Ellie Wilkie: 14-year-old Scot Gets Lessons from Silicon Valley

Ellie Wilkie: 14-year-old Scot Gets Lessons from Silicon Valley

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

This year a teen delegation from the United Kingdom won a trip to Silicon Valley, courtesy of the Silicon Valley Comes To UK (SVC2UK) organization, the transatlantic brainchild of LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and UK-based angel investor, Sherry Coutu

According to the organization, apps are expected to create over 3 million jobs in the next 5 years; and its SVC2UK Appathon contest aimed to inspire a new generation of British entrepreneurs. Three 14-year-old girls from Notre Dame High School in Greenock, Scotland and four Cambridge University students won a trip to Silicon Valley to learn about entrepreneurship.

“Back in Britain a lot of people are scared to make the leap and do their own thing…(they’re) scared of not doing well” Ellie Wilkie, age 14

I had the opportunity to meet and interview the young entrepreneurs as they toured LinkedIn and Google. Ellie Wilkie was a natural leader and spoke confidently for her two Scottish colleagues. Each one of them was energized and inspired by their time in Silicon Valley and eager to take some of the “can-do” Silicon Valley attitude back with them to the UK.

Here are highlights of our conversation (comments have been edited for length and clarity):

van Diggelen: How does entrepreneurship in the UK compare to Silicon Valley?

Ellie Wilkie: Back in Britain a lot of people are scared to make the leap and do their own thing. Here…you do internships which aren’t as readily available back home. Out here, it’s much more put into the school curriculum…and lots of people learn about it from a much younger age, especially if you live in the Bay Area with all the major tech companies around. It’s good to see – as a young person – all these young people doing so well. Back home it’s not so publicized about how boys and girls can do so well… in companies like this and how exciting they can be.

SVC2UK Google tour, by Alison van Diggelen 2015van Diggelen: What are entrepreneurs in the UK scared of?

Ellie Wilkie: Scared of not doing well. Taking that leap and it doesn’t work…well (if you don’t try)… You’re never going to know are you? In (UK) companies, bosses and CEOs and managers of companies seem very intimidating and I’m not really wanting to go and speak to them, whereas here it’s much more: everybody’s the same and everybody’s much more approachable.

van Diggelen: Do you feel Silicon Valley’s open (less hierarchical) culture helps?
Ellie Wilkie: Definitely, it’s much more: everyone can do this. Whereas back home it’s a very specialized thing … Lots of people feel that they couldn’t do something like that.

At Facebook, no one has an office, everyone is the same and everyone’s voice is listened to, so there’s no scary going up to your boss and saying, is this OK? …

…it’s just a very cooperative environment. I was really surprised at how laid back everyone is. They really enjoy what they do, compared to lots of people back home who don’t necessarily enjoy what they’re doing …everyone out here, they’ve got a real passion for what they do, they love it.

van Diggelen: What will you tell your friends back in Greenock?

Ellie Wilkie: Seeing women in tech, college students from around here doing so well and having a real input…Women saying “we felt we had a real worth in the company ” They got to make decisions and got to be involved in the actual design processes. Even at such a young age they can be so involved and so vocal in what they do.

van Diggelen: What are you inspired to do after visiting all these companies (Facebook, Tesla, LinkedIn, Box and Google)?

Ellie Wilkie: I’d like to be out here working for any one of the companies. They’re all incredible. I’ve always had an interest in technology but seeing people actually doing well and have a passion for it has cemented in my mind I can see myself doing this. This is what I want.

“Here (in Silicon Valley), ‘NO’ is not really in their vocabulary…they get stuff done” Benjamin Moss 
I also spoke with Benjamin Moss, who’s completing a Master’s in Aerospace Engineering at Cambridge University
van Diggelen: What surprised you most about how business is done here in Silicon Valley?
Benjamin Moss: Here, ‘NO’ is not really in their vocabulary…they get stuff done. They’re extremely ambitious and if something is required to achieve these ambitions then nothing really stands in their way.
There’s quite a bit of risk aversion in the UK in the way there isn’t here. People in the UK have a lot of pride and they don’t want to look silly, so if they come up with an idea and it doesn’t work, then they’re very concerned about having looked silly.
Whereas in Silicon Valley, coming up with an idea and it not working and your moving on and learning from that experience is positive.

Find out more

Read more Fresh Dialogues stories about Entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, and beyond






Elon Musk: 6 Things You Can Learn From “Fantastic” New Bio

Elon Musk: 6 Things You Can Learn From “Fantastic” New Bio

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

The new Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance will “likely serve as the definitive account” of the most successful entrepreneur in the world, writes Jon Gertner in the New York Times. But it can also be read as a manual of how to succeed in business. Here are six big lessons for entrepreneurs, young and old:

1. Think Big

While Musk was at college, he decided the three things that would have the biggest positive impact on the human race were: sustainable energy, the Internet, and making life multi-planetary. 

Here’s how Vance describes Musk’s big thinking:

“What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to…well…save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”

This passage comes early in the book, and feels as though Vance has been drinking Musk’s Kool Aid. By the last page, however, he’s painted a vivid and balanced picture of a driven man, focused intently on changing the world in a big way, no matter the cost to himself or his family (see No.6 below). So, if you want to succeed like Elon Musk, don’t waste time building a widget that’ll be 10% better than the competition:

Think big, really big, and go for it.

2. Learn to be a Better Boss

Elon Musk was ousted as CEO from two early startups Zip2 and X.com (the precursor to PayPal) because he was a bad boss.  In his early days, Musk was a controlling, micro-manager whose “one upmanship” tactics were brutal.

Vance writes,

“Musk’s traits as a confrontational know-it-all and his abundant ego created deep, lasting  fractures within his companies.”

According to a colleague at Zip2, he’d rip into junior and senior executives alike, especially when employees told him that his demands were impossible.

“You would see people come out of the meetings with this disgusted look on their face…You don’t get to where Elon is now by always being a nice guy, and he was just so driven and sure of himself.”

These days, he’s still very demanding but has got better at being a decent boss at Tesla and SpaceX and his longtime employees are fiercely loyal.

Of course, part of being a good boss is inspiring your team with an awesome mission (see No.1 above) and articulating that clearly. Early employees of SpaceX were told that “the mission would be to emerge as the South-west Airlines* of Space.” More recently of course, the Mars mission dominates the company’s focus. Who wouldn’t be on board with the mind-blowing goal of making humans a multi-planetary species?

So don’t fret if you’re not getting “Boss of the Year” awards in your early days, but learn from your mistakes, and motivate your team with a grand vision.

3. Hire with Care, Fire fastThe Key to Tesla Model S, a Fresh Dialogues story

Musk is renowned for hiring top talent and for several years, he even insisted on personally interviewing employees fairly low on the totem pole. For key technical hires, once he decides he wants someone, he’ll go above and beyond to hire them. He even cold-calls them himself. A SpaceX employee recalls receiving a call from Musk in his college dorm room and thinking it was a prank call.

But on the flip side, if you’re not a fit for the team, then you’ll soon know about it, according to Steve Jurvetson, a Tesla, SpaceX board member and close ally to Musk.

“Like (Steve) Jobs, Elon does not tolerate C or D players.  He’s like Jobs in that neither of them suffer fools. But I’d say he’s nicer than Jobs and a bit more refined than Bill Gates.”

The lesson: hire strategically with great care, and if an employee doesn’t fit, don’t wait.

4. Deal with critics, carefully

Musk has a reputation for slamming critics, like the British car show, Top Gear and the damning Model S review in the New York Times. Even the book’s author Ashlee Vance was berated for using what Musk insists are inaccurate quotes. Musk fired back on Twitter: “That’s total BS and hurtful.”

Some of his “bombastic counteroffensives” worked, others were arguably counter productive and alienated potential allies and supporters.

Yet Vance also offers a more sympathetic interpretation of his tirades as “a quest for truth” as opposed to pure vindictiveness. As Vance writes,

“Musk is wired like a scientist and suffers mental anguish at the sight of a factual error. A mistake on a printed page would gnaw at his soul – forever.”

Although taking things personally and seeking war has generally worked for Musk, it’s a highly risky strategy. Setting the record straight is one thing, but how many bridges can you burn? One key consideration is this: going to war demands a lot of time and energy which might be better spent on getting your mission accomplished.

Choose your battles carefully.

5. Have a trusted assistant

Ashley Vance describes Musk’s long-time assistant Mary Beth Brown as:

“A now-legendary character in the lore of both SpaceX and Tesla….establishing a real-life version of the relationship between Iron Man’s Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. If Musk worked a twenty hour day, so too did Mary Beth…She would emerge as the only bridge between Musk and all of his interests and was an invaluable asset to the companies’ employees.”

Sadly for Musk, she’s now moved on, but having worked with her briefly in 2012/13 (to arrange an in-depth interview with Musk), I can attest that she was very charming and an excellent surrogate for Musk. She represented him well in a professional and personal capacity.

Read more about her in the biography and try find someone as loyal, talented and hard-working to be your right-hand man or woman. Good luck!

6. Work hard, very hard

Not only does Musk lead two hard-driving companies (which are 300 miles apart) – SpaceX (L.A.) and Tesla (Silicon Valley) – he’s chairman of SolarCity, and has five boys, two ex-wives and a tight circle of friends, that includes Google’s Larry Page. He claims to sleep an average of six hours a night, but almost every waking hour is devoted to his businesses. His ex-wife Justine Musk, describes his work ethic like this:

“I had friends who complained that their husbands came home at seven or eight. Elon would come home at eleven and work some more. People didn’t always get the sacrifice he made in order to be where he was. He does what he wants, and he is relentless about it. It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it.”

The only regular downtime he allows is to indulge in long showers, but even then, it’s really work. He says that’s when he has most of his innovative ideas.

So, the lesson for you is the same as that espoused by pioneering giants like Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie: there’s nothing like good old fashioned hard work.

Note: Although Musk comes over as a hard-driving maniac in this biography, he does have a more sensitive side. You can see this for yourself in this candid interview. He comes close to tears several times.

Read more about Elon Musk in his own words here.

*For non US readers, South-west Airlines is a low cost airline, like Easy Jet

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!

Explore more Inspiring Women at Fresh Dialogues

Kiva cofounder, Jessica Jackley: 3 Startup Tips for Entrepreneurs

Diane von Furstenberg: Why Fear is Not an Option

Cisco’s CTO Padmasree Warrior: 7 Secrets of Success

LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman: On Entrepreneurship & Women in Tech

LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman: On Entrepreneurship & Women in Tech

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

LinkedIn Cofounder and tech investor extraordinaire, Reid Hoffman delivered some compelling entrepreneurial insights to an intimate group in Silicon Valley last week. It earned him a few more stars for his “visionary” reputation; however his insights on the drive to get more women in tech fell far short of expectations. See below…

The gathering was an elegant SVForum affair, led by CEO Adiba Barney.

Here’s some of Hoffman’s valuable wisdom for entrepreneurs:

1. Don’t keep your big idea a secret

According to Hoffman, if you don’t share your startup idea with people who can help you, it’s “a massive recipe for failure.”

SVForum CEO Adiba Barney, Fresh Dialogues Report2. Mine your network

As Hoffman emphasizes in his latest book The Alliance, “An externally networked workforce is critical to an innovative company.” What he means by this is:

a. nurture your wider network (give and take advice) and be active on social media

b. encourage your employees to do likewise

c. seek wisdom from the smartest people you know outside your company

Hoffman illustrated this with an anecdote about his “odd couple” alliance with PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, whom he initially considered “to the right of Attila the Hun” and who considered Hoffman a communist.

3. Don’t rush the IPO

Hoffman underlined that IPOs aren’t the holy grail they once were, thanks to late stage investors with large cash infusions. IPOs must make sense strategically for your startup.

“The key question for any company is how an IPO can help you build your company into something that may be around for decades or hundreds of years and help to transform the industry they are in,” says Hoffman.

This fits with what Elon Musk told me when I asked him about a SpaceX IPO. He pointed out that there are major disadvantages to going public, especially if your business has very long term goals (like going to Mars!)

Alison van Diggelen asks Reid Hoffman Q SVForumAnd now on to the subject of the dismally low number of women in Silicon Valley’s tech companies. Latest figures show only 25% of LinkedIn’s leadership is female, the number is even lower for women holding tech positions (17%).

Since Hoffman prides himself as a public intellectual, I asked him what LinkedIn is doing to increase the number of women in tech; and what the academic case is for doing so. Frankly, I thought he’d cite one of the many studies which show the positive correlation between the number of women executives and company success.

Here’s his response:

“Women on average are much more diligent than men and much more capable of learning a set of different things, so having them deeply engaged in technology, creating the future is important. And then there’s obviously the full ramp of sensibilities for how products should work…how those human ecosystems should work. So I think it behooves…the world is much better off… with having an industry that isn’t – as it’s historically been – very balanced on the male side, but to be trending toward a more evenly balanced industry. There are various initiatives – the Lean In one is just the most recent.” Reid Hoffman


That’s it.

He’s referring to the announcement on February 8th that LeanIn.org, Facebook, LinkedIn and the Anita Borg Institute have created a partnership to expand Lean In Circles on college campuses. Reid Hoffman and the LinkedIn team deserve some praise for their involvement, but that’s it? I didn’t get the feeling that this topic is high on Hoffman’s agenda, or that he cares that much about it.

Here’s my vision: I’d like to see Mr Hoffman use his profound intellect and growing visionary platform to inspire more action and help get more women into the tech field.



Kiva cofounder Jessica Jackley shares 3 startup tips

Kiva cofounder Jessica Jackley shares 3 startup tips

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Kiva cofounder, Jessica Jackley received a Visionary Award at SVForum in Silicon Valley this month. She joined an impressive roster of former award winners that includes Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Padmasree Warrior.
Jackley took a few moments with me to share tips for aspiring entrepreneurs and some clues about her latest startup, launching this Fall.
She enthuses about Silicon Valley being “an incredibly special pocket of the world” where “people have a great capacity to imagine new futures.”
“So many people here have the resources and skills to make these new stories unfold, become real,” she adds.

Here are some highlights of our conversation.

Tips for aspiring entrepreneurs:

1. Be passionate

Do something you are passionate about and have a vision for.

2. Start small

Remember Kiva began with seven entrepreneurs and a little over $3000. It recently surpassed the $500,000,000 mark in microloans to entrepreneurs around the world, serving almost 2 million Kiva users in 76 countries. The average loan amount is $10.

3. Be excellent

Serve one person, or one community well and build from there. Be thoughtful, intentional and think about the details. Study and absorb what’s unfolding in front of you, and be present.

On her new startup

1. Focus

I’m excited to focus on serving working parents…I’m in the trenches right now and that’s the people I want to serve.

2. The Problem

I hope to consult with companies on their policies, culture that supports or doesn’t support working parents. There’s a lot of room for improvement in existing companies.

3. The Solution

My goal is to make it easier and provide options for working parents to prioritize and design their own work and lives around that. Parenting is one of the most entrepreneurial things that I’ll ever do. There’s so much that maps from my experience into motherhood that I want to share with other people. I want to work at the company level and with individuals to demand what they want.

4. The Context

In Europe, it’s top down, (working parents) are taken care of by institutions. I don’t want to wait for that (policy change) to happen here. It’s the better and faster way to go here, in this (US) culture.

Find out more about other SVForum visionary award winners and check back soon for interviews with Stanford’s Tina Seilig, VC Tim Draper and Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America.

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This video is part of a special “Inspiring Women” series at Fresh Dialogues featuring Meryl Streep, Sheryl Sandberg, Jennifer Granholm, Maureen Dowd, and Belva Davis. Check out the YouTube video series here