David Warren '97 is helping reinvigorate the narrative of cultural transformation in the innovative world of software and business technology
It’s easy to garner assent, from nearly all sides, that the American political and social landscape is in a bleak and disappointing moment. From such a place, we long for touchpoints that inspire hope. Where are there fresh winds blowing that inspire excitement and creativity?
If you ask David Warren, he will tell you it is in the excellence and innovation of American entrepreneurship and business. And from where he stands--winner of numerous awards, founder or game-changer in one high-powered company after another--the landscape is fertile and fruitful.
I’m talking with David at 9am in San Diego on a Friday morning, and it sounds as if his work day is in full swing. Already this morning he has had to address some unexpected issues, but his voice and concentration bear no trace of distraction. Over the phone, he is warm and gracious, with an intensity of presence discernible even across thousands of miles and three time zones. Such dexterity in shifting gears and such laser-like focus seem to be both a natural gift, and skills honed by years in the fast-paced world of business technology and software development.
That world has taken David to a number of significant professional arenas over the course of his career thus far: from a graduate student at San Diego State University, where he earned a master’s in marketing in just two semesters, to founder and CEO of LIA, an award-winning mobile app for sales & marketing teams, with several marketing and software development stops along the way toward his current position in business development at a venture-backed software company.
One important element of that journey was the summer he spent as a fellow in the first class of the Witherspoon Fellowship (a precursor to today’s John Jay Fellows Program). He speaks with great affection and conviction of the “deep discipleship” he and the other Witherspoon Fellows received under Alan Crippen’s direction:
“During a formative time of my life, the Witherspoon Fellowship gave me a grounding in the permanent things needed for a country like ours to live successfully together. It is part of the call that God gave man in the beginning; the directive to bring order out of chaos.”
“It is a privilege to be made in the image of the original Innovator.”
That world is one that, like American culture in general, does not typically expect Christian conservatives, particularly evangelicals, to be thoughtful, articulate, forward-thinking people. (Too often this is not an unfair perspective, as this election cycle reminds us.)
This reality troubles David. But what is perhaps most striking in talking to him about these widespread cultural concerns is his reluctance to stay mired in despair or defensiveness. Instead, he turns almost immediately to the kind of strategic, solution-oriented thinking that has surely helped make him a force to be reckoned with in the business world.
It doesn’t take long for David to address one of his favorite topics: “There are many virtues that protect: character, honesty, integrity. But there is another powerful virtue that earns Christians in business the right to be heard: excellence.”
The roots of David’s conviction about the importance of excellence begin in the nature of God Himself. Our God, David emphasizes, is a God of excellence who, from the first act of creation, has elevated the value of excellent work. God’s repeated pronouncement “It is good” over his own work must, then, be a first principle for us as co-creators who have been given dominion over what He has made. Creating skilfully is a valuable exercise of the creation mandate as well as a matter of God’s glory and pleasure. This is a shaping truth for David in his own work, as he believes it must be for all followers of Christ. In December, 2012, David’s company LIA won a “Most Innovative Product Award” for best mobile app, a new award category that year. From the podium at the awards ceremony, David told the audience, “It is a privilege to be made in the image of the original Innovator.”
This subtle shift in emphasis from the familiar God as Creator to God as Innovator may seem slight, but it is not insignificant. For Christian conservatives who value truth and tradition, innovation can sometimes be felt as a tension – strung out somewhere between the poles of what Russell Kirk, borrowing from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, called Permanence and Progression.
But David doesn’t see this as a tension at all – not because he is immune to the pressing questions of these forces but because he sees the possibility, indeed the necessity, of innovation for any substantive preservation of the permanent things. “We can tend to get stuck in preservation mode,” he says – an observation whose relevance to our current moment is difficult to ignore – and one can hardly help hearing echoes in his words of Edmund Burke’s sage statement that “change is the means of our preservation.”
And the element of surprise, when people encounter excellent, articulate, and respected Christians in the workplace, can be a powerful witness.
“We need to position ourselves for maximum impact.”
This kind of excellence is about more than just a faithful witness to God’s character and a compelling apologetic for the Christian faith. David emphasizes its potential to effect real cultural and social change.
As evidence, he holds up two highly successful and well-known business enterprises: Uber and Amazon. “If you want an example of how entrepreneurship and technology can help our society integrate immigrant populations, create jobs, provide transportation to underserved areas, and promote cross-cultural interactions, just look at Uber,” says David. “Uber has facilitated more interactions among different groups of people than any government summit.”
Concerning the environment and environmental stewardship – a controversial and often-overlooked area for many conservatives – David points out that Amazon has managed to save more trees with its Kindle e-reader than “any institutions or organizations have been able to do.” And he’s right. A 2009 study found that the Kindle saved, on average, the purchase of 22.5 hard copy books, which have the highest per-unit carbon footprint in a publishing industry that harvests over 125 million trees annually.
It is clear that David is hopeful about the capacity of entrepreneurship and technology to address these kinds of pressing problems and possibilities of our time in ways that also touch on timeless realities. It is a hope that he wants others to share.
It is impossible not to feel excited about the world after talking with David – not with a shrill or shallow triumphalism but with an abiding expectancy that is rooted in truth. His confidence and enthusiasm in the potential for cultural and Kingdom impact when God’s people work excellently and live winsomely is a breath of fresh air in what can feel too often like a dry and brittle landscape. He views the pursuit of excellence, including the success and wealth that can attend this pursuit, as a way to “position ourselves for maximum impact” - spoken like the Kingdom-animated entrepreneur he is. David’s own life serves as a compelling example of this pursuit, and as powerful proof of his own exhortation to “not take business off the table as a vocational option simply because it does not have a patina of holiness on it.” For those crafted and called by the Great Innovator, there is much excellent work to be done.
Author: Lauren Bobbitt is a 2009 John Jay Institute fellow who studied English literature and now spends her days working in communications at an organic dairy farm and creamery in her Hoosier home.