• Stevie Hanna

Valley of the Innovation Kings (Part Two)

Last time, I introduced 3 key principles that are integral to Silicon Valley’s innovation ecosystem: Openness, Dreaming Big, and Learning through Risk and Failure. But you don’t have to take my word on it. In order to confirm that I was on the right track, I reached out to people in Silicon Valley with an inside perspective on the daily hustle of dreaming and working in the Bay Area. Jennifer Wei, an Ann Arbor native who has worked for Salesforce and Cisco, shared her experiences and opinions on how the ecosystem supports relentless ambition and innovation

Be Open, Reeeaaaaallllly Open

While technological advances in our lifetime have helped us become connected in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago, we’re struggling greatly with the reality that we’ve become more insulated in groups that share a similar world view. If Silicon Valley has changed how you connect, I’d like to argue that it also offers a model for who you connect with.

One thing that immediately sets Silicon Valley apart is its transparency and people’s willingness to cooperate. Social events are a high priority in both one’s personal and professional life, taking a more holistic approach centered on personal learning and development, not purely career advancement. Companies not only frequently host events to further these goals, they encourage employees to attend others’ events. There is also a multitude of online groups to organize more meetups. Every week, all over Silicon Valley, there are opportunities to interact with colleagues and competitors, peers and seniors, in formats that vary from formal presentations to super chill panels and mixers. This kind of exposure to not only new ideas but also passionate people who are doing amazing things and pursuing their dreams has an electrifying impact on individuals that spirals out to benefit companies and the region as a whole.

Commitment to transparency and openness among different team members and levels of management within a company improves efficiency by keeping everyone aligned and invested in innovation efforts. While people have titles or seniority, it’s a looser concept of hierarchy that puts the focus on facilitating collaboration. By fostering employees’ social/professional networks and accepting that their top loyalty may be to those networks or personal goals (or even an interesting project) rather than the company, it invites those external connections to provide fresh perspectives. Diversity of experience and perspectives are invaluable innovation resources and the networking culture (and high turnover) of Silicon Valley makes them particularly abundant in the Bay Area. Companies also work across sectors, reaching out beyond obvious connections to open new possibilities. This ability to break down silos and simultaneously collaborate and compete plays out on both the most intimate and broadest scales, such as beta testing that invites broader public participation. After all, owning an idea is not necessarily a great end goal if that idea’s development is stunted by isolation.

Dream Big and Dream Often

Jennifer’s greatest shock upon touching down in the Bay Area was everyone’s sheer ambition. Growing up in the Midwest (and I can personally attest to this) kids are encouraged to make their passions work within a pragmatic framework of “reality.” We seem to settle down a little earlier, put our heads down and work hard 9 - 5 until we can call it a day and shift our focus to home and family. We may be a land of bounteous comfort food, but we lack the insatiable hunger of Silicon Valley. There, big dreams are not meant to inevitably compromise for virtues such as balance or stability. They intend to see their dreams realized, intact, on their own terms.

“It’s not uncommon to meet a 23 year old with a 10-year plan to build a $5 billion company. It sounds impossible, but it’s a skill to think really long-term while building towards that dream through learning events and resources in the area.”

In an echo of scrum, the management system credited with powering the Valley’s break-neck innovation, it seems that the secret is to compartmentalize a massive goal into smaller chunks with clear milestones. Then you just have to be scrappy, take it one day at a time, and always be willing to ask for help. You can’t wait until you’re “ready” to get started.

This is true for organizations as well as individuals. Many companies go beyond establishing a purpose to pursue visions that lie at the edges of human imagination. Google, Uber, and Tesla are all in a race to develop self-driving cars but Tesla’s greatest ambition is space exploration. Likewise, many companies in Silicon Valley are branching out to pursue civic/social good projects, (see HERE or HERE). Silicon Valley is characterized as a land of dreamers (compared to say, New York City, where the same industries characterize themselves as more pragmatic) where regardless of company there is a general sense that technology and innovation from this area will shape the world of the future. It’s important and fair to criticize the negative consequences of relative isolation from other communities, but this aspirational mindset is crucial to long term developments and innovation. This kind of environment tremendously expands the horizon of possibilities and keeps passion in the forefront.

Risk and Failure are your friends

One of Mark Zuckerberg’s better known mottos at Facebook is “done is better than perfect”. Not every innovation is going to make it in the real world, and even the most meticulous preparation cannot guarantee success. So an innovation mindset is best paired with an acceptance of risk and failure, which means prioritizing speedy development and active engagement with your target audience, rather than aiming for perfection. Mistakes are an inevitable part of rapid progress but hold a value of their own for those who focus on long term development. If you want the stream of feedback that will propel you to new heights, then you have to give people something to react to. We must always question whether the innovation process helps ideas evolve or holds them back. Many ideas are prematurely rejected because they do not fit within the narrow restrictions of channels that have already been developed or the prioritization of short-term goals.

The Bay Area has a long standing cycle of failing and improving, gradually moving closer to end goals. The region’s successes are the result of people with big dreams entering an environment with a supportive culture, a collaborative spirit, and plenty of resources. Together these elements empower individuals at all levels to achieve more and support the ambitions of others in turn.

“There are so many resources in Silicon Valley and people will share them for a good idea or an inspiring ambition. In the Midwest I felt like I couldn’t reach out because I’m a nobody. I thought I needed a personal connection first. But no one cares here. I’ll just give it a try and if they like it great and if they don’t, it’s not like I was personally rejected. You just say ‘Hey, let’s go get coffee!’ and from there it’s all about your work or your idea and how you’d fit together to achieve something great.”