BBC Report: Silicon Valley Protests Trump Presidency

BBC Report: Silicon Valley Protests Trump Presidency

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

It’s day four of the Donald Trump presidency and he’s already infuriated women’s rights campaigners, the environmental movement and free trade advocates by signing controversial executive orders. Tech mastermind, Steven Levy put it best in his latest tech report: God help us all.

Millions around the world took to the streets within hours of Trump’s inauguration, in anticipation of these actions and more to come. The San Jose Women’s March took place here in Silicon Valley on Saturday, and in my twenty years in the South Bay, I’ve never witnessed such an outpouring of alarm, dismay and rage. One 70-year old educator I interviewed said that this was the first time in her life, she’s ever felt the need to stand up and take to the streets: not for women’s rights, not for civil rights, but to protest Trump’s presidency. And she was fired up. Today, my report aired on the BBC World Service.

One protester had this message for Silicon Valley tech leaders:

“Lead with faith, lead with truth, and lead with a kind of human dignity that is absent in a lot of our daily conversations…They gotta get rid of the fake news, people are being led down a kind of primrose path, thinking that by being angry and violent they’re going to create a better world for the future…that’s not the path, the truth, the reality that everyone can see here today,” Patrick Adams, science teacher at Bellarmine College Preparatory School in San Jose 

Listen to my report and the discussion at the BBC World Service (from 2:40 in the podcast)

Gareth Mitchell: The President Elect became President on Friday….the crowds were back on the streets on Saturday, this time in protest at the new administration.  The marches around the world were led by women, but in Silicon Valley, the tech people, male and female were venting their concerns too, along with scientists, and entrepreneurs, all of them worried by Trump’s stance on trade, innovation, science and the climate. It comes in an era of disquiet about Facebook and fake news, of post truth and cyber threats. To gauge the sentiment, our reporter in Silicon Valley, Alison van Diggelen, was at one of the marches.

Alison van Diggelen: I’m here at the San Jose Women’s March in the center of Silicon Valley and the women are out in force…

Words Matter Trump Protest Photo by Alison van Diggelen

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Yogacharya O’Brian (reading her poem, “Forward Women”): Not to the back of the line, because Delores walked in front; not to be held down, not even by gravity because Sally soared in space.

Alison: That was Yogacharya O’Brian, founder of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment and one of the rally’s powerful speakers.

Alison van Diggelen: Silicon Valley took to the streets in record numbers on Saturday to protest the country’s new president. Donald Trump’s proposed tax cuts and infrastructure investment could benefit the tech community; the U.S. economy and many of those marching in Silicon Valley. As could his plans to repatriate millions of dollars of tech companies’ overseas profits. Last month Trump even hosted a cordial summit with some top tech leaders. Despite all this, many in this community are fearful of what his presidency might mean for innovation, transparency, multiculturalism, and social progress.

Nick Shackleford: I’m here because of Trump’s election…he is bringing America back in time instead of leading us forward. As a nation we need to go forward and not backwards.

Alison van Diggelen: Here in the world tech center of innovation, what do you expect from this community of innovators?

Nick Shackleford: Like you said, we are innovators and I think we’re going to continue to innovate and lead the country – and sometimes the world – in the innovations that are being developed here in the Silicon Valley. And we have a lot of millionaires and billionaires who are liberal, believe in the cause and are true Californians and they will continue their fight, be it with their money, and their power or just lending their voice to causes that are important to our nation.

Alison van Diggelen: What would you say to Mark Zuckerberg and people like him with power?

Nick Shackleford: I think Mark Zuckerberg did not to enough to stop the fake news. I think he cared more about (getting it re-shared and) his personal stake in his company…and he can’t convince me otherwise. He’s to blame for a lot of the fake media.

Alison van Diggelen: What would you have him do?

Love your mother Trump Protest photo by Alison van Diggelen

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Nick Shackleford: I’ve reported about 100 things in the last six months and nothing has been in violation of their policy, but I’ve seen other people get the same picture and be sent to Facebook jail for it. So he’s not consistent, there needs to be more transparency on this fake news fight.

Patrick Adams: They gotta get rid of the fake news, people are being led down a kind of primrose path thinking that by being angry and violent they’re going to create a better world for the future…that’s not the path, the truth, the reality that everyone can see here today.

Alison van Diggelen: Patrick Adams was one of many men who came out to support the women’s march. Like many protesters who couldn’t keep quiet, he was energized by the proliferation of fake news, and Trump’s use of “alternative facts” which continues this week in the heated dispute over his inauguration numbers. Adams had a message for Silicon Valley’s tech leaders….

Patrick Adams: Lead with faith, lead with truth, and lead with a kind of human dignity that is absent in a lot of our daily conversations …Everywhere I go I see wonderful, amazing, beautiful people working together to make this future happen and I also see people who’re giving up…either to escape into an alternate world of the Internet or they want to pretend that this doesn’t affect them. But if affects everyone. Everyone is involved.

Yogacharya O’BrianWe do not wait for you to lead with sons and with daughters in hand, with husbands and with wives, lovers and friends by our side…we march!

Crowd chanting, cheering

[End of report]

Gareth Mitchell: What do you make of the comments you heard there, Bill Thomson?

Bill Thomson: It was fascinating to hear via Alison’s excellent report just how confused people are, and how uncertain they are; and how many different perspectives there are.  For me, as a member of the press, what we need to be doing is reporting effectively on what’s actually happening, not just reporting on an agenda set by politicians…So the limitations on women’s reproductive rights, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline, the Transpacific Trade Partnership, the nomination of the Supreme Court justice, are all far more important than the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.

There’s a real sense from Alison’s report that many people are confused because they don’t know what’s actually going on  and are trying to project on that. It’s the role of us in the press to cut through that and be much clearer about what’s actually happening and not get dragged into debates or agendas set by other people.

Read more stories about Donald Trump on Fresh Dialogues

 

BBC Report: TaskRabbit CEO Shares Tips on Pivoting, Diversity

BBC Report: TaskRabbit CEO Shares Tips on Pivoting, Diversity

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

What’s it like to be a black female CEO in Silicon Valley? How should you handle a powerful backlash when your company does a major pivot? I explored both issues with TaskRabbit CEO, Stacy Brown Philpot and my interview aired last night on the BBC World Service program Business Matters.

BBC host Roger Hearing, Seoul Bureau Chief for the Economist Stephanie Studer and I had a lively conversation about the gig economy, as well as fashion fumbles (like cargo shorts) and cool alternatives (like utility kilts).

Listen to the podcast at the BBC (Episode titled: Bank of England Lowers Interest Rates): TaskRabbit segment begins at 26:46

Or listen to the TaskRabbit segment below:

 

Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity)

Roger Hearing: Alison, I know you’ve been looking into something that is a strange concept: the gig economy. Tell us, what is the gig economy?

Alison van Diggelen: It’s been borrowed from the music industry, Roger. Workers who work in the gig economy don’t have regular full time work, but work in “gigs” like at Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Etsy, Upwork and TaskRabbit. I’ve been speaking with Stacy Brown-Philpot. She’s the CEO of TaskRabbit. It’s a website and app that matches job seekers with jobs – like house cleaning, shopping, delivery and handyman jobs.

It was founded in 2008 and was one of the first companies in the gig economy. Stacy told me how the company launched its international operation in London in 2012, and it did a pivot. It changed its “bidding for a job” model to a “direct hire” approach. This was a huge success in London but when they tried it back in the United States, they faced a severe backlash from contractors here. Yet, they stuck to their guns and last year the business grew 400%.

I first asked Stacy what advice she would give to other businesses about staying the course, when they try to pivot and face similar challenges.

Stacy Brown-Philpot: Know exactly what it is that you are focused on and don’t lose track of that. Stay laser-ly focused on what that goal is…despite the noise that comes into the market place, stay focused and believe more than anyone else and you can get there.

Alison van Diggelen: There are a lot of critics of the on-demand economy saying that it doesn’t offer a living wage, benefits to workers…this whole “Uber issue” of independent contractors not employees…Can you give me your perspective?

Stacy Brown-Philpot: Our Taskers are independent contractors – they can work in a flexible way and that is the No.1 reason why they stay. We have a very low churn: 10%. The flexibility that we’re able to offer our Taskers is unparalleled and necessary.

What needs to happen is that the regulations and policy has to change…to support the sharing economy. When you look at structures we’re working under…these were created in the 1900’s and they no longer apply…we need something that adapts to the technology-enabled businesses that we operate under today.

Alison van Diggelen:  What specifically would you like to see as far as regulation change?

Stacy Brown-Philpot: One of the tradeoffs we face is the ability to offer training and more transferable skills to our taskers…We’d love to see regulations evolve to support that. We’d also love to see opportunities to access healthcare and retirement.

We empowered this community to create a social safety net for Taskers who really want the flexibility to work in a meaningful way, so we have a responsibility to also partner with them to do other things like have health care and retirement savings.

Alison van Diggelen: Let’s talk about diversity – you’re a rare person, you’re black… you’re a female CEO in Silicon Valley. Talk about the pros and cons of that.

Stacy Brown-Philpot: The pro is that I stand out…whenever I walk into a room and try to meet somebody…I say: trust me, you’ll find me…you’ll see who I am. (laughter)

But the con is that I stand out. Sometimes I look around and wish there were more people who look like me. At TaskRabbit over 58% of our staff are women, we have 11% African Americans – It’s a stated goal to increase those numbers. I feel a responsibility – just to feel more welcome wherever I go – to increase those numbers, and encourage everybody in our industry  – not just for the sharing economy – but the tech industry overall to do the same.

Alison van Diggelen: What specifically do you do?

Stacy Brown-Philpot: We have goals around targets that we measure in hiring, so whenever we bring someone in that we want to hire, we want to make sure that population of people we’re interviewing is a diverse population of people. We also do things culturally in terms of our off-sites and events to make sure everybody can bring their whole selves to work because many of our new hires come from referrals….if you feel you can bring your whole self to work and bring someone who’s different and they be a great candidate for the company.  (Brown Philpot also told me TaskRabbit has teamed with the Congressional Black Caucus to help increase the company’s diversity.)

Alison van Diggelen: Talk about your wildest dreams for where TaskRabbit can be in 5-10 years?

Stacy Brown-Philpot: Task Rabbit should exist everywhere in the world. We’re creating everyday work for everyday people – this is a phenomenon that is global and so I want to be global as a company.  Millions of families are time starved, countless people are looking to find work, and they’re looking for an opportunity for growth and creating a meaningful income. That’s an economic responsibility that we take seriously. We’re shaping the future of work.

Roger Hearing: Does it change the future of work? These kinds of companies: Uber, Etsy etc?

Alison van Diggelen: There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence… and according to the US Census, the gig economy was the fastest growing employment sector last year. A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40% of American workers will be these independent contractors – it’s currently about 30% – and this will have knock-on effects. Here in the U.S. we don’t have a national health service so these people working these gig economy jobs don’t have health benefits through their employment, so there are things that will have to change.

Roger Hearing: It hasn’t all been roses, as you alluded to in the interview. There was a revolt against TaskRabbit. Tell us more about that…

Alison van Diggelen: They originally had a bidding process and the Taskers felt they had more control that way. After trying out this new on-demand service they got a huge backlash. They learned a lot of lessons -one of which was: you can’t overdo the communications. A lot of people didn’t understand the changes.  Stacy Brown Philpot worked previously at Google for almost 10 years and she used her product experience there to stay the course. She recalled when a new version of Gmail came out, people hated it and hated Google for introducing it…People are opposed to change she found.

In the end, they’re saying the Taskers benefited and TaskRabbit benefited and it was a win win. It was a vocal minority who opposed the change.

***

Continue listening for more discussion…

The Economist’s Stephanie Studer explains why Uber was effectively banned in South Korea and why gig economy companies like TaskRabbit may face cultural and other challenges if they try to launch in the region. We also discussed trust and safety issues; and what TaskRabbit is doing to ensure Taskers are trustworthy and reliable.

And finally, Roger Hearing explored the business fashion trends in London, Silicon Valley and Seoul and was surprised to learn about the popularity of the utility kilt here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Modern Utility Kilts

Find out more

Meet more strong female leaders like Instagram COO Marne Levine and Wholly H2O’s Elizabeth Dougherty from our Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series

Cynthia Breazeal: Will Robots Like Jibo Take Your Job?

Cynthia Breazeal: Will Robots Like Jibo Take Your Job?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Many people worry about the consequences of tech innovation, in particular: how will automation and robots impact our jobs? I sat down to explore the impact of robots and the chance of “robo-apocalypse” with social robot pioneer Cynthia Breazeal, founder of the Jibo Robot and professor at MIT. Jibo is a desk top robot that acts like a personal assistant for the family. It can see, hear, speak, dance, and according to its makers, it can even “relate to people.” Imagine a cross between R2D2, an iPad and the Pixar lamp. Breazeal explains how she sees the big “value add” of social robots and why she thinks the potential unintended consequences of robots demands a thoughtful dialogue between robot experts.

Excerpts of this interview were featured on my BBC World Service Report: Elon Musk, Cynthia Breazeal Explain Why Robots Are Coming To Your Home

Here are highlights of our discussion (comments have been shortened for length and clarity):

van Diggelen: Will robots take our jobs, and why are we obsessed by that?

Breazeal: When robotics first came onto the market, it was about replacing human labor, so that’s been the assumption: When any robot is introduced, “it’s about replacing people.”

Social robotics as a whole research discipline has been about a very different paradigm, which is about partnership. It’s about robots that can support and collaborate with people. Jibo is not being designed to replace anyone or anything. Sometimes peole talk about it’s going to replace my dog….it’s not about that. Jibo creates a different kind of relationship.

van Diggelen: What is Jibo?

Breazeal: Jibo breaks down barriers (for people uncomfortable with tech gadgets) by feeling much more like a someone than a something. In my research at MIT, we’ve put very sophisticated humanoid robots, you name it, but when you create that experience for people, that familiar, warm experience, people respond to it. I think Jibo has an appeal across a much broader demographic.

Jibo is about supporting the family, supporting those who help care for the family, doctors and nurses…helps make the whole human and technological network stronger and better able to serve human values. That’s the big “value add” of this kind of technology and that’s certainly where my heart is because certainly as a mom, I completely understand the value and importance of the human connection and the human relationships. And we have human responsibilities to each other. Technology should not be mitigating that or interfering with that. We want technology to really support that.

Cynthia Breazeal with Jibo

van Diggelen: We’ve had warnings from Elon Musk, from Stephen Hawking saying artificial intelligence needs some regulation…they’re concerned about this “robo-apocalypse” happening, so talk to that…

Breazeal: I think in terms of the “robo-apocalypse”…we love that theme (laughter). Throughout our stories, our legends…

van Diggelen: Movies

Breazeal: In many ways, it’s a tool that we use as a culture to ask the question: What does it mean to be human? I really think it stems from that. So whether it’s aliens or killer viruses or robots, it is that “otherness” that pushes up against our humanity; that causes us to reflect upon the human condition. For robots, because they have existed in our science fiction long before we could actually build them, this is our cultural undercurrent people can’t help but go there no matter what.

van Diggelen: But the difference is, it’s not some luddites who’re saying this: it’s people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates…warning people about the dangers of artificial intelligence.

Breazeal: Right so…there’s a difference between the apocalypse versus there could be unintended consequences that we need to be mindful of. So I’m agreeing that with any technology capable of tremendous impact on how we live our lives, there’s always those two sectors. Certainly with robotics, I certainly believe that it’s going to become a pervasive technology in our lives, so it is worth considering, how do we go for the good and avoid the bad?

van Diggelen: But how do you do that? From where you’re sitting, does it need government regulation, standards? What’s the best way to proceed?

Breazeal: I’m not sure we honestly know…the bottom line is: it starts with us and having thoughtful dialogue and discussion to try to really understand what the opportunities and the unintended consequences really could be, before we start jumping to conclusions. I think the most important thing we can do right now is to have this thoughtful dialogue. Even things we started off with, like peoples’ assumptions (that) all robots are about replacing people versus this other side: robots are about supporting people.

Find out more about Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series and our BBC World Service Reports

BBC Report: Elon Musk, Cynthia Breazeal Explain Why Robots Are Coming to your Home

BBC Report: Elon Musk, Cynthia Breazeal Explain Why Robots Are Coming to your Home

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Why are robots getting close and personal? Here’s my BBC World Business Report about The Brave New World of autonomous cars and social robots. It aired on BBC World Service Monday April 13, 2015.

Two pioneers, Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and Cynthia Breazeal of Jibo Robot, explain why autonomous cars and robots are poised to invade your home and (potentially) make your life easier and safer.

Here’s the program. Listen at 12:16 on the podcast.

WBR Host, Susannah Streeter: The era of robots is getting personal. They’re slowly moving into our homes and our garages. What’s the business case for robot cars that can chauffeur you autonomously and desktop robots that can be your personal assistant? Will they be job killers or job creators? Alison van Diggelen reports from Silicon Valley, California where two pioneers recently described a brave new world full of robots.

Jen-Hsun Huang (Nvidia CEO): Ladies and Gentlemen, Please welcome Tesla CEO, cofounder, Elon Musk [applause]

Elon Musk: In the distant future, people may outlaw driving cars. It’s too dangerous. You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine. [laughter]

That’s Elon Musk, the CEO of electric vehicle maker, Tesla Motors speaking at a recent Silicon Valley tech conference. He helped revolutionize the world of electric vehicles by creating a sexy, high performance car that left the “golf cart” era in the dust. Now he’s joined the charge in autonomous driving, led by Google, and claims that taking a self driving car will soon be as everyday as using an elevator.  But are you ready to step into a robot car?

Elon Musk: You’ll be able to tell your car: Take me home, go here, go there, anything…in an order of magnitude safer than a person. It’s going to be the default thing and could save a lot of lives.

Although you might grimace at the thought of relinquishing control, for Musk, Google and several major car manufacturers, the business case for autonomous cars is a no brainer – they say it could save $400 Billion a year in accident related expenses. Researchers at Columbia University found that a shared driverless fleet of cars could reduce personal travel costs by 80%.

But will robotic cars and other types of robots kill jobs?

Cynthia Breazeal argues they won’t. She’s a pioneer in social robots – ones that focus on human-robot interactions.  She invented Jibo, a singing, dancing tabletop robot that looks like a cross between the Pixar lamp and an iPad.

Jibo Announcer: Introducing Jibo, the world’s first family robot. Say hi Jibo…

Jibo: Hi Jibo! [laughter]

Jibo Announcer: Jibo helps everyone out throughout their day [music]

Jibo is a personal assistant robot that can photograph, video, entertain and educate you and your family. It can remind you to call your mum on her birthday and even read your children bedtime stories.

Jibo: Let me in or else I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!!

Girl: [Giggling]

Jibo announcer: He’s not just a connected device, he’s one of the family.

Girl: Shhhhh. Good night Jibo! [Computer sounds]


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Although some people might find Jibo a bit creepy, the company’s crowd funding campaign showed its strong consumer appeal. Last year, it raised over $2M from Indiegogo in just 8 weeks. This year, it secured $25M in venture capital. Jibo goes on sale next year.

Breazeal acknowledges that robots were viewed as job killers, historically.

Breazeal: When robotics first came onto the market, it was a lot about replacing human labor. (So that’s been the assumption) Social robotics as a whole research discipline has been about a very different paradigm. So Jibo is not being designed to replace anyone or anything. (Sometimes people talk about, ‘it’s going to replace my dog…’ it’s not about that.) Jibo creates a different kind of relationship…like with your doctor, your dog for example. It’s about supporting the family, those who help care for the family, doctors and nurses…This high touch high tech technology is much better able to address those in need.

Her robot might one day be a job killer for healthcare workers and personal assistants. But for now, Breazeal is on a hiring spree, looking for engineers and she has MILLIONS to spend.

Ultimately, the brave new world of robots envisioned by these pioneers is as inevitable as the relentless advance of tech innovation.

Musk is only half joking when he says this:

Musk: I just hope there’s something left for us humans to do…

***

The report was recorded at the Nvidia Conference, Silicon Valley on March 16, 2015.

BBC Letter from Silicon Valley by Alison van Diggelen: Sexism in Silicon Valley

BBC Letter from Silicon Valley by Alison van Diggelen: Sexism in Silicon Valley

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Are women in Silicon Valley tech doomed? Do they need to “lean in” more? 

After Ellen Pao lost her discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins last week, some said the discussion was closed. On the contrary, her case has spotlighted an important issue and sparked a lively conversation about the dearth of women in Silicon Valley tech companies and what can be done about it. 

I was invited to share a Letter from Silicon Valley with the BBC about Sexism in Silicon Valley.  It aired this week on the BBC World Service program BBC Business Daily.

 

The program was hosted by Manuela Saragosa and included a report by Gianna Palmer about the impact of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. My Letter from Silicon Valley starts at 07:00.

Saragosa: There is a perception that women are still not being treated as equals in the tech industry in the US. It all came to a head in Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination case against her former employer KPCB, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. She lost her case last week but despite that, it’s highlighted concerns about the lack of diversity in the tech sector in the U.S. So just how bad is it? Over to our commentator, Alison van Diggelen in Silicon Valley…

van Diggelen:

“Women in Silicon Valley tech are doomed!”

That’s one of the comments I heard at a recent gathering of female executives here in Silicon Valley. It came from a manager who’s spent 20 years working in tech human resources. She and her colleagues described the double standard they’ve witnessed at tech firms: women being passed over for promotion, paid less than men and treated as second class citizens.

Last year, major tech companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn published their diversity figures, which underline the sad fact that – at best – 15% of their tech engineering teams are female. The number of women choosing to study computer science is now half of what it was in the ‘80s.

It’s hard to find a woman in Silicon Valley tech who hasn’t experienced some biased treatment at work, because of her sex. Women are expected to be agreeable, generous collaborators, and always look good. One female executive talked about traditional expectations: “We’re supposed to be at home, nuzzling newborns,” she said.

Alison van Diggelen at London's BBC studio

Why does all this matter?

Gender imbalance in tech is a problem for everyone and it needs to be tackled for three vital reasons: innovation, competitive advantage and the bottom line.

1. Studies show, the more diverse your team, the more innovative it is. Since Silicon Valley’s whole modus operandi is innovation and inventing the future, making tech teams more diverse should be a no brainer.

2.Given tech companies are making products for a diverse world population, the more teams are representative of their market, the more chance it’ll make consumer-pleasing products and gain a competitive advantage.

3. There’s a correlation between the number of female executives and success rates of companies. A recent study by the Kauffman Foundation found that companies with the highest representation of women in their top management achieved better financial performance than other companies.

As Hillary Clinton said at a recent Silicon Valley conference,

“Inclusivity is more than a buzzword, it’s a recipe for 21st century success.”

The fact that companies are “coming out” about their diversity stats, and acknowledging there’s a problem, is a great first step.

But much more should be done.

Facebook, LinkedIn and the Anita Borg Institute recently announced a partnership to support female tech students at college and increase the number of women joining the tech ranks.

The pipeline issue is crucial. Encouraging more women to choose computer science at college will help reverse current trends. Megan Smith, America’s Chief Technology Officer is right when she says mandatory computer science needs to start in second grade.

But it’s going to take strong leadership within companies to bolster these efforts and provide an inclusive environment that’s welcoming to women and gives them the respect and opportunities they deserve.

LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner says that with two young daughters, gender imbalance is now a personal matter for him. He and other SV leaders must commit to real change for the long term.

No. Women in Silicon Valley tech are not doomed.

I remain hopeful that the valley will mature and get beyond this ugly adolescent phase…

For the BBC World Service in Silicon Valley, this is Alison van Diggelen

 

***

Many thanks to all the wise women who contributed to this Letter from Silicon Valley. I hope the conversation will continue and the issue of bias (both conscious and unconscious) and gender discrimination will be tackled head on.

To read more on this topic at Fresh Dialogues, click here

 

 

Heidi Roizen: Entrepreneurship, Mentors & Relationships

Heidi Roizen: Entrepreneurship, Mentors & Relationships

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Heidi Roizen has been on both sides of the entrepreneur funding divide, so her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is particularly potent. She’s an operating partner at venture capitalists DFJ, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford University and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Last month, I interviewed Roizen at the Commonwealth Club, Silicon Valley. That interview led to many more questions about what it takes to succeed, especially the need to build meaningful relationships. Here’s our deeper exploration:

van Diggelen: You teach entrepreneurship at Stanford University: What are the top 5 lessons for being a successful entrepreneur?

Roizen: When we study and meet with successful entrepreneurs, while each has a different path to success, they all exhibit similar mindsets.  For one, they seem to go through life looking at problems as things for which there can be a solution — i.e. they do not accept the status quo, no matter how ingrained.  Second, they are not afraid to iterate (or ‘fail’, i.e. learn from a mistake, course correct, and move on.)   They tend to be tenacious, that is, they view the failures along the way as necessary steps in getting to success — not as indicators that they should stop.  They tend to be very good at telling their stories, building a narrative about the problem, the solution, and what it takes to get there.  Finally, successful entrepreneurs tend to know the importance of finding and motivating awesome people to join them in their journey.

van Diggelen:  Talk about the importance of networks and the do’s and don’ts of finding and being a good mentor.

Heidi Roizen Roizen: Let me answer this by starting at the 100,000 foot level.  I’ve done a lot of reading about human happiness and I boil the answer down to having meaningful work and meaningful relationships.  I believe that if you can do meaningful work with others you build even more meaningful relationships.  I hate the word “network” as it almost has a negative connotation — none of us want to be cornered by a ‘networker’ at an industry cocktail party!  But, instead I think of ‘building a network’ as a lifelong process of forming relationships with people, finding ‘fellow travelers’ who may share a passion for the same problem that needs to be solved, a skillset that is complementary but appreciated, someone with good common sense to bounce ideas off of — whatever brings value and meaning to each of us in a human connection.  For me, those people and those relationships — new and old — help me to keep learning and keep finding new opportunities for work, for growth, for meaning. 

As for finding and being a mentor, my main piece of advice, for either the mentor or the mentee, is the relationship only works if there are shared values/ethics, and if there is something meaningful to work on together.  That is why I personally believe asking someone to simply ‘be my mentor’ is far less productive than finding for example someone to work for who you can also see as becoming your mentor.

van Diggelen: What do you mean by “living a relationship driven life” versus “a transaction driven life”? Can you give some examples?

Roizen: I’m a big believer in leading a relationship-driven life and I’ve blogged about it here.  In short, if you believe what I said above about meaningful relationships being the key to happiness (a big ask I know!)  then it makes sense that every transaction in which there are one or more others involved becomes an opportunity to build a relationship.  From my life experience, I run into the same people working in this industry over and over and over, so the quality of every transaction is important because it builds a relationship that transcends any individual transaction. 

In business school, we learned that a negotiation should be viewed as ‘an opportunity to find the maximal intersection of mutual need.’  I love this concept, instead of a transaction being ‘zero sum’, we can actually achieve a better result for both of us by putting our two heads together to solve both our problems.

van Diggelen: What’s been your hardest challenge as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?

Roizen: Almost running out of money many times.  Microsoft entering our market.  Shipping a product with a lot of bugs.  Emotional disagreements with cofounders and key contributors.  In other words, there really is no hardest challenge in entrepreneurship, rather there are a whole series of ‘near-death’ experiences.  They key is to not let them become ‘death’ experiences!  There’s no overcoming, just pushing through, getting back up, learning from your mistakes, mending fences, and moving on.  And if you fail in the big picture and your company ends up going out of business, do it with empathy and honor and in Silicon Valley, you will usually get another at-bat.

van Diggelen: How do you see Silicon Valley changing in the next 5-10 years?

Roizen: I think what makes Silicon Valley so special will continue to fuel our next 5-10 and many more years.  I do think the valley is changing in a few ways.  For one, we are spreading our attention from ‘the next cool iPhone app’ to solving some of the world’s bigger problems, which I find very exciting and frankly more fulfilling.  We are seeing technology have a far greater impact on those diverse big problems — from health to food to energy.  I am really excited to see what the next 20 years brings about!

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