By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
“Making the world a better place.” This popular mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is regularly ridiculed by HBO’s popular series, Silicon Valley. For sure, the valley is full of hyperbole and idealistic exuberance, and to many outsiders that may seem completely irrational, insane even, but perhaps it’s a necessary mindset for this innovative region? Are there some entrepreneurs who genuinely want to make the world a better place, not for PR reasons, or to boost their social media following; but just for the sake of it? I attended the 19th annual SVForum Visionary Awards to explore the question.
This is my first report for the BBC World Service tech program, Click.
Listen at the BBC Click podcast (Silicon Valley segment starts at @13:33)
Here’s a transcript of the segment, edited for length and clarity:
Click Radio host, Gareth Mitchell: This is Click from the BBC in London. We talk about technology every week and Silicon Valley is often on the agenda. It’s the kind of place where if you’re a company CEO, and you clock up, say a billion users, most people would say, ‘well that’s incredible,’ but in Silicon Valley, people are likely to say, ‘Oh really?’ It’s almost like a billion seems like a small number, such is the ambition about that place. But Silicon Valley likes to tell us it does have a beating heart through its Visionary Awards and this is where the valley recognizes CEOs and developers who really do want to make the world a better place. From the awards, we have this report from Alison van Diggelen.
Alison van Diggelen: Talk of revolution was in the air in Silicon Valley last week at SVForum’s Visionary Awards. With past recipients like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Esther Dyson, these awards have earned a reputation as the Oscars of Silicon Valley. Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, welcomed guests…
Liccardo: In Silicon Valley we do a great job of innovating; we do a terrible job of celebrating. And it’s important that we stop every once in a while and recognize those who’ve been leading the way and perhaps allow them to inspire us.
van Diggelen: Jennifer Palka is one of this year’s visionary award winners and wants to inspire a revolution by transforming the relationship of the American people with their government. She’s founder of Code for America, a nonprofit that leverages the innovative power of SV technology to help make government work more efficiently, cheaply and openly.
Pahlka: We’ve been trying to make the guts of government… as sexy as making Facebook. People are buying it… by coming into government, they can change the world.
van Diggelen: Remarkably, Code for America has managed to attract many top techies from companies like Apple, Adobe and Google who apply the SV playbook to government.
Pahlka: We believe that government can work better “for the people and by the people” in the 21st Century…the thing we are doing is bringing the practices of SV – user centered, iterative and data-driven approaches to solving problems – into government…by asking people to come and do a year of service.
van Diggelen: Code for America “fellows” make open source apps to address local issues. These are being scaled from local to national level. It’s now easier to apply for food stamps, connect with city hall via text, and get access to public records online. In San Jose, it helped inspire a (waste no food) app that helps hotels and restaurants redirect excess food to feed SV’s homeless. Pahlka’s innovative model has even been adopted by governments around the world. There’s a Code for Japan, Germany, South Africa, and Pakistan. But what really animates Pahlka is how it’s helping redefine SV’s role in the world.
Pahlka: Silicon Valley gets bad rap – we’ve transformed the world, but increased the inequality in our country.
Silicon Valley isn’t just about wealth creation; it’s about bringing people into our institutions in a profoundly valuable way that connects to the history of our country.
van Diggelen: The history of the United States and the need for an open Internet was also top of visionary award winner Tom Wheeler’s mind. A former tech entrepreneur and VC, Wheeler is now Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, which regulates US phone and cable companies; and fights for net neutrality on behalf of consumers and innovators. Wheeler describes broadband as a major driver of economic growth and likens it to coal during the industrial revolution.
Wheeler: Broadband, high speed Internet is the essential “commodity” of the 21st Century… You can’t be in a situation where you’ve got gatekeepers deciding which innovators get on…
van Diggelen: The European Union is in the process of following a similar model.
But like many tech innovators, Wheeler has a long list of ambitions, including the fight for consumer privacy.
Wheeler: A network gets to see every place you go on the Internet, everything you do. In the phone world, they couldn’t sell that information without your permission. That doesn’t exist today for networks in the high speed Internet, so we’re proposing that it should. The consumer has right to say whether that information can be productized and sold by their network provider.
van Diggelen: As the celebrations come to a close, I asked serial entrepreneur, Kevin Surace to reflect on the evening.
Surace: We’re living in a time when the innovations are coming faster than we’ve ever seen – in the history of ever – we’re now seeing inventions as powerful as the fire or the wheel every month…the pace of innovation is unbelievable.
van Diggelen: A fitting end to an exuberant Silicon Valley evening, where everyone was pumped by the same revolutionary fervor: to make the world a better place.
Ambi –audience exuberance…fade out
Gareth Mitchell: Not that I want to bring the party down, but do they really want to make the world a better place? They might be nice people, but they’re running businesses, they’re pretty hard hearted entrepreneurs at the end of the day, aren’t they?
LJ Rich: There’s something called corporate social responsibility…it’s nice in a way that some companies would like to give back to the community, but it can’t hurt their social reputation, to be seen to be good, especially when you look at how a company’s social behavior is analyzed online and people will suffer if they’re behaving badly or in a way people aren’t impressed by. So yes, I think it’s very nice and altruistic, but there are always pluses to behaving in a responsible manner and some of these will definitely be impacting the bottom line.
Listen to the whole Click program, featuring reports on the future of the Internet; Wonderlab at London’s Science Museum; and a new virtual reality film called Valen’s Reef (about climate change’s impact on our oceans)
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
This week, I met the “legendary” Tony Fadell at SVForum’s Visionary Salon in Palo Alto. Fadell has been called “the father of the iPod,” Google’s $3.2 Billion guru, among other colorful things, so I was intrigued. Here’s what I gleaned from our brief conversation:
On Working with Steve Jobs
Fadell learned to say “no” more than “yes” while working at Apple and he found creative ways to “disappear” when Jobs was in “one of his moods.”
But in 10 years of working with Steve Jobs, the Apple cofounder often revealed his softer side. For example, when Fadell became a father for the first time, Jobs took him for a walk and advised him not to over-schedule his child.
“Make sure they’re bored sometimes,” said Jobs.
What did he mean?
Fadell explains: Kids need the time to find themselves…be creative, and solve problems.
Although critics say he micromanages his teams, Fadell sees himself as a mentor (see more below).
On Google Glass
Glass is definitely a side project for Fadell…he checks in with his Glass design team sporadically. He’s still CEO of Nest and that remains his primary focus, since, as he underlines, “it’s actually shipping product.” He’s laser focused on making sure it’s being done right (see Leadership below).
On Tech Security
Fadell reckons people today are obsessed with tech security and that in reality “nothing is secure…people in the security business are stirring up the shit.”
On Moving Meditation
Fadell starts his work day at 5:30 am and does what he calls a “moving meditation,” be that running, or yoga (one hour, three times a week). That gives him time to problem solve and prepare for his “roller coaster” day of “back-to-back” meetings.
I challenged him to demonstrate one of his favorite poses: the Vriksasana, or tree pose and as you can see…he likes a good challenge.
For non-yogis out there, it’s a great pose for increasing balance, focus, and memory. It also strengthens your feet, ankles and knees.
The main event at the salon was an excellent fireside chat between Fadell and Kevin Surace, SVForum board member and serial entrepreneur. I’ll post a link to the video here, when it’s available.
Here are some of the highlights of that conversation and my observations:
Make sure your projects don’t take over 18 months to ship, otherwise “it’s impossible to keep your team together,” says Fadell.
Although Fadell has lost several key members of Nest recently, he insists that his young team “need mentored to grow into the next leaders in Silicon Valley.” He says that those who walk out the door are examples of “the Tinder generation.”
Like Steve Jobs, Fadell has a reputation for being an intense leader, a micromanager or even a bully.
As Ben Austen so eloquently describes in Wired, “Steve Jobs has become a Rorschach test, a screen onto which entrepreneurs and executives can project a justification of their own lives: choices they would have made anyway, difficult traits they already possess.”
Perhaps Fadell needs to do a little more yoga and a little less yelling?
Larry Page vs Steve Jobs
Fadell characterizes his new Google boss, Larry Page as “an incredible scientist” who respects products and likes deep research to push the limits of technology. By contrast, he found Steve Jobs more focused on marketing, “more business, less science” and says he often took, or even “stole ownership of ideas.”
Fadell says before joining Apple, he’d had 10 years of failure, at General Magic and other enterprises. In 1998 he was a DJ in his spare time, and founded a hardware startup for music collections. He made about 80 pitches to VCs without success. It was the intense fear of failure that helped him stay strong in negotiations with Steve Jobs. He agreed to work on what would become the iPod, only after Jobs assured him, “if you can build it, we’ll put every marketing dollar into this.” And of course, the rest is history.
Should tech companies build cars?
Fadell gives this question a resounding “YES!” He describes a recent meeting with some members of the board at Ford, “I could see fear in their eyes,” he says.
He views cars – especially self-driving cars – as “lots of computer with a little bit of car,” and says that car companies “need to do a 180 and compete with computers on wheels.”
Find out more:
See lots more photos of SVForum’s Visionary Salon
Top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs share success insights at Fresh Dialogues
An in-depth interview with Tesla CEO, Elon Musk
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.”
2. 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!)
And 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
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.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
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
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
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
The dynamic new CEO of SVForum, Adiba Barney rolled out the red carpet this week for the 17th Visionary Awards. But despite all the glitz and glamor, there was a strong message: use tech to make the world better. Of course, each recipient has an impressive resume: Jessica Jackley, cofounder of Kiva; Tim O’Reilly, open source advocate and media producer; Tina Seelig, director of Stanford Tech Ventures Program; and Tim Draper, founder of Draper University and partner at DFJ Ventures. But how did each get where they are today and what can you learn from their journey?
Here are some of the lessons the visionaries shared at Tuesday’s event:
1. Ask: what if?
Jackley witnessed a new level of poverty while working in Africa and when she returned to Silicon Valley, she wanted to help change some lives, especially those with an entrepreneurial drive. She said, “People in Silicon Valley are always talking about the future…so ask: what if?”
Her inspiration? She was killing time at Stanford University one evening, and just happened to attend a talk by Muhammad Yunis, the Nobel Prize winning founder of “banker to the poor” Grameen Bank. His success helped launch the microlending phenomenon and inspired Kiva, a nonprofit microlender that’s now shared over half a billion dollars in startup funds with entrepreneurs around the world.
2. Have some accidents
Tim Draper confessed that he often discovered and backed companies like Skype by complete accident. Often he was actually looking for, or working on something else. His message: “If you want to be a visionary, go out and have some accidents!” And he proceeded to fling his glass of water into the crowd. Fortunately there were no injuries, though fellow journalist, Tom Foremski got the brunt of the baptism.
3. Go for love not money
Tim O’Reilly said “I urge you all: do things for love, with no expectation of return…celebrate the success of people who make a difference.” He described Silicon Valley as a place “for people who dream, who care…about stuff other than making an exit.”
Although he’s a big believer in the power of the markets, he underlined the obligation to “give back” and in his great literary style, he even quoted a passage from Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” to underline his point that an entrepreneur should think “much of others, and little of him (or her) self.” He’s recently embraced the vision of Jennifer Pahlka’s Code for America. It helps bring more top tech talent into government (e.g. the tech team that went to D.C. to help rescue HealthCare.Gov’s disastrous rollout).
“We need to fix government, not abandon it!” said O’Reilly.
4. Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous
Tina Seelig is the epitome of Silicon Valley passion for entrepreneurship and technology; and urges us all to ask big questions. Her mantra is “never miss an opportunity to be fabulous” and although she didn’t say it, her energetic body language seemed to be chanelling Adele’s line from Rolling in the Deep: “Throw your soul through every open door!”
5. Have a passion for “Yes”
Steven Levy, a senior writer at Wired Magazine, and former honoree himself, introduced Tim O’Reilly and reminded everyone that behind every “no” is a “yes.”
“At the core of Silicon Valley is a passion for yes,” he said. “This is the place where people don’t look for reasons to say no…(instead) someone comes up with a crazy idea and they have permission to do it.”
Presumably he means, if you want to be a real tech visionary, there’s no place like Silicon Valley.
Check back soon for Fresh Dialogues interviews with Jessica Jackley, Tina Seelig, Jennifer Pahlka and Tim Draper.
This SVForum event took place at the home of Kelly Porter in Los Altos Hills on Tuesday June 3rd, 2014.
Photo credit: Tom Foremski