By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Irish immigrants have been in California since the gold rush days. On assignment for the BBC World Service, I went looking for the Irish in Silicon Valley and found that you can take the people out of Ireland – you can even take their pubs – but you can’t take Ireland out of the people….
Nevertheless, a new generation of Irish tech immigrants are less nostalgic for the past, and are redefining what being Irish means. They bond over mindset, not heritage; big dreams and an openness to new ideas and cultures. I started my quest at Trinity Cathedral in San Jose where a celebration of St Patrick’s Day and the San Jose-Dublin Sister City program was in full swing….
Here’s my report for the BBC’s Business Matters:
Listen to the podcast at BBC World Service or to the program excerpt below:
Here’s a transcript of my report (edited for length and clarity):
The report opens with traditional Irish singing by the Black Brothers Band “Green Among the Gold: “They played their jigs and reels beneath the skies of their new homeland, For Irish hands have woven strands of green among the gold.”
33 million U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry, that’s over four times the population of Ireland. With 2.5 Million, California has the highest Irish population of any state. It’s not surprising then that the Irish are making their mark on Silicon Valley…Is it the luck of the Irish, or something else?
Meet Eoghan (Owen) McCabe, CEO of Intercom, a fast-growing startup for business messaging. He and his three Irish cofounders have found a sense of belonging among the software and silicon of the valley.
Eoghan McCabe: One of the most magic things about this place is it does allow you to think big. We’re social beings, we’re all looking for the appreciation, respect, if not love of the people around us…
As well as working on something you’re passionate about, McCabe has this advice:
Eoghan McCabe: Work with people you love and know and respect…don’t try to rush the relationship.
He admits to a chip on his shoulder, an urgency to prove himself. How has being Irish helped him recruit, attract capital, and grow the business?
Eoghan McCabe: The humility goes a long way in the valley…there’s a lot of hubris, people are damn good at selling themselves. So it’s a breath of fresh air when people admit they’re flawed and they can’t predict the future and they might not succeed. That natural humility, that vulnerability, that honest approach goes a long long way…They want to be successful on the basis of their merits. What you don’t find often is people trying to play that Irish card.
Dave Burke, a Dubliner who’s now a VP at Google says his formula for success is seeking out challenges that are “uncomfortably exciting.” But does he seek out Irish techies for his 1000-strong team?
Dave Burke: We’re looking for not really the country culture, but the outlook and perspective culture: the energy, interest in making an impact, being smart. In tech… we want the best and brightest from all round the world, we want diversity…that’s antagonistic to the nationalist perspective. Nationalism looks backward, it looks unsustainable, it’s frightening… It doesn’t readily compute with people. Why wouldn’t you be open to new ideas and people?
But Burke acknowledges that some old traditions endure, especially on St Patrick’s Day.
Dave Burke: A meal of Guinness? Yes! [laughter]
Talking of drinks…Some immigrants were so determined to bring a wee bit of old Ireland to California, that’s literally what they did.
[Audio: Irish pub…] I’ve come to the O’Flaherty Irish Pub in San Jose to meet the owner, Marie O Flaherty.
[Audio: Guinness pouring….Barman: Guinness… 8 dollars ….]
That looks good….
Marie O’Flaherty: This is an authentic Irish pub – it came on a boat from Ireland everything you see – the signs, pictures, the bar, the stools, everything….
Over 15 years ago, her late husband Ray O’Flaherty bought the pub in Dublin on a birthday whim. Today, it’s a landmark in Silicon Valley, and ground central for St Patrick’s Day festivities in the South Bay.
Alison van Diggelen: Is fearlessness part of the recipe for success?
Marie O’Flaherty: You have to have a lot of guts to take it on, self confidence to know whatever it is, you can do it…
Being open to new ideas, like embracing craft beers, keeps the pub popular with the “young uns” she says. The family business nurtures connections with Ireland and the world, through tourism, close links to the Silicon Valley Innovation Center & sporting ties…
Marie O’Flaherty: All the rugby teams…New Zealand did the haka up on the bar here…they drank 11 kegs of beer that night.
Having a heart of gold is also part of the Irish success story…
Marie O’Flaherty: See this poor soul here…He’s a homeless…they give him a drink and send him on his way…You have to just look out for everybody…
Marie O’Flaherty and Mark Finn singing:
Oh Dublin can be heaven, with coffee at eleven, and a stroll down Stephen’s Green
No need to worry, no need to hurry…
If you don’t believe me:
Come and meet me there
In Dublin on a sunny summer’s morning…[laughter]
END of Report
Listen to the BBC Podcast or the audio above for a lively discussion with the BBC’s Roger Hearing and Bloomberg’s Nisid Hajari about the tech community in Silicon Valley; and how the President’s proposed travel ban is already having an impact on business and academia in the United States.
Check out the Fresh Dialogues Silicon Valley “World Series”
Mexicans in Silicon Valley
Africans in Silicon Valley
China in Silicon Valley
Last night, Donald Trump delivered his first address to Congress. For the first time, Trump actually appeared both presidential and optimistic as he delivered an upbeat message that called for unity and bipartisan action. But was it just a facade? Can Trump possibly deliver on his ambitious promises of generous tax cuts, massive infrastructure investment and immigration reform? After all, just hours before his speech promised “clean air and clear water” for all Americans, he signed an executive order dismantling EPA protections for lakes and waterways in the U.S. There are already cracks in the facade and many unanswered questions.
The BBC’s 5 Live asked me to share my perspective as Britain woke in sleepy amazement to this presidential performance.
Report by Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Listen to the BBC Podcast (starts at 21:36) or to the 4 minute clip below:
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Colletta Smith: In the last few hours, the U.S. President Donald Trump delivered his first speech to Congress. He covered some familiar themes like job creation and infrastructure investment….The Silicon Valley journalist Alison van Diggelen is on the line this morning. Good morning Alison!
Alison van Diggelen: Good morning, great to join you.
Colletta Smith: Thank you for joining us again. You’ve been helping us with this whole story over the last year of Trump’s (campaign and) election. This would not normally make the headlines: a president outlining potential budget negotiations. Yet it has with Trump, because we were expecting a surprise. And perhaps the surprise is that there wasn’t really a surprise in the speech that he gave?
Alison van Diggelen: His performance tonight was a sharp contrast to the chaotic first 40 days of the Trump presidency. He was very presidential tonight. He stuck to his script and he had a much softer approach. He had a lot of “gifts” for everyone. He’s proposing what he calls “massive” tax relief for the middle class, cuts to corporate tax; $1 Trillion in infrastructure spending and a military spending increase of $54 Billion, which to put in perspective is the entire annual budget for UK military.
Colletta Smith: When it comes to adding up those sums…do we have any more details as to how he plans to finance those extra boosts?
Alison van Diggelen: That is the big question. It’ll be interesting to see how the markets respond. There are so many outstanding questions:
- How is he going to pay for these tax cuts and infrastructure spending?
- Can he get these measures through Congress?
- Will the Federal Reserve undermine his actions by increasing interest rates?
- Will he start a trade war with his tariff plans and threats to renegotiate multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA?
There are so many questions unanswered, so many details unanswered. There’s a big question mark over what the future holds.
Colletta Smith: At what point does the electorate, his supporters demand that detail?
Alison van Diggelen: The stock market is on a roll right now. The market is up 10% in the ” Trump rally” since the election. Who knows if that can continue? As we all know, the stock market can turn on a dime. It depends on optimism and if the market keeps that optimism. One analyst said, “The market likes to trade on hope,” and all these issues – tax cuts, deregulation, infrastructure spending – they’re all boosts to economic growth, but at some point if he’s not able to push ahead and make progress in Congress, there may be an adjustment of that optimism and people will say: these wonderful (economic stimulus) “carrots” are not going to happen, and then things could take a nose dive.
Colletta Smith: Alison van Diggelen, Silicon Valley journalist. Thanks as ever for joining us and giving us your analysis this morning.
Read more on Trump’s speech from the BBC and The Guardian
“According to a CNN/ORC poll of about 500 speech watchers, 57% said they had had a very positive reaction to President Trump’s Congress address, with seven out of 10 saying they believed his policies would move the US in the right direction.
His popularity, however, has hit a historic low for modern presidents after a month in office – just 44% of Americans think he is doing a good job, according to RealClearPolitics.
Mr Trump’s young presidency has been overshadowed by missteps including a high-profile court defeat to his controversial travel ban and the firing of a top aide.” BBC News
It’s beginning to feel a lot like 1984. Today, some politicians routinely use the term “fake news” to discredit any news they don’t like, or any news organization that asks hard questions. The term “alternative facts” is even being pushed by certain White House advisors. Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues investigates for the BBC World Service.
Online, how big is the actual fake news epidemic? No one knows for sure, but the the scale of the problem is potentially huge. Facebook has almost 2 billion users, Twitter has over 300 million; and according to Pew Research, about 60% of Americans get some news from social media. Assuming even a small percentage of users have nefarious intent, eliminating fake news and online abuse is a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. But after accusations of Facebook turning a blind eye on its rampant fake news and potentially impacting the U.S. election; the pressure to effectively and transparently root out fake news and online abuse is likely to intensify, especially with upcoming national elections in Europe.
“I think fake news impacted the election, just by the sheer volume… It can change your perception of the world…Even people who understand news and research can be tricked by fake news.” Adam Schrader, one of 25 former editors in Facebook’s fact-checking team. The entire team was fired by Facebook last summer, just before the election.
At the recent Watermark Women’s conference in Silicon Valley, I spoke with Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, CEO of Cell-Ed, an online education startup. Here’s the report I filed with the BBC’s Click Radio. It aired today on the BBC World Service.
Listen to the BBC’s “Fake it or Leave it” podcast here (first story in the program lineup) or listen to the 8 minute clip below:
Here’s a transcript of my report, edited for length and clarity.
Click Host, Gareth Mitchell: Misinformation is nothing new, as we heard last week from classics professor, Mary Beard. Today fake news has become a news story in itself. It’s becoming political, it’s undermining social media organizations, and mainstream media. Twitter and Facebook are taking action, but with so much being posted, isn’t it a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide, trying to monitor and correct fake news? Our Silicon Valley reporter Alison van Diggelen has been seeking some answers from the big social networking companies and catching up with CEOs of startups, people like this:
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: Technology has always been a source of incredible opportunity, unlimited potential pathway and it’s always been destructive.
Alison van Diggelen: Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami is just one of many critics who argue that social network platforms are not doing enough to curb the dark side of the internet.
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: I work in community technology access centers…Everybody tells me worldwide, if you have 100 countries…with all these community access centers, isn’t that wonderful? You can bring digital media, books to that village. I say: it’s always double sided – by day maybe it’ll be used for education, and health access, and how to get a better job. But by night it becomes a digital brothel…
Alison van Diggelen: What should be done about that?
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: Own it! Twitter not taking a stand around the blatant misogyny and hate language… strange politeness in the face of atrocity is very frustrating.
Alison van Diggelen: What do you feel people like Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, the Twitter board should do?
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: There’s a responsibility to – at the very least – do one or two steps. Untruth is seen as truth because it’s relayed over a screen with a picture. You believe somebody’s story…If that story is a blatant lie, have a way to say “untrue.” Hashtag untrue.
Kara Swisher interviewed Sheryl Sandberg about why she didn’t attend, or even post, about The Women’s March. Sadly, Swisher didn’t ask Sandberg what she’s doing about fake news on Facebook. Next time, let’s hope!
Alison van Diggelen: I took Rothenberg-Aalami’s complaints to Twitter who gave an off-the-record account of their completely new approach to abuse online. Twitter’s VP, Ed Ho, is leading the online safety efforts (via @TwitterSafety) and last week demonstrated his “test-fast, fail-fast, adjust-fast” mantra by rolling out a new feature – eliminating user list notifications – and then promptly reversing it within hours, after an avalanche of user complaints. Last year, Twitter formed a Safety and Trust Council, partnering with over a dozen organizations to tackle online abuse. One of the members, Emma Llanso, a director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, cautions against a one-size fits all solution.
Emma Llanso: The same tools that can be helpful in protecting against harassment by blocking abusive content and taking down accounts can be weaponized themselves if you don’t have the right safeguards in place.
Alison van Diggelen: Without careful protections, trolls can use blocking tools to silence their victims. Although Twitter has promised an open dialogue, Emma Llanso is concerned about lack of transparency.
Emma Llanso: If I had my druthers, we’d be getting a whole lot more reporting from Twitter about the numbers…what is the scope and scale of the content moderation? What is the level of content that gets removed, what are biggest issues? It would help people pin down: harassment, terrorists content, hate speech…How are these moderation processes affecting public discourse?
Alison van Diggelen: As for fake news, why can’t Twitter and Facebook simply flag or censor what they deem fake? Llanso has this advice:
Emma Llanso: That puts way too much power in the company’s hands…Having one centralized decider is a really risky dynamic to set up…
Alison van Diggelen: I asked Facebook to comment and was directed to Mark Zuckerberg’s first post on fake news: We do not want to be arbiters of truth, he wrote.
Last week Zuckerberg wrote this update:
“Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item’s accuracy.” Mark Zuckerberg
(To me, this sounds like an endorsement of the Orwellian concept “alternative facts.” – AV)
But Facebook fired its entire fact-checking editorial team after criticism last summer that it had a liberal bias and targeted right-wing fake news.
Adam Schrader was one of those 25 editors.
Adam Schrader: I think fake news impacted the election, just by the sheer volume of it that appears… Facebook has a bubble problem. It can change your perception of the world…Even people who understand news and research can be tricked by fake news.
Alison van Diggelen: Schrader told me he routinely flagged between 50 and 80 fake stories a day. He questions Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that fake news on Facebook is less than 1%.
Adam Schrader: I would question that statistic. I think it would be much higher…in the 5-10% range.
Alison van Diggelen: Since December, Facebook has begun partnerships with five media outlets, including the Associated Press and Snopes, that flag “suspect” stories…. But the AP’s Lauren Easton, told me that it’s only fact checked 36 stories since the project began. Facebook recently announced fact checking collaborations with German and French media. With national elections there this year, the pressure for Facebook and Twitter to tackle the deluge of fake news and abuse will only intensify.
Gareth Mitchell: So Bill Thompson, misinformation is nothing new is it?
Bill Thompson: I have a problem with the term “fake news” but the issue’s been around for a long time. In 2010, my Wikipedia entry was hacked to declare that I’d had a heart attack and died. I corrected it. (Today) it seems to me that there are actually four different things going on:
- There’s the thing that was fake news, which is overt lying by people who want to get clicks on their website and make money.
2. There’s fake news which is propaganda, designed to promote a particular ideology.
3. There’s just out and out lying, like Bill Thompson is dead…May be a joke? For whatever reason.
4. And then there’s stuff you don’t want people to read, which they* call fake news to distract you from what they’re really saying.
(*Donald Trump routinely calls unfavorable news stories “fake news” – AV)
The problem that Facebook, Twitter, and everyone have is that no single tool, or approach or set of practices can possibly deal with all of those, so there will always be some material that fails to get stopped or fails to get flagged. We do need to be a better educated and more aware population to look out for these sorts of things, and not instantly believe everything we read on a screen, just because it’s on a screen.
Gareth Mitchell: I absolutely agree and that extends to things that people listen to on this radio program, any information you receive. Check it out for yourself.
Bill Thompson: Learn how to check it.
Gareth Mitchell: It’s always been an important skill…all the more pertinent given what’s going on in these times.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
In the beginning…there was no word from Silicon Valley tech leaders on Donald Trump’s presidency, despite his kingly proclamations: Let there be Two Pipelines, Let there be a Wall…Let there not be TPP!
But on the seventh day, tech leaders arose against Trump’s dominion over them when his immigration order unleashed chaos for their people. And so, on the 16th day, they filed a legal brief saying the order inflicted “significant harm on American business, innovation and growth.”
Today in San Francisco a US Court of Appeals will decide oral arguments in the case: State of Washington et al. vs Donald J. Trump et al..
I joined the BBC World Service’s Business Matters last night to report on Silicon Valley’s furious reaction to Trump. Venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse spoke for many in the valley:
“The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie…to be offensive, to be homophobic, to be xenophobic. Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!” Jean-Louis Gasse, Silicon Valley venture capitalist
Listen to the BBC World Service podcast, (my report starts at 5:15).
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of my report:
Fergus Nicoll: Donald Trump says he is pro-business. But a lot of businesses, it seems, are not pro-Trump. They’re certainly not in favor of his attempt to restrict immigration. Almost 100 mainly tech companies have filed an amicus brief arguing that the ban – already the subject of a separate legal process – inflicts significant harm on American business. Who’s signed up? Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and belatedly Tesla. I’ll hand over to Alison in a moment – but first, let’s hear from Emily Dreyfuss at the tech news website Wired in Boston.
Emily Dreyfuss: By some estimates, half of unicorn startups in America were founded by an immigrant. These big companies, Apple, Google, Facebook: they depend on H1-B visa holders. 85,000 H1-B visas go to the tech community every year in America. This is affecting their bottom line. Yes, there is some risk but I think these technology companies are calculating that together they are stronger which is why they’ve signed on to this amicus brief. I think what we’re seeing here is a clash of ideology and business acumen. In this instance, Trump saying he’s pro-business is actually just talk.
Fergus Nicoll: Is that a fair summary then, Alison…the way it’s seen on the west coast?
Alison van Diggelen: Trump is saying that he’s pro-business (and I believe he intends to be), but it looks like his immigration ban has not been thought through… as to the impact it’s going to have on business. It’s been severely criticized .
I’ve been closely watching Silicon Valley’s reaction to the Trump presidency since inauguration day. When Trump issued that immigration order some Silicon Valley leaders were compelled to break their silence and take action. It’s an issue that’s split the US in two. A CNN poll shows about 53% oppose the ban. But today Trump has said that negative polls about the travel ban are “fake news.” He accused the NY Times of making up stories and sources. So my report explores why Trump is getting under Silicon Valley’s skin via this travel ban and the role of lies and fake news.
The day after he was inaugurated, Silicon Valley took to the streets to protest. Tens of thousands of marchers carried placards saying “Stop the hate”; “Words Matter”, and “Never Again.” I asked Patrick Adams, a local science teacher…What’s your message for Trump?
Patrick Adams: Get out of the way…this is a tsunami, this is people who care deeply about what this country really stands for – which is inclusion and love and hope – it’s unstoppable. This idea: that the trickle down economics of neoliberalism and the strange backward thinking of racism is going to lead us to a better world? It’s not, it’s a dead end.
Alison van Diggelen: In the first week of Trump’s presidency, it appeared like “business as usual” here in SV. On day seven, Trump’s immigration order lit the fire under SV.
By day 10, protests had broken out at several tech campuses; and business leaders came out of their bunkers to voice concerns about the order’s morality, not just its economic impact. It was personal: almost 60% of Silicon Valley engineers are foreign born.
I spoke with Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a company born here in 1939:
Meg Whitman: Our view is that this was a mistake. We are a nation of immigrants and a broad-brush sweep of seven countries, of Muslims in those seven countries, is not what America is. So I hope that the president rethinks…
If you think of the innovation that’s been done in the valley over the last 75 years, much of it is from people who came here from someplace else … that’s an economic engine of the country and an economic engine of the world…
Alison van Diggelen: Alphabet’s chairman, Eric Schmidt even described the Trump administration actions as “evil” but many responses were muted.
I contacted companies, from oil to solar; from startups to Fortune 500, but many declined to talk, even LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman who was an outspoken critic of candidate Trump. Why the silence?
Is it the prospect of Trump unleashing his Twitter followers? Kevin Surace, CEO at Appvance, a software company, sums it up:
Kevin Surace: No one wants the current leader of the free world to unleash something against them. And frankly as a CEO of a corporation, it’s your duty to your shareholders to not have the US government hate you…the last thing you want is the president saying: I’ve had it with your company, I’m going to slap tariffs on you…
Alison van Diggelen: Surace emphasizes that the stock market is up over 8% since the election and the Dow hit the symbolic 20,000 point milestone last month. Trump even hosted a “cordial” tech summit with many of the valley’s leaders. Three juicy carrots are now dangling their way: the prospect of infrastructure investment, a corporate tax cut and a huge tax break for the repatriation of $2.5 Trillion in corporate profits lying offshore.
Kevin Surace: If that all comes back to the US, it’ll be the biggest boom to the US economy, possibly ever. For the next 10 years, the economy will be on fire.
Alison van Diggelen: Nevertheless, venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse addresses the disquiet in Silicon Valley. He points to H1-B visa concerns as well as a flood of uncertainties:
Jean-Louis Gasse: The stock market is up, up, up right now which we know could turn around on a dime…
It’s not good for biz to have too many uncertainties on immigration, on trade wars, on interest rates, on spending, on building a wall with Mexico…
Alison van Diggelen: Gasse was Steve Jobs’ right hand man when Apple first expanded into Europe. I asked him to sum up the Valley’s reaction to Trump:
Jean-Louis Gasse: They’re waking up to the fact that just like you need clean air and clean water… you need clean information for society to be healthy. It’s an issue of conscience for the people in tech to get up and say we’re going to fight fake news – especially the ones that stem from the top. The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie. … to be offensive…to be homophobic, to be xenophobic… Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!
Check back soon for part II when we discuss:
Elon Musk’s role in Trump’s economic advisory council and why his decision to stay is so controversial, especially after Uber’s CEO stood down.
And Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s CEO Carl Guardino’s advice to Trump.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Why should businesses even care about a healthy environment? That’s a fundamental issue for Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company. Chouinard and Patagonia are respected by many environmentalists who credit them for putting this philosophy into practice:
“Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy environment there are no shareholders, no employees, no customers and no business. Our mission is to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia
Chouinard is putting his money where his mouth is with a generous company “Earth Tax” devoted to environmental activism. He explained to me how he’s inspired young people and companies to protect the environment.
Nevertheless, Patagonia is arguably fighting a losing battle, especially at Christmas time, when rampant consumerism is in full swing. Here’s my latest BBC report that explores the contrast between Patagonia’s priorities and that of Silicon Valley shoppers who just want “more stuff” and wouldn’t dream of being seen twice in the same dress (dahling!)
This week, as the pro-business, “to hell with the environment” Trump administration prepares to take power, I plan to launch a new series of interviews. My aim is to profile leaders and organizations that are making the environment and climate change action a priority; and are standing up to Trump’s anti-science, anti-environment recklessness.
My report aired on BBC Business Matters on December 23rd. The segment starts at 16:00 on the BBC podcast.
Here’s a transcript of the segment (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of the report:
BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Alison, I know you’ve been looking at all this…the commercialization of Christmas…I imagine where you are in California, there are a lot of people being pushed into buying things they might not want to? I gather you’ve been investigating…
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. I had a rare interview with Yvon Chouinard…he’s the founder of Patagonia, the sustainable outdoor clothing company and is revered by many environmentalists. Chouinard explained to me why his company wants to minimize its impact on the environment and inspire other businesses to do the same. I visited one of Silicon Valley’s busiest malls to see if this green message is resonating with consumers.
[Music: Walking in a Winter Wonderland at Valley Fair Mall]
Alison van Diggelen: I’m here in the mall and there’s a tangible sense of stress as Christmas fast approaches. Shoppers crowd their favorite stores, cell phone lists in one hand, fistfuls of bags in the other. Exhausted mothers and fathers are pushing prams, groups of teenagers maraud the aisles, laughing and posing for photos.
I’m right by the “North Pole” and Santa is waving to wide-eyed children, surrounded by about a dozen Christmas trees with twinkling lights and red baubles. A baby took one look at Santa and started crying. There’s a sickly sweet smell of cinnamon and pumpkin spice in the air. People are looking for bargains: quantity not quality. For many shoppers, “the environment” is the last thing on their minds.
Eggnog gal: There are a little bit of Grinches…but that comes with Christmas. They’re very angry and hostile and they just want to get in the mall, get everything they want and leave. Maybe it’s just the crowds, the financial burden. Maybe they’re just not in the holiday spirit this year.
Young mom: My son’s closet looks like Beyonce’s…it just has so much clothing in it. I love children’s clothing and I buy him so so much. He’s two and a half and he’s so cute! [laughter]
Teen: I just feel like, if I wear a dress once, people see me wear it, like I’d rather have a new dress…something else people can see me in. I’d rather have more stuff than just like one really expensive thing.
Alison van Diggelen: This “wear once” mentality is abhorrent to Yvon Chouinard, who’s notorious for wearing the same flannel shirt for over 20 years. His company, Patagonia is known for its sustainable outdoor clothing. As a founding member of the “One Percent for the Planet” organization, it donates one percent of its sales (not just profits) to environmental causes.
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve impacted so many businesses. Steve Jobs once called you to “green” Apple?
Yvon Chouinard: We’re influencing small companies, not large companies. A lot of the green stuff is green washing.
Alison van Diggelen: Do you feel Apple’s efforts are green washing?
Yvon Chouinard: Absolutely – it’s like that with every large corporation. They’ll pick the low hanging fruit, but when it starts getting a little bit tougher…They’ll do the things that turn into more profits, but when you really have to knuckle down and be truly responsible, they’re not going to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: What do you feel has been your biggest influence in greening the world? The business or consumer side?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” that has gone around in nine languages and that has influenced a lot of young people and small companies are really paying attention. The idea of changing large corporations is pretty naive of me.
Alison van Diggelen: I spoke with Jesse Simons of the Sierra Club, an environmental group founded by Scottish naturalist John Muir. He praises Patagonia’s eco leadership but feels it could do more…
Jesse Simons: I’d like to see Patagonia go “all in” on their work on clean energy (and follow Apple’s lead by) committing to 100% clean energy and doing it all the way up the supply chain to ensure that every piece of clothing, zippers, everything are coming from a manufacturing site powered by the wind, the sun and the earth.
Alison van Diggelen: Gary Cook at Greenpeace credits Patagonia’s efforts against our “throw away culture” with its “don’t buy this jacket” campaign and its repair and recycling services. But he points to the company’s continued use of toxic chemicals and he’d like to see them eliminated from its supply chain.
Although Patagonia is seen to be raising the bar on corporate sustainability practices, its prices are out of reach for many consumers. Back at the mall, I spoke with another bargain hunter…
Diana V: We went to check out the Patagonia store in Reno, Nevada and couldn’t find anything for under $100, so we left…We’re just being very cautious right now with our money. Waiting to see what happens with our economy and our national political situation.
End of Report
This part of our interview didn’t make the final cut:
On Patagonia doing more
Sierra Club’s Jesse Simons: I’d like to see them (Patagonia) work with other outdoor industry brands to show them how it actually makes biz sense to stand up to bad trade deals. It would be great to see them take their leadership and use it to get other companies to similarly pay a living wage, take care of the environment in countries where they’re manufacturing their goods, so that they can feel good about saying no to bad trade deals.
Chouinard talks on Earth Tax, Agriculture and Death (I’ll post the full interview here soon for your listening pleasure)
A: Tell me about your trip to Scotland in 1970 – why was that the inspiration for Patagonia clothing?
Y: I was in business of making climbing equipment. I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in Dept store in Edinburgh. At that time, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts, pants. Men didn’t wear colorful sports clothes. It had a blue body, yellow stripes. I was wearing it around Yosemite, everyone said “Woah!” A light went off…I imported a few…I said, maybe I’ll get into the clothing business.
A: Tell me about that 1% for the planet? An earth tax?
Y: Your typical large corporation is out to make as much money as they can for the shareholders. And what the shareholders do with their profits is their biz. We believe it should be done in the business as well.
I believe in taxes. Especially the kind of taxes where you get to decide where the money goes. So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
A: Some people say there’s a conflict here: you are an environmental company. You’re saying: save the planet but at the same time, you’re saying: buy our products. You have to make your products, you have to sell your products. You have to make a profit in order to stay in business. Otherwise you go belly up. So talk about that conflict between being a company, a business and doing good for the planet.
Y: Well, to put a spin on it. I’d say buying a jacket from us causes less harm to the environment than buying a jacket from another company that doesn’t put all the thought and processes causing the least amount of harm. For instance, we only use organically grown cotton. That’s fine. Growing cotton organically causes less harm but it doesn’t do the world any good. It still causes the world a lot of harm. That’s why I decided to go into the food business. I want to go beyond organic foods, organic cotton to what’s called regenerative agriculture. The difference is, regenerative agriculture builds soil and captures carbon. And so now I have to go to my cotton farmers – who supply us with cotton – and say: you can’t plow any more because every time you plow, it releases all the carbon you’ve captured back into the air. So agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming so it’s probably the biggest thing we can do to save this planet.
A: So is that going to be a major focus for Patagonia?
Y: It’s a major focus for me, that’s for sure. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s our only hope to regulate the climate. We’re not going to do it any other way. Agriculture has a chance of sequestering so much carbon out of the air through changing our grazing practices and our farming practices; and basically going back to the old way of doing things. And that’s what gets me excited.
A: Tell me about the long term future. How are you going to make sure, beyond your lifetime, that Patagonia keeps the environment central to its mission.
Y: We’ve become a B-corporation company. That’s different than a regular corporation. In a B-corporation you can put down what your values are and they have to be values that are good for the planet, good for society. So the way the law states: if I die tomorrow, the stock is in a trust and this trust would have 8 years to divest 80% of that because the law doesn’t want you to have all your stock, your foundation have all your stock in one corporation. (In) a B-corp you wouldn’t necessarily have to do that and we wouldn’t have to sell to the highest bidder which would be to go public. All the laws force you to go public, pretty much…we wouldn’t have to do that
A: But would it keep the environment central to its mission?
Y: That’s part of the values that we’ve inculcated in our charter, under being a B-corporation.
A: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Y: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
A: Are you grooming them to do so?
Y: Yeah, they are slowly taking over more responsibility, absolutely. My daughter is head of sportswear design right now and my son is on the board. They both have the same values that my wife and I have.
A: One last question: going back to Scotland – John Muir, I know he’s been an inspiration to you. Do you have a favorite quote or inspiration from him?
Y: (laughter) When I was a climber, it was John Muir and Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, philosophers which had a different attitude to climbing mountains than say the Europeans did, which was to conquer the mountains; and our attitude was you climb them and leave no trace of having been there.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
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.
Continue listening to the podcast for these discussions:
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.
To explore other interviews and reports for the BBC, check out the BBC Archives at Fresh Dialogues.
NB: This report and other BBC Reports and BBC Dialogues at Fresh Dialogues are shown here for demonstration purposes. The copyright of this radio report remains with the BBC.