Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley
272 pages, W. W. Norton & Co., 2018
After the Great Recession, while the rest of the country crawled forward, the tech meccas of San Francisco and San Jose sprinted ahead. The region became the engine of a new American economy, offering much-needed opportunity to the young and brave.
With prosperity came inequality. San Francisco’s income gap grew faster than any other American city, making it the most unequal city in the nation by 2015. Economic pressures pushed whole communities out into distant suburbs and beyond—a worrisome exodus of the very citizens who built these cities. Sure, San Francisco is changing—and some say it changes all the time—but under stress, cracks in the city’s façade are beginning to form.
Silicon City looks into these cracks, through a series of interviews, to document how people are thriving, growing, coping, struggling with the forces transforming the city of San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and the surrounding Bay Area. Part excavation of the forgotten city and part blueprint for what is to come, the book invites us to hear the region speak in chorus: tech innovators, angel investors, social entrepreneurs, political leaders, LGBTQ activists, environmental warriors, recent transplants, old money, homeless youth, kids in schools, poets, pawnbrokers, public defenders, tattoo artists, tour guides, Uber drivers, and union leaders.
Their stories speak not just to San Francisco or California, but to America. Wealth inequality, the changing workforce, rapid gentrification, infrastructure collapse, climate change, overcrowded prisons, struggling schools, atrophied public institutions—these are problems in any city, in any state across the country. The Bay Area is an experiment in what happens when each of these problems is turned up to 11—what happens when the tech sector fuels changes in the private sector without the public sector being able to keep up—what happens when diversity and disparity combine and combust.
These interviews, like the one excerpted from the book, below, offer us new ways of seeing the problem, as well as potential solutions. After all, if we cannot solve it here, with the wealth of the nation, its brightest talent, and most open hearts at hand, then where?—Cary McClelland
Perhaps in part because he spent much of his childhood in Pakistan, something challenged him to ask the hard questions of the tech industry and push his work in it to serve the right mission: “Getting off of a plane from Karachi and driving into San Francisco—or going back—it was always a bit of a phase shift. It gave you a sense of the bigger world out there and that there’s a lot of people in the Valley not connected to it. So how can technology affect that bigger world? And how can we get the means of production in the hands of as many people as possible?” Starting his own firm, Saad Khan has become a bridge figure between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world and works to put the industry’s vast resources and creativity to the world’s most urgent challenges:
It was always clear that the kinds of problems you could go after could be infinite.
Having grown up abroad, I saw this whole other world that was not being served—and if you looked in the right way, it was a really interesting market opportunity. I could see how much energy there was—and how much talent there was—untapped both here and in other parts of the world. It maybe was an obvious thing for me, but it wasn’t necessarily obvious to a lot of other people.
I started teaching a little bit at the design school at Stanford. I was an industry guest a couple of times at a class called “Designing Liberation Technology”—seeking creative solutions, for example, in parts of the world without electricity. The d.school was a magical place for people who are empathetic (empathy is a staple in “design thinking”) and applying it to different kinds of opportunities. It felt like home for me.
Then, through a series of coincidences, I started teaching in the Middle East. I wrote this piece that was called “Why the Arab World Needs Heroes.” And it happened to get published five days before the Arab Spring started, totally coincidental. I was watching these events unfold on a world stage, and I got the call from a friend of mine, “Hey, you should come talk about this at the State Department.” It was surreal. My topic was the political implication of social media, and the day of my talk, President Mubarak stepped down in Egypt.
I was the right person at the right time, I suppose. The next thing I know, the State Department was like, “Hey, we want someone to host and mentor this start- up weekend in post- revolution Egypt, and USAID will fund it.” I mentored at a developer conference with Google in Saudi Arabia. The government of Malaysia invited Silicon Valley to come—it was an event for local entrepreneurs called “Silicon Valley Comes to Malaysia”—and so I went. I even got the opportunity to meet the president of Turkey.
During this period, there were many “small world” moments. One entrepreneur I met at the start-up weekend in Egypt, he was nineteen at the time. He had way too much swagger for somebody his age. A year and a half later, I get a call from one of my CEOs at a hot venture-backed stealth start-up in the Valley. And he’s like, “We finally found our guy.”
I said, “Sure, tell me about him.”
And he’s like, “Oh, he’s from Egypt, and he said he met you at this event there years ago. He remembered your conversation.” Turns out the same kid had managed to find his way out to the Bay Area, within six months had this place completely wired, and was now debating whether he should take this job at this cool start-up or start his own. Ultimately, he decided to start his own. And I wrote him a check.
But more importantly, you felt like these conversations were having a real impact on people. You connected to actually making a difference in someone’s life. I came back from trips, and I was like, What is the point of having all these resources—being alive when we are, where we are—if we’re not doing something that matters? So that took me down this whole new path.
I started taking a species- level view on a lot of things. (You can only do that if you’re in certain places in Maslow’s hierarchy.) And there are a lot of things that are happening in the Valley that feel like they will have species-level implications: from a health perspective, from a genome perspective, in research labs, changing how we work, think, move, how long we live.
I was spending time with two friends of mine, one who was in my freshman dorm at Stanford—we had all been thinking about this. What are the products and services that feel like they’re actually additive, that are environmentally friendly, and what are business models that are aligned with these values? How do we get the smartest people—the same thinking that made Airbnb and Lyft—working on the most important problems?
My thesis used to be, Just bet on good people, and everything else works itself out. But I started thinking, It’s not just about good people, we also gotta think about the real values behind what they want to do. And guess what? When you get the world’s best people working on really meaningful problems, pretty amazing things happen.
We met Ben Rattray, a guy who was very much focused on citizen engagement as today’s single biggest challenge for democracy to function: How do we build an informed populace that can actually have an impact from the ground up on whatever issues that they care about? That’s what he wanted to make.
We raised a fund to invest in his company. It took a few weeks. Came back and said, “Okay, here’s your check.” We were the first institutional investors alongside Pierre Omidyar’s fund to support Change.org.
And word got around.
We didn’t know how many more companies like this there might be. But it turns out, there were a lot. The next thing I know, lots of other people are talking, “Hey, we’ve heard about you guys and what you’ve done.”
And on the other side, we didn’t know how much money would be available for these kinds of things. But it turns out some of the biggest, deepest, well-known pockets in the world—some pretty awesome people—had gone through their own personal evolution.
So fast-forward to today. We’ve deployed tens of millions of dollars in a portfolio of companies run by some of the best people in the world, animated by values, tackling problems worthy of their lives. And we’re seeing it in the returns. When you marry all those things together, you don’t get a handicapped company or a “social venture.” You get the potential for the best companies in the world.
And that’s what we’re on a mission to prove now. That there’s no reason that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can work on the biggest problems in the world, and not just build businesses but, in fact, be conscious world leaders too.
In Silicon Valley, you gotta have one example of something that works, and then the momentum builds. At this point, we have lots of companies that are executing this way and we think are going to be successful—if they’re not successful already. They employ a lot of people, and they train a lot of people. Those alumni are going to go and start their own companies—up the game for everyone. That’s how this starts.
We are helping build the future not just for our families, or local communities, but often the world. So I feel a big responsibility to do it right. If you think the inequities are bad now, they can get drastically worse. So the need for responsible stewardship is greater than ever. And so much is contingent on whether we do it right or not.
There are no silver-bullet answers. Better economic opportunity, better mobilization of local resources, better housing, justice. Frankly, these are not problems that the Valley is good at solving. At least historically, it hasn’t been. The market has failed, our public institutions have failed. And people have a right to be angry.
But there is an awakening of consciousness that’s happening. For me, it’s about how do we get resources into the people’s hands who are going after meaningful problems. And let them experiment and figure some of these things out. Let them come up with the models for the future, new institutions, new tools. Help them build cultures around that kind of thinking, and that kind of empathy, and hold them accountable.
And let’s see—I bet we can take back capitalism and remake it in our image.