Silicon Valley Organization CEO resigns as nonprofits line up to cut ties
Madison Nguyen, The SVO's executive vice president, speaks at a news conference last week. Photo by Carly Wipf,

The CEO of The Silicon Valley Organization, Matt Mahood, resigned as eight prominent South Bay nonprofit groups announced they are cutting ties with the influential business group.

“I am very sorry for the completely unacceptable image that was put up on our website earlier this week,” Mahood said in announcing his resignation. “That image and messaging does not represent who I am as a man, a father, a husband or community leader. The people who know me and work with me on a regular basis know that.”

During a news conference today, The SVO leadership announced an investigation into how the ad was posted. The investigation will be done in one week and the results will be posted on the organization’s website. The organization also will start a series of diversity trainings next week.

“We want to commit and promise to be an organization that stands up for equal rights,” said Madison Nguyen, The SVO’s executive vice president.

The SVO will establish a diversity review board that will look at its campaign messaging moving forward. The names of the new board, which will contain at least three members, will be announced in a few weeks, the organization said.

“What we’ve seen that has happened is absolutely appalling,” said Kevin Surace, a member of The SVO executive committee. He called the ad “morally, ethically and politically wrong.”

The fallout was the result of a racist political attack ad targeting District 6 candidate Jake Tonkel that was posted on The SVO’s website. The ad quickly disassembled the organization, which boasted a membership of 1,200 businesses across Santa Clara County.

The post — which read “Do you really want to sign on to this?” — featured a picture of Black rioters.

 

This image on the website of The Silicon Valley Organization prompted an outcry.

The post was meant to illustrate what would happen if Tonkel, a police reform advocate, were elected and slashed the police budget — something Tonkel said he isn’t looking to do. Mahood acknowledged the image was offensive and “should not have been posted” by a web administrator.

Resident Nassim Nouri, who has lived in the city for almost 30 years was the lone peaceful protestor at the SVO news conference. She stood quietly behind reporters holding a Black Lives Matter sign. “We need fundamental change in any organization calling itself a chamber representing businesses if those businesses represent bigotry, inequity, and lies,” Nouri said. “We don’t want those businesses in San Jose.”

Resident Nassim Nouri, who has lived in San Jose for almost 30 years, quietly held a Black Lives Matter sign while The Silicon Valley Organization addressed its turmoil. Photo by Carly Wipf.

Leaders of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Latinas Contra Cancer, Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), People Acting in Community Together (PACT), The Health Trust, United Way Bay Area and Silicon Valley at Home met in front of the SVO offices to explain why they are leaving the organization.

The nonprofits are demanding the SVO PAC be disbanded and the leadership of The SVO, the California Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association be fired. The real estate groups are closely connected to The SVO and have paid for some of the campaign mailers.

Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County was the first of many local organizations to publicly rescind its membership.

“As leaders of community based organizations — many of which are members of the Silicon Valley Organization — we are appalled at the blatant racist fear mongering tactics of SVO and SVO political action committee, the California Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association,” said the nonprofit’s CEO Gregory Kepferle.

Catholic Charities said it is returning a reward it had received from The SVO while the Health Trust asked for a proportional refund of its membership dues.

Michele Lew, CEO of The Health Trust, speaks at a news conference Oct. 29 about leaving The SVO. Photo by Carly Wipf.

The Health Trust also said it would no longer be a member of SVO.

“Today is a day of reckoning for the SVO,” Michele Lew, CEO of The Health Trust said. “The SVO has engaged in a disturbing years long pattern of racist behavior … enough is enough. We demand systemic change.” She called for changes in the organizational culture of the SVO and said San Jose should have “zero tolerance for a pattern of racist behavior.”

Milan Balinton, executive director of African American Community Service Agency, was invited to serve on the SVO board and decided to seize the opportunity to make change from within.

“When we get together as board members once I’m finally on that board, we better be ready to make change immediately,” Balinton said.

Since the ad’s release — and subsequent removal — at least three SVO board members have stepped down. Mahood was initially placed on administrative leave and all SVO political action committee activities were suspended. A third-party investigator will conduct an investigation at all levels of the organization to discover more about why the image was posted.

Councilmember Dev Davis, Tonkel and prominent advocacy groups across the city have denounced The SVO for its “poor judgement.”

Davis, who has maintained a long-standing positive relationship with The SVO, tweeted that she felt “ashamed” of the support she received after seeing the ad.

Despite resigning, Mahood claimed he had no idea the racist photo would be posted. SVO leaders have blamed an outside web administrator, but refuse to disclose their name.

“Although the SVO internal investigation has not yet been conducted or concluded, I am confident that the results of the investigation will show a breakdown of internal process and control, and that I had no knowledge of the image’s posting on our website,” Mahood said. “And in fact, as soon as I was made aware that the webpage existed, I had it taken down immediately. The investigation will find that it was a horrible mistake made by someone on the SVO team — the team for whom I am ultimately responsible for.”

The SVO proved itself a heavyweight this election season, spending more than half a million dollars promoting its anti-Tonkel, pro-Dev Davis agenda.

About $200,000 was thrown in the ring specifically to defeat Tonkel but the recent post on The SVO website went too far, according to advocacy groups that gathered in protest at San Jose City Hall Oct. 28.

In addition to supporting Davis and campaigning against Tonkel, The SVO has advocated for San Jose Councilmember Lan Diep’s reelection and has distributed messages in opposition of District 4 candidate David Cohen.

Faith leaders of Silicon Valley, NAACP, South Bay Labor Council, Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, Silicon Valley De-Bug and other organizations called on Davis and Diep to reject The SVO’s support, adding the PAC has a history of darkening the faces of Latino councilmembers Sergio Jimenez and Sylvia Arenas in ads.

Also this week, many large businesses and for-profit organizations cut ties with The SVO. In addition to Republic Services and the California Apartment Association, Santa Clara Valley Water District left The SVO after 44 years.

Rick Callender, Valley Water’s first African American CEO, said he’s “disgusted, hurt and deeply offended.”

“Using these images to suggest there should be something to fear or distrust or other stereotypical issues associated with African American men should not be allowed in political campaigns, in the community, or from those who purport to represent us as industry associations,” Callender said. “This is not about the election cycle; this is about trying to incite people to be fearful of me, an African American man, in my own community, which I live and work. This racist act is unacceptable.”

The Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits also withdrew its Nonprofit Ally Award given to The SVO last week for Mahood’s help in securing PPE for nonprofit essential workers.

“SVO has apologized for the webpage image, but given the organization’s history of similar deplorable behavior, frankly, an apology isn’t sufficient,” said the council’s CEO Kyra Kazantzis. “As a SVO member organization, we stand with other nonprofit members in calling for true accountability as well as a demonstrated commitment to culture change at every level of the organization.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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