Swati Mylavarapu: Making Politics Accessible
Swati Mylavarapu is a major voice in Silicon Valley who has turned her talents to politics and social change. Pete Buttigieg’s chief investment officer and founder of Incite.org and the Arena, Swati talks to Ken about campaign finance and about diving into politics as a relative outsider.
Find Swati on Twitter at @Swatipedia.
Incite.org is Swati’s values-based investment fund, made up of Incite Ventures LLC, Incite Labs, and Incite Politics - a three-pronged approach to creating social change. Learn more on their website.
Arena is the candidate and campaign staff training platform that Swati co-founded with Ravi Gupta following the 2016 election.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Swati Mylavarapu: I felt like in 2016, I learned the hard way that it was really hard as a political outsider to become a quote-unquote political insider, and I woke up the next day of November saying, "Okay, my experience is part of the reason why I have to get more involved. We have got to make it easier, more transparent and way more accessible for so many more people to figure out how to get involved in politics, because this is work that matters for all of us. And it affects our everyday lives."
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today, Swati Mylavarapu, is a Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar who began her career in tech, serving as a senior executive at major Silicon Valley companies and later as a venture capitalist. Since the 2016 election, however, she has focused on driving social and political change. She co-founded the Arena, an organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of political candidates and campaign staff, and her latest endeavor is incite.org, a values-based investment fund. Swati, welcome to Burn the Boats.
SM: Hey, thanks, Ken. I'm excited to have this conversation with you.
KH: Tell me a little bit about Incite.org. What is a values-based investment fund and what are you doing?
SM: Sure. It's a great question. Our work at Incite is basically to use money and our wherewithal and advice to help really talented people make the world a better place. And I know that that sounds super simple, but the way that we approach our work is what I think is so radical and unique, because - so I run Incite with my husband, Matt. Both of us are former tech people/entrepreneurs, or reformed, maybe not former. And our point of departure was that there can be really good people with really grand visions to how to make the world better and sometimes their visions come in the form of companies, sometimes their work needs to be in a nonprofit, and sometimes their leadership manifests in their bids for public office and we wanted to be in a position to be able to support really talented people that are giving life to our values across all of these categories. So Incite is set up to be able to make investments in for-profit companies, to also, through our foundation, support new groundbreaking nonprofits, and increasingly to support a new generation of people to get into the civic arena and actually run for office.
KH: Speaking of running for office, you spent, gosh, the better part of the last year and a couple of months in the trenches of a presidential campaign as the investment chair for Pete for America, for Pete Buttigieg. I'm going to ask a question about money in politics, because certainly someone coming from tech, you use the phrasing very naturally in your description of Incite, using money to make the world a better place, takes that for granted. But there among the broader public is this real cynicism about the role of money and the all-importance of fundraising. How do you respond to those who say, "I'm an ideas person. I don't care about the money side of social change or campaigning or policy. Let's get money out of it."
SM: I say, I agree with you. The challenge, though, is in the system that we have, we have to win by the current rules in order to change them. So I very much believe in strident campaign finance reform and getting big money out of politics. But I know that in order to change those rules, we have to get really, really good at electing people that abide by those values and want to put them into practice. And to do that right now, you have to be able to finance a campaign. That said, our experience in my work with Pete and with our work at the Arena is that there are ways to fundraise for politics that still create more distance between moneyed interests and the people that are running that allow the leaders that are running for office to have the freedom and the flexibility to stay true to their values without letting money overly taint or color their perspectives. I mean, for example, from the very beginning, one of the things we built into the culture of our finance operation on Pete's campaign was the idea that you were showing up to support Pete and to fundraise and organize financial resources for his vision and mission and that campaign, but it was never with this idea of a quid pro quo, that if you raised a certain amount of money, that you were entitled to or winning some sort of special privileged access. And in fact in the beginning of that campaign, you might remember that we put as much focus on our grassroots fundraising efforts as we did the people that were writing a thousand dollar check, so I think that's the other really important thing. And something candidly that I'm really amazed and delighted and proud to see in Democratic politics is that you see so many great, amazing candidates who are raising really remarkable, large sums of money, and are doing it by building huge grassroots armies of supporters. Jamie Harrison's bid for Senate in South Carolina is such a powerful example. I mean, Jamie is raising historic amounts of money, tens of millions of dollars, for a seat in South Carolina. And he's doing it with, I think to date, they've had more than half a million individual donors with this average contribution, less than $30 for that campaign.
KH: So that is a culturally driven approach to countering big money in politics, but does it address the underlying flaw in the system? Are there structural things we can do to compel that kind of, gosh, attentiveness to the smaller-dollar donors, that kind of accountability to the voters?
SM: It's a great question. For one, I think there's been a really favorable shift in campaign finance reporting. The fact that you now see articles written about quarterly and monthly raised numbers that mentioned average contribution numbers is a really positive development in that direction. It helps the public hold campaigns accountable and to really drive home the point that it's about the number of people that you win over to support you, not just the total number of dollars that you raise. My sense is that a step further in that direction is I would love for us to pay even more attention to the total number of donors that campaigns have. That's really the real measure. We talk about finance like it's a standalone function on the campaign. And the truth is, when you're running a really well run, modern finance operation on a campaign, it's a kind of organizing. You are organizing people to decide to contribute one of their most precious resources, their dollars, to support a candidate, in the same way that they might choose to give another one of their precious resources, their time, to volunteer to help a candidate succeed. So the more attention we focus on getting campaigns and candidates and the broader public to be as impressed with the number of people that are contributing financially, I think that's a step in the direction of driving more accountability and more attention to the ways that campaigns and candidates hold themselves accountable to stakeholders.
KH: Do you see any possibility of overturning Citizens United? Because the observations you made about differences in reporting and different areas of focus when it comes to the numbers are still cultural.
KH: They're not really enshrined in new legislation requiring that kind of transparency. In a few cases they are.
SM: A hundred percent. I think what it's really going to take is sweeping regulatory change, and some real restrictions on the kinds of money, the type of money that can come in. I mean, it was interesting, this Democratic primary cycle, you started to see some other cultural shifts towards a kind of self-regulation. I mean, if you remember, early in the primary process, the way that candidates were all vying to make commitments not to take money from lobbyists, federal lobbyists, not to take money from fossil fuels industry. So there was a movement in that direction, but at the end of the day, I think what's really going to make stuff stick is changing the rules. San Francisco's an interesting example because we have a city that has campaign finance rules in place, and I think it's been really helpful for, to some extent, leveling the playing field. But, we also have like a really contested DA's race this past year where outside PACs started getting involved, so this is also the risk with campaign finance. And so maybe what we really need is strident regulatory change, but also these cultural norms and attitudes shifting in tandem.
KH: Is part of the issue that when it comes to big money and politics, historically, most of it has been corporate? When I think about why a PAC exists, in some cases, it's just a bunch of people who individually would have no influence, no voice, but they come together and decide to pool their resources and to leverage it much more effectively. You certainly see this in the current campaign season. What's the problem with big money in politics if it is a reflection of the will of certain constituencies?
SM: Yeah. I mean, this is a great question that really comes down to individual values and how you think that should participate in our system of representative democracy. So it's really a question of whose voices and interests are being represented. For sure, in some instances, for example, if it's a labor union, the point that you made stands, but in other instances, PACs can sometimes represent the interests of just a couple of extremely privileged individuals. Think about the number of really wealthy people that use these kinds of vehicles to influence political outcomes, not just on the Democratic side, but particularly so these days on the other side of the partisan table as well. And I think there's a legitimate question, whether this is Republican or Democratic, who does this democracy work for? And to the extent that big money in politics maybe narrows the number of stakeholders that get undue access and undue influence, that's really the challenge and the issue and the set of questions that we should be asking.
KH: Is transparency an oversold solution to this? The idea being, look, the money's going to come into the system one way or another. Let's just tell the voters where it's coming from. Or are we putting way too much faith in the ability of the media to report on that and the capacity of the average voter to digest it and understand just how perverse an influence that that lopsided infusion can have?
SM: I'm inclined to believe that transparency alone is not likely to be a strong enough solution, in part because of what you've just alluded to. I mean, frankly, campaign finance is so intricate, detailed and complicated. I mean, in some ways by design, it is hard to track really the full influence of money in the political space, to such an extent that shining a light alone is never going to give us the fullest picture and put us in a position to make better demands on the ecosystem. So it's got to be a step beyond transparency. I'll tell you the other really practical thing that we should all be aware of that I think a lot about. Candidates just have to spend way too much time fundraising. It's time that they can't spend working for all of us. I mean, you probably remember this from your recent bid as well.
KH: I could not forget.
SM: How much time did you have to spend, yeah - that's time that you're not spending working on important issues, and getting stuff done for the people that were counting on you.
KH: Is there a structural solution to that? Public financing limits on spending, like blackouts on TV airtime, the most expensive aspect of campaigns today?
SM: It's likely a sophisticated combination of these things, but a starting point, I think, is just limiting the amount of money that can go into a campaign. Constraint can be a really great design principle. I think also an interesting idea is around time limits for campaign periods. In some ways, the 2020 election cycle has been one of the longest campaign cycles in recent memory. Think about how much time and energy has gone into funding campaigns that, I mean, by the time November rolls around, it'll have been two years that some of these candidates have been running for office.
KH: Let me ask you directly. When was your first conversation with Pete about a serious run for the presidency?
SM: You know, it was an idea that he brought up to me in conversation in the spring of 2018. He was finishing up his book project. He knew that his second term was likely going to be his last in South Bend and was starting to think through what he wanted to do next, but we just batted it around over a 30-minute conversation. And then the spring and the summer passed. He got married and I had my first kid, so life sort of happened and come November of that year, he reached out again and said, "Hey, I think I'm seriously going to do this because we're at this unique moment in American history. And I think there is a message and an important vision that I want to be able to deliver. That this campaign can be a powerful vehicle to deliver. And I think I need your help to do it." I'd say that it became like a really tangible, concrete, likely thing by the end of 2018.
KH: Well, he certainly wasn't the first one to throw his hat in the ring then, but still, when you compare our system and the demands it places on serious candidates in terms of time, of when they have to start compared to other developed systems, like the Brits who basically give their politicians a couple of months to make their case, it is extraordinary how protracted these campaigns are.
SM: Oh, they're like running marathons. And that's just to... The other thing I try and keep in mind is winning the election is not the finish line. That's really the starting point.
SM: So all of this energy to get into office, which is really the point at which the work really begins. Because why do we run? We run, candidates are running because there's a vision for better governance.
KH: Right. What was your initial reaction when Pete Buttigieg, mayor of a midsize town in Indiana, said, "I'm thinking of going for it?"
SM: So Pete was sitting down with me and my husband, Matt, and I think you'll get some deep insight into the way our marriage works, because Pete was sharing this idea, and Matt was extremely enthusiastic and encouraging and did not miss a beat from the minute that this idea left Pete's mouth. And I was a little bit more skeptical and not sure, and wondered "Is this the time? Is this the moment? Are you really the right person to do this?" And I remember on our drive back to the airport, Matt and I were like, "Hmm, well, that was interesting. Our friend is thinking about running for president of America, say that three times out loud." And by the end of that conversation, when we were checking in for a flight, what I realized was, what Matt helped me realize was, yeah, this was the moment. And Pete was in many ways uniquely positioned to deliver this really powerful message. And a lot of it was in the seeds of what I'd seen happen in 2018 through our Arena fellows batch, Ken, like the work that you and so many other talented new entrants, new generation leaders were demonstrating in those 2018 House and state level elections. The idea that there was, it was the time for a new generation of people to step into the arena and to offer a more compelling vision of a different kind of politics. And Pete was such a powerful person to deliver that message on the presidential stage.
KH: Did you imagine in the run-up to the 2016 election that the next several years of your life would be devoted to politics?
SM: No. No way. I mean, it's interesting. My experience in 2016 was so different. I felt like an outsider. I had never really considered myself to be politically involved. It was the first cycle where I even, frankly, had the resources to think about participating as a donor. I'd maybe donated 10 or 20 bucks in cycles before because that's what I could afford. And I was able to write a federal max out check to Hillary Rodham Clinton when she ran for president in 2016. So, but I couldn't find ways to plug in beyond that.
I felt like in 2016, I learned the hard way that it was really hard as a political outsider to become a quote-unquote political insider, and in some ways, thank goodness for the outcome of that election, because I woke up the next day of November saying, "Okay, my experience is part of the reason why I have to get more involved. We have got to make it easier, more transparent and way more accessible for so many more people to figure out how to get involved in politics, because this is work that matters for all of us. And it affects our everyday lives." I mean, in many ways, what I realized at the end of 2016 was that - my day job was working in tech and helping people build really ambitious companies - it was easier at the end of 2016 to learn how to build a high-growth technology venture, a startup, than it was to figure out how to get into politics. And that's messed up, because the only thing that I can think of that is way more American than entrepreneurship is democratic participation.
KH: The result of that realization and the energy you brought to it was the Arena. Can you describe what it was trying to do at the time, as I imagine a reaction to the election of Donald Trump?
SM: Yeah. So as is often the case with really great ideas, there was a little bit of serendipity involved, because at the moment that the election happened and I was processing all of these thoughts that I just shared, I got an email in my inbox from Ravi Gupta who is somebody that I've known over the years because of our shared interest in public service, but hadn't been super closely in touch with. And Ravi's email said - echoed a lot of the sentiments that I've been having. “If you're taking election as a wake-up call and a moment to get more civically involved and think that we need to make it easier and more approachable for more people to go through this work of being civically engaged, I got an idea. Let's gather in Nashville a month after the election and see if we can just teach people about how to run for office, how to be politically engaged.” And that was the very first Arena summit that we hosted in Nashville in December of 2016. I offered to fund the first summit. And I thought we were maybe going to get 20 or 30 people to show up for that. We had almost 500 people show up from 30-some states, and a lot of young people that - like me, like Ravi, like you, who were just hungry for what they could do. And so the Arena's taken on a life of its own since then. We focused the first few years on helping new generation people learn how to run for office without overcoming the information and network challenges that first-time candidates face. And since then, we've moved into training also not just candidates, but the talented staff behind those candidates. So to date, Arena has done trainings for more than a thousand people across the country to teach them how to be campaign managers, finance directors, communications directors, to run organizing programs and the like, and something that I'm so proud of is that equity has been a design principle from the very beginning. So from the slate of candidates that we endorse in our fellowship to the people that we bring in for our trainings and help place through Arena careers on the campaigns, we over index the general population in terms of racial diversity, gender diversity, and push really hard for socioeconomic diversity in our cohorts also.
KH: I remember the run-up to that Nashville summit and the internal debate at the Arena over whether or not to support moderate Republican candidates. Arena today is about as far as you can get from a nonpartisan or bipartisan organization as possible. How do you feel about that?
SM: Great, because I think part of this vision and this evolving new generation, new type of politics is increasingly, these folks that are stepping into the civic arena, they're anchoring in shared values way more than they are in partisan identity. And they are spending so much more time connecting with their constituents, Republican and Democrat, over everyday issues, the kitchen table issues that matter to these people that they're running to represent. So questions of healthcare, of economic security, of job futures, of education access and opportunity for their children. And I think that's awesome. If you look at the slate of folks in the Arena fellows batch, one thing that you'll find is some of these are candidates who, a few cycles ago, yeah, they might've run as moderate Republicans, and others are people that you might say have a lot more in common with Elizabeth Sanders or - with Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders - than Mitt Romney. But that's part of the point, is that what they all share are some of their collective values and the work that they want to get done for the folks that they're running to represent.
KH: Well, this is definitely not a nonpartisan show. I have a pretty strong perspective, so you don't need to tread lightly. And I think you got it at part of the deeper answer with this suggestion that some of those candidates just a few years ago might have been able to call themselves Republicans, but something catastrophic has happened to the moral fabric of that party that makes it damn near impossible to be complicit in electing standard bearers for that party.
SM: I mean, this is such a critical theme, Ken, and I'm so grateful to you for exploring it on this series, like on your podcast, because this is, in many ways, this is one of the most defining questions of our time. It's not just the way that the Democratic side is evolving to accommodate all of these positions. It's also the fact that the modern Republican party hasn't created a safe space for these values.
KH: So it wasn't a tough call early on to say, "You know what? It would be great if we could have the kind of political diversity that we're living up to in our focus on other kinds of diversity," but it conflicts so fundamentally with the values we're trying to promote.
SM: You know, it wasn't for me and to his credit, it was so important and done with great intention for Ravi. In fact, the very first year that we ran Arena, our community members who were around the country would self-organize to get together and have discussion series. And one of the things that Ravi was so insistent on proactively promoting in those community discussions was active debate among folks that maybe came at this from very different political histories, but were again coming together in community over shared values. And his point was that part of the path forward has to require us working together and reconciling these things that we don't agree on or at least accepting that we won't agree on everything, but that the things that we do share in common and do agree on are more important and more valuable. And so we did it with great intention, but that really set Arena apart in that landscape of new progressive organizations that got off the ground, because many others, I think, have fueled themselves and their communities just off of a complete rejection of the sitting president, but also the bigger party around him. And that was never our intention with the Arena.
KH: Most of the Arena's candidates, if I'm not mistaken, are not federal. I mean, you certainly play on that stage, but there is a real focus on recruiting and training and supporting candidates at all levels of government. Why the focus on those deep-down ballot races?
SM: Because a lot of those are the offices that have far more bearing on people's everyday lives. Those are the offices where really important, major decisions are getting done. I'll tell you a story. The second, no, the third arena summit that we hosted was in Detroit, Michigan, in June of 2017. And we had a lot of people that were at that summit that were thinking about running for federal office, or for major statewide office. But in the hallway, on the second day, this young Latina woman approached me and said, "Hey, my name's Lena Hidalgo. And I came here because I'm really thinking about running for office in my hometown of Houston in Harris County. But it's this position that you probably never heard of. It's called Harris County judge, but it's not really a judge." And I mean, you know Lena now, and you know the amazing story of what's happening in Harris County. I mean, Harris County has a population and a budget that is bigger than a lot of sitting congressmen in the US House. There is such responsibility in that role, and it's coming to a head at this moment where Lena's leading a county in a state where the governor does not believe in taking public health advice, so the decisions that she is making as the chief executive of Harris County is literally a matter of life and death for the people in Harris County. It matters that she is in that office.
KH: I can't imagine a better exemplar for this idea that those down-ballot races really do have more of a bearing on the day to day lives of Americans than we ever think during an election season.
SM: Yes, there's that, and I should tell you also, because I oftentimes take the long view on this work that I'm doing, but the down-ballot support matters also, because this is how we build a bench of people whose values align with ours. This is how we ensure that our politics looks better not just after November of this year, but continues on that path for the next decade, two decades, three decades to come, because we know that in the system that we have today, people that are in public service oftentimes tend to stay in public service. And so why not build a bench and make sure that we've got good people that are coming up and doing this work starting now and might work their way upwards and into higher office in the years to come?
KH: Right. And it also has a direct impact on democratic infrastructure. When you look at gerrymandering and redistricting, those aren't done at the federal level, those are those as I pejoratively called them down-ballot races, but they certainly aren't down-ballot when it comes to the impact on our daily lives and, when it comes to redistricting, it can have effects for decades.
SM: Yeah. It's why actually this year, the Arena's almost entire focus is on state-level races. We're actually, the fellowship is not focused on federal candidates this cycle. It's entirely for state-level candidates.
KH: With the presidential election now in full swing, however, are you seeing fractures within the Democratic coalition that worry you? I think you believe strongly that it's a values-driven coalition, but are there either values-driven fractures or tactical or strategic disagreements that concern you going into November?
SM: I'm actually really heartened to see the way in which we're all coming together and presenting a really strong, united front to do what it takes to win in November. And I think it's remarkable that there was such push for unity so early in the process, because the biggest risk heading into the beginning of this year was that we were going to have an extremely fractured and drawn-out primary cycle that was going to end up focusing more on our divisions than on the things that brought us together. And we've actually done a remarkable job opposite to that, of coming together and making it super clear that what matters most is winning. I think the challenge for us, though, is still going to be, it comes back to this question you and I were discussing, which is why do you run for office? You run for office not just to win. You run to win so that you can get some stuff done. And so what is the articulation of what that better future is that we all want to build? And that's where the differences start to manifest and where I think there's been some really good progress, like the Unity Task Force on the policy platform for the presidential, but there's just a lot more work that needs to happen to figure out what's going to define the post-2020 era. And, by the way, like not taking for granted that we're going to win. We've got to show up every single day from now until November to win. But once we do, how do we get ever clearer on how we're going to make the next four years really count? Because it's likely a case that we're not just talking about winning the White House, but we're in serious position to carry the House and the Senate, and so that is amazing. And it also brings with it tremendous responsibility.
KH: If you had to identify, let's just say two races that should be top of mind, apart from the presidential. Which should people be focusing on? A year ago the thought of flipping the Senate was seen as a fantasy. Now it's a real possibility if the right strategic decisions can be made. What are those two strategic races? Not the obvious ones. Who are the ones on the bubble that really need the help and have a chance to pull it off?
SM: Great question. So there are three that are top of mind for me. Raphael Warnock. So Reverend Warnock's bid for the second Georgia Senate seat. He's running in the special election against Kelly Loeffler, is the governor-appointed incumbent in that race, but has very obvious limitations as a candidate. And contrast to that, Reverend Warnock is an amazing civil rights leader in Georgia, lots of credibility and strength as a candidate in his own right. But this is also a moment where we should all be asking why don't we want another civil rights leader in the US Senate? So that's a race that I think to date has been under-invested in, but is likely to over-perform. If you also look at some of the important work that Stacey Abrams did with her gubernatorial bid and with the voting access work that she's been investing in in Georgia, it's just a state that's poised to go blue. And that's true for both of the Senate seats, but real opportunity with Reverend Warnock's, just to increase the financial investment. Second one on my list is obviously Cal Cunningham's race in North Carolina, which is total toss up, an amazing candidate with a sharp, sharp, sharp campaign team. So that's another one. And the third one on my list is MJ Hegar's race in Texas. I think MJ's throwing some serious curve balls this cycle. I think she knows what she's doing and Texans deserve a way better senator than John Cornyn. And she's got the energy and the enthusiasm and just the total commitment and credibility to deliver it, so we just need to get behind her and believe a little bit that Texas can turn.
KH: I want you to channel the feelings you were experiencing on November 7th of 2016 in answering this question. What is the best we can hope for on November 4th of 2020, the morning after the election? And I'm not asking about the numbers. I'm asking something more, gosh, more spiritual, more philosophical. How do you think America could feel that morning if people do rally and these values-driven coalitions are able to prevail?
SM: So I'm envisioning a morning where we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief and just relish the fact that our blood pressure will not be taking us on a four-year long roller coaster. This feeling that has maybe become normalized, that every time you open the news or open your Twitter app, that your heart rate races and your endorphins go all over the place and your blood pressure requires medication? That's not normal. It has become normal in the last four years. So I think in many ways, the surprise that I'm looking forward to, that I'm almost anticipating, is the idea of like, "Huh, okay, no big deal. We put some really great people in positions to handle all of this stuff, so much so that we don't all have to be worrying about it so much all the time."
KH: Yeah. I read a quote recently that has stuck with me: "The moment tyranny becomes normal, it's already won."
SM: Yes. So pithy and so, so powerful.
KH: Well, Swati, thank you so much for joining us. We end every show with the same question. What is the bravest decision you have ever been a part of?
SM: Ooh. To spend every single day over the last almost four years being civically engaged. I think I have built the muscles now that this is going to be a lifelong practice, maybe not full time after November of this year, God willing, but I think that was a really brave decision. This was an area I didn't know anything about and never felt like I belonged in. And I have made it feel very different and tried to make it feel more approachable and welcoming for other people. And I hope that there is something inspiring in that for others to do the same.
KH: Thank you, Swati, for your efforts, for your friendship and for staying in the fight. I hope you never leave it.
SM: Ken, I'm so grateful to you for what you're doing in the civic arena as well, so thank you. And it was a pleasure.
KH: Thanks again to Swati for joining me. You can find her on Twitter at @Swatipedia and learn more about her projects at Incite.org and Arena.run.
Tune into the next episode of Burn the Boats for a lively conversation with Anthony Scaramucci. We talk about his brief tenure as the White House Communications Director and his recent decision to denounce Trump, as well as his journey from working class to Goldman Sachs, the White House and more.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
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