Head West

One of the main emphases of the Your Future series is putting yourself in the best place to succeed.   You know by now that for me, this means Silicon Valley, but some of the particulars might surprise you.  My path here has given me a profound attachment to this wonderland of innovation, yet it has also deepened my engagement with the world at large in ways I never could have imagined.  The Valley has taken me, as Bilbo Baggins might have put it, there and back again.

Silicon Valley rocks…enough said?  Let’s start with the obvious:  Silicon Valley is the premier engineering area, and has been for longer than you might think.   If you want to change the world, you want to be among the best in the world, and no one even disputes that Silicon Valley is home to the top technical talent anywhere.  Likewise, as an aspiring difference-maker, the atmosphere of excellence should already excite you – whether your ultimate destination is Silicon Valley or elsewhere, it’s safe to assume you are not content with being a big fish in a small pond.  Living and working among the best poses numerous advantages and creates real opportunities – these are just a few that come to mind:

  • It improves your game.  I’ve always felt that Silicon Valley is unique in that your peer group extends far beyond your immediate colleagues, and the opportunity to interact with and learn from the best is unparalleled here.  Attend a SuperHappyDevHouse or Hacker Dojo event and you will see what I mean.
  • Silicon Valley is a place to get noticed.  The network effect is hard to overestimate, and Silicon Valley employers take a much more meritocratic and imaginative approach to recruitment than traditional industry.  More than anywhere else, ability trumps experience, and the operative question when considering young talent is usually not “why”, but “why not?”
  • Silicon Valley is a place to find the human catalysts for realizing your goals.  You can think of this not only in terms of employers and colleagues, but also co-founders, first hires, and mentors and advisors.
  • The access to capital is unmatched.  There are half a dozen cafes on University Avenue where you can’t order an espresso without rubbing shoulders with a top-tier venture capitalist or angel investor, and chances are they want to meet you as keenly as you want to meet them.

 

My Story: After family stints in Mumbai, Nigeria, and Orlando, I headed to Cornell.  I received a fantastic technical education, and this laid the groundwork – without a technical foundation, nothing that followed would have been possible.  Coming out of Cornell, New York and Washington, DC are the logical centers of mass.  I love the energy of New York, but the downside is that the top technical people gravitate to finance, not engineering – or if they remain engineers, they spend their time building robots for small groups within an investment bank.  DC does a great job of attracting talented people with an ethic of service, but it can be a very difficult place to do anything fundamentally disruptive.   Even worse, New York and DC don’t have a culture that treats engineers as first-class citizens, and if this is true in such vibrant cities, you can imagine how it is elsewhere.  Fortunately, this is starting to change – for example, I am watching Cornell’s new campus on Roosevelt Island with great excitement, and I’ve had a great time and met great people at Digital Capital Week.

As much as I enjoyed my time in Ithaca, there wasn’t much startup culture to speak of – at least not then.  For the top computer science students, Microsoft was a dream job, maybe Google if you were exceptionally adventurous.   There was no model for going to a startup after graduation, let alone going to school primarily as a means to immediately enter the entrepreneurial fray.  And this was exactly why I headed West, to Stanford, for graduate school.  It may sound crazy, but the degree actually was just a vehicle to become a part of the community. 

The plan worked.  After just a few months, I became employee #5 at a startup, and spent the next two and a half years traveling throughout Latin America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia building an online-to-offline payment processing network.  I may not have gotten rich, but I was given a ton of freedom (and responsibility), learned a great deal, and was exposed to a whole new universe of entrepreneurs, investors, and technology pioneers, forging relationships that will outlast any job.  When the time came to move on, I had a cornucopia of emerging companies to pick from, and enough insight into my own strengths, weaknesses, and passions to make an inspired choice. 

Beware the Bubble:  Silicon Valley unquestionably rocks, but as with any truly special environment, it can be too insular at times.  Of course, many entrepreneurs come here for exactly this reason – there are few distractions from the overarching goal of building something great.  That said, your awareness of what actually constitutes greatness can fossilize if it’s not challenged.  The spirit of innovation and improvement is not a sure immunization against group-think and self-congratulation, and even the most gifted people can fall prey to the sense that the rules of the road don’t apply to Silicon Valley.  However, it is still the epicenter of entrepreneurship and engineering culture, and the good easily dwarfs the bad.  The best antidote to insularity is an infusion of fresh talent and fresh perspectives, and this is where you come in.  Realistically, it is much easier to make your mark in Silicon Valley than to try to replicate it elsewhere.  Changing the world requires laser focus, and creating the infrastructure and pre-conditions for success from scratch will inevitably detract from that focus.

More importantly, the rest of the world needs Silicon Valley more than ever.   For too many companies and individuals, the model of success never requires them to step outside the Valley.   Yet, technology is an amazing lever for change, and in my experience the best way to fight insularity is to engage with broader scales of challenges.  My first job out of college took me to the world’s great cities and mud-walled villages alike, and I’ve been fortunate to continue venturing outward ever since.  I’m a firm believer that to change the world, you must first see the world, and Silicon Valley can be a tremendous catalyst for both.

Peace, Love, and Understanding: Expanding your way of thinking is essential, yet there is also something to be said for being around people who not only share your interests and passions, but also understand you on a fundamental level.  As motivating as it is to be told you’re crazy, it’s even better to find kindred spirits to join in the effort.  Silicon Valley is above all a community of passion, and it is difficult to convey the motivational power of such a community without experiencing it firsthand. 

We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim: “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”  I appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t completely agree.  As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in Silicon Valley, I’ve never felt like I wasn’t working – for myself, for my teammates, and for a common goal.  And because I’ve always been working for something, I tend to think that work/life balance is a false dichotomy, and so I’ve made it a practice to seek out individuals who felt the same way.  Whether there’s a business opportunity or not, good things happen when people who share defining values find each other. 

In February of 2010, I had coffee with a computer scientist-turned-entrepreneur who had created a compelling prototype for a new educational technology, and was looking for office space and strategic advice.  Although our respective markets were worlds apart at first glance, I was captivated by how similarly we approached our work and how much we defined ourselves by our passions.  A few months later, we were engaged, and exactly one year from our second date, we got married, surrounded by many of the close friends we had made on each of our entrepreneurial journeys.  After a two-day honeymoon, she was off to a conference and I was off to visit my biggest international customer.  Since then, it’s been an incredible ride.  It hasn’t always been easy, but Pooja and I both came to Silicon Valley knowing we’d have to make an extra effort to live our dreams – all of them.