Reflections on the most inspiring event ever

Alright… It’s been about 4 weeks now, and yes, I am just now sitting down to write about this. I’ve been thinking and talking about this conference almost every day since it ended, even though I’ve been super busy (not to say overwhelmed) since I got back home, after spending one extra week in California. Still, I’m glad I gave myself some time to digest the whole experience before writing about it.

The organization

The first thing that struck me, even before getting there, was the amount of organization for his event. I had expected a regular conference, surely bigger than the ones I usually attend or organize, but when I got there, I started to see how much energy and effort went into this. For example, the 700 entrepreneurs had been carefully selected to represent 170 countries. I learned in an official press release by the US Embassy in Argentina that only 6 entrepreneurs from my country had been selected, 3 men and 3 women. I had the chance to meet only other 2 of them. And the numbers vary: 3 from Bolivia, 11 from Cuba, and so on…

I had the chance to meet delegates from at least 24 different countries or states, including — in no particular order — Cuba, Colombia, Bolivia, Morocco, Bhutan, Benin, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, New Zealand, Argentina, Nigeria, Bahrain, El Salvador, Jamaica, Ukraine, Chile, China, Israel, Senegal, Trinidad & Tobago, the United States (Iowa, Michigan, Washington State) and Uruguay… and I am sure I am forgetting a few. And I’m not counting the 300 investors, many of whom were local or from the Bay Area. Because of my work running a company in the language industry, Hispano Language Advisory, I am generally used to meeting and talking to people from different parts of the world, but this was impressive, I must say. For some of them, this was also the first time in the US too!

Transportation and accommodation were seamlessly and diligently sorted out for us, with airport shuttles and buses to and from the events. And upon registration, we were provided with really cute Poken devices, which made business card handling a lot easier. And the food! I love food, and by the end of the events I felt like I had eaten enough to get me through the winter (yes! It’s the winter down South now).

Location

Stanford University was THE perfect location for such an event. I have been around the Silicon Valley ecosystem for years, and visited many companies. Yet, the University offered the added “student” experience: walking around between sessions, getting to different buildings, having lunch outside in the sunshine, and even buying souvenirs at the book store. The students weren’t there as classes were over now, but you could still see some signs for students, and people riding bikes everywhere. According to one of the organizers, 30 different locations inside Stanford University were engaged for this event.

As I came to realize while interacting with other delegates, not many know the story of this landmark university, and how important it is for the Silicon Valley ecosystem. I wrote about it while I was translating the book “Secrets of Silicon Valley” into Spanish: “Secretos de Silicon Valley.” Leland Stanford, former Governor of California, and his wife, decided to create an innovative university well ahead of its time, seeking advice from the best, like Harvard and MIT. They did this after their only son, Leland Jr., died during a trip to Europe at the age of 15. This was how they chose to remember their son: offering the best possible education for other children in California.


Partner events

The conference started officially on Wednesday, with the welcome reception and opening words by John Kerry. However, I arrived one day earlier, as suggested, and I had the chance to participate in a number of events organized by third parties around the conference. There was a huge selection, and we signed up for them weeks in advance. I wish I could have gone to more, like the one about the future of space industry at the NASA Ames Research Center, the one on emerging worlds hosted by Facebook and MIT Media Lab at the Facebook headquarters, or the one on the future of artificial intelligence hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Stanford University. Or the ones for specific regions, like Africa or the Middle East. Or the ones by specific organizations, like Sister Cities and Global Shapers. But I’ll tell you all about the ones I went to.

Vital Voices

This event was not listed as a partner event, but it was organized on occasion of the GES. Vital Voices Global Partnership was founded by Hillary Clinton by the time she was the First Lady, and invests in women leaders who improve the world. They hold the belief that women are essential to progress in their communities, and have partnered with leaders from more than 140 countries who advance economic opportunity, increase political and public leadership, and end violence against women. At the moment, they are building an active supporter base in the San Francisco Bay Area to establish partnership opportunities with local individuals, organizations, foundations and corporations to support the advancement of women’s leadership worldwide. To lead this effort, they launched the Vital Voices Council of the Bay Area. They held a panel at the Metropolitan Club of San Francisco, hosted by council member Jill Kramer of the Kramer Family Foundation.

I was fascinated to see so much genuine interest in the stories of the panelists, and so much willingness to help others.

Demand Solutions

This event was about showcasing Latin America and the Caribbean innovation and entrepreneurship stories that improves lives. It was organized by the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S. Small Business Administrator and the Blum Center for Developing Economies. I didn’t stay until the end, but I was thrilled to hear the story of the Argentine company Satellogic, that had just launched two commercial nano-satellites named “Batata” and “Fresco”, which will provide monitoring services. The names are funny reminders of the two inseparable parts of a traditional dessert in Argentina, cheese and sweet-potato (kind of) jam. I felt very proud of such an accomplishment for an Argentine company.

During this event, I also bumped into Andrea Grobocopatel, with Los Grobo and Fundación Flor. Andrea has been a major influence in my business, although we met in person only a couple of years ago. I will never forget when I attended a presentation she delivered at a conference for family companies in my home town. Five years ago, I was at a crossroads: my business was almost broke, I had just separated from my husband and business partner (both personally and in business), and I had just had my baby. I didn’t know if I wanted to keep going or shut down the business and get a “safe” job. Listening to her talk about Los Grobo and what it was like working with her siblings and raising 4 kids at the same time convinced me that I could do it, so I decided to keep my business. It was the best decision I ever made. Now I can’t wait to read her book “Pasión por hacer” (Passion about doing).

The d.school

This was one of the partner events I was expecting with a lot of anticipation, since I was already familiar with Design Thinking and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, a.k.a. d.school, from the book I had translated. The event was hosted by Stanford’s d.school University Innovation Fellows Program, and Google Creative Skills for Innovation Labs, and it absolutely exceeded my expectations. With a combination of short talks and workshop activities, including a visit around the design school, a mindfulness meditation moment, and a real project — creating a game with marshmallows, dry bow pasta and string — , among other things, we were thrown into discovering what makes up a culture of innovation at any organization.

I was really proud of the game we made up at our table. It was called “Escape Alcatraz”. We used 2 marshmallows as dice, made a ring with the string to represent Alcatraz, and the bow pasta represented sharks. Participants (more pasta) were supposed to advance positions and overcome obstacles depending on the results of the “dice” in order to get out of the string ring island and make it to the shore alive. We also had to write the instructions and test it by playing it. All of this in 15 minutes!! Creativity at its peak.

Dinner and Conversations with Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation

This was a truly unexpected experience. I assumed it would involve a conference room and maybe a panel or a speaker. Instead, we arrived at this beautiful patio — unbelievably soft grass, luxurious trees, live jazz and afternoon sunshine — all set up for a social event. I could recognize the host, Bill Draper, and his son, Tim Draper, as I had attended a presentation delivered by Tim Draper earlier that day. After finding my way to a beer, I asked the lady behind the bar: “This is somebody’s backyard, right?”. “Yes”, she said. Later on, I asked another lady in charge of a tray of amazing food: “Do you know whose home is this?”. “It’s Mr. Draper’s, Bill Draper” she said. “Look, his wife is over there”. So all of a sudden I realized I was at a party at Bill Draper’s house in Atherton.

I immediately wanted to walk up to him to say thank you for receiving us so warmly in his own house. Of course, Bill and Tim had been very busy talking to many people there. I think I interrupted someone when I told Bill: “You don’t know who I am, but I do know who you are. I wrote a lot about you and the Foundation in the Spanish translation of the book Secrets of Silicon Valley. I just want to say thank you for hosting this event here. I will never forget it.” He thanked me for coming, and asked where I’m from. “Argentina”, I said. “Oh, there is someone else here from Argentina too. Come, you should meet him”. And he introduced me to one of the other five Argentinians selected for the event. Five minutes into the conversation, Manuel and I realize that his global payment and collection services company, Bitex.la, could be a potential vendor for my company, and that he would be interested in approaching my networks as a potential vendor too, specifically the members of the Cordoba Technology Cluster, of which I am a board member, and the Association of Language Companies, for which I am organizing the next annual conference, to be held in Miami in 2017.

In less than 10 minutes, the magic of networking in Silicon Valley had happened. “This is a selfie moment”, I said. We walked towards Bill Draper, told him the story, and took the selfie. And yes, I will never forget this.

Office Hours with Google Experts

I also signed up for a 30-minute mentorship opportunity with someone from Google. The idea was to bring a specific problem, and the expert from Google would try to offer help during this time. I presented a very specific problem, and got a very specific solution. I was surprised at how fast the mentor I was assigned to grasped the idea, as in general, mentors are never fully aware of the specific challenges the language industry has. It was a fast, effective meeting, and I left with a smile at how simple the solution seemed to be, as explained by my Google mentor.

The Tesla Model X

Last but not least, I had the exciting chance of sitting behind the wheel of this beautiful machine, the Tesla Model X, thanks to MyTesla.org and SVLinks, a non-profit organization bridging Silicon Valley with entrepreneurs and business people in Latin America. I almost buy a second suitcase to bring this baby home with me!!


Conference Day 1

And now to the actual conference! I’m still surprised at how much more was going on on top of the summit itself. Since everyone can go online to see the actual schedule and official pictures at ges2016.org, I will simply share with you the quotes I intended to tweet live from the event. Just when I thought poor Wi-fi was a third-world problem…

The event kick-off was an amazing welcome reception on Wednesday evening at the Arrillaga Alumni Center, in Stanford, with opening remarks by John Kerry, who by the sound of it seemed to have arrived in a chopper, just as we see in the movies. Actually, on that day, there were several “invitation only” sessions under the name GES+ — including training sessions, master classes, and a pitch competition — but I can’t report on those, as I was not on the list.

On Thursday, I also had the chance to meet with a fellow business owner and friend from my home town, the co-founder of Santex, an on-demand software engineering services company based in San Diego, with operations in Argentina and Perú. It was great to share the day and bounce ideas with him.

So, these are my takeaways from the first day, Thursday. It might not be word-by-word, but this is the essence:

“Make the world global by building local networks”. Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn

“We are used to adapting our lives to work. Uber is work that adapts to life. Click a button to start working, click again to stop”. Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber.

“The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s jail population. What will those people do after paying their dues if they can’t get a job?” Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber.

“Your clients don’t care where you’re from, they care that what you do is great”. Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb.

“The next generation of buyers is not going to be from the US”. Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb.

On scaling: “Learn how to learn, and learn quickly. Shorthand: find who the source is and talk to them. Have a mentor, then be a mentor”. Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb.

“When a company is large enough it will have a social impact, even if indirectly”. Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb.

“Tip for governments: exchange rate is not as important for investors as stability”. I can’t remember who said this.

“In the beginning, Hotmail was helping save tons of wood and fuel in getting messages from point A to point B”. Tim Draper, founder at Draper Associates/Draper Fisher Jurvetson/Draper University.

“Trade is always socially good: both traders are better off after the exchange”. Tim Draper, founder at Draper Associates/Draper Fisher Jurvetson/Draper University.

Conference Day 2

This was a very long day, as we got up at 5 AM to be on the buses to Stanford at 6 AM, and line up to go through security before entering the plenary session at the Memorial Auditorium. This was the very much anticipated Obama day!! As you can imagine, that was one full room.

The plenary sessions started with the welcome speech by US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. Her words resonated with me: “Pay it forward when you succeed. Enable others to succeed too”.

After this, something completely unexpected (to me) happened: the cast of the HBO show Silicon Valley got on to the stage, from the audience. And they read the program interpreting the content of the sessions based on the session names. They also made fun of themselves, saying things like “We’re in a TV show, we don’t really know what we say”. All of it was hilarious! They also engaged in a somewhat cheeky, sarcastic conversation with an 11 year-old boy who had developed 4 apps and was sitting in the first row…

Then Steve Case, CEO and chairman of Revolution, introduced the pitch contest. These are some of his thoughts:

“Seventy-five years ago, Silicon Valley was fruit orchards. People gathered and made this happen”.

“These five things are going to be important: place, purpose, partnerships, policy, perseverance”.

“Silicon Valley is an idea, not a place. Open models create benefits for everyone, like the Internet”.

And after this, the most anticipated moment of the whole event: enter the President of the United States, Barack Obama. Standing ovation. President Obama started his speech by addressing the most pressing geopolitical development: the Brexit had just been voted the night before. He said he had just talked to David Cameron and Angela Merkel and they all agreed that financial stability should be kept. He said that the relationship of the US with the UK and the EU will endure, and that values will continue to unite them.

Then the started talking about entrepreneurs. I felt completely identified when he said that “entrepreneurship empowers those outside the system”, because I had nothing when I started my business, and although it took a lot of hard work, I have built something where there was nothing before, and it now empowers the over 100 people that work with us directly or indirectly. He also said that all entrepreneurs share the idea of “why not, let’s make something new”. They share the same spark, although they may not share the same background and origin. I felt as if he was speaking directly to me.

President Obama also said that “starting a business is not easy (…). And it can be specially difficult for women, young people and minorities. You deserve the same chance to succeed as everybody else”. He mentioned all the countries in which the summit has been held for the past 7 years, helping more than 17,000 entrepreneurs connect with each other, access capital, find mentors and start new ventures. My favorite moment was when he waved and said “Hola” to the 11 Cubans who where in the room.

After this speech, my expectations were completely satisfied and I was ready to go back home, but then, President Obama personally received on the stage and moderated a panel of entrepreneurs: a young woman from Egypt, a young man from Rwanda, another young woman from Perú, and Mark Zuckerberg. President Obama greeted them, took off his suit jacket and sat down with them in what actually felt like a focus group. He specifically asked what hurdles they had as entrepreneurs and what governments could do to help. After listening carefully to all the answers, he asked the same question again, and this time, he also mentioned that there were government representatives from about 20 different countries in this room, and that he expected them to listen and to commit to what entrepreneurs were saying, because “that’s why they’re here”. My jaw dropped. The responses included: policy with flexibility in tax levels and other burdens to SMEs, easy access to credit, collaboration with the “big ones”, reducing wait time because waiting is irritating and makes entrepreneurship difficult, and improving infrastructure.

When it was the turn for Mark Zuckerberg to speak, I had already forgotten where I was. But I remember these words Mark said: “Entrepreneurship is about creating change, not companies. You keep going because you care, not because you are building a business.” He couldn’t be more right. When asked what other companies could do for SMEs, Mark said that “the biggest (thing) is connectivity. It’s a blocking factor. It’s a local problem and companies can do a lot”. To me, the most exciting moment was when the Egyptian entrepreneur added: “Facebook started a revolution in Egypt”.

The final thought I remember by President Obama was that “governments can’t take massive risks, SMEs can, but we can partner”.

The two other memorable remarks of the day were these ones:

“The biggest products were created by one or two people, ideated out of things like cardboard”. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google

“While challenges are everywhere, opportunities are not. The question is ‘why not’”. Maria Contreras-Sweet, SBA Administrator

And the final wrap-up

The closing ceremony was a celebration, the much needed time to party and wrap up a journey of discovery and inspiration. There were drinks, music and dancing, and even the organizers were mingling in the crowd. I had the chance to talk with someone with the Department of State, who was very much interested in having honest feedback about the event. He said feedback is essential to the continuation and success of the program, and it is extremely valuable. He also told me he had worked for 5 Presidents of the United States, and that the GES was an idea developed by President Obama. It was the first time he had been personally involved in such a large global initiative that will have such an enormous impact on our global economy in the future. I looked at his eyes, and asked myself a deeper question: Is all of this worth it?

At that moment, I had a flashback of a conversation earlier that day. I was standing in line to enter the Memorial Auditorium for the plenary sessions, and next to me there was a young woman from Iowa whose online company sells sewing patterns to make clothes to wear or sell, in which designers may market their own patterns (I’m still amazed at the social potential of this) and a young woman from Trinidad and Tobago who made a thriving international business out of home recipes with chocolate. We had been exchanging stories and impressions about the conference, and amidst my reflections, I said to Miss Iowa: “I hope you know what a great country you have. America is really great”. She smiled timidly back at me, as if saying “well, not everything is roses”. So I asked Miss Trinidad and Tobago what she thought about what I said. She replied in her musical accent: “Look, your government has done more for me and my company than my country ever did”. And she went on to explain specific ways in which she had been able to grow and help others as a result of specific initiatives. I looked back at Miss Iowa and I saw a big, proud smile spark in her (wet?) eyes. And when I told him this story, I saw the same proud smile in the eyes of the member of the Department of State who cared so much about feedback and having done something meaningful.

So the answer is yes, of course it is worth it. It does make a huge difference for all of us. For Edith, from Argentina, who patiently helped me not to struggle so much with Twitter, for Taoufik, from Morocco, who relentlessly paved his way into corporate law and social entrepreneurship, for Abi from Benin, for Nahed from Egypt, and her personal and business opportunities, for Wafa and her amazing PR company in Bahrain, for Habiba and her renewable energy project in Nigeria, for Andrea, a social entrepreneur in Bolivia, Carlos from Colombia, Ariela from El Salvador, keeping young people off the streets, Yaneek from Jamaica, helping out other entrepreneurs like herself, and all those faces I won’t forget but whose names are starting to vanish… (God bless LinkedIn). It was a privilege and an honor to be there.

I am not a religious person. I believe there is a god, but I don’t understand the concept of faith. If anything, I think god would probably want me to believe in myself. I never understood why it was so important for people of different religions to travel to the Vatican, Mecca, Jerusalem or India. After the summit, I think I can understand that a little bit.