My friend Jerry – strategist, community architect, and notable brain – worked for an oil company back in the ‘80s. While in the men’s room one day he encountered a rising executive at the firm: a man many thought might one day run the company. As they washed their hands, silently facing the sink, Jerry noticed something he never forgot. The man took a paper towel and dried his hands.
Then he took that towel and wiped the sink, leaving it clean for the next person.
Jerry never forgot that moment. His trust rose; faith in the man’s leadership took root. “This person thinks about his impact on others,” he thought. That, he reflects now, is a very important attribute for a person leading an oil company.
His story hit me as I left a meeting at a local incubator, one teeming with talent and the excitement of changing the world. I descended the stairs to see one of the startup teams gathered on the sidewalk below, smoking. They looked up as someone approached – clearly a person they expected – and they greeted her as she drew near. Turning to re-enter the building, one of the group tossed his smoke to the ground. In an instant the others had dropped theirs too, stepping toward the stairs.
Three smoldering cigarette butts lay on the ground, smoke wafting grey little signals into the air we all share.
The world looks to Silicon Valley in countless ways. We’re an innovation powerhouse, a financial fuel cell, an origin point for vision and disruption and plain old “WOW.” We draw the eyes of the world to our stage: students from every continent shape their studies to match our agenda, non-tech businesses rewire to harness our magic, global governments visit us to ask “How can we be more like you?”
We’re an exemplar. Yet often we forget to act like it.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” quoted a respected folk hero, and “privilege,” like power, also carries responsibility. We who work in this sector have witnessed people around us rising to new – perhaps globally unmatched – levels of privilege in the past years. This year alone tech minted a bumper crop of new millionaires, beneficiaries of early arrival at household-name companies which only a few years back were all but unknown.
Yet our warp-speed rise to wealth, power, and visibility may cost us the gradual climb of ethics, discretion, and sense of duty than slower-growing wealth might once have elicited.
Recent news stories hint at the complexity of both the growing economic divide and the attitudes that seem to parallel it. Rising housing costs fragment neighborhoods and polarize communities. Ordinary people rise up against the symbols of gentrification and privilege (forget Occupy. What happens when the protesters are in the 1%?). Publicly visible and influential leaders outing themselves as careless, insensitive racists, misogynists, or elitists (these links are indicative: sadly, I could have chosen from several examples). Look at me, getting all judgy – but in the last year, along with all of the positive impact we’ve created, we’ve surfaced some of the planet’s most visibly distorted, and distortedly visible, anti-heroes.
The trend continues beyond what makes the news. We all trade war stories about disrespectful comments, broken agreements, insensitivity to others’ challenges or personal circumstances, and other breaches of perspective. I heard of a recent meeting at a well-known company where half of the room boasted about their 2013 W2s, actually naming numbers, while the other half stared quietly at the tabletop, waiting for it to end.
What do we do as we consider these phenomena and look beyond our Valley – or even the mobile phones we stare at as we walk from place to place – and into the world we, and our children, occupy? The example we’re setting is one that’s modeled globally. One that others will associate with a formula for success.
I love you, Silicon Valley, yet as this New Year begins I have to say: we can do better. We’re losing perspective, forgetting too often that our experience isn’t representative of the world – or sometimes even of our friends, co-workers, and neighbors. With all of the good and power that we share, the privilege we’ve created also creates the danger of isolating us from greater realities, making our view increasingly derivative of an already-rarified perspective.
What can we do, all of us, even in small ways?
Little things: acts of small kindness. Thank the mailman (bonus points: by name). Say good morning to that person waking up on the street, even if you don’t want to buy him coffee. Look up from your iPhone when you’re on MUNI and see if someone nearby needs that seat more than you do. Hey, even take MUNI to stay reminded that not everybody in San Francisco lives the way the people on your bus or in your office do.
Crush out your cigarette but when you’re done with your smoke, or better yet – walk it over to the trash can across the sidewalk.
Remind yourself, as you step into a meeting room or down Market Street or to the corner market in your neighborhood that not everybody has found a path to the position, or likely the privilege, that so many of us have.
As the world looks to us, as we say in a voice heard across the planet, “Hey: this is how it’s done,” let’s become more aware of the example we’re setting. Being mindful of our impact – when we launch the next great platform or when we drop a cigarette in the street – will shape how we actually do change the world. If we put the same vision and intention to our personal impact as we do into the companies we build, the changes we make will not only reshape our world, but make it one we actually feel proud to live in.
Let me finish the story about the cigarettes.
As that person approached the building, she saw the cigarettes drop. Smiling, she raised a finger – “one minute,” you know the gesture – and took out her phone as if to answer it. As the team ascended, she extinguished the burning cigarettes with her shoe and pushed them to the side of the sidewalk. Then she slipped the phone back into her bag and sprinted up the stairs, catching up to the team as they entered the building.
“This is a person who thinks about her impact on others,” I thought, “and about the impact OF others.”
I turned and headed back into the incubator. I wanted to meet that woman. In a random moment, she’d shown something of her character. A glimmer of trust took root.
Do you agree the tech industry should set a better example in 2014?
About the guest blogger: Ellen Leanse (@chep2m) has worked in Silicon Valley for 30+ years, spanning Apple, Google, Facebook app development, product design, and social entrepreneurship. Her work in the US, Europe, Africa, and Latin America informs her views on tech’s impact on global change. Named one of tech’s top marketers and a Silicon Valley Woman of Influence, Ellen currently advises a range of early-stage companies.
Image credit: MissTurner via Flickr.