An African Visits Silicon Valley
Africans are obsessed with social media. We have a narrative culture, we love to talk, and now with our people scattered all over the world, technology has made it easier to talk to each other no matter where we are in the world. Social media is the modern bush telegraph. While Facebook membership is leveling off in the US and even considered uncool these days amongst the younger set, its membership in Africa is growing like wildfire. It makes me wonder why the big tech giants are ignoring Africa when it is the next area of growth. Blackberry and BBM usage, for instance, is dying out everywhere except Nigeria where it is still an essential marketing tool in business. I have spent most of my career in finance and when I first heard about Facebook in the early 200os I thought it was some frivolous tool for kids. I was living in New York at the time and I was on the committee of the AngelAfrica network for African professionals in the Diaspora. We organized networking events and I soon became a convert when I saw the numbers that Facebook pulled in when we posted events there. I was an early adopter of LinkedIn which I joined as soon as I heard about it because it helped me grow my professional network. I am a consummate networker who enjoys organizing networking events so as soon as I moved to South Africa in 2008, I set up the Johannesburg Professional Network group on LinkedIn which helped me organize my first successful event within 3 months of arriving in Johannesburg. I love to write so I took to blogging like a duck to water in 2003 on Blogger and I had several blogs since then including http://gistonafrica.blogspot.com/ then I joined Twitter with my handle @dnpeters then now I’m on the Instagram bandwagon under the name of debbie_nyasha. I have reached the 5000 friend limit on Facebook so I had to start a page, like a celebrity, lol!
Therefore, I have more than a passing interest in the tech world and I always wanted to visit Silicon Valley to see all the innovation first-hand. I had been to San Francisco twice before as a tourist but it was at a time that I wasn’t interested in the tech world. I come from the investment world, I’ve been in private equity so I am now curious to see how all these massive fortunes are being made. I had been waiting for the right opportunity to take me out to Bay area when I got an email on 3 June 2016 to attend an African Founders Event on 22 June in Oakland, California. There wasn’t much detail on the event so I emailed back to ask for more information and I got a bit more information about something called the Silicon Valley Tour with several events taking place that week in June. Since it was an entire week of tech events I figured I would get full exposure to the industry so I confirmed my attendance and booked my flights to the US from Zimbabwe. My invitation had came from a group of Africans in Silicon Valley and judging by the scarcity of information and how late the invitation came, they are still working on African time. It turned out that their Silicon Valley Tour was organized to coincide with the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) which President Obama was hosting at Stanford University that week. I tried to pull strings to be invited to the official GES event but apparently invitations had gone out months before and all the guests had already been vetted by the Secret Service so it was impossible then. It was a sore point amongst even some members of the Stanford faculty who were not allowed to attend on the Friday when the president was on campus.
I was jetlagged on the day when I arrived in San Francisco on Monday so I just took an Uber to the Fisherman’s Wharf and ate lots of seafood then went back to the hotel to bed. The other thing I underestimated was how difficult it would be to find a hotel near all the events since they were scattered in different cities all over the Bay area. The first day I stayed in an hotel near the airport. The second day I tried to find a hotel in Palo Alto near Stanford University and the only hotel that had vacancies was costing $900 per night! Even the Holiday Inn Express was charging $350 per night and they were fully booked. There were no AirBnBs with vacancies either. That last minute invitation really hurt. Because the Wednesday event was in Oakland I finally booked a hotel there and set off to Stanford University where I arrived with 2 suitcases in tow for the ‘Women in Tech’ event. I met a an old high-school friend I hadn’t seen for 10 years who’s now influential in tech circles for lunch in Palo Alto and the restaurant was nice enough to let me leave my suitcases there for a couple of hours while I walked around town soaking in the atmosphere. The local Starbucks was full of students and venture capitalists talking about multi-million dollar deals on their cell phones. Talk about a lack of diversity, there were so few Black people that the one smart-looking Black guy who saw me in the Starbucks gave me a nod of acknowledgement because he was so glad to see another person of color in that town. The event was starting at 4pm so I took an Uber to Stanford. The details for that event were also vague so the Uber lady and I went around asking several people on campus where the hall was until we finally found it. The event was organized by an Ethiopian lady who was running around being busy so I never got to find out what she really does. I am punctual so I like to arrive early to events so I got to look around the campus and saw how pampered the Stanford students are with shops, Jamba Juice, Starbucks and other outlets at their disposal. Finally the event started and it was sponsored by the US State Department which has a program called Lions@Africa to support African entrepreneurs.I even ran into a familiar face when I met Irene who used to run the Hypercube Hub in Harare, Zimbabwe and who was there under the auspices of the US embassy. Apparently the Hypercube Hub since folded so when I was introducing her to one of our hosts as having run the Hypercube Hub she snapped at me that she was NOT with the Hypercub Hub but that is where I know her from. In Silicon Valley it is a badge of honor to have a failed venture but in Africa people want to disassociate themselves from failure. I met some interesting people who have interests in Africa but the one thing that stood out is that most Africans who were attending have been in the Diaspora for a long time and run some sort of non-profit organization to raise money for Africa. Apparently there is some sort of cottage industry of charities who raise money to bring technology to Africa but I don’t believe I have seen any impact on the continent. One of the Stanford faculty members asked me what I wanted from my visit and when I told her that I was just there for informational purposes she lectured me on the fact that I didn’t have an ‘ask’! The official presentation started late and strangely enough, the removed the chairs from the hall so most people had to stand. The main speaker was Kelechi Anyadiegwu, the founder of Zuvaa.com, the online African fashion store. The presentations were brief and then we networked some more. I met other delegates from Africa including some Nigerians, of course and some people from the City of Joburg in South Africa. I had a dinner in Oakland so I summoned an Uber and took my bags with me. Uber had 2,5X surge-pricing at 7pm but I had no choice. I was delighted to get a lady driver so I sat upfront with her and she turned out to be a part-time make-up artist so she gave me make-up tips all the way, which compensated for the fact that I paid $80 for that ride. I spent over $200 on Uber in two days!
I haven’t got over my shock the level of homelessness in the Bay area, especially amongst Black people. Even in Palo Alto, with all its wealth, they have homeless people sitting outside with you on the terrace at Stabucks. Oakland was scary in that regard. I stayed in a hotel at Jack London Square and I was harassed by a homeless guy when I was coming into the hotel at night. I got the hotel receptionist to escort me when I went next door to buy a bottle of water. During the daytime the Oakland Waterfront is really pretty. I walked around the city center which was really small. I was amused when I saw that there was a big cannabis business summit at the local Marriot Hotel. When I saw that and the organic cannabis dispensaries I knew I was in California. The African Founders event was down the road that evening and it was pretty much the same faces from the Stanford event. Once again it started late and Kelechi was the star of the show again with a few other Lions@Africa. I left as soon as it was over and headed back to the hotel to bed. I had spent a enough money on Uber so the next morning since I wasn’t in a hurry I took an Uber Share with driven by Ethiopian medical student to the hotel in San Francisco where I would spend the rest of my stay for a week.
I searched for a hotel on Expedia and everyone had advised me not to stay in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. It turned out to be the weekend of the famous San Francisco Pride March. Between that and the GES summit with Obama in town it was the worst weekend to find accommodation in the San Francisco Bay area. I found a hotel next to the Civic Center near the Twitter headquarters which looked decent enough online but it turned out to be at the edge of the Tenderloin which I was trying to avoid. The thing about San Francisco is that there are homeless people everywhere which kind of bursts your bubble. There are all sorts of explanations for this including substance abuse but I don’t understand how you can have such extreme wealth on a Zuckerberg scale existing next to such desperate poverty in the same city. My hotel was a decent three star but there was a guy permanently living on the street opposite and a drug-dealer standing next door at night. Meanwhile if you walk 10 minutes down the road you get to the main shopping area at Westfield mall. I walked the first day and what I saw shocked me so after that I always took the bus down and the Uber back at night. I spent a lot of time in the main tourist hot-spots but the best restaurant I discovered in San Francisco was at the Phoenix Hotel across the street from my hotel and I went to a good concert at the Great American Music Hall around the corner from there. On Saturday I went shopping on Union Square and Sunday I went to check out the Pride March. Pride was very corporate with floats from Google, McKinsey, United Airlines and Facebook with Mark Zukerberg himself attending. They had great DJs on the floats and lots of giveaways so I enjoyed free candy and ice-cream. It’s ironic that Silicon Valley has embraced the LGBT community so much yet Blacks are so under-represented. I spent the following week attending networking events and Meetups at incubators and co-working spaces with tech founders and venture capitalists. One particular event was in Mountain View, the home of LinkedIn so I took the train and it was very interesting that there were almost no Blacks who commute to Silicon Valley. The tech world is made up of mostly young men and few women who are mostly White with a few Indians and Asians thrown in. I thought I would enjoy Silicon Valley as it is the home of tech but by the time I went to Twitter, which is in the center of San Francisco on Market Street, I felt uncomfortable about the lack of diversity. I went back to Stanford for a meeting at the business school but I got the feeling that they were interested in Africans who need help and volunteers, not Africans who want to run businesses and be self-reliant. Maybe academics are just out of touch with what is happening in Africa now. The best part about that visit was the Stanford mall where I got a bit of retail therapy before taking the train back to San Francisco. All in all what I learnt from my trip was that my social media skills are better than I give them credit for. I was tweeting, posting on Facebook and uploading video on Instagram more than other delegates at all my events. In other words, even in Africa, we are ahead of the curve. I had enjoyed my third visit to San Francisco and that landing over the sea at San Francisco airport is something that everyone should experience at some point in their lives. I went to Las Vegas to celebrate my birthday over Fourth of July weekend then headed back home to Africa, grateful for the experience!
Debbie Peters is a blogger and social media enthusiast whose profiles are as follows: