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Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley

Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment

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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.

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.

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.

Do you?

No, never.

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 more Tablet Q&A by David Samuels, including conversations with Sam Harris, Noam Chomsky, Scott Ian, and others, click here.

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oaklandj says:

Wonderful interview!

Sillama says:

This is History that you’ll never learn in school! Amazing!

Yechiel Gordon says:

So, this guy used his considerable skills to help the US government kill about 3 million people in Indochina, and that’s what Tablet calls Tikkun Olam.

This guy reminds me of the stereotypical “Irish uncle” who’s sitting at a table boasting about his own accomplishes, beer in hand, and you sit there and you know half or more is trumped-up bullshit.

The whole “I worked on the most secret thing ever”. This is hilarious. This assumes he has full clearance at the level of a president to know that, and he obviously does not/did not have presidential clearance.

Then there’s the whole “they did stupid stuff compared to me” which he repeats like 3x times.
Again, notice the self-deluding grandeur.

He at least seems to have enough insight that he and Jobs were never a match because both were jerks. Except that Jobs was at least a talented one(and yes, he was extremely talented before his 13 years of exile too, Apple went to hell post-Scully).

The Jewish angle is more interesting, I think. (But then again if I didn’t think so, why would I spend my time reading Tablet?).
But it’s also less about meritocracy than this guy seems to suggest.
Here’s a look at a photo from 2011.

Jobs’ dead but otherwise, most of the picture is intact. Schmidt at that time was already executive chairman:

Doesn’t look super diverse to me. Also, you have Mayer, Rometty and Whitman as women CEOs of Yahoo!, IBM and HP respectively. Neither company is exactly in the small leagues even if neither is really that dynamic these days. All are WASPs though.

And as for the Jews, well; Zuckerberg’s intermarried. Page intermarried. And Page himself idolized his father, which came very clearly out through his latest speech at the Google I/O this summer when he admiringly described how his father fought hard to get him into robotics shows. Page’s father was a WASP dad – and a brilliant computer scientist professor at that – who married a Jewish woman.
Brin was the only guy who married Jewish out of the trio, even if his wife’s Jewish background is shaky at best(her own father was/is a WASP and her mother hardly cared for her Jewish background).

It’s true that there are more Jews in the valley now, but the depressing part is that they’re Jews by accident and most of them are intermarrying/assimilating with reckless abandon, even more so than the average secular American Jew.

Does anyone honestly expect that the children of Google’s CEO or Facebook’s CEO will be raised Jewish when the mothers are both non-converting gentiles?
Larry Page prefers to go to the burning man festival rather than going to the synagogue. I guess we can be happy that he was born as one of us but he leads his life as if he views it as something completely insignificant, which may be closer to the truth. In brief, this is a cultural issue, reflected in large part in the broader secular Jewish community, rather than any quesiton about meritocracy.


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Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley

Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment

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