Last night, Jeff Skoll joined an eminent group of change-makers – Bill Gates, Al Gore, Gordon Moore and Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan. He was honored with The Tech Awardstop prize, the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award. This former eBay president, Skoll Foundationfounder, and billionaire champion of global peace and prosperity, was recognized for his energetic quest to find the answers to climate change, water scarcity and nuclear proliferation.
In an exclusive Fresh Dialogues interview, Skoll talked about the role of the tech community in making the world more sustainable. “Tech companies have a pretty big world view,” he said. “People here tend to have a better grasp of the bigger issues of the world…technologists can get ahead of these issues and create products that help.”
In 2004, he founded Participant Media, the Hollywood production company responsible for such provocative movies as An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, and Fast Food Nation. Participant Media aims to “create entertainment that inspires”…and in several cases has achieved both box office success and created positive social action around the world.
So, will there be a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth? Skoll admits there is definitely something in the works, and it could even be a TV Show. Check out the Fresh Dialogues video for more details…
As if all this weren’t enough, Skoll recently founded The Skoll Global Threats Fund, led by former Google.org chief, Larry Brilliant. Top threat on their list of five? Climate Change. Let’s hope they have some brilliant success with their mission.
The Tech Awards gala also recognized 15 laureates from around the world for creating innovative technology solutions to benefit humanity. The winner in the Environment category was Agua Clara a Cornell University program that designs sustainable (gravity powered) water treatment systems to provide clean water to over 25,000 people in communities around the world every day. I talked briefly with young AguaClara coordinator, Daniel Smith who plans to use the $50,000 cash prize to scale up the impressive work his organization is doing in Honduras.
Check back soon for part two of the Jeff Skoll interview to hear what one thing we can all do to make the world greener.
Read transcripts, see photos and check out our ARCHIVES featuring exclusive interviews with Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, Vinod Khosla and many more green experts and visionaries…
I recently attended Silicon Valley’s Tech Awards, and despite the inspiring innovators from around the world, there was an underlying mood of disquiet (even alarm) as Silicon Valley adjusts to the imminent reality of a Donald Trump presidency. I asked Tim Ritchie, President of the Tech Museum, what his predictions are for Silicon Valley under a new administration whose leader who has frequently espoused anti-science rhetoric. Here’s his response:
“We need to become a community that values science, that trusts evidence, that’s not afraid of facts, that’s not afraid of the future. My hope is that people will say: we’re Americans, we do not fear the future; we believe we can solve problems. And so hopefully it’ll be a wakeup call to be who the world needs us to be.” Tim Ritchie, President of the Tech Museum of Innovation, and host of the Tech Awards.
Of course, Silicon Valley is not afraid of the future and is full of risk-taking innovators, but as Ritchie says, it has received a wakeup call, and a stark reminder of the political bubble it lives in. There is a thriving tech world beyond Silicon Valley and its sky-high cost of living, traffic congestion and their impact on our quality of life are forcing some residents and companies to look elsewhere.
Portland, Oregon attracted Intel back in the 1970’s and more recently, tech companies like Google, AirBnB, Salesforce, and eBay have moved some facilities to the Portland area. Today Portland is a hub for global sportswear companies and has a growing tech startup scene. I went there to investigate what Silicon Valley and other global tech hubs can learn from its success and filed this report for the BBC World Service program, Business Matters.
Listen to the podcast at BBC Business Matters (The show is titled: How will Castro’s Death Affect Cuba-US Relations?) The Portland segment starts at 29:00.
Listen to the Portland segment here:
Here’s an excerpt of Tuesday’s program and my original report transcript (edited for length and clarity):
BBC host, Fergus Nicoll: Move over Silicon Valley. Today, we take you up to Silicon Forest, zooming up the west coast to Portland, Oregon and its thriving tech scene. A growing number of companies have made that move north. So what are the ingredients that make it a fertile ecosystem for tech startups and what can other tech hubs learn? Over to Alison…
Alison van Diggelen: Thanks Fergus. I took the 90 minute flight north of Silicon Valley to Portland (aka Silicon Forest). It does have a thriving tech scene and I wondered if Silicon Valley has anything to fear from this growing startup scene. I met with Jonathan Evans, a Blackhawk pilot who’s now CEO of Skyward, a drone management startup. Here’s what he said:
Jonathan Evans: If you haven’t been to Portland, you have to come, it’s one of the most magnificent cities on earth. It’s a beautiful, culturally rich city, an urban patchwork of villages, pedestrian scaled and we sit right at the foot of the Cascade mountains and just inland of the Pacific Ocean. This culture is wonderful at supporting innovation, technology and big bold ideas…This is a pioneering place. We’re anchored by Intel’s largest campus here. Intel, the Moore’s-law-driving-machine that’s producing all the chips and there’s a whole constellation of hardware companies that have come out of that ecosystem.
Alison van Diggelen: Although Evans visits Silicon Valley twice a month to meet with clients and investors, he’s not tempted to relocate his business.
Jonathan Evans: I don’t think there’s ever a part of me that wants to stay…(laughter) It’s a personal choice….We live well. If you look at it tenaciously as a business man: it’s half to one-third the cost living here and that translates to the salaries that we have to pay and the rent we have to pay…everything that comes into building a lean venture-backed tech startup really comes to apply here nicely…It’s a very legitimate place to grow a company, and to be backed by San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Alison van Diggelen: And that cheaper “cost of doing business” has caught the attention of high-priced, highly congested Silicon Valley. Tech companies like Google, AirBnB, Salesforce, and eBay have already moved some facilities to the Portland area. They tend, however to be the support and “backend” part of today’s tech ecosystem.
Polysync, a software startup in the autonomous driving sector recently relocated to Portland, from Idaho. I spoke with the CEO, Josh Hartung. Why did he choose Portland and not Silicon Valley?
Josh Hartung: Silicon Valley is always at the cutting edge, you have the best people in the world, hyper-new type stuff, where you’re seeing machine learning and autonomous driving really being pushed. For us, that wasn’t so important…We’re infrastructure builders, we want people who’re good at the plumbing… we want solid engineers that build backend.
Alison van Diggelen: For a big picture view, I crossed the river to talk with Skip Newberry, the President of the Technology Association of Oregon (pictured at top).
Skip Newberry: We’re still relatively immature… as a true technology hub. We don’t have the deep bench that exists in a place like Silicon Valley.
Alison van Diggelen: And yet, he’s bullish about Portland’s growth potential. A recent report showed that Portland’s tech talent pool grew 28% from 2010 to 2013, even faster than Silicon Valley’s (in percentage terms). Newberry says a focus on talent, access to capital and the regulatory environment is helping. He’s convinced that public-private partnerships in education and the “Internet of Things” will help create the right ecosystem for startups. He cites projects to improve air quality and transportation.
Skip Newberry: One area that we’ve been really active in has been “Smart Cities”– leveraging Portland’s reputation internationally as a global hub for urban planning and transportation systems. We’ve been trying to focus on the biggest challenges cities face, because if we can solve those, it’s something that will allow us to remain competitive in attracting top tech talent, because our quality of life will continue to be good. We’ve got a network of cities around US and globally who’re doing the same thing.
Alison van Diggelen: So does Silicon Valley have anything to fear from Portland? Not for now. Silicon Valley has more established tech hubs like Boston and Austin; New York, and Seattle to worry about. In any case, it’s too busy forging ahead, “inventing the future” with artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, drones and who knows what else?
Fergus Nicoll: Nice piece, Alison. Thanks. That was Skip Newberry, one of the people that believes Portland has the vision and I guess there has got to be an environment that fosters this: state authorities, maybe federal interest in making sure the good news is spread across the states…not just Silicon Valley?
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. I think the ecosystem of Silicon Valley is second to none and that was something that I came across when I talked with startup founders in Portland. There isn’t that deep bench of experienced people, the venture capital…
Fergus Nicoll: Explain that phrase “deep bench.”
Alison van Diggelen: I think it’s a baseball term. It means experienced business people: angel investors, venture capitalists, people who have started companies and have scaled them up: from a startup to the size of Facebook, Google etc. Portland is a relatively young tech hub and so they’re still establishing that talent base. What Silicon Valley has is a self perpetuating cycle: you’ve got the innovators, the risk-takers, the early adopters and it all reinforces. There’s a cycle going on: the people who’re successful become angel investors, venture capitalists…they’re all focused on Silicon Valley, because they’re here in Silicon Valley. Despite our connected world, doing business with eye to eye contact is still important.
Fergus Nicoll: Parag Khanna, is there endless room for such hubs or should it be focused?
Parag Khanna: It was a great piece. I have been to Portland and the geography does matter as well as the cost of living. It’s very close to the Vancouver/Seattle corridor, a wealthy, high quality infrastructure, diversified businesses, also a lot of talent spilling over from there and obviously sales opportunities for Portland based companies. And as the story reflected: talent spilling over from Silicon Valley. The geography is wonderful for this and people can live in between these two great, very deep bench economic zones and yet have a very high quality of life and affordable cost of living.
Tech Clusters in Asia: Parag Khanna offers some excellent insights.
A “Masterclass” in public speaking (featuring the fearless Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times)
The future of Cuba/US relations, post Fidel Castro: I’m predicting the business opportunity will be irresistible for President Trump and we’ll soon see a tech hub in Havana, as well as a brand new Trump tower.
“Making the world a better place.” This popular mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is regularly ridiculed by HBO’s popular series, Silicon Valley. For sure, the valley is full of hyperbole and idealistic exuberance, and to many outsiders that may seem completely irrational, insane even, but perhaps it’s a necessary mindset for this innovative region? Are there some entrepreneurs who genuinely want to make the world a better place, not for PR reasons, or to boost their social media following; but just for the sake of it? I attended the 19th annual SVForum Visionary Awards to explore the question.
Here’s a transcript of the segment, edited for length and clarity:
Click Radio host, Gareth Mitchell: This is Click from the BBC in London. We talk about technology every week and Silicon Valley is often on the agenda. It’s the kind of place where if you’re a company CEO, and you clock up, say a billion users, most people would say, ‘well that’s incredible,’ but in Silicon Valley, people are likely to say, ‘Oh really?’ It’s almost like a billion seems like a small number, such is the ambition about that place. But Silicon Valley likes to tell us it does have a beating heart through its Visionary Awards and this is where the valley recognizes CEOs and developers who really do want to make the world a better place. From the awards, we have this report from Alison van Diggelen.
Alison van Diggelen: Talk of revolution was in the air in Silicon Valley last week at SVForum’s Visionary Awards. With past recipients like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Esther Dyson, these awards have earned a reputation as the Oscars of Silicon Valley. Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, welcomed guests…
Liccardo: In Silicon Valley we do a great job of innovating; we do a terrible job of celebrating. And it’s important that we stop every once in a while and recognize those who’ve been leading the way and perhaps allow them to inspire us.
van Diggelen:Jennifer Palka is one of this year’s visionary award winners and wants to inspire a revolution by transforming the relationship of the American people with their government. She’s founder of Code for America, a nonprofit that leverages the innovative power of SV technology to help make government work more efficiently, cheaply and openly.
Pahlka: We’ve been trying to make the guts of government… as sexy as making Facebook. People are buying it… by coming into government, they can change the world.
van Diggelen: Remarkably, Code for America has managed to attract many top techies from companies like Apple, Adobe and Google who apply the SV playbook to government.
Pahlka: We believe that government can work better “for the people and by the people” in the 21st Century…the thing we are doing is bringing the practices of SV – user centered, iterative and data-driven approaches to solving problems – into government…by asking people to come and do a year of service.
van Diggelen: Code for America “fellows” make open source apps to address local issues. These are being scaled from local to national level. It’s now easier to apply for food stamps, connect with city hall via text, and get access to public records online. In San Jose, it helped inspire a (waste no food) app that helps hotels and restaurants redirect excess food to feed SV’s homeless. Pahlka’s innovative model has even been adopted by governments around the world. There’s a Code for Japan, Germany, South Africa, and Pakistan. But what really animates Pahlka is how it’s helping redefine SV’s role in the world.
Pahlka:Silicon Valley gets bad rap – we’ve transformed the world, but increased the inequality in our country.
Silicon Valley isn’t just about wealth creation; it’s about bringing people into our institutions in a profoundly valuable way that connects to the history of our country.
van Diggelen: The history of the United States and the need for an open Internet was also top of visionary award winner Tom Wheeler’s mind. A former tech entrepreneur and VC, Wheeler is now Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, which regulates US phone and cable companies; and fights for net neutrality on behalf of consumers and innovators. Wheeler describes broadband as a major driver of economic growth and likens it to coal during the industrial revolution.
Wheeler: Broadband, high speed Internet is the essential “commodity” of the 21st Century… You can’t be in a situation where you’ve got gatekeepers deciding which innovators get on…
van Diggelen: The European Union is in the process of following a similar model.
But like many tech innovators, Wheeler has a long list of ambitions, including the fight for consumer privacy.
Wheeler: A network gets to see every place you go on the Internet, everything you do. In the phone world, they couldn’t sell that information without your permission. That doesn’t exist today for networks in the high speed Internet, so we’re proposing that it should. The consumer has right to say whether that information can be productized and sold by their network provider.
van Diggelen: As the celebrations come to a close, I asked serial entrepreneur, Kevin Surace to reflect on the evening.
Surace: We’re living in a time when the innovations are coming faster than we’ve ever seen – in the history of ever – we’re now seeing inventions as powerful as the fire or the wheel every month…the pace of innovation is unbelievable.
van Diggelen: A fitting end to an exuberant Silicon Valley evening, where everyone was pumped by the same revolutionary fervor: tomake the world a better place.
Ambi –audience exuberance…fade out
Gareth Mitchell: Not that I want to bring the party down, but do they really want to make the world a better place? They might be nice people, but they’re running businesses, they’re pretty hard hearted entrepreneurs at the end of the day, aren’t they?
LJ Rich: There’s something called corporate social responsibility…it’s nice in a way that some companies would like to give back to the community, but it can’t hurt their social reputation, to be seen to be good, especially when you look at how a company’s social behavior is analyzed online and people will suffer if they’re behaving badly or in a way people aren’t impressed by. So yes, I think it’s very nice and altruistic, but there are always pluses to behaving in a responsible manner and some of these will definitely be impacting the bottom line.
Listen to the whole Click program, featuring reports on the future of the Internet; Wonderlab at London’s Science Museum; and a new virtual reality film called Valen’s Reef (about climate change’s impact on our oceans)
Last Thursday, I joined a special BBC World Service program hosted by Fergus Nicoll in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We began by discussing the large community of Vietnamese in Silicon Valley and its connection to Vietnam’s growing tech hub. Listen to the BBC podcast (at 21:00 re. Silicon Valley-Vietnam, and at 31:00 re. The Tech Awards)
We discussed my latest interviews in Silicon Valley on the BBC Business Mattersprogram. Here’s a transcript of our dialogue, edited for length and clarity:
Fergus Nicoll: Alison, you’ve been talking to some of the winners of the Tech Awards in Silicon Valley. What kinds of things are they coming up with and what could Vietnamese developers seek to emulate?
Alison van Diggelen: I spoke with three young entrepreneurs who’re doing incredible things: Tricia Compas-Markman is founder of DayOne Response. What they’ve built is a 10 liter backpack – it’s very low-tech in fact. It provides clean drinking water on day one in a natural disaster. They’ve deployed it in places like Nepal after the earthquake; and what they want to do is pre-position it in places like the Philippines that are subject to natural disasters. It’s a wonderful way for families and individuals to collect and treat and get clean drinking water in disaster areas…
Fergus Nicoll: We were in the Philippines last week…we could maybe put them in touch with Senator Loren Legarda or the Red Cross in the Philippines? They would be very keen to hear about that kind of initiative. What else have you been hearing about?
Alison van Diggelen: Let’s do that for sure! The other winner is called Open Pediatrics and it’s an online community for pediatricians. It’s almost like a Khan Academy for pediatricians: an online learning community connecting the cutting edge technology of first rate hospitals like Boston’s Children’s Hospital with rural clinics in developing countries, so they get the same expertise. It’s a wonderful, simple idea and there are some top people involved in that. I talked with Traci Wolbrink, one of the key people (pictured at the podium, above).
And the last one I want to mention is a very simple app…It’s called BeeLine Reader, founded by Nick Lum, a corporate lawyer who’s become a tech humanitarian. This BeeLine Reader allows people to read on screens much more easily. If you’re suffering from dyslexia, or vision problems, you can read using a color gradient. So if you can imagine reading a line, and the color of the script changes from blue to red to black but it wraps around, it guides your eye so you can read faster or more clearly. This is available for either a dollar a month or $5 to buy the app.
Alison van Diggelen: All these entrepreneurs were given a good load of money to take it to the next level. It was very inspiring to see that not all techies are out to make a buck. Some of them want to change the world…make the world a better place.
Fergus Nicoll: Brilliant. That sounds fantastic.
Find out more at Fresh Dialogues
What is Tech Award winner Jeff Skoll doing to change the world and make it greener?
The dynamic new CEO of SVForum, Adiba Barney rolled out the red carpet this week for the 17th Visionary Awards. But despite all the glitz and glamor, there was a strong message: use tech to make the world better. Of course, each recipient has an impressive resume: Jessica Jackley, cofounder of Kiva; Tim O’Reilly, open source advocate and media producer; Tina Seelig, director of Stanford Tech Ventures Program; and Tim Draper, founder of Draper University and partner at DFJ Ventures. But how did each get where they are today and what can you learn from their journey?
Here are some of the lessons the visionaries shared at Tuesday’s event:
1. Ask: what if?
Jackley witnessed a new level of poverty while working in Africa and when she returned to Silicon Valley, she wanted to help change some lives, especially those with an entrepreneurial drive. She said, “People in Silicon Valley are always talking about the future…so ask: what if?”
Her inspiration? She was killing time at Stanford University one evening, and just happened to attend a talk by Muhammad Yunis, the Nobel Prize winning founder of “banker to the poor” Grameen Bank. His success helped launch the microlending phenomenon and inspired Kiva, a nonprofit microlender that’s now shared over half a billion dollars in startup funds with entrepreneurs around the world.
2. Have some accidents
Tim Draper confessed that he often discovered and backed companies like Skype by complete accident. Often he was actually looking for, or working on something else. His message: “If you want to be a visionary, go out and have some accidents!” And he proceeded to fling his glass of water into the crowd. Fortunately there were no injuries, though fellow journalist, Tom Foremski got the brunt of the baptism.
3. Go for love not money
Tim O’Reilly said “I urge you all: do things for love, with no expectation of return…celebrate the success of people who make a difference.” He described Silicon Valley as a place “for people who dream, who care…about stuff other than making an exit.”
Although he’s a big believer in the power of the markets, he underlined the obligation to “give back” and in his great literary style, he even quoted a passage from Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” to underline his point that an entrepreneur should think “much of others, and little of him (or her) self.” He’s recently embraced the vision of Jennifer Pahlka’s Code for America. It helps bring more top tech talent into government (e.g. the tech team that went to D.C. to help rescue HealthCare.Gov’s disastrous rollout).
“We need to fix government, not abandon it!” said O’Reilly.
4. Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous
Tina Seelig is the epitome of Silicon Valley passion for entrepreneurship and technology; and urges us all to ask big questions. Her mantra is “never miss an opportunity to be fabulous” and although she didn’t say it, her energetic body language seemed to be chanelling Adele’s line from Rolling in the Deep: “Throw your soul through every open door!”
5. Have a passion for “Yes”
Steven Levy, a senior writer at Wired Magazine, and former honoree himself, introduced Tim O’Reilly and reminded everyone that behind every “no” is a “yes.”
“At the core of Silicon Valley is a passion for yes,” he said. “This is the place where people don’t look for reasons to say no…(instead) someone comes up with a crazy idea and they have permission to do it.”
Presumably he means, if you want to be a real tech visionary, there’s no place like Silicon Valley.