A Day in Silicon Valley

Published in UT San Diego, March 16, 2015

“Good morning, I’m Dave Wandishin, and I’ll be your captain on this flight today.”

Now we all know about customer service, but that speech was delivered in the terminal, at the gate, before boarding the plane.

We were flying on Virgin America to San Francisco for a touch of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and to chase the elusive venture capitalist for a half-baked scheme that I am backing — and out comes this handsome fellow who went around and offered to comfort young fliers or anybody who had a question. Before we got on the plane.

Not a muzzled, muffled disconnected voice over the intercom from the cockpit. No other airline does this. And I can tell you that he absolutely charmed the crowd. There is a lesson here — but don’t tell Delta or United. Great customer service starts early in the sales cycle.

So we had our day in the valley and it reminded us of what F. Scott Fitzgerald said to Hemingway, “The rich are different than you and me.” And Ernie retorted, “Yes, they have more money.”

In truth, we were reasonably successful in our begging, and we did get our hands on some of their dough. But there is a cautionary note, and it comes from Rich Karlgaard, who writes for Forbes. He calls the piece “Late Bloomers in Peril,” and the theme is that Silicon Valley has dangerously tilted to the temple of ultimate STEM and its young acolytes.

He channels the Super Bowl and reminds us that neither Russell Wilson nor Tom Brady were highly rated in high school. Brady was a sixth-round pick in the NFL. He mentions Raymond Chandler, who was 51 when he wrote his first novel, “The Big Sleep.”

He asks if the young tech billionaires really inspire and capture our imagination or do they intimidate. Note that Bill Hewlett barely got into college, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out of college and Andy Grove went to City College of New York.

Karlgaard ends with his opinion that Silicon Valley has morphed into Algorithmic Valley. Maybe — and that brings us to the end of our day.

After our “pitch” sessions, we were invited (I am sure by mistake) to a fancy party given by Formation 8, a very hot venture fund (Joe Lonsdale, Palantir), held at the St. Regis. We hid our AARP cards in our pockets to make sure that we could get in. But whoa, Fitzgerald was right.

It was hip and loud and filled with beautiful people who were doing “startups.” We talked to Caroline Ghosen, whose company, Levo League, is trying to help young people in the early stages of their career with mentorship. Sort of LinkedIn for millennials. She said she had raised a seed round of $9 million from angels. We don’t have those kinds of wings in San Diego.

And then I got the ultimate put-down. I asked a young man for a business card, and I was told, “I don’t carry one; we don’t use paper.” If I had used the word Rolodex, I would have been asked to leave the room.

There is a dichotomy in the valley. Our country knows that it must promote STEM in our schools, but by the same token, if you were not of the very elite, the Harvard/Stanford/MIT, then you may feel somewhat marginalized, which explains in part why STEM education in America trails other countries. Our idols are still athletes and actors, not Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

And it is a recognized truth that many of the most successful companies today were started by second and third attempts from the fabled entrepreneurs. No one bats 1.000.

My dad always said I was a late bloomer. I took that to mean that he did not really think I would ever amount to anything. It was a nice way of diminishing both his expectations and mine. Well, what I can tell you is that baseball is a nine-inning game, and you get a certain number of at bats — regardless of the early score.

Finally, we flew back on Virgin, and when we landed, my bride, Ms. Bry, and I let out a collective sigh and spoke the line from the “Wizard of Oz”: “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

Rule No. 394

Maybe we are not in Silicon Valley, but we are not in Kansas, either.

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