Highlights from “Techmanity,” Silicon Valley’s Attempt to Dovetail Tech Innovations and Nobility

Photo is a phone pic of the screen at the conference, skewed a bit in Photoshop to fit the format here.

Here we are in mid-2017, and I’ve yet to hear of Silicon Valley’s re-attempting to hold another “Techmanity” conference. This isn’t perhaps any surprise after the 2014 attendance numbers; it was among the more sparsely attended conferences I’ve seen. Nevertheless, there were some interesting sessions. As I’m porting some older materials over to Medium.com lately, I thought I’d include my write-ups on 2014 sessions here. They included:

  • Jared Leto. The opening session featured an interview with actor, musician, and entrepreneur Jared Leto (famous to most from his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win last year and/or his band 30 Seconds to Mars). Leto discussed a wide range of topics relevant to the ways in which technology is changing the world, especially informed by his perspective in music and film on a global scale. He shared a number of tales from the music business, in particular, illustrating how the landscape and business model have changed so dramatically with the growth of the Internet. While understandably critical of many business aspects of the entertainment industry, he was quite enthusiastic and optimistic about the ways in which technology has improved much else (e.g., the accessibility of film and music for consumers, and the widely available and numerous tools now available for artists). To learn more about Jared Leto, visit his web site at jaredleto.com.
  • Adi Tatarko from Houzz. Houzz is a BIG web site — 25 million monthly users, 4 million project photos 500k remodeling pros, and tip-top reviews of their major app for iOS and Android. It’s a busy site, to say the least, that really does improve a lot of things for all players involved. I may be confusing this with another session, but I do recall a lot of conversation during Techmanity that was highly relevant to Houzz, which is the idea of a company actually spending time building and perfecting its platform before attempting to monetize it in some way. A believe Adi talked about this point in particular, discussing how they held off on monetization of the site in favor of really working out many of the basics first — e.g., obtaining a better understanding of what users really wanted and responding to that above all else. Admittedly, I wasn’t very familiar with this community prior to the conference, except for seeing it in search results for various things on Google. So, I assume that, while certainly there is a pretty intriguing “organic growth strategy” story here, there is also at this stage quite a bit of strategy involved in SEO and so forth to maintain a dominance of the design and remodeling space. To learn more about Adi, visit her web site at houzz.com.
  • Gavin Newsom, the Lieutenant Governor of CA. I hesitate to comment much on any politicians here, as you’re bound to anger half of any given audience by doing so. But, it was quite clear from this guy’s session that he’s one of the few truly informed politicians out there when it comes to technology. You name any stat out there about governmental waste with respect to outdated governmental systems, and this guy could likely one-up you on it. What I liked most about his talk was that he didn’t seem to be simply regurgitating facts to please a technical audience; rather, he seemed to actually understand the implications of technology on government. Unfortunately for us, many of the best examples he offered about technological leadership in the public sector come from far overseas where some governments have had the courage and vision to implement state-of-the-art solutions instead of maintaining costly and unreliable legacy machines and processes. His book (I haven’t read it) is called Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government. Probably worth a read if you’re into the dovetail of government and technology. To learn more about Gavin, visit his web site at www.gavinnewsom.com.
  • Catherine Hoke of Defy Ventures. Interesting presentation… Catherine is the Founder of Defy Ventures, a company that turns ex-cons into CEOs via a training program. she remarked that, as it turns out, there’s actually quite a lot of entrepreneurial prowess sitting in our prison system. When you consider the skill set it takes to successfully run a gang and/or sell drugs on the street, it’s not so different from Corporate America. She brought a long a panel of representatives from the program, all of which had done hard time, some for many years. Interestingly, she didn’t hold back at all; she had them all reveal the details of what they did, how long they served, what made them change their path to “go legit”, and what they were working on now. The session was surprisingly emotional — at times eyebrow raising (e.g., when one man said he was making about $2,000 per day selling heroin), at times tear-jerking (e.g., when another described seeing his son in prison and how that changed him). To learn more about Catherine and Defy, visit their web site at wdefyventures.org.
  • Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton formed Thievery Corporation in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s. The band has been known in the world of electronica for most of its life (although they incorporate elements of many genres). Rob appeared in a session along with Thievery Corporation’s manager, to discuss Thievery Corporation’s take on all of this. Garza offered some interesting observations about the process. One I could relate to based on working with tech systems was that, in some ways, the old analog systems had their advantages — one being that no matter how long you’ve had, say, a reel-to-reel master tape, you could always (and can still) go back to that for a source. However, if your master musical takes were all produced via a particular old release of Pro Tools (and never carried forward to new versions as that software evolved), then good luck getting it all back if it’s needed again. (Well, something to that effect. In web-speak, it would be like trying to retrieve a working web site from a backup of an old Wordpress 1.0 site. Possible? … sure, but not necessarily easy or straightforward.) He also noted a particular, rather sad, point of today’s (largely positive) tech evolution — the fact that, at state-of-the-art recording studios, artists are composing based on high-end, hi-fi systems, ideally listened to on decent speakers / systems. However, the norm is that most music is heard these days on laptop speakers or cheap bedroom speakers plugged into iPhones streaming low-fi versions from web services. Not exactly ideal, musically speaking. To learn more about Rob and the band, visit their web site at www.thieverycorporation.com.
  • Marissa Sackler of BeeSpace. Naturally, a conference examining the convergence of technology and humanity would offer a good bit of content about and for nonprofit organizations. Her company, BeeSpace is a nonprofit incubator, that “provides the sort of hands-on financial, technical, marketing, and organizational mentoring normally associated with tech accelerators and applies it to helping emerging nonprofits.” (From her bio on the Techmanity site.) For myself, having worked with and served so many nonprofits over the years, one relevant take-home message Sackler offered was that so many nonprofits today do not properly invest in their tech infrastructures. Instead, they perpetuate a highly myopic focus on the golden “perception rule” that suggests that 80% of revenues must always go toward programs, and only a limited 20% or less to operations. The outcome, in many cases, is that, you get a nonprofit that becomes a real mess tech-wise for fear of breaching that “rule.” In fairness, if this is indeed such a widespread “rule,” then it follows that some donors and funders are also aware of it and may make decisions based on it. So, there’s no elegant solution, unfortunately. Although, in my opinion, nonprofits could likely handle these situations better by embracing technology more, learning more about the investment necessary for their situation, and actively communicating that to their boards, their donors, and their relevant funding communities. To learn more about BeeSpace, visit their web site at beespacenyc.com.
  • Ido Leffler of Yoobi. The Yoobi session was a little different, as it had less to do with technology than the others. Instead, it was about a brand of school supplies sold by Target. The model is that, for each item purchased, Yoobi donates an item to a school in need. So, the focus was on this model of social assistance. Their reach is impressive, helping about 750,000 kids annually. I suspect a lot of the entrepreneurs in the audience were likely just as interested in the overall business model, as it seems like this model could be replicated for other causes by partnering with other big box stores in similar ways (although, I would suspect that most big box stores have plenty of giving programs in place already and thus may or may not be open to outside ideas like this). Perhaps the real “secret” to pursuing such a scenario is this: How does one get in the door at a place like Target to even pitch such a program? To learn more about Yoobi, visit his web site at Yoobi.com.
  • Dr. Andrew Aldrin of Moon Express. Space travel has always been a subject of interest, as it allows us to think in the extreme long-term about the future of humanity. Will we colonize the moon, other planets, other galaxies? So, it makes sense to have a session like this one at Techmanity. It’s likely no surprise that someone with the last name of Aldrin (yes, he’s Buzz Aldrin’s son!) would be involved. Moon Express is planning a series of missions to the moon for various scientific and business purposes. I didn’t catch this entire presentation, unfortunately. But, I did catch some of their animated renderings of moon landings (rendered with actual moon topography data). These guys are very forward-looking, and very serious about this stuff, even if it seems highly futuristic. To learn more about Moon Express, visit the web site at moonexpress.com.
  • Rose Broome of HandUp. HandUp is a crowdfunding web site for homeless people. It runs as a platform that outside organizations can use. These outside organizations sign up individual homeless or low-income people, and then the HandUp site allows anyone to donate directly to those individuals (with 100% of the donation going to the recipient). It can be a one-time gift or an ongoing pledge. If you’re wondering, like I was, how they cover their own operations, the web site says that when someone donates, they are given the option to opt-in to a HandUp support fee along with the donation. Rose’s presentation included some video profiles of success stories. I didn’t see that video on their site to share, but you can visit their site to browse profiles of those in need. It’s a much-needed platform, and a great model for all. To learn more about HandUp, visit their web site at www.handup.us.
  • Arthur Chu, blogger. Arthur was an 11-time Jeopardy! champion, which brought him into the limelight, so to speak. He spoke mainly about Internet trolls — how and why they’re able to stir up as much trouble as they do. Chu’s theory is that the Internet is a “force multiplier” whereby good people are able to do much more good, and bad people are able to accomplish more harm. As you may expect from a Jeopardy! champ, this wasn’t just a bunch of ideas; he had plenty of, at times very troubling, data to back up his thoughts. Of particular concern were some studies he cited about the treatment of women vs. men in online forums. (I don’t have the citation to share here, unfortunately. But, Chu seems fairly accessible if you’re after that info!) To learn more about Arthur, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/arthur_affect.
  • Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson. I haven’t spent a lot of time listening to venture capitalists, so I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy a session like this one. But, it was “hella interesting” as the kids today say. Draper is basically the money guy behind about 50 different household tech brand names like Skype, Tesla, and Hotmail. What surprised me most after hearing this guy speak and understanding who he is was this: Why wasn’t Techmanity *packed* with startup entrepreneurs? Let me tell you: If you had a solid business idea and wanted to have a fairly good shot at being able to talk to a venture capitalist with serious resources (and, frankly, who would probably welcome such pitches), this was your weekend to accomplish that. Draper spoke at length about tech startups, but the item I liked most that he mentioned was in reference to his “Draper University of Heroes” (their school for young entrepreneurs). He said something like, “We don’t teach history at our university. Instead, we teach the future.” Powerful stuff! He also apparently wants to split California into 6 states, which seems ambitious. Somewhat ironically (to me), his motivation seemed in part informed by an almost anarchistic desire to do away with much of the red tape holding him back in the current iteration of that state. However, I didn’t get a chance to ask him about that. To learn more about Draper Fisher Jurvetson, visit their web site at djf.com.
  • Marina Gorbis of Institute of the Future. I caught the tail end of this fascinating session, in which Marina Gorbis described the work of the Institute of the Future. From what I gathered, IFTF is more or less a think-tank of various scientists who gather data from far and wide in search of emergent trends with the purpose of forecasting the future. I’m not sure how IFTF is funded, or how they generate revenue. But, aside from their business model, their work is particularly intriguing. Gorbis shared profiling information on all sorts of various groups, perhaps most memorably for me about the Millennial generation as well as traits of the following generation. If memory serves, she seemed to be describing these groups as more idealistic in nature and less concerned with superficiality, traditional societal roles, material possessions, and so forth. While I hope that’s true, my question for Marina would be: If we posit that today’s youth, among other things, are simply more accessible in terms of our ability to research them, are they in fact (demonstrably) significantly more idealistic than previous generations were in their own youth? While I suspect the answer is indeed “yes”, I must also admit a certain lingering cynicism that figures that the change desired by the idealistic may face opposition from within their own ranks as quite a few of those kids ultimately conform (or should I write “succumb”?) to “the old ways” of our largely unfettered capitalistic society. To learn more about Institute for the Future, visit their web site at www.iftf.org.
  • Vivienne Harr of Make a Stand. This session perhaps best represented what Techmanity was / is all about — the convergence of people embracing technology and humanity together. Vivienne is a 10 year old girl with a continually growing resume of unbelievable accomplishments. It all started when she decided to open a lemonade stand in her local park, with the goal of ending child slavery. Fast-forward a year or so, and it snowballed into a company that makes bottled lemonade and donates profits to charity. Vivienne was joined on stage by Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter, because the viral aspect of this whole thing all started on that social network. Vivienne had tweeted what she was doing to a celebrity, who then retweeted it. From there, it took on a life of its own, so much that, when it came time for Twitter’s IPO, Biz contacted Vivienne to offer her a truly grand gesture — they wanted her to ring the bell at their IPO. (Video of that is here.) Much to Twitter’s credit, they really embraced not only that the content of social web sites comes from the users, but also that these platforms can be used very effectively for the betterment of everyone. To learn more about Make a Stand, visit the web site at makeastand.com.
  • Susi Mai and Bill Tai of MaiTaiGlobal.org. As it turns out, a lot of presumably younger C-level entrepreneurs are really into extreme sports. Over time, a lot of these people came to know each other and began to organize their little vacation-expeditions more and more. I’m sure there are many such groups in the world, but this one wound up taking the form of an organized nonprofit organization called Mai Tai Global. As far as I can tell, they’re a group of CEOs and venture capitalists who like to hang out and do sporting-type vacations together. Along the way, someone in the group added the element of philanthropy into the mix by having the group support various organizations local to their destinations. I sense it’s a very high-level, invite-only kind of exclusive networking club, which is pretty easy for a lot of people to criticize, I suppose. But, then again, they do make the effort to support these organizations, which is significantly more than similar groups make the effort do. And, in fairness, they’re also very new and don’t yet have a lot of their philanthropic vision solidified to date. So, it should be an interesting group to watch develop. To learn more about MaiTai Global, visit their web site at maitaiglobal.org.
  • Walter O’Brien, Robert Patrick, and others from the TV Show “Scorpion”. In one of the final sessions, Techmanity brought out cast and crew members from the new CBS television show called </Scorpion>. (The name of the show is written like that to call to mind an HTML tag, apparently.) The show, based on actual events from Walter O’Brien’s life, features a team of 150+ I.Q. problem solvers engaged by Homeland Security to come up with solutions to particularly difficult problems. Scorpion also sheds light on other issues such as I.Q. vs. E.Q., recognizing and interacting with genius kids, and so forth. Veteran actor Robert Patrick seemed stoked to be there, and shared some great stories about their process. Apparently, for example, when a new script is in development, the writers come up with an “AW” list, which means “ask Walter.” Walter (and his team of real-life genius problem solvers) then come up with suggested solutions. Seems like a win-win to me. (Although, in fairness, when you’re a computer geek like me, you sometimes watch shows like these and shout at the screen crazy things like, “What?! That’s not a shell… what the hell is that guy typing?” But, that’s just me. Fortunately, I can also suspend disbelief, even for tech shows.) To learn more about the Scorpion TV show, visit its page at CBS at cbs.com/shows/scorpion.

Well, that’s it for my brief coverage of Techmanity. T’was an informative couple of days in the Silicon Valley, and the conference also included some evening entertainment — Theivery Corporation, Weezer, Kongos, and a couple other bands performed. All in all, it was a great time, and I hope to return. Heck, we even spent time at a restaurant in San Jose in which the tablecloths were large rolls of notepaper, no doubt meant for tech entrepreneurs to sketch out the next great idea right there. (And we actually DID sketch out one such idea right there, so who knows… maybe that will lead to something!)

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com.