…because some thoughts are worth remembering
When I moved to Silicon Valley, I attended many meetups and networking events for entrepreneurs. The experience quickly shattered the ideological impression I had of Silicon Valley. It came as a surprise to me because I had conducted meetings in Silicon Valley, knew people who “worked in the biz”, studied innovation policies and entrepreneurial practices nationally and globally, yet somehow moving here changed my perception.
I heard plenty of pitches and business ideas that were much more fleshed out and more innovative in Hawaii and other regional markets than some of the ones I heard in Silicon Valley. On the other hand, it is quite easy to be within feet of tech celebrities here and there are multiple events one can attend on any given day on whatever topic you fancied.
What’s magical about Silicon Valley is that because of its quality and the density of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the dreamers can delude themselves as entrepreneurs and continue to pursue their vision as their right, and the lousy pitches do get better.
It made sense, then, for the US to host the 7th Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES2016) in Silicon Valley. I still remember the deep impression it left on me on one of my first business trip to Silicon Valley, where you are greeted by ads dominated by the enterprise level product companies like Baracuda, rather than the Golden Gate photographs that branded San Francisco. My brain slowly processed and accepted that these tech company ads were part of that Bay Area brand. When we spotted the names of companies on sides of buildings, it also took a while to sink in that they weren’t just ads for the companies, but that the buildings themselves were the company headquarters. I was giddy when we stayed in a motel across the big Tivo sign (as a proud early adopter of digital entertainment system). When we passed by company buildings whose products we used in our business, we would shout, “Oh, that’s Cisco! EMC!” and snap pictures (way before the word selfie was invented, and no easy way to share the photos). Silicon Valley is the mecca of innovation companies and I was excited to have entrepreneurs from all over the world experience that energy, awe, and hopefulness I got to experience.
Many of the panels were moderated by Americans who made sure to frame the conversation as “you can be an entrepreneur anywhere”. But consistently touted by many associated with Silicon Valley if not from the Bay Area, started to sound like we were chanting it to make ourselves believe it, as if to tell a child, “Sure, Santa can be true….”
For a short period, the Stanford Campus which hosted the Summit, was filled with diversity not only of nationalities but of socio economic status, gender, age (I believe the youngest participant was 11 who had several apps under his belt), colors of fabric and hair styles. During breaks and standing in line to hear President Obama speak, I overheard a wide range of conversations from what they were passionate about to what latest gadgets they were going to purchase before leaving Silicon Valley. Never uttered were “term sheets”, “ownership dilution”, and other words and phrases in common parlance in the Bay Area meetups or Starbucks.
I was so embarrassed with myself when my followup question to an entrepreneur from Bolivia was “Are you raising funds now?” and I got a puzzled look back followed by, “I’m trying to educate my people. There needs to be more opportunities. I organized the community’s first Startup Weekend. I think I can help out the teachers.” I wanted to click “undo” on the “become a Silicon Valley cliché” feature.
Sally Osberg, the President and CEO of Skoll Foundation who moderated a breakout session of social entrepreneurs, made a point to introduce the panel with her observation that all the other sessions could have been about social entrepreneurship as well, because there was so much passion for something bigger than ourselves. There were entrepreneurs coming up with products that clean the dust off solar panels without water so their country with dusty winds can still take advantage of solar technologies, while other entrepreneurs concentrated on literacy and linking their cultural assets to financial stability for their communities.
When Mark Zuckerberg was asked by President Obama what it meant for him to be an entrepreneur, he said that “Entrepreneurship is more about bringing change than creating a company”, and we had a whole campus full of people from all over the globe wanting to leave this world better than they found it.
The Global Entrepreneurship Summit may have been hosted by Silicon Valley to showcase “how it’s done at the capitol of innovation” to the rest of the nation and the world. Silicon Valley may have matured to be a “one trick town“, a factory of innovation, and envy to the world. But it was Silicon Valley who was taught the lesson by our global attendees: to be reminded of the wisdom and passion that transformed this land with nothing but orchards just 75 years go. Our global guests both on stage and off stage reminded us that entrepreneurship comes from questioning the status quo to make our lives better, that we need diversity of ideas, inclusion and collaboration to innovate, and that we must continue to take risks, even (or especially) if you figured out a successful formula for innovation. Silicon Valley must think outside of its own box (in hiring practices, funding models, etc.) if we were to continue to innovate, and not be locked into the current formula for however we define success.
As Steve Case (who was also part of the plenary session alongside President Obama) penned in his book, The Third Wave, “…let us worry a little less about our net worth and a little more about our net impact,” and as Sergey Brin stated, “Failure doesn’t matter…nor does success. It is the privilege to pursue your dream that matters.”
My heartfelt thank you to Astia and the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the White House for including me in the Summit.
For videos of sessions at GES2016, check out the GES channel on YouTube.
Photo: President Obama moderates a panel of entrepreneurs from around the globe (including Mark Zuckerberg) after giving his keynote speech at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2016 Silicon Valley