Lessons from the Valley

Businesswoman Deborah Perry Piscione found moving to California was a liberating experience

 

When Deborah Perry Piscione approached her publishers with the idea for a book, she had a very different title in mind.

“Why Silicon Valley Women Drive Porsches” didn’t make it onto the cover in the end, but it did sum up one of her observations about why things are different in the innovation hub of the United States.

“Silicon Valley women are tough, driven entrepreneurs. They say what they think are not concerned what people think and about them. What you see is what you get. There’s no posturing.”

An east coaster and former Republican Party political aid used to the buttoned up culture of Washington DC, Perry Piscione found moving to California seven years ago was a liberating experience, and she says that she “found her tribe”.

“I came from a place where you hold onto information, but the culture here is the exact opposite – it’s open, trusting and nurturing. I was bowled over by the number of offers of help I received without people looking for anything in return,” she says.

A sure sign that she has embraced the culture, Perry Piscione has spawned a number of successful ventures there herself, including an e-commerce company called BettyConfidential and Alley to the Valley, a firm that networks businesswomen for deal-making.

Collaboration is the key to the success of the Valley, she says. The catalyst for much of this is Stanford University, which has a central part played to the success of the Valley.

Frederick Terman, dean of the school of engineering and later provost, is credited with having the vision to encourage faculty and graduates to start their own companies.

From 1946, he began working on the creation of the world’s first university-owned industrial park. It leased land to evolving firms such as Hewlett-Packard, General Electric and created what is now Stanford Research Park.

“Terman encouraged Stanford faculty to serve as paid consultants to corporations, a shrewd directive that bridged the gap between academia and industry,” she observes.

“He believed that it would not only be beneficial for professors to keep up to date on industry interests and future directions but it would be an effective vehicle to provide research funding and fellowships for Stanford’s most promising students.”

The payoff is that Stanford is now a bastion of innovation, helping to spawn nearly 6,000 highly innovative companies. A highly collaborative culture characterises Stanford, she notes, with partnerships between faculty, researchers and students that overrides traditional vertical hierarchies.

While Stanford enjoys the perception of having a secret behind its entrepreneurial process, it largely boils down to the fact that anyone, regardless of status, has access to the top minds on campus to provide strategic business advice or help strengthen a vision, she explains.

In her book The Secrets of Silicon Valley , Perry Piscione explores a whole range of other factors contributing to its success. Critically, the early success of companies such as Fairchild, led to spin-offs, including Intel and AMD, among a host of others and the knowledge spread. By the late 1960s, Santa Clara County was a hub of innovation.

Silicon Valley quickly proved attractive to venture capitalists and today a staggering 40 per cent of the VC investment made in the US comes from firms based there.

Another of the reasons that Silicon Valley is so successful is that it isn’t a physically closed in space. The absence of sky-scrapers is a case in point.

There’s even black humour concerning failed entrepreneurs throwing themselves out of their first floor windows, spraining their ankles and dusting themselves off before starting over.

Can the Valley be replicated? “No” is Perry Piscione’s firm answer. Concentration on one industry is strength, not a weakness, in this case. The Valley has achieved a critical mass of expertise in its field in the same way that cities such as London, Paris or Milan have their own unique clusters of expertise.

Silicon Valley’s innovation works around three principles: advancement in technology, tolerance of failure and brain-power and its future seems assured, she says.

However, she adds that the busloads of business tourists seeking to find ways of replicating its DNA can find valuable “takeaways”.

“Authenticity is important, something that’s well demonstrated here. Cities and regions need to find where they are strong and to use that as the foundation from which to adapt and build their own success,” she says.


Secrets of Silicon Valley – What Everyone Else Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World by Deborah Perry Piscione is published by Palgrave Macmillan