Is Silicon Valley actually encouraging innovation? Maybe not

26 Oct 2017

Nilofer Merchant, author, The Power of Onlyness. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Do you ‘fit in’? According to author Nilofer Merchant, that’s a thought the vast majority of us are overly concerned with.

If 61pc of our society conforms rather than innovates, then we’re only capturing 39pc of the ideas in the marketplace.

That’s according to Nilofer Merchant, a former tech executive in Silicon Valley, now an author.

“It’s surprising,” she told “Those who fit the dominant majority narrative, they’re comfortable. And it’s not just the ‘traditional’ outsiders, like women or people of colour, who do this – 45pc of straight white men also feel the need to conform.”

Merchant explained this to me while she was in Dublin as a speaker at Inspirefest this summer. Professionally, she is a master at turning seemingly ‘wild’ ideas into new realities, as well as showing others how to do it, too.

Glasses half full?

She discussed a male colleague of hers who works in technology and innovation, and how the pressure to conform eventually took hold of him.

“There was research from Deloitte about how young men wear glasses in order to seem more experienced,” she said. “As soon as I read that, I laughed, because a fellow author had just asked if he should wear ‘Seth Rogen glasses’. He didn’t need to wear glasses but he felt he needed to fit in.”

Merchant lives in Silicon Valley, surrounded, as she puts it, by people who believe that the company culture they have created allows for – and even encourages – innovation.

But rather, they encourage conformity. “The statistics show that we look like the people that we expect us to look like.”

Seeing is believing

The other fallacy in the centre of the tech universe is actual working attitudes – most notably, the idea that if you want to succeed, you would have succeeded by now. This, according to Merchant, is a key problem.

“We have built a system in Silicon Valley where the powerful believe that they have earned the right [to be powerful]. They repeat a lie that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy. This ignores systemic bias.”

Gender representation is an obvious battleground here, with plenty of companies now working out how they can get some form of gender balance in their workforce. However, underlying attitudes might be restricting any movement on that front, with Merchant tired of the same old stories cropping up.

“‘If we don’t see you, you must not exist.’ I’ve been in technology, here, for 25 years. We’re standing right here. The fact you don’t see us doesn’t mean we don’t exist!

“It’s amazing to me that Silicon Valley says, ‘We can have all the knowledge in the world, we can send people to the moon.’ All of these audacious goals. But when they turn to gender equality, it’s, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”

Pooling resources

Clearly, no industry is immune to this, with the tech scene just the latest sector under the microscope. However, Merchant is quick to laud the innovative achievements already made there. It’s not all bad, after all.

It could be argued that the internet has helped us prosper; however, it could equally be argued that most content has been diluted, confused or lost between the cracks. Everyone can create, but does that not dilute creation, therefore depleting its value?

“No,” said Merchant. “The real opportunity is for individual ideas to have access to the marketplace.”

Merchant worked in technology when Nokia ruled the Earth, with rival phone manufacturers on-decking hand-picked apps. A form of isolation, she believes, was emerging. Then, the likes of Apple came along and the game changed.

“Those things on their own didn’t exist unless you had a platform or vehicle to create scale. We now have this plethora of people able to bring their ideas to market.

“If there are eight brilliant writers to talk about politics, and they’re novel, why have each one figure out a business model? Why not pool them together?

“One way the Apple platform works is the developers do the work. You, them – they all benefit. We need to build more viable platforms to help more people make money.”

And we need to let people be themselves.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic