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Coffee Chat with Vikrum Aiyer, Public Policy Visiting Fellow Fall 2017

November 20, 2017

On November 20th, the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative welcomed PPI Visiting Fellow Vikrum Aiyer for a campus visit. Aiyer currently leads strategic communications and public policy for the on-demand logistics and delivery platform, Postmates, Inc. He previously was a senior official in the Obama Administration, serving as Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary of Commerce and as President Barack Obama’s senior advisor for innovation and manufacturing policy in the White House National Economic Council. 

On November 20th, the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative welcomed PPI Visiting Fellow Vikrum Aiyer for a campus visit. Aiyer currently leads strategic communications and public policy for the on-demand logistics and delivery platform, Postmates, Inc. He previously was a senior official in the Obama Administration, serving as Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary of Commerce and as President Barack Obama’s senior advisor for innovation and manufacturing policy in the White House National Economic Council.

As Visiting Fellow, Aiyer spent a day on Penn’s campus for a series of meetings with students, including a coffee chat with undergraduates interested in technology policy. Aiyer began the chat with some background about himself. He grew up in the Bay Area and went to the University of California at Berkeley before moving to Washington, D.C. and getting his start in public policy as an assistant to the communications director for Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA). One of his main responsibilities was to draft press releases and speeches, which subsequently would get redlined and edited by more senior staffers. Although he initially never imagined he’d ever be entrusted, as a 19-year-old, with more influential responsibilities, Aiyer eventually realized that the more he learned Markey’s voice, the more he was able to anticipate the types of things he would like to say, and understand how he would approach talking about a given issue. “Once I started mirroring that for this member of Congress, there were instances in which what I had written on his behalf ended up in the final draft and was quoted in newspapers.” This is when Aiyer realized his words could be “live ammunition” and change the debate or coverage surrounding a topic of national conversation. It was an experience that really fortified Aiyer’s commitment to pursuing a serious future in political communications.

Aside from being influential, the work was exciting, for as Aiyer pointed out, “the media landscape was changing very rapidly at that time.” As blogs became more popular, and as newspapers moved online, the news cycle began to shift and more media outlets were producing news content at an increasingly rapid pace. “In order to stay relevant as a member of Congress, you were asked to put out more content and comment on more issues that weren’t necessarily in your wheelhouse,” Aiyer said. “That to me became incredibly interesting.”

Aiyer then worked for Senator Hillary Clinton’s office as her press secretary, before moving to a political consulting firm. As a consultant, the goal was no longer about crafting the tightest soundbite or best bumper sticker, and there was more quantitative analysis of political polling. “If working in Congress was the first time I understood that you could change a conversation based on interesting rhetorical flourishes, being at this polling firm on the political consulting side was the first time I understood that you could really get individuals to modify their position if the numbers revealed that a change in position could garner new levels of support.”

Aiyer subsequently joined the mayor of D.C. as his speechwriter, which gave him an education in local politics. “One day, you could be talking about education reform and investing in poorer schools. The next day you could be debating over where to put a dog park,” he recalled. Aiyer realized that federal conversations can occur at a high level but that the rubber tends to meet the road for most citizens on smaller issues like trash collection and snow removal. Aiyer eventually moved back to the federal government and joined the Obama administration, initially as a speechwriter, working mainly on what he described as “nerdy, wonky speeches.”

Although Aiyer was able to enjoy significant accomplishments as a writer, including getting language into the State of the Union address given by the president, being a White House speechwriter was not as glamorous as he initially thought. At the same time, he was working with the Secretary of Commerce on diverse issues such as patent protection, intellectual property, sanctioning foreign exports, and assessing the methods by which the U.S. Census is taken each decade. Aiyer was able to focus on writing about technology at the time when younger companies like Facebook and Uber had not yet become a focus of government policy.

From 2012 to 2015, though, it seemed the number of policy issues for tech companies “exploded overnight.” Whereas IBM and Qualcomm were worried about trade policy and patent law, companies like Tinder and OKCupid were lobbying policymakers in D.C. about data protection and the privacy of users on their platforms, Netflix and Hulu were lobbying on issues related to how digital transmissions were being managed and regulated, and even smaller, one-off artists were being sued by major record labels for copyright violations for posting covers of songs to YouTube. At the same time, as the technology needs of the government mushroomed, engagement between the government and the corporate world created an intriguing dynamic. For example, Aiyer pointed to the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, initiated by the Obama White House to bridge the gap between tech and the public sector. Experts would take six month “tours of duty” and improve the use of tech in government to do things like revamp the healthcare.gov website. “There was more of a bridge being built to establish empathy between the private sector of government, and the government and the private sector,” Aiyer said.

In the final few years of the administration, Aiyer had the opportunity to join the President’s economic team at the White House, focusing on manufacturing and technology policy. Among other things, he was able to work on the first rules of regulation on driverless cars with the U.S. Department of Transportation and examined new opportunities for investment in emerging technologies. Investing in the advanced technologies that can fuel economic growth is a key goal of the U.S. government, and Aiyer aimed to ensure that most of the R&D for these technologies would happen on U.S. soil in order to ensure that the jobs of the future are here. By working with research institutions, private corporations and other federal offices, thirteen R&D institutes were created, focusing on innovations such as 3D printing and smart fabrics. This shows that significant change can be effected when the public and private sectors cooperate to get things done.

As Aiyer noted, businesses are more and more becoming major voices in the direction of policy on a broad range of issues. He pointed to the rise of companies speaking out against the Trump Administration’s travel ban and pledging to maintain the environmental standards set by the Paris Climate Agreement after the United States had withdrawn. “This is a unique time in American history where private companies will fill what they see as a void in leadership.”

Now, Aiyer leads public policy and communications for Postmates, a tech startup in San Francisco, but he does not want his career move to be a commentary on involvement in the federal government. He hopes it serves as evidence that you do not have to pick one particular path – public service or private sector – after college. Aiyer notes that it is an interesting time in the government, but he is concerned about people witnessing political gridlock and turning away from public service. “You don’t have to wear a cape or be a Congressman to be a hero, there are a lot of different ways to engage,” he emphasized. “Now is the time to step up.”

About the Speaker:

Vikrum Aiyer leads strategic communications and public policy for the on-demand logistics and delivery platform, Postmates, Inc. He was previously a senior official in the Obama Administration, serving as Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary of Commerce and as President Barack Obama’s senior advisor for innovation and manufacturing policy in the White House National Economic Council. 

At Postmates, Aiyer oversees a nationwide legislative and regulatory strategy to guide how automation and the on-demand industry is shaping the future of work. By working with numerous states and municipalities to assess new benefits models for the labor workforce, and by crafting regulatory frameworks for autonomous robotics to guide the future of neighborhood delivery, Postmates has led a national discussion on how to responsibly balance new technologies, skills investments and economic flexibilities. 

In his prior role as Chief of Staff in the Obama Administration’s Commerce Department, Aiyer served as the principal political and policy advisor to the U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for IP, where he coordinated a $3.2B budget in support of the 13,000 employees, to execute the daily operations, policy priorities, and global communications of the President’s intellectual property agenda. In 2016, Aiyer lead a U.S. delegation to Cuba to reset relations between the two nations’ IP offices, and separately served on Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Taskforce, to accelerate progress towards a cure. While at the White House, Aiyer also steered investments in several advanced manufacturing technologies including smart fabrics, autonomous vehicles, high performance computing, and next generation semiconductors.

As a former press & communications advisor to Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), Aiyer has managed strategic communications campaigns and led speech writing teams for Congress, federal agencies, and trade associations, including the State Department, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders, and the Democratic National Conventions in 2012 and 2016. In 2015, Forbes Magazine named Aiyer to the 30 Under 30 list for Law & Policy, and he is currently a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. 


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