This email exchange, where HBS professor Ben Edelman quibbles over $4 of Chinese food in the pursuit of making a broader point, is disturbing.
Here is my email to the Dean of HBS. Let’s see what happens.
I hope you’re well. I’m a JD/MBA student here.
The article about Ben Edelman was disturbing – all the negative stereotypes about HBS up and down social strata ringing true in one exchange. I hope HBS is looking at disciplinary action related to it. I know I don’t want to associate myself with someone who, in a petty pursuit of integrity, seems to display none himself.
Here is a Spanish-dubbed interview with Gabriela Frias of CNN Dinero on why I’m excited about Mexico’s future position as a leader in Latin America and in technology. The interview is from the Cumbre de Negocios (Mexican Business Summit) in Queretaro, where I spoke this past week.
“What are some bold predictions this audience needs to hear? What will happen in the next 10 years”.
The audience included heads of state (Mexico, Turkey, and other Presidents/Prime Ministers) and highly influential wealthy business leaders (founder of Aramex, chairman of Airtel Nigeria, etc). What could I possibly say that would cause them to look up from their cell phones?
I decided to make some provocative predictions based on many companies that I have met around the world. Bold, and slightly crazy, so they would at least listen. The following 5 predictions are the ones I made, and I strongly believe at least 3 will happen…although I don’t know which three!
Within 10 years…
1) Driverless cars will be on the road and owned by consumers…and within 15 years, you will be able to press a button on your mobile phone to call one to pick you up. That app could be Uber or a whole new system. Within 20 years, driverless cars will make up 25% of the cars on the road.
2) A 3D printed organ will be transplanted into a human being. Likely a liver or skin.
3) Bitcoin will become the official currency of certain countries with high volatility. Already, in Argentina, companies like Bitpagos are allowing merchants to accept pesos and cash out in bitcoin because some would rather hold BTC due to inflation.
4) A tragedy like the disappearance of MH370 will never happen—because we will have drones in the sky that will be able to take a picture of nearly any spot on earth within seconds of receiving a command, likely administered through a mobile phone, and not subject to orbital revisit time, unlike our satellites. Regulations are already changing in this space to open up the use of drones commercially.
5) Part of our food supply will come from genetically modified micro-organisms that secrete, as a waste product, various types of amino acids and proteins. Companies are already doing this at a lab scale and by 2025, this will be at a commercial scale.
Let’s see what happens. Hopefully I’m not 0/5.
I had the privilege of attending the Academy of Achievement thanks to the generosity of Wayne and Cathy Reynolds 2 weekends ago in San Francisco. There were 150 extraordinary people all staying at the same hotel and interacting, dancing, and eating with one another for a full weekend. I thought I would share some on-the-record nuggets of wisdom or shocking quotes from the honorees.
Admiral McRaven, former Commander of the US Special Operations best known for leading the operation that killed Bin Laden:
- “At best, there was a 50/50 chance Bin Laden was in that compound. In fact, some very intelligent folks thought it was 10%.”
- “It’s the little things you control…the words of encouragement, the phone calls…that will define you.”
- “If two people agree, one of them isn’t needed.”
- “It’s more credible to work with folks who are known to have different beliefs. Us coming together drew a lot of attention, simply because we stand for opposite sides on many issues.”
Athol Fugard, South African playwright
- “Beware of false pride.”
General David Petraeus, former Director of the CIA
- “Get the big ideas right. Communicate them effectively. Implement them. Then repeat.”
Thomas Keller, Creator/Owner of French Laundry, Per Se
- “My first introduction into the world of cooking was as a dishwasher. It was critical. It taught me discipline (without it, where will the food go?), organization (knowing where the plates go, where the bowls go, saves critical time), efficiency (have to do it quickly), repetition (which equals perfection), and teamwork (everybody needed everybody, including me)
Francis Collins, Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH)
- “My mother’s life advice ‘do whatever you want, but whatever you do, don’t become a federal employee.'”
And many, many more.
After a wonderful trip back to San Francisco, the learnings of which will be the subject of my next blog post, I’m officially writing this post from Cambridge, Massachusetts…where I now live.
Earlier this year, I walked into the offices of few General Partners at NEA and told them I was thinking about doing my JD/MBA at Harvard. The responses varied from “you’re out of your mind, stay at NEA” and “this isn’t the wealth optimizing move,” to “the JD is a commodity degree today” and “do you know how many MBAs call me and want your job?” But as I described my rationale—one that had nothing to do with my company-building and investing career—they slowly became enthusiastic.
For years, Silicon Valley has in general responded to government with a signature brand of techno-libertarianism, flourishing alternately condescension, ignorance, and a deliberate apathy. But in the birthplace of innovation, such a response is inimical to everything that this community stands for: knowledge, progress, and collaboration. Indeed, if Silicon Valley is to continue to lead the world in innovation, rather than rebuff government, we must work to reform it. Allocating capital and reforming policy the way a venture capitalist would—with a high risk tolerance, potentially massive impact, and a long-term orientation—could do wonders in the public sector. But in order to enable these shifts in the law, one needs to understand where the law came from– hence the JD. Tack on the MBA, which is only an extra year in the combined program, and it can’t do more harm than good, right?
Of course, I could be completely wrong, and this expensive long-term call option— considering both tuition and opportunity cost– could expire worthless if I never decide to enter public service. Alternatively, I may find the lure of Silicon Valley and the opportunity to build the next generation of companies too enticing and drop out, which many people are betting on.
But so far, I’m having an intellectually enriching time learning about the law and, more importantly, meeting the people. My classmates are diverse: a former member of the CIA who did special operations in Yemen, the sons and daughters of Heads of States around the world, the former head of the NFL Players Association, many brave and deeply selfless military personnel. And I haven’t given up investing: in fact, I am still actively investing and taking board seats/becoming an advisor to a few companies, some which will be announced soon.
Let’s see where this takes me. At worst, I will have dropped out of Harvard– that can’t be that bad, right? :)
The past four months have been a whirlwind. Yet from the maelstrom of experiences, three themes have emerged: tombstones, billions, and dreams. Each one of these could encompass multiple posts on their own, but I’ll do my best to highlight the key points briefly here.
Perhaps the greatest insight from the past few months came from a simple statement: I was having lunch with one of my closest friends, Ben Rattray, whose company Change.org is one of the best examples of a purpose-driven, for-profit organization. Change.org is the platform that spurred the Boy Scouts to end its anti-gay policy, that empowered Trayvon Martin’s family to unveil their side of the story, that has equipped citizens from almost every country on the globe to campaign for change. And they also happen to be a tremendous business, doing tens of millions in revenue.
Like usual, we were talking about all sorts of stuff, from capitalism and impact investing to that perennial best city debate: New York, Boston or San Francisco. But the question that most changed my thinking was this:
“What do you want your tombstone to say?”
That question has fundamentally changed my outlook on careers and money…which is for a future post.
- The Portuguese Dream: In March, I was invited to speak at the GoYouth Conference in Lisbon, Portugal alongside the founders of HotelTonight, Cloudflare, and Siri. Portugal is plagued by a 35%+ youth unemployment , yet GoYouth’s organizer, 19-year-old Tiago, expressed zero interest in hearing it and thus created a forum for entrepreneurship to lead Portugal out of a deep recession. At both the conference and Startup Lisboa, which we later visited, I was blown away by the hospitality, hope, and capabilities of the Portuguese.
- The Immigrant & Refugee’s Dream: At the end of 2013, I joined the board of Business Center for New Americans, a burgeoning nonprofit that provides microloans to women, immigrants, and refugees building companies in New York City. These are individuals like Sonnie Selma, a Liberian refugee who founded an African specialty foods business that imports products like African Palm Oil and sells them locally. For immigrant heritage week in New York, we brought together 100+ of our entrepreneurs just like Sonnie into one room to recognize the transformative role of entrepreneurship– from the mom-and-pop laundromat in Queens to the taxi cab company in Brooklyn– in changing their and their families’ lives. I have never seen a better representation of the American Dream than on that day.
- A lover’s dream: India is a country whose Supreme Court recently ruled that homosexuality is a crime. That made this 1st place dance by Northwestern Anubhav at Bollywood America that much more powerful.
- Pinterest – The company, which Bessemer invested in when I was employed there, recently raised at a $5 billion valuation despite just starting to monetize. In due course, this will prove to be a steal of a deal.
- Snapdeal – My first venture deal was Snapdeal, a company I have written about before as a study in America’s broken immigration system(summary: the founder of Snapdeal wanted to start a company in the USA but couldn’t get a visa). They just raised at a $1 billion valuation, taking yet another step closer to becoming India’s Alibaba/TaoBao.
- Berkshire Hathaway – I was at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha thanks to an invitation from Tracy Britt. It was a great dose of investing reality (who would think that businesses could be valued off of free cash flow or EBITDA instead of users and eyeballs?). And on Sunday night, I had dinner at a steakhouse that apparently is good enough for these two.
And so much more. In general, I’m not a fan of these diary-like posts as opposed to more substantive ones, but as I resume my blogging cadence, I hope to revert to the latter.
This guest op-ed was originally published by Forbes here.
Why Silicon Valley Should Help Washington
In Silicon Valley, 2013 will be remembered as the year the idea of separating from the United States went viral. There was the Stanford lecturer and investor, Balaji Srinivasan, who called for “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,” declaring to a large audience of elite entrepreneurs,”We need to build an opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”
There was Larry Page, the CEO of Google with a net worth over $30 billion, who suggested a more experimental approach in which technologists “set aside a small part of the world” beyond existing laws and institutions. Page’s vision is shared by billionaire investor Peter Thiel, who in 2008 co-founded the Seasteading Institute to create floating city-states in the ocean.
And then there was Chamath Palihapitiya, another influential venture capitalist, who took a step further in proclaiming, “The government, they’re completely useless… If the government shuts down, nothing happens and we all move on, because it just doesn’t matter.”
It’s tempting for many observers to dismiss these ideas as outlandish: after all, Silicon Valley is not on the verge of seceding from the Union. Yet it is also a fact that the United States has seen few, if any, separatist thought movements backed by such wealthy and elite individuals since the mid-1800s.
Even beyond the erosion of national identity, what this thought movement reveals is a systematic lack of appreciation across parts of the tech community for the role the U.S. government plays in supporting the most innovative economy in the world. Indeed, the U.S. federal government remains the world’s single greatest benefactor of scientific discovery and technological invention, without which Silicon Valley would neither exist nor persist.
In the end, Silicon Valley and Washington need each other to thrive. Instead of dreaming about abandoning U.S. governance, the Valley should strive to improve it — not only through forward-looking policy advocacy, but also through new ventures to make American government more productive.
The Limits of Silicon Valley
It is now well established that Silicon Valley was born largely through U.S. defense and intelligence spending in the 1940s and 1950s, laying the foundation for the global information technology revolution. As serial entrepreneur Steve Blank has documented in “The Secret History of Silicon Valley,” this occurred through a series of federal grants to Stanford and early-stage companies developing microwave systems and vacuum-tubes, and eventually semiconductors and the Internet.
While the State laid the foundation, there is little question that Silicon Valley’s private investors and entrepreneurs ultimately built much of the information technology sector as we know it.And to this day, the Valley remains one of the most forward-looking places in the world: Tesla’s electric vehicles, Coursera’s platform for free higher education access, and Google’s self-driving cars are just a few examples of its companies working to solve big problems.
Despite these examples, there is a growing sense of disappointment with what the Valley is delivering— what some are calling a “systemic failure in the startup ecosystem” that primarily creates Instagrams instead of Hyperloops. As Harvard Business School Professor Josh Lerner concluded, “the venture capital model is no panacea for innovation. The boom-and-bust cycle, the mercurial effects of public markets, and the narrowing of its objectives have made it something far less substantial.”
These trends make sense given the incentives facing most venture capitalists in today’s markets: if the public markets reward fast-growing internet companies like Twitter at multiples as high as 40x revenue, then why wouldn’t investors pursue high-flying software or consumer internet deals?
As a result, VC investment in more capital-intense and higher-risk technologies has fallen substantially in recent years, with software startups increasingly dominating at the expense of sectors like energy, transportation, biotech, and advanced manufacturing. As Peter Thiel has lamented, “We wanted flying cars. Instead, we got 140 characters.”
The Entrepreneurial State
Fortunately, the federal government continues to provide the seed corn for the U.S. innovation system through unmatched investments in high-risk technology research and development (R&D). On the order of nearly $150 billion per year, this commitment far exceeds any other nation and is almost five times the size of the entire global VC market, driving the development of new, foundational technological platforms upon which the private sector builds commercial value.
Nuclear power. Jet engines. The Green Revolution. Semiconductors. The Internet. Hydraulic fracturing. Solar photovoltaics. Gas turbines. Advanced batteries. Recombinant DNA and genome sequencing. All of these blockbuster technologies and more were originally developed with U.S. government funding, and future breakthroughs in path-breaking areas like quantum computing, nano-manufacturing, and fusion power will require the same.
Of course, today it is commonplace for skeptics to point to examples like Solyndra. But whether or not the government should finance large-scale manufacturing facilities is besides the point: even the most libertarian economists agree on the productive role of public spending on research and development.
This doesn’t mean the private sector doesn’t develop breakthrough technologies on its own — the bygone Bell Labs is a prime example — nor should it discourage venture capitalists from developing new investment models. But as British economist Mariana Mazzucato concluded in her recent book, The Entrepreneurial State, “most of the radical, revolutionary innovations that have fueled the dynamics of capitalism… trace the most courageous, early and capital-intensive ‘entrepreneurial’ investments back to the State.”
State of Innovation
Silicon Valley and Washington need each other to thrive: the Valley needs a productive federal government to continue supporting our national innovation system, and Washington needs a Valley that turns new inventions into good jobs and productive commercial products.
Of course, the Beltway city could also use its own strong dose of disruptive innovation to deliver more value. Instead of dismissing government, the Valley should direct more of its energy toward ventures that make it more efficient and responsive. For government operations, companies like Palantir have only scratched the surface in overhauling data mining and analysis capabilities. For government advocates and watchdogs, startups like OpenGov, Outline, and FiscalNote have much greater potential to provide analysis tools on complex public programs. For civic empowerment, there remains enormous opportunity to create information and organizing platforms, such as NationBuilder, to engage the public and make government more responsive. And this is only the beginning of what’s possible, both here and for governments across the world.
For over a half-century, the unique partnership between Washington and Silicon Valley has produced transformational results and helped make the United States the most dynamic and entrepreneurial society in the world. Today, the challenges of the twenty-first century demand even more ambitious and meaningful innovation, and that is why we must renew and strengthen our partnership — not abandon it.