Silicon Valley seemed to capture lightning in a bottle overnight. Home to the computing revolution that spawned a culture of risk taking and technological innovation, Silicon Valley is an ethos that extends to frontiers across the globe. From one to one billion, the Valley is founded upon the belief that one idea can create a billion devices that can affect a billion people that can generate billion-dollar industries. This notion of exponential growth, fueled by the power of computing, is the spirit that drives the Valley, transforming it from place to concept, solidifying it as the world’s model for entrepreneurial success.
But this hotbed of entrepreneurship and innovation wasn’t created overnight, nor was it created by one person. It was created over a century, nurtured by the hands of many and entrusted to those who believe that the technology we create can impact our global society. (For a history on entrepreneurship and innovation in the Valley, see David Laws’ article “How a Century of Entrepreneurial Innovation Created Silicon Valley.”)
Since its public launch in 2016, the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum (CHM) has been hard at work, capturing and preserving this legacy and working to advance the future of entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley and around the world. The Exponential Center is reflecting on its own journey, inspired by insights from a year filled with new exhibits, significant collection acquisitions, and influential events. This is what we’ve learned.
Innovations as a result of entrepreneurial ventures have reengineered modern culture, by literally putting computing power in the hands (and pockets) of ordinary people around the world, equipping them with the tools to do extraordinary things. Access. (For more on how Silicon Valley put computing in your pocket, see the recap of our CHM Live talk “Computing in Your Pocket,” featuring handheld computing pioneers Steve Capps, Donna Dubinsky, Jeff Kaplan, and Marc Porat.)
With the ubiquity of computing, Silicon Valley has seen a shift in ventures focused solely on technology production to those centered on social impact. Kiva, for example, is the world’s largest crowdlending marketplace for underserved entrepreneurs, funneling donations via the internet to entrepreneurs in developing regions around the globe. Kiva has crowdfunded more than one million loans to more than 2.1 million entrepreneurs in 83 countries, totaling just over a billion dollars with a repayment rate over 97 percent. The idea for Kiva comes out of the deeply personal experience of its executive chair, Julie Hanna, a two-time war refugee who realized the power of technology as an agent of democratization.
Opportunity can knock on anyone’s door. That’s luck. Opening the door—that is, recognizing opportunity when it knocks—that’s smart. Seeking opportunity out, that’s drive. Seeking opportunity out after failing, that’s grit. All of these traits are important on the journey to entrepreneurial success (founding father of venture capital Arthur Rock expounds on the importance of luck here), but perhaps none more so important than the last.
The majority of startups will fail, with sources estimating fail rates between 60 and 90 percent.1 But as great legal mind Larry Sonsini says, “Failure in this industry is not a stigma. It’s just an experience.” And others agree. Throughout the year, we asked a number of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and innovators to share their own career postmortems, advice, and lessons learned.
Walter Isaacson, in his shrewd history of computing, The Innovators, debunked the lone creator myth in favor of collaborative innovation, a function that spans generations as well as conference tables.
Technology cuts across every modern industry, from healthcare to publishing. It also has potential to create tremendous social and economic impact, thanks to entrepreneurship, on developing countries around world. Technology has to be accessible and intuitive to a larger, more diverse group of people than ever before. Meeting these varying needs—innovating to creatively solve technical problems and address social issues in tandem—requires broader collaboration within companies, across disciplines, and between regions.
And while today’s technological expanse of exponential progress and far-flung impact may seem revolutionary, its genesis resides with history’s A-team of visionaries, innovators, and engineers. Building on their ideas is not only practical, but also provides us with a richer present to imagine an even better future. It is what Isaacson calls collaborating, or innovating, “between generations.”
[youtube id="vH_cFnUx8kg"] Gordon Moore, Fairchild co-founder, on tipping the scale to entrepreneurship. Fairchild’s success was based on revolutionary insights by three co-founders. Jean Hoerni invented the planar process. Robert Noyce used the planar method to conceive the integrated circuit (IC). Gordon Moore and his “Law” encouraged IC advancements to now billions of transistors on a chip at rapidly declining costs. Intel, AMD, other Fairchildren, and others worldwide created generations of chips that have transformed the way we live, work, and play. [/youtube]
Evolution shows that diversity makes for more resilient and creative biological systems. This idea is also true for businesses. The more diverse your organization is, the better your chance for success. According to a 2015 McKinsey report, organizations with gender, racial, and cultural diversity are more likely to be successful, from yielding financial returns to attracting top talent to producing creative solutions.
Another study on women in the workplace, by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, reports that women continue to be underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline, with men receiving promotions at 30 percent higher rates than women during their early careers. In senior management and leadership positions, including vice president, senior vice president, and C-suite positions, women make up an average of only 24 percent.
How can we work to close the gender gap and better bridge the cultural divide in our companies? Making people aware of the problem, encouraging STEM education, and changing workplace culture are a start. (For further insight, see “Debugging Entrepreneurship for Women in Silicon Valley,” by Marguerite Gong Hancock.)
Entrepreneurship has become a driver of our culture. It’s not just about starting companies. When an entrepreneurial idea materializes into a product of innovation, magic or chaos can ensue. The rise of the internet and online communication coupled with advances in mobile computing and smart design empowered the world to create, communicate, access information, buy and sell products, and make a difference. Venture-backed innovations have revolutionized, revitalized, and reimagined. They’ve also enabled erosion of privacy, social isolation, widespread propaganda, and even acts of terror.
If culture is a reflection of our technology, then our technology is a reflection of our humanity. How can we ensure that the best of our humanity is embedded in the devices we create? How will future generations be affected by the creations we’ve developed?
1 Some sources, including Forbes and The Guardian, estimate that 90 percent of startups will fail. Fortune, however, asserts that this 90 percent figure is a cocktail party myth, designed to add prestige to those who succeed and comfort to those who fail. According to an extensive 10-year study by Cambridge Associates, Fortune contends that a more accurate figure is in fact 60 percent.