Andrew Yang has thoughts on Miami, robot dogs, and the role of tech in NYC’s future

As part of Eniac’s latest Annual General Meeting, we were lucky enough to be joined by some big names for three virtual conversations. Two of the public sessions focused on founder stories and startup strategy, and we’ll posting those videos soon. But first, we’re starting with a bigger picture view from New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang.

Even before his presidential campaign helped to bring the idea of universal basic income to the mainstream, Yang was a longtime “friend of Eniac” — particularly with one of our founding general partners, Nihal Mehta. So when the two of them got together over Zoom, it was a bit of a love fest. But they still made time to discuss plenty of topics, both substantive and fun.

Andrew Yang on supporting New York’s tech industry: “I’m going to do everything in my power to grow the tech ecosystem in New York City. I think we should be vying for number one. That’s going to include cryptocurrency, among other things. But I think that a lot of the opportunities in tech are going to be integrated with other industries in some way. So it could be tech plus fitness, like Peloton, or tech plus consumer goods like Warby [Parker], or tech plus culture, tech plus fashion, tech plus finance in the form of cryptocurrency.”

On New York City versus Miami: “The argument I make to folks, Nihal, is that New York City has always been somewhat more expensive than Florida. It’s just [that] people were willing to pay a premium because the opportunities were better and the environment was better. And so if we make those things true again, then I think talent will vote with their feet. But if you are watching this and you are either on the fence, or maybe you left New York, we’d love to have you back. It’s okay.”

On cocktails to-go and open streets: “Cocktails to-go will be a permanent feature of New York City if I have my way, along with outdoor dining, open streets. I think these features should be here to stay.”

On robot dogs: “I think people would just find them really freaky. Like the human element needs to be taken into account. You know, we need a little bit more time.”

On Zoom: “As joyous as it is to be here with you via Zoom, Nihal, we learn better in-person, according to the data. We are more creative and innovative in-person. I think that we’re still human beings and we prefer to interact with human beings in real life … If you are working remotely, you should know too that, frankly, your job is easier to automate away if it’s remote.”

You can watch the full video of the interview above and read a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity, below. And New Yorkers, whoever you support, don’t forget that the primary is on June 22!

Nihal Mehta: So Andrew, we’re so privileged to have you, and to have a few minutes with you to get into your mind and to ask some questions. But thanks for being here.

Andrew Yang: Well, it’s great to be here. And Nihal, you and I have been friends for years. You’re a visionary. You can see the future. You can see around corners. You saw the potential of my presidential campaign before just about anyone else. So if anyone has gobs and gobs of money that they want to have allocated to impact the future positively, send it to Nihal.

Well, thank you, Andrew. You know, you started your career also spotting talent, right, at VFA [Venture for America]. So obviously you know what it’s like. Why don’t we jump in there? I think you have a really interesting relationship with entrepreneurship and the way that you ran your presidential campaign, and now your mayoral campaign. Maybe talk about some of your insights as a founder and how you’re applying it to what you’re doing today.

I see myself more as an entrepreneur and a problem solver than a politician, which has its ups and downs, honestly. But when I decided to run for president, I approached it in the same way, where you think, “Okay, we have to build an operation to get 40,000 Iowans on board. Like, how do we get 40,000 Iowans onboard?” And so we built a campaign using a lot of the same principles that you would use in any startup environment. And a lot of it is about finding really enterprising, dynamic people who are dedicated to something, who were willing to work long hours to achieve something remarkable. And that’s something that you can do in business. You can do it in nonprofits, you can do it in politics.

But that’s how I’ve operated for years. And I love nothing more than to give someone room to run, and then watch them make the most of it. It’s one reason why I’m so passionate about running for mayor, is that if you’re in a contracting environment, it’s very, very hard. Growth environments are much more conducive to people being able to live the kind of lives they want and have the kind of careers that they want. So we need to restore New York City to a growth posture as quickly as possible. And it’s born in part because of the entrepreneurial experiences you’re describing that you and I have shared versions of.

Amazing. You’ve obviously spoken a lot about artificial intelligence and automation, and how the rise of that can potentially augment, but also commoditize human labor. And I think part of that has inspired you to create potentially the largest UBI [Universal Basic Income] program, certainly that this country has ever seen. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Some of my investor friends have been concerned about AI replacing at least some proportion of workers for a number of years now. And I became convinced that our political system certainly didn’t know what was going on and that it wasn’t going to respond to it. And one of the things that many folks who’d stared at this problem for years concluded is that we’re going to need some version of universal basic income. And I obviously believe they were right.

So I ran for president to advance the idea of universal basic income. And COVID has accelerated a lot of the automation trends that I was concerned about, that others were concerned about. And so we’re going to need to transition to some version of cash relief, in my opinion, as quickly as possible. And the entire country has had experience with this now getting the $1,200 check, the $600 check, the $1,400 check, the new child poverty tax credit. That’s going to be immensely helpful to millions of families. And so we’re going to make this happen right here in New York City, as well. We’re going to have the largest non-federal cash relief program in the country, because I’m convinced that it will make people stronger, healthier, mentally healthier, and keep people out of homelessness and other situations that are extraordinarily costly to New York City in any community.

Hmm. How do you see some of the city’s biggest issues? You’ve spoken about things like sanitation, maybe parking meters and tickets. How do you see some of them? I know there’s a lot of these little things that all add up, but how do you see technology, the tech industry, technical solutions solving some of these problems?

Tech community of New York City — or anywhere, really — I would love your help to try and solve some of the public-facing problems on behalf of New York. And part of this is going to be using technology to make our government more user-friendly. One thing I’ve heard consistently is that agencies don’t talk to each other, and that you’ll hear one thing from one bureaucracy and then not hear from another. If we can streamline that, that would be immensely powerful. And I think technology is going to be a big part of that.

I actually think that the ability for government to deliver services in a modern and effective way is vital to actually restore public trust. It’s like, you have political figures saying, “Hey, we’re going to do this and that.” And then you turn around and you’re like, “This stuff is very difficult or hard to navigate.”

As one recent example, when people are trying to get vaccination appointments, it was a bit like a Ticketmaster situation, where people were like refreshing the different websites. And then a problem-solving engineer named Huge Ma built a couple products to just start delivering what’s the available appointment. And then you have to think to yourself, well, couldn’t the city have done that?

By the way, did you see how sad he was the other day when he showed us his web traffic, like, plummeted, because everybody had already gotten the vaccine?

Well, I mean, heck, that’s the dream, is putting yourself out of business. Congratulations, TurboVax. Way to hasten your own lesser utility.

Exactly. I mean, we have so much incredible innovation and talent to be injected … no pun intended.

Oh, please, please, use some of your technical expertise on behalf of New York City. Like Huge — I was actually talking to Huge about something that we’re going to explore more deeply, Nihal, but we want to have a tech fellowship type program where someone can solve a problem for New York without frankly, having an entirely different career. You know, if you work in technology and you can keep on working on technology, and maybe be a fellow for New York City. Have your employer hopefully support you in that.

Yeah, that’d be great. And by the way, the best products and projects that need seed capital, again, we’re open for business.

You know, in terms of building the tech community, obviously the Bay Area has been this kind of incredible community for tech for decades now. And I think we’re starting to see a escape velocity in New York City. You know, when I moved here, for example, in ’05, DoubleClick was the largest exit — and you remember that — for like a decade, right? And now like literally every day, there was a period of time last month where every day there was a $2 to $10 billion exit or financing in New York City. How do you see this continuing to grow? Like, what are the core challenges or bottlenecks of growth?

I’m going to do everything in my power to grow the tech ecosystem in New York City. I think we should be vying for number one. That’s going to include cryptocurrency, among other things. But I think that a lot of the opportunities in tech are going to be integrated with other industries in some way.

So it could be tech plus fitness, like Peloton, or tech plus consumer goods like Warby, or tech plus culture, tech plus fashion, tech plus finance in the form of crypto-currency. And New York City is the largest and most diverse economy in the US. If we were a country, it would be the 11th biggest economy in the world.

So I’m going to be rolling out the red carpet for entrepreneurs and tech firms, big and small. But one of the main things we can do, frankly, to win, and this is just a win on talent, which is to make New York City an appealing, exciting place to live in terms of nightlife, cultural attractions, food, office space. We have to try and compete on every front to attract both the talent and the firms.

Recently, at least on Twitter, we’re starting to see — certainly mid-pandemic, early-pandemic, this exodus, leaving New York and San Francisco to places like Miami and Austin. A lot of those folks now are like, “Oh, it’s mid-April in Miami, or May in Miami, I got to turn around and come right back.”

Nice. Come on back to New York, Miamians.

And you mentioned talent. It’s all about the people. How do we, how do we retain talent in New York City given the tax rate — which now could be the highest in the country — and the price of housing, as well?

I think it’s quality of opportunity. People are going to be attracted to where they think they can boost their career and develop the most personally. Then it’s quality of life, and culture, and excitement to some extent. You know, I think a lot of people who went to other cities are going to miss New York when they see all of us having a great time. And on social media, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, New York is back? What am I doing here? This place is a lame and empty compared to New York.”

So we have to try and get there as quickly as possible. And the argument I make to folks, Nihal, is that New York City has always been somewhat more expensive than Florida. It’s just, people were willing to pay a premium because the opportunities were better and the environment was better. And so if we make those things true again, then I think talent will vote with their feet.

But if you are watching this and you are either on the fence, or maybe you left New York, we’d love to have you back. It’s okay.

Come back.

Come on back. You know, you had your fun in Florida or Texas. It’ll make a great story, but come on back. And I will say too, there are some deals in New York now.

Awesome. There’s some deals. I hear Andrew has an extra couch, and we have one as well, so free to crash.

Welcoming committee right here, in New York City.

You know, you’ve spoken a little bit about Broadway, but tourism obviously is a huge part of New York City’s economy that has been completely decimated in the past year. Actually, I don’t even see it trickling back — starting to get small trickles, like The Naked Cowboy is definitely in Times Square, running around greeting folks.

But what are the key inflection points for things to get Broadway back on its feet, get live concerts? I’ve been to a few basketball games. That’s been a great experience, only 10% or 20% allowed in the stadium, but it’s starting to trickle back. Is this just like a function of time, or are there specific things that you can do when elected mayor, to really catalyze tourism?

Tourism supported about 300,000 of the 600,000 jobs that New York City is down right now. So I see getting back the 65 million plus tourists as critical to the recovery. And I’m happy to say that some of this is going to happen this year. I think this is going to be the summer of love in New York City, because I have so many friends who’ve gotten vaccinated who are going on dates for the first time in over a year.

Now, Nihal, you and I are happily married men, so it’s not us, but there are people who have, frankly, obviously, a lot of pent-up energy. And if you’re going to find love, it’s going to be New York City this summer. And then in September, Broadway is going to be open, thanks to federal stimulus money. There’s a Save Our Stages Act. It put billions of dollars to work, to help Broadway reopen, probably in September.

So I think companies will be back. Broadway will be back, which will bring a lot of the tourists back. Most people will be vaccinated and you’re going to see like a run-up, the summer into the fall. But to your earlier point, we’re at a very, very low base right now. So even if you go from, if you go from 66 million to let’s call it zero for argument’s sake, and then it’s going to come back to, in my view, 10 to 20 million tourists level per year, pretty quickly, but you have a long way to go still.

So if I’m fortunate enough to be your mayor, I think that it will be my job to try and get us from 20 to 65 again, over the following two years. But that’s the situation. There are going to be some real legs to the recovery starting in the summer.

Great. This is a good transition into our lightning round. So I had a question on Broadway. Vax certificates to get in, yes or no?

Yeah. Or just generally. I went to a Yankees game the other day and it was either a negative test or vaccine passport, and a vaccine passport is a major convenience. ‘Cause you get it once, and then you don’t have to do it again for months and months. You can just keep on flashing it.

Is that the Excelsior app or is that —

They accepted the Excelsior app, yes. At the time I wasn’t vaccinated. So I had to get the negative test.

Great. Robot dogs. Yes or no?

Oh my gosh, like we need to do a better job. ‘Cause I think people would just find them really freaky. Like the human element needs to be taken into account. You know, we need a little bit more time.

Yeah. Maybe naming them or putting a furry face on them. I don’t know. I don’t know the solution.

There are some features that we should be rethinking.

I was having dinner in the West Village a couple of weeks ago and it literally felt like you said, the summer of love. It felt a little bit like Mardi Gras, to-go cups in the streets. People really —

Cocktails to-go will be a permanent feature of New York City if I have my way, along with outdoor dining, open streets. I think these features should be here to stay.

Great. That’s the right answer. And then last but not least, I know you’ve been posting this recently, Zoom or IRL, and why?

As joyous as it is to be here with you via Zoom, Nihal, we learn better in-person, according to the data. We are more creative and innovative in-person. I think that we’re still human beings and we prefer to interact with human beings in real life.

One person said something to me that really hit home. He said that there was like a mixed virtual and in-person meeting where you had like four people in person, and then like three people virtually. And then eventually, the four people in-person just started having their own conversation. I just think that’s the way we’re wired.

So if you are working remotely, you should know too that, frankly, your job is easier to automate away if it’s remote. According to Kevin Roose of The New York Time, that’s one step towards automation. And I don’t think that’s what anyone should want. So I’m an in-real-life guy. And I think that New York City is the best place to bring people together to create something great.

Amazing. Well, Andrew, thank you so much for your time. I know you’re a very busy man and probably busier now than maybe you’ve ever been. We’re wishing you the best. And you know, you have our support, and our viewers’ support, to win this thing and make New York City the best, and the most ambitious, and the brightest city that it has always been, and deserves to be.

Thank you, Nihal. Thank you, Eniac. And let’s make New York City the city of the future. We can do it. The election is on June 22nd!

We lead seed rounds in bold founders who use code to create transformational companies.