The secret to Silicon Valley’s success? Be welcoming!

6 Oct 2011

The City of San Jose's director of economic development and its chief strategist, Kim Walesh

Every country in the world has been looking to recreate Silicon Valley’s magic. They think about venture capital, they think about things like academic and industry collaboration. But the answer could be much simpler than all of that.

The answer is all of the above and much more. In fact, there is probably nowhere like it on the planet where ideas meet money and collaboration.

The key: being a welcoming and tolerant home for all cultures.

At DCU last night, a little bit of California sunshine graced that corner of Dublin as leaders from many different Silicon Valley technology giants, from Intel to Apple and Cisco and many more, visited the city with the Irish Technology Leadership Group.

How Silicon Valley does what it does best

There were many great and interesting insights to be had and shared by the Valley’s most seasoned executives, but the light that shone most brightly for me was the insight by the City of San Jose’s director of economic development and chief strategist, Kim Walesh, who made it clear that the cultural mix is a key ingredient.

“It’s about globally connected talent. It is clear that Silicon Valley has benefited from entrepreneurial people from around the US and the world and by being open and welcoming of people from other places.

“San Jose is the most international city in the US and the world. Some 40pc of people in San Jose were born in another country. Only 10pc of people in the community have lived there since 2000.

“One-third of the population is Asian, one-third Latino and one-third Anglo. Over 50pc of the engineers and technologists and founders were born in another country.”

Walesh related the story of a Chinese engineer who worked at Cisco who said: “This is the only place in the world I do not feel like a foreigner.”

Walesh pointed out that the story of Silicon Valley is the story of the technology industry – a series of catalytic interactions and collisions. “In the Valley, we in a constant search for that win-win exchange, sharing knowledge – it’s an environment truly based on innovation. It is where product manufacturers meet product designers and people who love to start companies and make catalytic interactions happen.”

Central to this is a cultural tolerance of economic and innovation destruction. “It’s about reshuffling resources to go onto the next thing. You can’t have the failure without the destruction. It’s about success and failure – being able to ride those successive waves.”

She quoted Thomas Friedman about how to build a Silicon Valley: “First you build this flexible open economy, then you tolerate creative destruction so that dead capital is redeployed to other industries. Pour in energetic immigrants from every part of the world. Then stir and repeat … stir and repeat …”

Walesh said that 40pc of jobs growth in the Valley comes from start-ups and 10pc from companies coming in. It is that ideal that Ireland needs to steer itself in the direction of.

As Walesh said this, I couldn’t help but remember XING’s Bill Liao’s speech at the Digital Ireland Forum last week, when he said how important it was to remove frictions from the start-up process, from registering a business to getting broadband and electricity, and of course the fact it took him three attempts to get his green card to live and work here. Liao is an Australian of Chinese descent who came to Ireland to raise his family but has also become an investor in young Irish tech companies as a partner in SOS Ventures and inspired the creation of the nationwide Coder Dojo.

As I was remembering Liao’s words, Walesh hit the nail on the head: “The key is to help companies to get a smart start. Allow them to plug easily into the various networks and scale their operations as quickly as possible.

“We work with them to find facilities, space and provide other incentives that save start-ups time and money, and we can issue permits at the speed of business.”

Walesh’s go-ahead attitude is one that if emulated by everyone from various State employees to politicians, ministers and town councillors, it would really get Ireland moving.

As I said, Walesh shone a light brightly.

Silicon Republic has joined forces with the Irish Technology Leadership Group to bring you The Silicon Valley 50 most influential Irish-American people in the tech world ahead of the ITLG Innovation Summit in California on 12-13 March.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years