Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley
Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment
Fast forward two decades later, I’m having a baby, and I go, “I think I care.” My wife isn’t Jewish, but she didn’t care that much and we agreed to raise them Jewish. So, we had Shabbos and they went to Hebrew school, my wife did the Shabbos candles. She didn’t convert, but we raised them with an identity.
On a different note, when you look at the Valley today what do you see? It has changed dramatically.
Number one is information density. If you think about it, 30 years ago the only way you got info was during one-on-one meetings. You knew very little, and the world knew very little. We just know a lot more now.
Number two, the entrepreneurial culture is now explicit rather than implicit. Back then, people didn’t have computers in their houses, and no one knew about Silicon Valley.
The good news about being retired is I got to be this hand grenade in entrepreneurial education. There’s a nonprofit called Startup Weekend, taught in 109 countries. I’m on the board, and there’s an insatiable demand for this worldwide. I’ve now taught in Finland, Prague, Berlin, and many other places. In every country I’ve been in there’s a distinction between entrepreneurship everywhere with what does it take to ignite a cluster, it takes risk-capital culture, which doesn’t quite follow entrepreneurial culture.
When you went to Israel it was with your kids?
No, I went to Israel with my wife, no kids there. We spent two weeks in Egypt, right before the riots. Now I recommend to everybody that if you want to appreciate Israel you go to Egypt first, and then you kiss the ground when you get to Ben Gurion Airport. After four days, we called up the girls and said you’ve got to get on a plane and come here. So, we spent three days in Tel Aviv, and we went all over the country.
Do you have any contact with Israeli tech entrepreneurs?
I can’t stand Israeli entrepreneurs. They are New Yorkers without grace!
If you look at the early names of tech, it’s all about Vannevar Bush and Terman, and Hewlett and Packard, then Gates and Jobs. Now the big names are Zuckerberg and Brin. Is there suddenly this Jewish moment in the Valley, and is there any cultural reason for that?
No one thinks of them as Jews.
So, now that I say it—hey, they’re Jews!—is there any way in which they are distinct in that culture?
No. It’s not an accident but no one thinks of them as Jews. Again, I’m not colorblind, but I am ethnic blind. When I came out to Silicon Valley in ’78 it was white-shoe WASP-y venture capital. There was no diversity. Fast-forward 30 years, half the CEOS are Asians and Indians. The glass ceiling is now women. And there are almost no African Americans or Latinos.
So, if an 18-year-old kid came to you and said they wanted to do what you do, namely start a bunch of companies, and bank a few hundred million dollars while doing work that she loved, what advice would you offer her?
Volunteer for everything. Join a startup. I had a career of apprenticeship. I’m a very slow learner with a long memory. Kids overthink their first job. That’s what I tell my students now, there’s no permanent record here. You get to do multiple jobs. Whatever you do, you ought to love to do it when you get up in the morning. For decades I remember driving into multiple jobs, thinking maybe this is the day they figure out how much I love working here, and that I’d do it for free. I couldn’t believe they were paying me a lot of money to do what I love.
Great entrepreneurs are revolutionaries. They change the status quo. They rebel against what exists. It is only this country and this culture that allow us to do this.
For Sharon Kleinbaum—friend of Christine Quinn, partner to Randi Weingarten—the personal is political