In 1988, at the age of 17, I arrived in California as a Baha’i refugee from Iran. A year earlier I had escaped Iran through Pakistan.
I went through that difficult and potentially fatal journey because unfortunately as a Baha’i I did not have the right to attend a university in my homeland—and sadly, almost four decades later, Baha’i youth in Iran continue to suffer from the same persecution.
After arriving in California, I initially thought I wanted to study medicine. But soon I realized I was an entrepreneur, and becoming a doctor was not the best path for pursuing my dreams. I received my degree in 1994 in environmental toxicology from UC Davis. A few months after graduation one day I got a call from my brother. He had recently joined Microsoft as a programmer, and he happened to be in the market to buy a Honda.
He had decided to start his search for a new car online—but to his surprise Honda did not even have a website. He called me to see if I’d be interested in partnering with him to start a website focused on helping people buy cars more efficiently and for the best possible price. My answer was an absolute yes: after all no 23-year-old guy would turn down the opportunity to work on anything related to cars!
We started our company in November 1994 and called it Autoweb.com. We were fortunate enough to meet people along the way who became our mentors, and who were extremely helpful in guiding us. We raised a few rounds of funding from venture capitalists, and ultimately in March of 1999 we took the company public on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange. The next day I was at JFK flying back to San Francisco and I saw a headline in The Wall Street Journal which read: “Autoweb, worth more than Rolls Royce.” The market had valued our company at $1.2 billion (let’s not get excited …. I lost most of the wealth I had earned from Autoweb’s IPO … but that’s the subject of another article). I remember asking myself: Could this success story happen to two brothers in their 20’s anywhere else in the world—nevertheless to two young immigrant boys with thick accents who had just become citizens of a new country?
Our new Silicon Valley company—like the internet itself—had no real borders. The web, probably one of the most powerful technological forces for international unity ever invented, gradually drew us into contact with everyone in every part of the planet—just like the Baha’i teachings first predicted in the 1930s. Here is a quote by Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, from almost 90 years ago:
A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 203.
Now as I travel the world people have a lot of questions about Silicon Valley. This is especially true with entrepreneurs, because there is a sense of something special going on here, some sort of magic that’s very unique to this rather small region in California. It’s no surprise that municipalities, leaders, universities, cities and entire nations want to know how to replicate this magic in their own regions.
We hear terms like Silicon Alley in NY, or EPFL in Lausanne being the Silicon Valley of Switzerland, Krakow in Poland wanting to become the Silicon Valley of Europe, Melbourne in Australia and on and on…
So what’s the secret? In my opinion, I believe the most valuable asset that Silicon Valley has to offer is its talent. There are factors that contribute to the concentration of great minds in Silicon Valley, and the question really is: Are they all great minds, or are they minds like any other—but in the right ecosystem?
A few of the ingredients that build what we call Silicon Valley’s ecosystem include:
- Access to Capital, and
The building blocks are not that complicated, but clearly the right mix of all these necessary ingredients makes it all work. So let’s discuss them a bit further:
The culture of Silicon Valley promotes risk taking—and does not look down on failure. It’s understood that risk is necessary in order to come up with world-changing ideas, and that the associated bets won’t always pan out. This ecosystem treats failure as a badge of honor, as experience and a building block for future success. In Silicon Valley, you’re allowed to fail. The Baha’i teachings praise this high tolerance for risk, as Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah who was the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith said:
… the greatest lesson that any highly-evolved civilization can teach us … that when the proper time arrives, they will not shun the dangers and risks of life …– Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 98.
That’s something Silicon Valley does well—the ecosystem supports risk-taking, which allows the entrepreneurs to take advantage of the opportunities when the proper time arrives.
Silicon Valley has accumulated many great successes over the years—big names like Intel, Apple, Oracle, HP, Facebook, Google, Yahoo… all have come out of this small geographical area. This inspiring history causes the entrepreneurs and the investors of Silicon Valley to believe that they can do it again, and they can. It also helps that past employees of these companies become future entrepreneurs; or those who did very well financially become future investors supporting the same ecosystem. Thousands of high-tech companies are headquartered in Silicon Valley and more than 400,000 jobs were created here between 2010-2015. Unity—people working together in pursuit of big ideas—drives all of that.
In fact, the inventiveness of Silicon Valley has attracted people from all over the world—many of them immigrants like me—and this historically unique mix of people, races, nationalities and religions has combined to make the Valley the success it has become. Imagine what the entire world could be like if we all welcomed people from every background, just as the Baha’i teachings recommend:
Abdu’l-Baha said that in Paris more than 100 years ago.
Silicon Valley has incubators, accelerators, and innovative landlords that understand the needs and the constraints of new startups—but they also realize there are opportunities associated in working with entrepreneurs and their ideas. Local governments compete to have more startups housed in their towns. Many universities, especially Stanford, act as anchors and talent generators. Studies from CB Insights and PitchBook found that Stanford alumni ranked number one for getting venture capital and angel investments for their companies. Stanford alone has produced 1,006 entrepreneurs who have collectively raised more than $18.1 billion in capital.
Interestingly, Abdu’l-Baha visited Stanford in 1912, and blessed the school’s mission as he gave a historically-important talk to every faculty member and student of the University. He said:
The greatest attainment in the world of humanity has ever been scientific in nature. It is the discovery of the realities of things. Inasmuch as I find myself in the home of science—for this is one of the great universities of the country and well known abroad—I feel a keen sense of joy. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 348.
Access to Capital
Based on a 2012 report by Martin Prosperity institute, over 25% of all venture capital money worldwide is invested in the Bay Area. This area receives three times more VC investment than Moscow, Bangalore, Paris, Shanghai, Toronto, Beijing and London combined. In Silicon Valley, we have a pay-it-forward attitude. Those who have made money in the past from their tech startups enjoy supporting the new generation of entrepreneurs, and as a result Silicon Valley is littered with angel investors who frankly, more often than not, lose money rather than make money as they invest in startups. Of course, many do it to make money—but many also do it out of altruism, because they enjoy keeping the dream alive. Bay Area companies alone raised about $25 billion in equity funding last year. This impetus—which the Baha’i teachings encourage—can transform capital into an altruistic tool of the human spirit.
Entrepreneurs from all over the world prefer Silicon Valley as the place to set up their companies. As we know, a large percentage come from Asian countries. They come to Silicon Valley, and not because of our beaches or because we are closer to Asia. They come because they find the area to be the most fertile for advancement. According to the Silicon Valley index, 74% of Silicon Valley-employed computer and mathematical workers ages 25 to 44 are foreign-born. That’s an unbelievable number. Basically, some of the best minds of the world prefer to grow their careers in Silicon Valley because this is the hotspot. This talent base is a huge asset to the region and a massive boost to an ecosystem that feeds creativity and the creation of future technologies and world-changing companies. Even more importantly, Silicon Valley has become one of the new global hubs of an emerging world order, where people from every background come together in unity to pursue their dreams. Shoghi Effendi wrote:
This New World Order, whose promise is enshrined in the Revelation of Baha’u’llah … involves no less than the complete unification of the entire human race. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 162.
We see the signs of that unification in Silicon Valley.
So—is Silicon Valley an optimal model for the world to emulate? No—probably far from it. We have made tremendous achievements and built terrific organizations, but we still have a long way to go.
I’ve started several new companies here in Silicon Valley—some successful, and some not. You learn the most from your mistakes, right? Here’s what I’ve learned: during the course of my entrepreneurial career, I’ve become convinced that three important elements create true success: equality, intention and spirituality.
Some of you may think, really?! You might not immediately think those qualities have anything to do with succeeding in business or in life, but they do. In fact, they’re absolutely essential. I’ll try to explain.
Focusing on these three elements allows us to bring true impact to our work, whether we’re entrepreneurs, investors or employees.
Prejudice, bigotry and gender bias only hold back a society—and a company as a microcosm of that society. Instead, we should view all people as equal and with equal potentials, regardless of their gender, religion, ethnic background or skin color. The prejudices of the past should be set aside in order to make room for a new unified human family that obtains its strength from diversity, just like nature does.
But we also need to go beyond basic diversity, which in many cases has become a simplistic formula. We need to change our paradigm and understand the fact that it’s time for us to consider doing the right thing—not because it’s “politically correct” but because it’s how we as humans should operate for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. That’s how we will maximize our potential. The Baha’i teachings say:
Consider the flowers of a garden: though differing in kind, colour, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm, and addeth unto their beauty. Thus when that unifying force, the penetrating influence of the Word of God, taketh effect, the difference of customs, manners, habits, ideas, opinions and dispositions embellisheth the world of humanity. This diversity, this difference is like the naturally created dissimilarity and variety of the limbs and organs of the human body, for each one contributeth to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole. When these different limbs and organs come under the influence of man’s sovereign soul, and the soul’s power pervadeth the limbs and members, veins and arteries of the body, then difference reinforceth harmony, diversity strengtheneth love, and multiplicity is the greatest factor for co-ordination. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 291.
We will build more perfect cultures, teams and organizations by understanding that diversity and inclusion represent essential ingredients for a better company.
We all want to create the best and the greatest technologies, but in the tech world I rarely hear anyone discuss their intention and the potential impact of their innovation on the whole of humanity. My intention when I co-founded Autoweb was to change the car buying experience, but I really wanted to make a lot of money and really not much beyond that! The result was a company that had no meaningful impact on society. I’ve learned, since then, that only our inner intentions truly distinguish us.
I believe many people fear technologies like Artificial Intelligence and many other innovations exactly because they are not sure of the intentions of the innovators. We all know that a better future goes beyond technologies and innovations, and centers on peace, harmony and unity among all people. Intention will dictate the impact of everything we do to reach those lofty goals. What happens when the betterment of the world is not at the center of that innovation?
The Baha’i teachings say:
… endeavor that your attitudes and intentions … be universal and altruistic in nature. Consecrate and devote yourselves to the betterment and service of all the human race … for when your motives are universal and your intentions heavenly in character, when your aspirations are centered in the Kingdom, there is no doubt whatever that you will become the recipients of the bounty and good pleasure of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 448.
Even in business, we have to consider the spiritual nature of every human being. We are not machines; we are not just about our temporary physical presence on this planet. Each and every one of us was created noble. Bahaullah said:
We are people, with aspirations, with individual skills, thoughts and beliefs. We all have an existence beyond this material body. The moment we start appreciating this most noble, shared reality in the people we encounter, our approach towards them and the way we treat them immediately changes Just imagine, for example, if the customer service of a company considered this—how would the quality of their service and the way they treat their customers change? When we consider the issue of equality, of wanting to see everyone grow and succeed, this perspective becomes absolutely normal, and prejudices of all kinds will immediately give way to unifying forces. It’s an undeniable fact that only unity can make collective success possible.
So given all these factors, I see an opportunity for the business community to prioritize humanity and the betterment of the world.
This does not mean that companies cannot or should not focus on profits and maximizing return for investors. In fact, I believe that doing the right thing, and considering the impact of our work on humanity, represents a natural, healthy ingredient currently missing from our endeavors. By including these ingredients we will build better companies, better products and better societies, and the outcome will in fact be more valuable and more profitable businesses.
Businesses today need to recognize their role in shaping the wider social fabric, and then drive their enterprise with a constant eye on dramatically improving it.
As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I believe our biggest problem is that success here is only measured in financial terms. We need to change that. We need to measure success by the impact we each can have on the betterment of our communities and the world; by how likely we are to spend our resources to serve others; by how many lives we touch in a positive way; and by how happy we are with the positive impact we have on the world around us.
Accordingly, we need to stop segregating businesses into social impact enterprises and traditional for-profits. Often social impact businesses get lumped into a secondary category: the ones with inferior business models and smaller opportunities for growth. Our best businesses should proactively consider their social impact and build sacrificial philanthropy into their core.
I’m not talking about a $40 billion company giving 1% of their profits away, just so they can check the “socially responsible” box. Our companies need to go way beyond simply creating a façade of being good, and actually examine their core beliefs and change their hearts—so they, with all their might, will want to actually demonstrate their deep concern for humanity and help shape a better future.
The Baha’i teachings say that the impact we each can have on the betterment of the world will be what truly matters. Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
We must now highly resolve to arise and lay hold of all those instrumentalities that promote the peace and well-being and happiness, the knowledge, culture and industry, the dignity, value and station, of the entire human race. Thus, through the restoring waters of pure intention and unselfish effort, the earth of human potentialities will blossom with its own latent excellence and flower into praiseworthy qualities …. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 4.
After all, wealth earned (let’s not forget that the majority of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and other professionals are highly focused on building massive amounts of wealth) through our efforts is really only admirable and praiseworthy if we choose to spend it for the well-being of humankind. I mean, what is wealth for? If we accept the fact that we are spiritual beings, if we agree that we all belong to one human family, shouldn’t we concern ourselves with the welfare of all people. Again Abdu’l-Baha said:
Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual’s own efforts and the grace of God, in commerce, agriculture, art and industry, and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes. Above all, if a judicious and resourceful individual should initiate measures which would universally enrich the masses of the people, there could be no undertaking greater than this, and it would rank in the sight of God as the supreme achievement, for such a benefactor would supply the needs and insure the comfort and well-being of a great multitude. Wealth is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy. If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor. If, on the other hand, it is expended for the promotion of knowledge, the founding of elementary and other schools, the encouragement of art and industry, the training of orphans and the poor—in brief, if it is dedicated to the welfare of society—its possessor will stand out before God and man as the most excellent of all who live on earth and will be accounted as one of the people of paradise. – Ibid., pp. 24-25.
Here’s my one wish: in the area in and around Silicon Valley we have Apple, Google, Facebook, Oracle, Chevron, Bank of America—basically companies with trillions in market value and hundreds of billions in profits every year. We have tens of thousands of smaller companies, thousands of them being VC-backed, who have amazing talents and access to capital. We also have Oakland, with a relatively small population and five high schools that are predominantly made up of African American kids. Their communities suffer from gross negligence by local and state government, they suffer from a serious lack of resources and are in dire need of support. The graduation rate at these schools hovers around 50%.
Many of the problems these friends face have their roots in hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and persistent racism in this country. Why is it, with so much individual and corporate wealth, we have not yet fixed this problem in our own backyard? I wish, with the help of everyone (companies and individuals) who has done well financially, that we could change all of this by creating a movement to bring to an end the suffering of our friends in one of most prominent cities in America.
If you are interested in being part of the solution, please let me know. We can consult together and with the friends and leaders in these communities, so we can get their advice on how best to tackle the problem. With the help of companies and individuals, we can uplift a community and create a model of a better society. You know as well as I do, if the wealthy individuals and the companies in the Silicon Valley area wanted to they could help address this and all other persistent societal problems that we face.
But do we want to? Do we care? Do we see that as a priority or are we too busy maximizing personal wealth versus being highly concerned with the welfare of our society as a whole?
I will leave you with this quote from Baha’u’llah:
Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and the kindreds of the earth. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 167.