SAN FRANCISCO — With a new political advocacy group that plans to inject millions of dollars into shaping public policy coast to coast, Mark Zuckerberg is taking a significant step onto the political stage, expanding his influence far beyond his home turf in Silicon Valley.
The billionaire founder and chief executive of Facebook made it official Thursday that he plans to take on a far more visible national role in launching Fwd.us, which will lobby for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, investments in scientific research and higher educational standards. He has the backing of some of Silicon Valley's most prominent executives, including Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Marissa Mayer.
Fwd.us has raised $25 million and hopes to double that amount. It has hired a high-powered team of consultants and lobbyists on both sides of the political aisle to help press the technology industry's agenda in Washington.
Equally ambitious are Zuckerberg's plans to rally support for those causes closer to home. Fwd.us, headed by his Harvard roommate and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Green, is bringing on an organizing director and plans to hire community organizers in tech hubs across the country to encourage technology workers to become more engaged in politics and turn out support on social media for industry causes — a tactic that helped defeat Hollywood-sponsored anti-piracy legislation.
Fwd.us is kicking off its efforts with a push for undocumented workers to become U.S. citizens and for an increase in the flow of skilled guest workers into the U.S. The launch of the group comes as a group of senators prepare to deliver a long-awaited immigration bill that would increase the number of visas available for highly skilled workers in science and technology.
"We have a strange immigration policy for a nation of immigrants," Zuckerberg, 28, wrote in an editorial piece for the Washington Post. "And it's a policy unfit for today's world."
But taking such public positions on hot-button social issues in the bare-knuckle world of Washington politics carries some risk for Zuckerberg and other technology executives, political observers say.
"They are coming at this with real integrity and wanting to make a difference in the world," Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said. "Given their financial resources and the successes they have had, that says something really good about them. But politics is a full-contact sport."
Executives and their companies may be subject to increased scrutiny over the billions of dollars they keep in untaxed offshore stockpiles, their efforts to avoid paying higher taxes and the way some of their businesses operate on the fringes of state and federal regulations, San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston said.
"The more public you are in your claims on government, the more vulnerable you are to people accusing you of being a hypocrite," Gerston said. "The more they make claims on the system, the more there will be those who push back, saying: 'You want this but you are unwilling to do your part.'"
For years, Zuckerberg has put his money behind issues he cares about. He made a $100-million donation to Newark, N.J., public schools in 2010 shortly before the opening of "The Social Network," a movie that cast him in an unsympathetic light. In December, he said he would give nearly $500 million in Facebook stock to a Silicon Valley foundation to provide funds for health and education issues. The generosity was in part intended to blunt antipathy toward Zuckerberg for making so much money and having so much success so young, political observers say.
Gradually Zuckerberg has begun to engage in politics more directly. He took part in a recent event organized by Silicon Valley political group TechNet to press President Obama and Congress on immigration reform. In February, Zuckerberg threw a fundraiser at his home in Palo Alto for Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Like Zuckerberg, many taking on major roles in Fwd.us — such as Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb Inc., and Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom — belong to the latest generation of high-tech entrepreneurs. Although they have far less political experience and savvy than their forebears, they say they feel strongly about contributing to the national debate on key public policy issues.
"I have tried to prepare people" for possible negative attention to their wealth and privilege, said a person involved in the Fwd.us effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. "But they are committed to trying to organize our community. When we were approaching potential donors, they all said: 'Oh, I have been waiting for this.'"