It’s the end of spring and millions of young Americans have put on caps and gowns, collected their college degrees, and are out looking for jobs. Many are aiming for the companies they consider the coolest, behemoths like Apple and Google and Facebook. I’d like to offer one piece of advice: If you want to know what it feels like to make a real difference, go anywhere but Silicon Valley.
Ten years ago, I was a recent grad myself, a tech dreamer with few prospects. Some of my friends went west to find their fortune; I stayed in Connecticut and bootstrapped a company out of my father’s basement. When it took off, I was summoned by the Valley’s oligarchs to meetings designed to impress me.
I’ll never forget one in particular: Sitting in a slick office and talking about million-dollar deals, I looked out the window and saw a homeless man in the street below sorting through garbage.
This is the kind of radical gap between rich and poor you rarely see so conspicuously elsewhere in America, and, sadly, Silicon Valley does little to make it smaller. In large part, it’s because the Valley’s main goal isn’t to make the world a better place; it’s to make investors wealthier. It is why an industry that started out as a vibrant and competitive market is now controlled by a few companies that treat people and ideas as just more lines on a spreadsheet.
And that, dear grads, is where you come in. Let me tell you something: America doesn’t need another blockchain startup or another app disrupting another industry — or whatever the latest tech trend in the Valley happens to be. It needs young people who understand two things: What you do matters and where you do it matters too.
The real world, as I’m sure you have noticed, has very real problems, and fixing them is up to nobody but you. Instead of shuffling off to some tech company’s campus to have your dry cleaning taken care of and your snacks provided, and your creative output consumed by some mammoth company, try asking the seminal question that every great entrepreneur — and every good person — should ask: What do people need?
Muhga Eltigani did. Born in Sudan, she arrived in America when she was five years old. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and had her pick of plum positions. Instead of heading to the Valley, she settled in Cleveland, courtesy of Venture for America, an impressive fellowship that sends recent college graduates to communities that are busy reinventing their economies. There she worked on a healthy snack company that sought to address the obesity epidemic. Soon she launched her own company, NaturAll Club, which uses avocado oil to create hair products that met the specific needs of African-American women. The company doubled in size last year, with offices opening in midsized towns across America. This is what real innovation looks like, benefiting both employees and consumers in communities not traditionally served by the bottom-line-driven tech industry.
Which brings me to my second, and closely related, piece of advice: Where you do what you do matters. A lot. Instead of heading to Cupertino or Menlo Park, consider Des Moines or Detroit or Durham, the maligned but absolutely necessary “second- and third-tier” American cities that were once the backbone of our economy.
Go to these proud places, and you’ll find three things that are crucial to success, no matter what it is that you choose to do. The first is simple — your buck goes much further in real America than it does in the tony and overpriced towns of the Valley.
The second is even more crucial: Settle down in a “second-tier city” and you’ll find a very helpful community — from the local government on down — eager to see you thrive.
And finally, rather than surrounding yourself with talented people who are too often only interested in padding their resumes before hopping to the next opportunity, you’ll find communities of equally talented men and women who aspire to have meaningful careers without leaving their hometowns.
Forget about going west to work for companies that build $700 juicers while turning a blind eye to people going hungry down the road. And don’t worry about missing out: Google and Apple and Facebook will always be hiring. But if you want to change the world, do real work in real towns and you’ll soon know what real success feels like.
Austin McChord is the founder and CEO of Datto. He spoke about his experience outside of Silicon Valley at Techonomy NYC. See the video here.