobs that Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says was inspired by a conversation with Burns. Son of a staunch Democrat father and school board mother, Burns is marrying his business experience with a lifelong love for public service. He joined the boards of the Saint Paul and Minnesota Community Foundation and the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, where he worked with others to build a minor league ballpark, a new metro line and a soccer stadium. “Scott typifies that kind of business leader who doesn’t just focus on their success, but really understands their success in the context of a successful community,” says Coleman, who this year declared February 27 “Scott Burns Day” in honor of his civic work.
He’s got the street cred of having run a startup … [and] he’s gone the extra mile of giving back to the next generation.
Ryan Broshar, founder of Matchstick Ventures
That work includes Burns’ latest project, the 20-story former Ecolabs building, which he and other investors purchased to fill with tech and innovation companies. The culmination of a years-long strategy to bring new jobs downtown, it’s an endeavor Coleman calls “huge” for the city’s ambitions. Sitting in the building’s lobby, Burns challenges the stereotype of an Ivory Tower businessman, with his thin frame and glasses that cut a Dana Carvey–like figure. “Business already is a force for good in millions of people’s lives,” says Burns, who has made millions but says his net worth doesn’t approach eight digits. Still, the problem is a capitalist system that “has not delivered the kind of returns it should for people who are struggling,” he says, as evidenced by an ever-widening income gap. Burns is striving to be one of the good actors — someone for whom the bottom line is only one part of the equation.
He joins a cohort of affluent, often left-leaning business leaders instigating civic change across the country. Some have sought elected office, such as J.B. Pritzker, the Chicago billionaire running for Illinois governor. Others champion particular policies as rumors of political ambitions swirl — folks like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, now in the midst of a nationwide listening tour, or Aspiration cofounder Joe Sanberg, a startup guru who has been touting tax credits for low-income families while traveling through California and Democratic circles. Each claims different motivations for engagement, but virtually all are united in their frustration with gridlocked state and federal legislatures.
Although Burns identifies as progressive, he eschews party labels because he believes the left has occasionally strayed too far in the Twin Cities. He cites citywide minimum wage hikes, mandatory leave requirements and other perfect-world regulations that, in his view, drive out business to more conservative suburbs. “You can be Norway, Sweden, Denmark. But you can’t be a socialist island in a capitalist state or county,” he says. At times, his ideology is agnostic, more solutions-driven than dogmatic. For instance, he’s invested in both charter and public schools, although he’s expressed disappointment in both. “I don’t believe you can ask somebody to climb a ladder that you didn’t set down,” he says.
Burns says his purpose is “to bring solutions to problems that are measurable,” recognizing, of course, that politicians must reflect the will of constituents, sometimes even against their personal beliefs. Brian McClung, former top aide to Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s (Republican) governor until 2011, says he would love to see Burns run as a “business Democrat.” But he acknowledges Burns might opt to avoid the nastiness of public life. “That was a big consideration for me,” Burns agrees, adding that he enjoys “advocating from the position I have.” This year, Burns was approached by almost a dozen people to run in the upcoming mayoral election, but he passed. And yet, if he were the best person for the job and could win without negatively impacting his family? “I’ll always be open-minded about it,” he says.
Today, his perch has the former McKinsey analyst and current CEO of Structural — his newest venture connecting employees in the workplace — advising the area’s startup scene, which has grown from a handful of companies when he started GovDelivery in 2000 to what Entrepreneur Magazine calls the sixth-hottest startup city outside San Francisco or New York. He reinvests at least 10 percent of his income into fledgling companies, “the startup version of tithing,” he jokes. “He’s got the street cred of having run a startup, having exited, but what’s cool is he’s gone the extra mile of giving back to the next generation,” says Ryan Broshar, founder of Minneapolis-based Matchstick Ventures.
As an undergrad at Dartmouth College in the early ’90s, Burns remembers older students discussing a visit from then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who was asked what it takes to be president. “First, you have to be good. And I look around this room and see a lot of good people. But then you have to be president. And that’s pretty difficult,” Clinton told them. “That’s the frustrating thing to business people,” Burns reflects. “Politics is not the meritocracy we feel most comfortable with.” But it’s not the possibility of failure he fears most — instead, it’s being “totally irrelevant,” he says. “I would rather fail profoundly than do nothing.” And with that, he heads off, content to talk politics without entering it — at least for now.