Deborah Ross 2016

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When U.S. Senate nominee Deborah Ross arrived at American Underground to answer questions in front of a crowd of entrepreneurs Wednesday, she had a distinguishable air of confidence about her. 

In minutes, she displayed her startup acumen, acknowledging the challenges entrepreneurs face in raising capital and suggesting ways she’d reward the investors who take risks on fledgling businesses. She even likened her campaign to a startup, offering the entrepreneurs in the room advice on fundraising and how to perfect the pitch.

The Democrat lawyer’s exuberance was probably helped by her prior stop in Greensboro for a Hillary Clinton campaign rally headlined by Clinton’s running mate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia.

Ross is the second politician running in the 2016 elections to sit for a live interview with ExitEvent Editor Laura Baverman at the Durham startup campus. The first Candidate Conversation, with Attorney General Roy Cooper, who’s running for governor against Governor Pat McCrory, happened in May. The series is meant to bring North Carolina political candidates together with entrepreneurs to discuss innovation economy issues and how government might be involved in solving them.

Ross is no stranger to politics. She spent a decade in the North Carolina legislature as a state representative before taking a role as general counsel for GoTriangle, where she championed the Durham-Chapel Hill Light Rail Project.

But transit is just one of the passions she’ll bring with her to Washington D.C. if elected. Over the course of 50 minutes, she covered education, social justice, equal pay for women, healthcare policy, immigration and workplace issues.

She kicked it all off by sharing the apps she loves best, especially now that she’s on the campaign trail. Check out highlights from the interview below, and watch out for video footage in the days to come.

Favorite apps and technology

Ross insists that apps are lifesavers when traveling, especially now that she’s on the campaign trail, but three specifically stand out to her as vital.

Weather apps always help her know what to expect and the flashlight app is a tool she uses all the time. Apparently candidates often find themselves in dark places.

Yelp is helpful on the campaign trail because she can visit small businesses that the towns and cities love, ones that “you wouldn’t find unless Yelp tells you where to go,” she says.

Governmental openness to startups and innovation

In response to a question about how to support or control disruptive technologies, Ross began by admitting that the government moves slower than industry and often responds late on issues rather than anticipating them before they occur.

Openness to change is an attitude Ross wants the government to embrace. She believes she has that quality, and its reflective in the startup mentality she brings to her campaign.

There’s an idea to sell, staff to hire and a desire to win, she says. And now, eight months after her campaign started in her kitchen with just $3,000 and an intern, she has a staff of more than 15 and has raised millions in campaign contributions.

Crucial for North Carolina startups is access to capital and Ross has a solution the government can offer to help with that. She would like a government that rewards entrepreneurs who take financial risks.

Through this, they can “fail forward,” she says, enabling them to take risks that don’t impede their future. 

Healthcare cost and access

Ross poses a few solutions to the burden Isa Watson, founder of the nonprofit giving platform Envested, feels as the cost of healthcare escalates just as she’s building her team.

Encouraging healthier lifestyles is key, Ross told the Durham entrepreneur. An expansion of Medicaid would provide healthcare benefits to more people, letting providers be paid for services they now provide free and eventually lowering everyone’s cost. And more healthcare options in North Carolina, including additional non-profit providers, would both add diversity of offerings and encourage competition in pricing. 

Fixing discrimination and wage gap for working women

Ross says she’s only felt discriminated based on her gender one time in her career, and it happened in politics and when Republicans took over state government in 2010.

That year, Republicans redistricted in such a way that pitted female Democrats in the legislature against each other in the fight to win voters in their district.

Now’s a time when families are increasingly reliant on women’s paychecks, as they account for nearly 40 percent of a typical family’s total earnings.

Because of this, Ross is passionate about fixing discrepancies in wages for women.

She’s a devout supporter of the Fair Pay Act, an extension of the 1963 Equal Pay Act that protects not just workers of any sex, but also those of any race or national origin.

HB2 hurting NC’s reputation and economy

American Underground’s Entrepreneur in Residence Doug Speight, of Cathedral Leasing, asked how Ross would use her voice to reverse the disparities NC has seen following the passage of the controversial House Bill 2.

The state has a history of southern progressiveness, but Ross insists that today’s state leaders are leaving all that behind to enact HB2, which she calls “a black eye for the state.”

On the campaign trail, Ross has seen how the bill has shattered the state’s reputation and economy. An industrial park in Lexington was built to attract business and, up until HB2 legislation, the town received about five calls a week from interested companies. Now, the town receives zero calls.

Further, producers have stopped using Wilmington as locations for TV and films. (The much diminished film tax credit is likely part of that phenomenon too.)

But what’s worse, Ross says, are the losses we haven’t seen—the performers, talent and leaders who’ve turned away from the state in the months since the bill was signed.

“This leaves a legacy of lost opportunity for our state and it’s not who we are,” she states. “We must have forward-thinking senators.”

Immigration and international collaboration

When it comes to immigration policy and reform for skilled workers, Ross puts value on bringing people together to create great things.

While a state representative, she favored legislation that would give immigrants a pathway to citizenship. 

“We need industry and smarts from people all over the world,” she says, adding that it’s good for both business and international relations.

High quality education means increasing access to benefits

Ross’ mother, a longtime preschool educator, taught her how vital preschool is in preparing children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

But Ross recognizes that not every family has the time and money to enforce that readiness, especially those in low-wealth counties that lack the industry they need to bring in in tax dollars for education.

If elected Senator, Ross says she will work to bring broadband internet to rural areas across the state, and will work to do that throughout the country as well.

She also puts in a statement that student loan debt “just cannot go on.”

Flexibility in the workplace

David Meisner of iScribes pointed out that startups often face legal dilemmas when providing to their employees flexible arrangements, like the opportunity to serve as contractors or work remotely from home. 

Ross says flexibility is important, but so is making sure employees are protected from benefits-less jobs, low minimum wage or uncompensated overtime work.

She believes it’s possible to satisfy both camps, as long as both are willing to work together. As for the complexity of state tax policies for out-of-state workers, she admitted a lack of knowledge on the issue but a desire to discuss and investigate further.

Increasing government involvement in transit expansion

Through her experience as general counsel at GoTriangle and as a chief advocate of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project, Ross learned the value of federal government’s partnership with state and local governments in funding transit projects.

Even though the federal government will pay up to 50 percent on a project, the other half has to be the responsibility of state and local government. Durham and Orange counties have already pledged support for light rail and Wake County will vote soon, but the state hasn’t supported the efforts so far, Ross says. 

Building infrastructure projects are critical though, she says. They create jobs that can’t be outsourced and, once there’s more transit, Ross asserts there will be more customers going to small businesses located close to those stops. That makes it good for the economy.

“Transit gets people where they need to go and creates jobs,” she says. “And the federal government is willing to pay 50 percent of it, so it’s a win-win situation for our communities.”

Staying in touch on the campaign trail

Ross left the audience with a call to action. To get involved in her campaign, ask a question or suggest an idea, reach out via email, social media or schedule an old-fashioned phone call. She makes 100 to 150 phone calls a day to be as accessible as possible to her potential constituents.