I wrote this for the Irish Times on the 25th June 2012. In it I revisit the influence of the Irish on San Francisco; some current parallels between the Irish and Californian economies; and the primary challenge of any start-up CEO.
‘Go West, Young Man”, is attributed by many to Horace Greely in his New York Times editorial of 1865, but in fact probably was first uttered by John Soule, in an editorial four years earlier. Regardless, it has been a clarion inspiration to numerous adventurers, not least the Irish even before the great California Gold Rush of 1848.
Jasper O’Farrell (from Wexford) laid out much of the city of San Francisco as its first surveyor, including the central promenade of Market Street. Philip Roach (Cork, possibly Fermoy) established San Francisco’s custom house, city water supply, pharmacy controls, weights and measures, vocational education, sole (typically female) traders law and spouse abuse legislation. James Fair (Clogher), James Flood (Staten Island of Irish immigrant parents), James Mackey (Dublin) and William O’Brien (Abbeyleix) became multimillionaires as the “Bonanza Kings” of the Comstock Lode silver mine worth an astonishing $190 million by 1877.
San Francisco and the Bay Area are now, of course, the centre of the global technology sector. Silicon Valley employs many Irish and Irish-Americans. Possibly the best-known Irish business organisation is the Irish Technology Leadership Group, founded in 2007 by John Hartnett (and of which I am an advisory board member). While the Irish have yet to found or lead a global top-tier technology company, it is striking how many brand-name Valley companies have been founded or led by first-generation immigrants. Andy Bechtolsheim, Sun co-founder, is from Bavaria. Former Intel chief executive Andy Grove was born in Budapest. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang was born in Taipei. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Moscow. The founder of eBay was Parisian Pierre Omidyar. Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla (electric cars) and SpaceX (private space vehicles), was born in Pretoria. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin was born in Sao Paulo.
I first visited the Valley as a postgraduate student in 1979, and continue to visit the Valley on a monthly basis. I have been struck by how, in many ways, the Irish economy now mirrors that of the Californian: both have a devastating property crash, a public sector under immense pressure and broken public finances. I can thoroughly recommend Michael Lewis’s Boomerang (published late last year) as an insightful comparison of the current Irish and Californian economic challenges, and alongside those of Iceland, Greece and Germany. But despite the challenges, the technology sector in both Ireland and California is extremely strong, and in both cases has intense shortages of skilled staff and a resultant strong demand for suitable immigrants. A key difference between California and Ireland’s high-tech immigrants is, however, the near absence of Asian talent in Ireland, compared to the vibrant Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, Korean and Japanese communities in the Valley. Increasingly it might appear that Silicon Valley is looking west towards Asia, rather than east towards Europe, for the brightest and best.
Certainly China and the Shenzhen area, in particular, have become the high-tech factories for the world. India’s Bangalore is a further global hub for high tech. Japan has led the world in the design of high-tech consumer products. It is difficult to think of European companies which directly rival Asian consumer high-tech firms such as Foxconn, HTC, Huawei, LG, NEC, Samsung, Sony, Tata, or Toshiba. The primary European showcase for consumer high tech used to be Nokia, but it has now badly stumbled.
Back in Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road, the venture capital industry is as focused on the Asian opportunity as it is on Silicon Valley itself. Quite a number of venture capital funds now have an Asian focus and few, if any, a European. Does that mean that the Valley now views Europe as second league?
In my view, quite the opposite. In the Valley companies with which I am involved, there is a desperate cry for talent. Frankly, it sincerely does not matter what your nationality is or where on the planet you wish to live: if you have the personality, experience and commitment then you are probably pretty much an instant hire, live wherever you wish, and offered a very generous compensation package. The high-tech industry is a global open market, with little geographical or other barriers, and with incredibly intense competition. Firms can only survive and compete by not only hiring, but also retaining, really great talent. Whether you are Irish or not, and whether your firm is headquartered in Ireland or indeed anywhere else, really is not a primary concern. Today’s successful high-tech chief executive is first and foremost a recruiter and a human resources leader for the very best talent: business strategy and execution have become subservient to finding and keeping great staff.
It is no longer “Go West, Young Man”. Instead it is “Go for the Best, wherever”.