Editor’s Note: Doug Galen is the chief executive and co-founder of the non-profit organization RippleWorks, which aims to connect Silicon Valley-based entrepreneurs with startup founders in developing countries. He previously served as the chief revenue officer at shopkick.
Silicon Valley’s influence is undeniable but its global impact has always been a passive byproduct of success at home. To make a lasting, material difference, there needs to be a concerted effort to expand its reach in a substantial and sustainable way.
For the better part of the last century, the Valley has been a bedrock for technological progress and era-defining industry. From the semiconductor to the smartphone, the region’s inventions have empowered billions with knowledge, community, and voice in just about every corner of the world.
Today, tech hubs are flourishing across the globe, inspired, of course, by the place that started it all. As technology becomes ever pertinent in a well-functioning society, countless cities, from Boston to Berlin to Bangalore, have been dubbed the “next Silicon Valley.”
While these burgeoning epicenters of innovation might not need Silicon Valley’s capital, there’s one resource sorely lacking. Experience.
Take Kenya, for instance, which has invested tens of billions of dollars into a fully-fledged 5,000 acre techno-business ecosystem outside Nairobi called Konza, interconnected with smart schools, hospitals, and homes. There’s no limit to ambition and will.
Replicating the magic, however, can prove elusive. While these burgeoning epicenters of innovation might not need Silicon Valley’s capital, there’s one resource sorely lacking. Experience.
In a comprehensive report released this past December conducted by the GSMA in partnership with the Omidyar Network that included dozens of incubators, funding channels, and emerging market startups, the conclusion was a telling indictment on the lack of local resources for scaling.
These entrepreneurs had a wealth of resources to get their feet off the ground—from startup accelerators and angel investors to like-minded communal hubs for ongoing support. But, “once startups expand beyond early-adopter customers, local resources are often insufficient to support further scale,” according to the report.
In other words, for the majority of new ventures, there was a ceiling to their success. What they lacked was the know-how to take their companies to the next level once they’d created a functional business—the kind of know-how that only comes from having done it before.
The missing puzzle piece was the kind of knowledge that Silicon Valley is perfectly positioned to provide to answer any number of questions.
The report defines “scaling” as “a stage in a company’s development after it has established a viable product or service, a proven market, a clear commercialization strategy, and a considerable customer base.”
These firms had growing revenues and user bases, plus all the tangibles to support further growth, such as money and talented employees. The missing puzzle piece was the kind of knowledge that Silicon Valley is perfectly positioned to provide to answer any number of questions.
Questions like: If a company needs to triple or quadruple the size of its staff, what sort of systems are necessary to facilitate that hyper-growth? What kind of organizational design is optimal for managing that workforce? What are the best practices?
Or, if a company has outgrown its local customer base and is ready to expand into new markets, what kind of cloud platform provides the optimal portability and usability across borders? What about if a company is about to increase its user base 15 times in the next 5 years and is still relying on an old architecture stack cobbled together to get the product out the door, when will it break? What happens when it does? And consequently, what will be the optimal system moving forward?
These are the kinds of looming problems emerging market entrepreneurs are now grappling with. The path they take will define the future of not only their companies but their local communities.
And the answers they seek are hardly straightforward — simply because they don’t have access to seasoned experts who not only intimately understand their business but have also crafted solutions for those exact same problems many times before. It’s the kind of access Silicon Valley takes for granted every day.
What if we could change that?
This is what should be most tantalizing for Silicon Valley’s best and brightest — a genuine opportunity to give back in a material way to those that need it most. Best of all, they would be leveraging their most prized and unique resource. Themselves.
Many of the companies in emerging markets are building foundational tools that will become paths out of poverty for untold millions. Like the companies providing financial services to families who have never had a bank account. Or the ones making solar power cheap and accessible to migrant workers so they can regularly charge their phone.
When over 2 billion people are unbanked and more than half that don’t have access to electricity, the continued success of these companies is a big, big deal.
This is what should be most tantalizing for Silicon Valley’s best and brightest — a genuine opportunity to give back in a material way to those that need it most.
And that’s why this is really the continued evolution of a commitment Silicon Valley made long ago.
“Change the world.”
Critics have recently written this mission statement off as a mere marketing gimmick, hyperbole masking insecurity—a big enough joke to warrant its own television series on HBO.
In fairness, the skeptics have a point. But in truth, it’s always been a worthy ideal.
It’s easy to laugh, to write people off. What’s hard is actually getting things done.
After all, this is what Silicon Valley does best — scale companies from the hundreds of thousands customers to the hundreds of millions.
It’s why hundreds of companies and venture capital firms can be traced back to Fairchild Semiconductor, one of the Valley’s earliest success stories. It’s why Paypal helped spawn dozens of household names including YouTube, LinkedIn, Kiva.org, SpaceX, and Tesla.
So if history is any indication, success breeds further success. Now imagine replicating that kind of self-propagating, multi-generational success in places like Chile, Kenya or Indonesia — by leveraging and scaling the values and vision that got us here in the first place.
If that isn’t changing the world, I don’t know what is.