tl:dr The Californian culture was influenced by the lessons learned from the gold rush: fail fast and iterate. This approach based on trial and error has captured the world’s attention and prompted a new rush to the West Coast, this time for ideas.
18 Months ago, my wife Ghislaine and I decided to move with our two children from France to the United States.
Instead, we landed in California.
A State with half the population but the same GDP as France, which voted for Hillary Clinton, has a spectacular weather – best enjoyed in its gorgeous natural parks – and self driving cars everywhere that will soon fly.
If you enjoy a solid mix of sunshine, culture and technology, that can feel like the center of the world. And I sometimes wonder… Is mankind’s journey a symbolic stretch from the Rift Valley to the Silicon Valley?
Have we reached the Promised Land?
I’m not the first to ask myself this question, and won’t be the last. It’s a mental health condition and it has a name: the California Dream.
California owes its name to legendary Queen Calafia, ruler of an island paradise inhabited by Amazon warriors waving gold weapons. A legend that inspired Cortes to sail to the West Coast, in the first of many attempts to find gold, which culminated with the 1849 gold rush and deeply influenced the local mindset.
Few pioneers found gold, but as they combed one river after another in their quest for good fortune, all learned the value of failure and iteration. Sounds familiar? It is also at the core of every other rush that followed, such as farming, drilling for oil, producing movies, flying aircrafts and more recently re-engineering food or coding artificial intelligence.
As these hard learned lessons piled up, they forged a culture which has become, wave after wave of dreamers, the greatest wealth accumulated in the region. Tackle tough problems, fail gracefully, improve with every cycle and learn from trial and error in order to succeed.
Nowadays, innovation has become more than a culture or a passion in California. It has become a religion with prophets such as Gregory Bateson and Joy Paul Guilford, temples at Stanford D School or Ideo, and a pantheon of Gods among which Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page are the most celebrated.
And then, it has its believers who wash ashore from every corner of the world to follow their dream… or in the hope of finding it.
The Silicon Valley phenomenon
The great rushes all heavily relied on immigration, and 25% of the current population in California is foreign born, making it by far the most cosmopolitan State of the United States.
That inbound flux reaches its acme in the Silicon Valley, where foreign born citizens come from all over the world and account for 37% of the population, 65% of adults holding a bachelor’s degree and 75% of tech employees. With 51% of households speaking another language than English at home, it is – to the best of my knowledge – the only urban area in the world to host a majority of foreign cultures.
And the believers here don’t just sit and pray to the innovation Gods. They are highly educated, with 72% of adults holding a college education or higher, compared with 59% in the United States, 42% in France and 9% in China. They work hard, with an unemployment rate of 3.3% which is traditionally considered full employment, and many among them combine 2 or 3 jobs to keep up with the cost of living.
More importantly, this multicultural and industrious population has a unique inclination for allophilia (the embrace of diversity), which enables it to cross-pollinate ideas and disrupt old industries with new solutions, impacting every sector of the economy and reshaping society all over the world.
As a result, with 1% of its land and 8% of its population, the Silicon Valley generates a third of venture capital investments and half of the patent registrations of the Californian economy.
West Side Ideas
In this thriving environment, the success of recently created companies such as Google, Facebook, Uber, AirBnB, Instagram, Tesla, Netflix or Kickstarter has captured the attention of the world and contributed to transform the Bay Area into a new Mecca.
Every day, hundreds of executives on learning expeditions, scientists involved in research programs and enthusiastic entrepreneurs abound from all over the world in search of inspiration and partnerships.
And as I welcome some of them in Google’s Executive Briefing Center, where I am regularly appointed to share insights on our innovation culture, it strikes me every time.
There is a new rush, and it is an idea rush.
But this time around, there is gold for everyone. Better yet, we can actually create gold together, extending the California Dream to the farthest reaches of the world at the speed of thought.
This epiphany has lead me to start this new blog, after 18 months of silent observation, so as to share with you once again my passion for innovation and the remarkable new ideas that I discover everyday.
We will journey together through the four layers of transformation that I have been exposed to, as I was drinking Silicon Valley culture from the fire hose: self, teams, enterprise and society. And explore how odd concepts scale up to become impactful initiatives.
Last, I hope we meet in this journey as all travelers do, learn to know each other better and, one idea at a time, to embrace each other’s perspective. Truth is a mirror that has fallen on earth and shattered in a million pieces. We each hold a piece of that mirror and sometimes believe we hold the truth.
Let’s start to put back some of the pieces together.