Can Silicon Valley’s Work Culture be Replicated in India?

via @ForbesIndia

It is widely agreed upon that entrepreneurship and innovation lie at the heart of a healthy economy. It is also widely agreed upon that one needs to be open-minded and willing to take risks, to make mistakes, and to fail, in order to be a successful entrepreneur, and that the economic and social culture need to favor this behavior. No place fits this bill as well as Silicon Valley, the generator of some of the most world-changing ideas and businesses over the past couple of decades. This has naturally meant that countries the world over have tried to replicate the Valley’s entrepreneurial culture, to greater or lesser degrees of success. But as Forbes writes,

No institution is as integral to and as embedded within Silicon Valley as Stanford University. Over the last 50 years, Stanford faculty, staff and graduates have launched nearly 1,200 companies. More than 50 percent of Silicon Valley’s products come from companies started by Stanford alumni —and that excludes Hewlett-Packard, one of the Valley’s largest firms.

So in order to understand what makes Silicon Valley work, and how India can build its own version of the Valley, Forbes brought Garth Saloner, Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, together with Contest2Win founder Alok Kejriwal, who is a passionate entrepreneur, and Rajiv Kaul, who combines insights from the world of private equity [Blackstone] and entrepreneurship [CMS Infosystems] for a conversation on these large questions. While you can read the entire conversation here, I found certain excerpts more meaningful than others:

Saloner: The essential feature of the Valley is the ability to incubate an idea; to take an idea that is in somebody’s head and turn it into a business in a day or six months. There’s employment and growth, and that’s an ecosystem of human capital, legal infrastructure, ideas from universities like Stanford and, most importantly, a culture that embraces startups and innovation at any scale.

To me, this stands out as the crux of why Silicon Valley’s culture works so well – neither capital not technology is the essence of its success. Rather, it’s a culture that embraces creativity, calculated risk-taking and, most of all, experimentation. It is a culture that has come to value the small business venture, which may even seem trivial to many (and probably wouldn’t find support or funding in India), but is taken forward anyway by a passionate few. In India, there is now no dearth of capital, but very little of this money is given to radical experiments or so-called trivial ideas like Instagram or Facebook. But what drives this in Silicon Valley, more than in any other place in the world or even elsewhere in the U.S.? Saloner says,

I think if you live in the Valley or if you’re a student at Stanford, you look around and at the last few years. You see people who created something out of nothing. You say, “Why not? Why not me? What’s the next big thing? I want to be associated with that.” And it is not a narrow commercial mindset; it’s a land of exploration that goes back decades to the days of Fairchild and Intel. These things spawned brilliant young people who would say, “This company is too big for me; it’s not doing the next big thing. I want to be the Fairchild; I want to be the Hewlett or Packard. I want to be part of the next big story.”

So then it’s kind of a wheel of motion that seems to propel itself further. Once one or two startups achieve mad success, they encourage other people to experiment as well, knowing that it may be possible to do the ‘next big thing.’ But is there more to this? What about the proximity of Stanford University and its involvement with the Valley’s success? Saloner talks about how it is extremely common for Stanford’s students and faculty to leave the university and be a part of an entrepreneurial venture and then return again. In his words:

We think it is not the ideas that move; but ideas move with people. We have facilitated policies for the free flow of ideas with the people into the Valley and back in again. My president [Hennessey] was an engineering faculty; he developed the MIPS computer but didn’t patent it and move on. He took it to the Valley. He ran the company, sold it, came back and became the dean and then president. It is very, very typical.

This kind of thing is sort of being replicated at some India’s universities, most notably the IIT’s, which have created incubators of their own. But while some interesting tech-based products may emerge from these incubators, the professors themselves aren’t ready to leave the academic halls to experiment with establishing a business in the real world, as Kejriwal laments:

You talk to any of the professors at these places and they don’t make any sense. I spoke at MICA, which is supposed to train young people in communication. They were so rigid in their thinking. They hadn’t heard of Lady Gaga. I asked the dean what he thought of Lady Gaga’s Twitter ideology and he just thought I was some zombie who had come out of the jungle.

Besides the lack of awareness of the cultural and social fabric in the outside world, there is also an averseness to knowledge sharing in India’s academic and entrepreneurial world, which is again a huge barrier to a robust creative economy. How can one even begin to change this vast array of deep-rooted social attitudes?

The answer, to me, lies in education. We need to design new ways of teaching that will allow people to inculcate an attitude that allows for creativity, for the flow and sharing of ideas, the discussion of radical propositions. Because that is when learning happens – when the brain is forced to deal with new ideas and imagine new possibilites, rather than being handed pre-fabricated knowledge for silent consumption.

Maybe, in that case, the question shouldn’t be whether or how to replicate Silicon Valley’s Work Culture in India, but rather how to create educational institutions like Stanford that allow a free flow of ideas back and forth between the university and the outside world.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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