By Burt Dixon
This is the script for a public lecture I gave at the American University of Rome in Rome, Italy on October 4, 2018. Since I ad-libbed a bit as I talked, it’s not a perfect representation of the lecture, but it’s about 90% there. This was followed by a Q&A with moderator Kyla Fullenwider and the audience. The whole thing will be produced as a podcast which I’ll link to here when it’s available.
I have spent the last decade of my life — the better part of my career — in Silicon Valley.
It’s where I received my post graduate education, and, for the last six years, it’s where I built a successful social enterprise, one that cut to the heart of what Silicon Valley claims to be and how that differs from what it actually is. I know many of the most famous entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that you hear about in the news and follow online. As I built my company, I built an online following myself.
But I didn’t start out loving tech, and despite my deep appreciation for its power and potential, I don’t know that I ended up loving it either. I ended up in Silicon Valley by accident — and the longer I stayed, the more I came to believe that this incredible startup ecosystem has a very serious problem — and it affects us all.
My early career was spent largely in the nonprofit sector. I focused on youth development and the arts. I loved my work, but I felt frustrated by a pattern I saw across the sector. The predominant model for making change was a traditional nonprofit one where one group of folks at the organization raised the money, and another group spent it to create impact. At the same time, businesses were profit machines designed to make money, and if they wanted to do good, well, they’d give a little of it away to “charities”.
In the early 2000s the concept of “social entrepreneurship” was nascent, and the idea of “impact investing” nearly nonexistent. But I knew enough to know that there must — or at least might — be a better way. And so a couple years after college I decided to do something I really thought my little social justice self would never do — apply to business school. After weighing my options, I ended up enrolling at Stanford for a JD/MBA, and in August 2007 I flew from New York City to SFO, picked up the first car I’d ever owned (a hybrid Prius of course), and drove to Silicon Valley to start the semester.
The fact that Stanford was in Silicon Valley did not factor into my choice to attend at all. This is a fact that probably would seem crazy to a prospective student today, but at that time it really was the dawn of the social web and lots of what was happening in the Valley prior was still about hardware and chips and inaccessible to the average person. But that was changing. The first iPhone was released six weeks before I got to campus. Facebook had opened up to the broader public just a few months before. Twitter was just catching on after gaining traction at a conference called South by Southwest — a gathering I’d never heard of at the time but would later attend five times and eventually keynote in front of a crowd of 5,000.
Once at Stanford, it was impossible not to get curious about tech and startups. So when a friend of a friend approached me to help design the launch of their stealth mode startup’s first product, I jumped at the chance to see this world from the inside. I started to split my coursework between nonprofit management and legal and strategic theories around building tech companies, and interned in tech over summers and on the side. After graduation I decided to put my social impact plans on hold for a year to keep building the tech company I’d been working with, knowing that I’d make my way back to nonprofits soon.
This choice ended up giving me an interesting vantage point that would ultimately lead to my founding the social enterprise Code2040.
Being on the inside of tech was fascinating. I really felt like I was seeing the future. The types of products, platforms, and services that were being built heralded a change in how we’d communicate, learn, work, and live. But amidst all this I was struck by how homogenous the people in this tech startup world were. Most of the meetups and conferences I attended placed me in seas of young, white, educated, middle class, men. I was often the only woman and the only person of color at the table.
There wasn’t much dialogue about this lack of diversity at the time, but when there was it tended to center on this idea of a “pipeline problem” — that there simply were not enough talented, qualified people from other backgrounds to hire or fund. I didn’t buy it. I’d spent years working with hugely talented people of color and white women. I dug into the data and it supported my hypothesis. A business school classmate of mine who was leading a team at a major tech startup had a similar observation. Together we thought: What if we could call BS on the “pipeline” excuse by building bridges between talent we knew was out there and the opportunity that we saw all around us? We co-founded Code2040, focused on ensuring that Black and Latinx people are fully represented in and leading the innovation economy.
With Code2040 I was back to social impact and I was determined to be creative in how we thought about making money and spending money. I got to test the theories I’d learned in graduate school. I raised philanthropic funding but also built an earned revenue stream with tech companies like Google, Airbnb, Intel, and Lyft as clients, that helped support the organization’s growth and ensure its sustainability. I built a thriving company that, at the time I stepped down as CEO and passed the torch to my successor in April of this year, had raised and earned over $18M and had 35 people on staff and a $6M budget.
But perhaps the strangest thing about launching and running Code2040 was the experience of running a Silicon Valley startup that was designed to reform Silicon Valley. Code2040’s work has helped to get hundreds of Black and Latinx students into careers in tech. It’s helped to support hundreds of managers and executives in their work to create more equitable workplaces. And we did this as sort of insider-outsiders.
Yes we built a startup in San Francisco, but it was a social enterprise and a nonprofit in the land of entrepreneurs seeking to be “unicorns” (that’s a term for a company with a billion dollar valuation by the way).
Silicon Valley is filled with entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are builders who create “value” as measured by money. And Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are focused — they dream of being unicorns.
Social entrepreneurs are builders too, but fundamentally we are problem solvers. Our “value” is the impact we create and our dream is to solve the social or environmental problem we’ve identified — to find innovative solutions to the most urgent and insidious problems plaguing our communities and our fellow citizens. Entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship are close cousins. And social entrepreneurs may build successful, profitable businesses on their way to solving the problem they care about. But we don’t measure worth with only with dollars (or euros!).
The more time I spent in Silicon Valley, the more power the companies that were just coming into their own when I arrived in 2007 gained. And the more I wished that more of these entrepreneurs whose products and platforms are shaping our lives were social entrepreneurs.
I mean, what if Silicon Valley’s most promising entrepreneurs were social entrepreneurs? Take Twitter. The joke about early tweets was that they were all about what people were having for breakfast. How might Twitter be different if it had been created by not by Jack and his friends but by a group of activists? Instead of the tool accidentally enabling protest as with the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter, what if it was created to support it? Or how might it have been designed differently if there were women on the founding team? Would the tool handle trolling and harassment differently with a bias towards the victim rather than the harasser?
The original idea for Facebook was to digitize “The Face Book” — the book of photos of incoming freshman that we all got when we arrived at Harvard. As the lore goes, that would make it all the easier to check out your dating prospects. I was a senior at Harvard when Facebook launched, and we primarily used it to share what classes we were in and photos from our weekend nights out. How might Facebook have been designed if Mark was thinking about preserving or expanding democracy when he built it? Would it have been able to be used so easily to spread disinformation like wildfire?
Travis hated that taxis were inconvenient in San Francisco and wished he could have his own private driver on demand, so he launched Uber. What if the person with the tools, network, and access to capital to launch a ridesharing app was not an upper class white man looking to get home from the bar in style but an immigrant taxi driver working to support his family and frustrated by the fact that he never knew where his next fare was coming from? We’d have a completely different company with a different ethos — one that might even support a living wage for the drivers who power it.
There’s no doubt that the tools of Silicon Valley are powerful, but they’re too often in too few hands.
In Summer 2016 I was invited to join the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as a Senior Advisor to the Chief Technology Officer to help bring to the team some of my experience ensuring all Americans have access to the tools and capital needed to become technologists and to launch startups. We made progress, including in bringing together investors to encourage them to pledge to direct more of their capital to underrepresented founders solving important problems.
Unfortunately with the administration change our work got cut short, but it is no less important, and it’s vital that other institutions, like universities, pick up the baton of ensuring that the broadest possible range of people are equipped with the tools and support needed to launch social enterprises.
What problems might we solve if the knowledge and resources it took to become an entrepreneur were equitably distributed? How might we encourage social entrepreneurship as the highest form of entrepreneurship?
The advice given to all entrepreneurs around Silicon Valley is to solve a problem that you know well. It’s good advice — it’s hard to design for people for whom you have no connection or empathy and we tend to know ourselves best. But Silicon Valley has the 3rd most billionaires of any region in the world. Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are not solving our problems anymore. We need to ensure that folks who want to create impact have access to the same sorts of tools and resources as those who have and who want to create wealth. We must equip as many individuals from as diverse backgrounds as possible with the tools to be problem solvers and social entrepreneurs.
Last week my family and I got rid of most of our belongings, packed up the rest, and officially moved out of San Francisco to embark on a year of travel starting right here in Rome. Our hope for ourselves is to get broader perspective that we can bring back to our careers when we resettle in New York next year. My hope for Silicon Valley, my home for the last decade, is that the folks with power there embrace a broader perspective, too. That they understand that the fertile ground of the Valley can — and should — support the growth of not just unicorn-hopefuls but real, live, impact driven social entrepreneurs, committed changemakers who are building a better world, for everyone.