Phyllis Newhouse was watching the news in the days following Georgia’s passage of a far-reaching bill that restricts voting rights when she heard one of the anchors say something that piqued her interest: the men of the Fortune 500, this anchor said, need to stand up and speak out against the bill.
A Georgia resident and entrepreneur herself—she is the founder of cybersecurity firm Xtreme Solutions and the CEO of Athena Technology Acquisition Corp—Newhouse immediately called her friend (and investor) Stacey Abrams.
“I said to Stacey, ‘Why aren’t we in the conversation? Why have we been left out of the conversation, and how do we get in?’” Newhouse says.
And so, on Thursday night, Newhouse and Abrams—the founder of voting rights organization Fair Fight and one of the most powerful women in the world—took matters into their own hands: they held an invitation-only Zoom session, called #ShoulderUpToVote, with 100 of the country’s top women business leaders. The call was a collection of founders, investors and board advisers who belong to business networking groups DealMakeHers, Women Elevating Women and ShoulderUp and who wanted to learn more about voter suppression efforts but also about the role they can play in advocating for voting rights in the United States.
Abrams’ advice to the group: don’t underestimate the power of your platform. “It is our right and our responsibility, especially as leaders in our communities, to declare that these laws do not reflect our values and do not reflect our democracy,” she said.“Reach out to your vendors, your suppliers, making certain that those businesses know where you stand.”
Abrams went on to recommend that each person use her social media accounts to denounce voter suppression laws (which she calls “Jim Crow 2”) and amplify support for legislation that expands voting access, like HR 1, the For The People Act, and HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This is because voters “don’t have time, always, to follow the news, but they may follow you and they may learn,” she said.
The broader business community has been speaking out against the Georgia law—which, among other things, limits the time available to request absentee ballots and makes it a crime to provide food or water to anyone waiting in line to vote—over the last week, and largely after getting inundated with public pressure to do so. The Civic Alliance, a coalition of companies like Twitter, Microsoft, and HP, released a statement last Friday condemning the law. That same day, Major League Baseball announced that it would move the All-Star game out of the state, with MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred noting that the league “fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans” and “opposes restrictions to the ballot box.”
It is our right and our responsibility, especially as leaders in our communities, to declare that these [voter suppression] laws do not reflect our values and do not reflect our democracy.
Yet Abrams has criticized the MLB’s decision and any similar boycott, and it was a position she reiterated Thursday night. “If you stay and fight, which is what we ask people to do when it comes to bringing business to Georgia, that means that the people who are the targets of these oppressive laws can be the beneficiaries of the economic support that comes,” she said. “I care about the $100 million that’s been pulled out of our economy by the Major League Baseball decision. I appreciate them speaking up, and I appreciate what they’ve signaled. But there is a real harm that’s going to be done.”
This is why Abrams emphasized to the group of female founders and business leaders the importance of their voice, which she believes will go farther than any boycott. “When people speak up and raise awareness of what’s happening, the embarrassment causes change,” she said. “It’s not the money, it’s the reputation. And as business owners, you all understand that reputation tends to be the more impactful issue, because it lasts longer.”
After Abrams took questions from the entrepreneurial audience for almost an hour, Newhouse shared her own view on the law and her voice as a leader, which has been shaped by two decades of service in the military. “When I think of serving this country for 22 years, and I think about me being in a position that some of these veterans are in—where you can serve this country, but you come back and you’ve been told that we’ve restricted your right to vote—that’s not right,” she said. “I will denounce these bills, period.”
“For so many of us, even if we come from places of want, we have achieved places of privilege,” Abrams responded. “It is a privilege to be able to have this conversation.”