Monkeys that Branch Out
Exploring the question of why technology startups thrive in certain places, such as Silicon Valley, has been an ongoing topic for decades. The answers that have emerged thus far remain somewhat obscure or unsatisfactory.
Startups happen in the underbelly of the technology kingdom. They happen in the nooks and crannies, where it is hard to look and develop like marine life in the crevices of the ocean, where they cannot be discovered until they can sustain life and evolve into a market force. With meager resources and nothing compelling about them, young entrepreneurs dare to breathe life into new companies despite the long odds against success. According to Forbes, “less than 1% of startups get investment capital,” offering limited chances of survival.
The primordial soup of Silicon Valley is an undeniable factor in the germination of new startups. But what are the ingredients, the building blocks, of this primordial soup? Largely it’s the characteristic of the migrants. They move away from their homes to cluster around on college campuses or at after-work hangouts, drawing comfort and energy from each other in pursuit of unrealistic dreams.
It’s worth taking a closer look at the essential traits of the entrepreneurs. What breathes life in startups are the insecurities of these migrants, I claim. Silicon Valley culture is often associated with migrants and not just immigrants.
In my case, growing up, my life started as the second of three daughters. I was nothing special that my parents desired. I felt I could have stayed in the flow of life of an Indian girl, but instead, I branched out, unnoticed. I was told when I was a baby, I fell seriously ill. My parents, who already had a one-year-old and a newborn, must have been overwhelmed. They shipped me and my ayah (or nanny) to live with my maternal grandmother in another town. To everyone’s relief, I recovered and was sent back to my parents. Many years later, when I signed up for dance lessons, one of my legs was found to be shorter than the other. Fifty years later, a physician in Silicon Valley concluded that I had had a mild case of polio. Fortunately, that never stopped me from wearing high heels, learning to ski, or hiking to Nepal’s Ama Dablam Base Camp.
My parents were also concerned, in an arranged marriage system, that I may not find a husband due to my physical handicap. I married an extraordinary individual without dowry! He was an Indian immigrant who topped one of the toughest IIT entrance exams in India and earned degrees from elite US colleges. We both started his and her own companies and took them public in Silicon Valley.
Insecurities, whether real or perceived, stem from a complex interplay of individual, societal, and familial environments during childhood. These insecurities can range from trivial issues like pecking order and sibling rivalries to parental attention or lack thereof.
While studies exist on siblings’ academic or athletic achievements, there is a gap in research on those who did not stand out during childhood but achieved exceptional success later.
Then, there are individual studies of icons like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. In his biography of Musk, Walter Isaacson reveals the impact of Musk’s verbally abusive father. Did his dad’s rants shape his entrepreneurial success?
When faced with challenges early on, kids or even babies may learn to cope and become tougher internally.
The subject of mental toughness “has been studied as an important difference factor that allows individuals to deal effectively with challenges and to persist under pressure. ..However, individuals who score high on mental toughness .. are also confident.” Several studies included in this paper may not be so precise, though. Correlation doesn’t mean causation or the questionnaires used in empirical studies may be flawed. In a separate study, researchers from the University of Buffalo found “people who’ve experienced (and survived) trauma are often the toughest…the scientists found that merely trying to cope with trauma makes us stronger.” Trauma survivors develop tools earlier in life and polish them over time.
Mental toughness alone does not automatically translate into success. It also requires specific training and fertile grounds. A mentally tough soldier trained in the art of warfare outperforms other soldiers, but that does not transfer to her entrepreneurship skills. It’s the training that augments it. Technical education and work experience of tech entrepreneurs develop the muscles that, when combined with mental toughness, yield extraordinary results.
Tech startups have fueled our economy. Yet there is a big gap between economic motivations and economic outcomes. Entrepreneurs are not selfless, but they are not motivated by money. They are driven by their hunger for relevance.
Instead of calling entrepreneurs “risk takers,” I call them “monkeys that branch out.” Elon Musk a super-monkey, branches out into various companies simultaneously, demonstrating skills to swing back and forth through the branches, leveraging lessons learnt.
Finally, it takes a whole village to form a startup; the people who plant the seed and those who take the leap.