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 VW Scandal is growing in intensity and its repercussions are rippling across the globe. It’s widely predicted that the electric vehicle market will get a boost from this diesel disaster. Prius drivers may be feeling smug, but what of electric car makers like Tesla?
Yesterday, the BBC invited me to join the World Service’s Business Matters to discuss the scandal and its implications on the auto industry. Having attended last week’s launch of Tesla’s Model X all-electric SUV – where CEO, Elon Musk emphasized the company’s focus on air quality – I shared my perspective and that of George Blankenship, former Tesla VP, whom I interviewed at the launch.
Host of the BBC’s Business Matters, Fergus Nicoll, asked me:
“Is there schaudenfraude in the U.S. auto industry as VW scrambles?” BBC’s Fergus Nicoll
Here’s a transcript of our interview, edited for length and clarity.
Fergus Nicoll: Thursday is likely to be another painful day for the carmaker, VW. On Capital Hill, its US president and CEO, Michael Horn is scheduled to testify…he’s not the only one in the hot seat. His counterpart in South Korea, local VW boss, Johannes Thammer is due to attend a parliamentary audit in Seoul in about an hour from now. It’s all about the emissions scandal of course…
Let’s get Alison van Diggelen with us from Silicon Valley. Is there schadenfreude in the US auto industry as VW scrambles or is it: there but for the grace of the EPA go we?
Alison van Diggelen: Good to join you Fergus. I think the former. I was at the Model X launch last week in Silicon Valley and Elon Musk referred to it obliquely – about their work on a new air filter and how “air quality is very important” to them. So there is definitely a bit of schadenfreude.
I spoke with George Blankenship, former Tesla VP…he actually addressed the issue of (VW) cheating straight on. We have a clip here:
George Blankenship: I think his (Elon Musk’s) message has always been: the reason he’s doing this is to save the planet. Everything he does rolls up to that. Everything for him, whether you look at SolarCity, Tesla, SpaceX…it’s all about the survival of this planet and the atmosphere is what’s going to make it possible to live here for a long time, or not.
Alison van Diggelen: Any comment…on the VW scandal and their attitude to emissions?
George Blankenship: It’s unfortunate that others feel that they have to do things like that to try to compete. It’s the absolute opposite of what Tesla does…. Tesla comes up with a problem: we can’t get the falcon wing doors to work…we need sonar that goes through metal. They find a solution. It’s unfortunate when another company feels like they have to do something like that, as opposed to taking that same energy that they used to come up with that kind of a solution and put it into a solution that could have done something ground breaking in the car.
Several Steve Jobs allies say the movie portrays him as cruel and inhumane and tried to stop its production. Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Lisa, his first child, witnessed that cruelty. She was marginalized and neglected by Jobs for many years. Last month, she joined me for an intimate Fresh Dialogues interview to share her perspective.
Despite the hardships she endured, Brennan has enormous respect and even forgiveness for Jobs. She says her memoir’s universal message is about the plight of single women and she’d like to see the business world be more family-friendly.
Fergus Nicoll: Whenever a biopic comes out, especially when its subject is not long gone, you better believe there is going to be a noise from those screaming about “Mount Rushmore scale hype” and a counter noise from those complaining that a genius has been traduced. So get ready everybody for Jobs, the Dannie Boyle movie with Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, scheduled for November (US release is Oct 9th).
I’ll toss the ball to Alison, because I know you’ve been talking to somebody with a personal interest in this story – that’s an understatement. Tell us first about expectations for the movie.
van Diggelen: It was shown at the Telluride Film Festival to rave reviews. But I did read a Guardian review that said that you have to be an Apple fan to really enjoy it. So take the reviews with a pinch of salt.
I had the opportunity to interview Chrisann Brennan, Steve Jobs’ first love and the mother of his child Lisa Brennan Jobs…they met in high school in 1972 and they had a very passionate affair. She got pregnant and he denied the paternity and she had a very rough life. He was very miserly about looking after her. She talked to me at length about this very painful time in her life and how he treated her, and yet she does respect him in her way.
Chrisann Brennan: I was interviewed for five hours, they told me I was the emotional heart of that movie. I don’t want to judge Steve because he did what he did, it was fabulous… I like the fact that the (movie) spectrum shows we are different people now. We value different things. We will expose these things because we want to have a dialogue in the world about the whole picture…not just the ‘Mount Rushmore picture’ of people who do well.
Alison van Diggelen: So you can contribute that fully faceted perspective?
Chrisann Brennan: Yes, I do feel that.
Alison van Diggelen: You said “I don’t want to paint me as the victim, and Steve as the villain.” Is there an alternate way you’d like to frame it?
Chrisann Brennan: That will continue to evolve. I survived it…I have more than survived it…I survived him…
Alison van Diggelen: And do you feel that is a victory right there?
Chrisann Brennan: I feel it says if you hold onto the truth, it actually starts to amount to something.
Alison van Diggelen: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Chrisann Brennan: Oh, yeah…but I couldn’t have. When I was living with Steve and he was showing me his poetry, I really wish I’d taken it to heart more deeply.
Chrisann Brennan: Mm hmm. When I grew up enough to be an adult and understand that 17-year-old, I felt oh. There’s just so much. If we had a chance to talk now, it’d be great…
Alison van Diggelen: What would you ask him?
Chrisann Brennan: I think I would just express some kind of love…
Alison van Diggelen: You would tell him you loved him?
Chrisann Brennan: In some form…
Alison van Diggelen: That’s beautiful…
One last question: what do you feel was Steve’s greatest legacy?
Chrisann Brennan: Yes, he made a technological device that freed people up…but mainly the message is to be who you are. Now a lot of people are running around trying to be like Steve Jobs. They miss the point…it is to individuate enough, to understand what you need to go out and do. He was just a fabulous example of it in so many ways.
Fergus Nicoll: Well that seems, Alison, like an amazingly forgiving person… From what I’ve seen of the movie, this is very much part of the story of the movie. There are some explosive scenes related to this. But it’s always difficult…there have been massive tomes about Steve Jobs, some have been less revelatory than some hoped for, but (Jobs is) a man who appears to tower over Silicon Valley, even in his absence?
Alison van Diggelen: He’s absolutely idolized here and around the world, and in fact a documentary just came out here in the United States: Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs, the Man in the Machine. Chrisann was interviewed for five hours for that and she talks at length about just how cruel he was to her and yet, she is incredibly forgiving. She has respect for what he’s done, his visionary powers, but she does describe herself as “a modern day Mary Magdalene…Steve saw himself as a Christ figure,” that’s what she wrote to me this week.
Fergus Nicoll: That’s a pretty powerful image…I’m always amazed that we expect the visionary leaders in tech, in industry, in politics to be good guys. Why should that be necessary?
Alison van Diggelen: Well, I think that’s the ideal. What concerns me about the idolization, almost canonization of Steve Jobs, is the fact that young people might think of him as the perfect role model…i.e. the more “jerk-like” they are, the better. And I think that’s a very dangerous role model. I think it’s important that people like Chrisann Brennan speak up to show the contradictions in his life. She wants to get out this universal message about the plight of single mothers and how Steve Jobs made her peripheral, almost invisible and it plays into this bigger question of business attitudes to families and what are our values?
Fergus Nicoll: Alison, who’s the equivalent now…And are there woman poised to achieve such dominance in Silicon Valley?
Alison van Diggelen: The first person who comes to mind is Elon Musk…Females that I would cite are Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg.
And of course there’s Bill Gates. He’s probably going to be canonized for the second half of his career as a philanthropist, not a tech guy.
Fergus Nicoll: There’s a parallel there with Jimmy Carter, the most famous ex-president probably because of what he’s done…and Bill Gates has done the same: an extraordinary first career and then this amazing philanthropic career with his wife Malinda and their many campaigns….
Do you buy that Silicon Valley is a counterpoint to Wall Street (making giving money away popular)?
Alison van Diggelen: I’m delighted to hear that the message is getting out about the generosity of people in Silicon Valley. It’s so easy to point fingers and say that the wealth isn’t being shared. It is, but I’d say, probably not enough.
On the question of behavior of CEOs, there is growing transparency, thanks to social media, 24/7 news coverage. CEOs can’t get away with what they used to. Steve Jobs, if he was doing what he did to Chrisann Brennan today – denying paternity and saying 10% of the (male) US population could be the father of this child – he just wouldn’t get away with that today. The evidence would be there.
Fergus Nicoll: Alison, thanks so much for bringing in the interview for us on the Steve Jobs story.
Alison van Diggelen: My pleasure indeed. Thank you.
Six years ago, she founded the first community supported agriculture (CSA) farm in China. Today, organic farming pioneer, Shi Yan and her team serve hundreds of city dwellers in Beijing; and her thriving Shared Harvest Farm has inspired dozens of CSAs across China.
Shi Yan is one of a growing group of farmers in China who are bucking the trend of young workers abandoning agriculture and being drawn to cities like Beijing, one of the world’s largest conurbations. By helping bring young people back to the land and serving the growing demand for sustainable practices and organic food in China, Shi Yan has attracted the attention of major media outlets, NPR and the BBC.
On July 10th, I was invited to join BBC host, Fergus Nicoll on BBC World Service program, Business Matters to interview Shi Yan about her mission; and explore the economic and social drivers for organic produce in China.
Fergus Nicoll: We are going to devote much of the second half of the programme to environmental issues. We’ll hear about Community Supported Agriculture in China and our guest Shi Yan is with us from Beijing…Let’s welcome Alison van Diggelen of Fresh Dialogues. Alison, we’re going to leave your microphone open.
Alison, as anybody who knows her website Fresh Dialogues, is a professional asker of questions. Alison: jump in when you fancy and we’ll make this a three-way discussion.
Shi Yan, tell us a bit about Shared Harvest…and the concept of community supported agriculture.
Shi Yan: Our farm Shared Harvest is located in Tongzhou district of Beijing. Right now we have about 15 hectares of land we rented for 15 years. Most of our produce is vegetables and we also have almost 2000 chickens and 50 pigs. Every week we deliver our produce directly to our members. CSA is a way that links the farmers and the consumers directly and we build the trust between the consumers and the farmers. Right now we have about 600 families in Beijing; most of their food comes from our farm.
Fergus Nicoll: Is that entirely organic or are you allowed to sneak in some pesticides or herbicides?
Shi Yan: Actually we call our produce “organically produced” because we don’t have the organic certification but we don’t use any chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
Fergus Nicoll: What about the market for that, because in different countries the market for organic food has waned and grown depending on economic circumstances…a growing middle class wants a purer production mechanism…even if it’s not organic with a capital “O.”
Shi Yan: In China in the last seven years, organic agriculture is growing pretty fast because of issues related to food safety, environmental issues. When I started in 2009…very few consumers knew about the concept of CSA, but right now a lot of people in Beijing know this model.
Fergus Nicoll: A lot of people who buy organic face criticism from people who don’t. They’ll say: I go to the supermarket and I see a box of six perfectly produced apples, they all look 100% identical like clones, selling for “X” and next to that are organic apples that are kind of lumpy, they’re all different shapes and they cost “X plus” Do you ever get that complaint?
Shi Yan: If you order the vegetables from a CSA farm (in China) the price is about 2/3rds of the price in the supermarket. Right now, consumers care more about the food quality rather than the price. A lot of them are rethinking our food system because if you only look at the appearance of the fruit or vegetables…a lot of food (in non-organic farms) is wasted because of their appearance.
Alison van Diggelen: I’m curious about the drivers in China. Do you have a feel for your consumers…Is the impact of pesticides etc. on the environment is that a major driver? Or would you say the main drivers are food scares and the quality of produce?
Shi Yan: At the beginning the food safety issues…a lot of food scandals happened and people started looking for healthy food. But later they found the deep reason is not the market or the food itself, but a lot of problems happened in the rural (areas)…food comes from the village and in last 10 years, fewer and fewer young people stay in the village. Right now most of the farmers growing the food are above sixty years old, struggling for their livelihood. Can they really take the responsibility of producing healthy food? It’s a big problem.
Fergus Nicoll: Can I ask you about “labor shifting” consumers actually doing the farming themselves? Because they’re extremely motivated but may not know the best way to do it.
Shi Yan: We have two models: one part you can order our produce, we will deliver to your door. (Or) you can rent a piece of land: 30 square meters of land, as a farm. Every week you can come to your farm, grow your own food.
Alison van Diggelen: I’m curious about how you’re delivering your food. Are you using electric cars, non polluting cars, delivery trucks?
Shi Yan: We use conventional small vans.
Fergus Nicoll: In the US, if I go and see friends in Davis, I know when we go down to the farmers market, there’ll be really good stuff. This is relatively well established, certainly in California?
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely, yes, CSAs are very established here, since the 1980’s. Here’s an interesting anecdote for you, Fergus: I’ve been a subscriber to a local CSA called Planet Organics and just this month they’ve had to close up shop after 19 years. They’ve been squeezed out by major players. Walmart is getting into the organic food business. Wholefoods has been there a while. It’s becoming so mainstream that it’s hard for these CSAs to compete.
Fergus Nicoll: So they’re getting priced out of the market…
Here are some highlights of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Fergus Nicholl: Elon Musk…you’ve met the man. How would you introduce him to a global audience?
Alison van Diggelen: He is a genius inventor…the (Thomas) Edison of our day…incredibly sharp minded, a big old geek, but he’s very personable. He has grand visions and wants to make it happen…he has the ability to paint a picture, and motivate a team and build a team. He’s changed the world of electric vehicles and he’s now planning to change the world of power, utilities and battery storage.
Fergus Nicholl: That is an application that would apply in many many countries, beyond India. The idea that you could weather blackouts, brownouts…you’re saying you could bank it, use it when you need it and not necessarily get hit by little domestic crises?
Revathy Ashok: Absolutely. It’s pretty common in India for a normal household to have a one to three hour battery back up.For the last 12 hours it’s been raining heavily…we’ve had no power at all, so all connectivity is lost. I have three hours of battery backup which is all gone…
Alison van Diggelen: The main idea is, if you’ve got solar panels on your roof, or windpower, your house can become a power station with the addition of these batteries. No matter what natural disaster, earthquake etc. is happening, you will have a reliable source of power. You won’t need the utility anymore. You can just disconnect from the grid, go “off-grid.” So that’s the huge potential and that’s why people are really excited about tonight’s announcement.
Fergus Nicholl: The Gigafactory (in Nevada)…tell us more about it…a net zero energy factory…it’s quite an extraordinary project.
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, a net zero energy project means it will be solar powered itself and will produce as much energy as it uses to make these batteries. It’s definitely quite revolutionary and has Elon Musk’s fingers all over it.
Fergus Nicholl: In this picture, the entire roof is vast solar panels, kind of like a solar farm laid perfectly flat. I guess Nevada is probably the best place to be for that?
Alison van Diggelen: Indeed, several states were actually fighting over it. California was hoping to get it too, but Nevada won out because they gave some very juicy incentives…The Gigafactory will produce more batteries, once it’s fully operational, than the world’s supply of batteries in 2013. That’s what they’re predicting. It’s a mind blowing amount of batteries and Tesla board member, Steve Jurvetson told me they’re planning to build more Gigafactories around the world, once this one is operational. As well as being Net Zero, they’re going to be creating a lot of employment, so there will be a lot of communities wanting them in their back yard too.
Fergus Nicholl: They’ll be lining up in different countries…
Note: We didn’t have time to discuss the competition that Tesla will face in the battery storage space. There are already major players like Samsung, LG Chem and Mitsubishi working on energy storage solutions and a slice of what Deutsche Bank estimates is a $4.5Bn market. The question is, will Tesla’s strong brand and reputation for quality emulate what Apple achieved in the cellphone market, and leapfrog over the existing competition? In his usual hyperbolic (Steve Jobs) fashion, Elon Musk said last night that “existing battery solutions suck.” But the success of his high risk venture in the energy storage market will depend on swift execution and competitive pricing that makes the Tesla Powerwall a viable solution for a wide spectrum of potential buyers, from wealthy consumers and businesses in California to rural communities in India, Africa and beyond.