Web 3.0+: The Hyperconnected Global Internet

•October 18, 2011 • 4 Comments

The title of this blog comes from a presentation I did at last year’s Web 2.0 conference in NYC, in September 2010. I overviewed the growth of the global internet and penetration, noting that the future of the Web was going to be driven by emerging countries, as mobile connectivity continues to be more ubiquitous and the West is largely penetrated. The slides are here.

While I haven’t updated the numbers, if anything, the pace of adoption has accelerated. We also have the experience of the Arab Spring, Japan earthquake and, more recently, Occupy Wall Street in the past year to highlight how global the Web has become.

That presentation marked the beginning of a year of travel for me. I’ve been MIA on this blog because I’ve traveled the world several times over during the past year meeting with, and investing in, entrepreneurs in emerging markets (20 hour flights, jetlag, numerous speaking engagements, constant meetings and bay area commutes made it challenging to write more than two coherent sentences together in anything other than an investment memo or a quick tweet!) I’ll go into greater detail on each market, and what I invested in and am excited about, in subsequent posts. But as I settle back into NYC, and am surrounded once again by innovation happening in the US market, I am struck by how many learnings can, and need to, cross borders to tackle the problems the world faces today. We now have the components for this in place: infrastructure through the Internet, mobile connectivity in the hands of billions of people throughout the world, and social networks such as facebook and twitter and skype.

Last week I attended a NYC screening of Tiffany Shlein‘s fantastic new documentary Connected which discusses a “new declaration of interdependence” created by technology. I highly recommend everyone go see it. It is a nuanced, layered film. In one section, she describes how the human left brain (logical,analytical,looks at parts) and right brain (intuitive,creative,holistic,synthesizing) are forced to work together more in the connected, information overload, multitasking world we are now living in. She notes it is those people that can meld the two (and she uses the early example of Leonardo daVinci who synthesized these spheres more than most) that will be the leaders and problem solvers in this new world. In the Industrial age that swept across the West, the right brain was more valued, as machines and people specialized to create mass produced goods. On Wall Street, the right brain has been more valued, apparent in the ever thinner slicing of derivatives that resulted in the complete loss of perspective of their impact in the bigger economic picture. The Italian Renaissance, Gupta dynasty in India and Ming dynasty in China were periods of more balance between the logical and creative and resulted in stable, cultured societies which fostered much innovation across sectors. They key is balance, as specialization is also a necessary component to progress (ie, Intel’s “Copy Exactly” strategy). To look at this on a more recent macro level there’s a great article The Art of the Posse-able on the Philanthrocapitalism site, based on the book of the same name by Matt Bishop and Mike Green, which discusses interdisciplinary and group approaches to tackling global challenges such as malaria eradication.

The importance of this connectivity applies to cities, individuals, companies, as well as nations and global causes. When I gave the opening keynote at NYC’s first Entrepreneur Week in 2008, I noted that NYC’s interdisciplinary nature and density (ie, easy connectivity) would be key in overcoming the economic downturn, and that technology would be the enabler and accelerator. We’ve seen this play out in the disruption, and rebuilding of industries from media to retail (although unfortunately recovery has not reached everyone, and that’s another post). On an investor panel a year later, I was asked what I look for in a company I’m investing in, and while I agreed with colleagues on the importance of the size of the market, the team, etc, my answer differed slightly: I want to change the world and want companies I invest in to aim for the same. It is through supporting and investing in a portfolio of brilliant, passionate entrepreneurs who are building game changing businesses that potentially impact the lives of billions of people that I am able to leverage my own experiences to change the world more than I could on my own. The key is also connecting companies in my portfolio, creating those permanent and temporary “posses” discussed by Green and Bishop, to maximize impact. The sum of these connections and experiences, IF shared, is exponentially greater than any individuals or companies. In my last post I wrote about my own personal and career path, in which I have traversed disciplines, sectors and geographies instead of a linear progression (in opposition to the advice of many). While I did it do follow my own passions (which happen to cross my left and right brains) and my belief that every person needs to chart their own path and not blindly follow the status quo, there is no doubt that the resulting perspective is much richer and useful in today’s world than a siloed one.

When I attended a startup showcase in Jakarta, Indonesia this past July, I met a 17 year old high school student who came to me (in broken English) with 5 startup ideas, all of which had promise if developed in the right way. It is hard not to be wildly optimistic when I come across minds like that – but we must be open to crossing oceans, borders and disciplines to enable him and billions like him. We need to be connected. While there is much doom and gloom out there right now, I have been encouraged by the sharing of ideas and innovations that I’ve seen from Brooklyn to Nairobi that are products of the hyperconnectivity that technology has enabled over the past few years.

We have moved from a siloed, individualistic world to one that is hyperconnected and there is no return. We are interdependent. It is how we harness these connections, at personal, interpersonal and macro levels, that will determine individual happiness, progress, and global prosperity. We have all the tools we need to make it happen. In future posts I will highlight examples of how it’s already happening — and would love examples from all of you!

A Glimpse: My American Dream

•February 1, 2011 • 6 Comments

When I looked at my inbox this morning, I had emails from six organizations I have advised/worked with over the past couple of years (including Astia and Techstars) announcing their partnership with the White House’s Startup America initiative. And, lest I for a moment forgot that I am living the American dream, thanks to parents who left a life that they loved to give me an even better one, it was once again etched in my mind.

It seems like yesterday (although it was 1989!) I wrote my applications to college, or rather typed them on a typewriter with a bottle of WhiteOut close by. The essays were a breeze…I wrote about how I had seen the positive impact of communication technologies (at the time, radio and television) in remote villages throughout my trips back to Africa and India, and how I wanted to be a part of bringing that connectivity to everyone in the world, as a means of creating better education opportunities, livelihoods and understanding amongst each other.

I vividly remember the prejudice my parents, my brother and I faced when moving into our very nondiverse neighborhood in NJ in 1976 and how they won over the neighbors with grace and patience (and inviting them over for delicious Diwali dinners, still my secret weapon). How my 5th grade classmates thought I was Native American and that I was making up stories when I returned (from my teepee, possibly?) from a trip to India and spoke of places with pigs and cows roaming around and no plumbing. It didn’t help that I was vegetarian (wait, didn’t Indians eat turkey…oh wait) and spoke a weird language to my brother at the bus stop.

I wanted to be a writer and I thought that I would show them all with words. I wrote a biography of Mahatma Gandhi when I was 10, which was locally published. I wrote of his strength of character and the concept of ahimsa (a word etched on a ring I wear every day), nonviolence. How the power of ideas and resolute minds could conquer brute strength and physical weapons. But those were quaint ideas in the midst of an escalating cold war, for it was apparently different when the US was fighting the Soviet Union. I was just a brown little immigrant girl who couldn’t understand those complicated matters. But I did write a letter to Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India, in 1982 before my first trip there. I told her how much I admired seeing a woman lead such a big country, and she, via her aides, invited me to meet her at the Presidential quarters in Delhi when we went there. This no doubt amused my parents who had told me to write her the letter as they were tired of me reciting all the reasons why I thought she was such a cool woman (now her economic policies…that’s another matter now that I know better!)

I was also the only girl in honors algebra and physics classes. But ever the fashionista, in my cool Jordache jeans, Jersey girl hair and flourescent pink legwarmers (it was the ’80s after all, but luckily I haven’t succumbed to the ’80s fashion revival after having lived it all too fully back then). And when many of the other girls went to cheerleading practice or hung out at the mall I retreated to edit the yearbook or paper, or several hours of ballet class (until the age of 16 I was on track to become a professional ballet dancer, auditioning for the School of American Ballet in NYC…how many VCs can say that?)

I was always acutely aware of how fortunate I was to have the opportunities, love, support and access to education that I had. And how much of it was based on luck, and how I could easily have been that child in an orphanage in India. Yes I was gifted with talents but so are EACH of us, including the millions, billions of others who were just unlucky to be born in different circumstances. When I was in high school, a classmate and I started a peer mentoring program for our middle school which has grown and flourished. I learned how easy, and satisfying, it was to give back…not with money but with time, expertise and care (which is often much more valuable and rare).

Fast forward to junior year of college, being told by a well-intentioned career services counselor that I should consider changing my name because recruiters were less likely to call me since they wouldn’t be able to pronounce my name, that we were in the middle of a recession in 1993 and it was competitive out there (I think things turned out OK for me). I didn’t listen as I didn’t want to work with anyone that was intimidated by a NAME of all of things. Jalak means glimpse and is a word in Hindi (it’s not a traditional name) and has provided much entertainment to taxi drivers in Mumbai, camel drivers in the Rajasthani desert and countless others. I often think of all the times I was encouraged to conform when I come across entrepreneurs who are told that their ideas won’t work. But being different, or thinking differently (either from circumstance or choice), allows you to experience things from a vantage point others don’t have. Conforming will give you the status quo. It is only when you break out of this that innovation and creativity flourish. People ask me if innovation can flourish in places like Africa and my response is that I encounter innovation everywhere there, when people are forced to innovate to survive, often with scarce resources.

I won’t bore you with the rest now, but there are fun stories of launching an online startup in NYC in 1997, learning to code (which indulged both my creative and analytical sides), parties (OK, one party) with Mick Jagger in London in 1995, a summer without plumbing traveling around Tanzania training women entrepreneurs (the opposite of said party with Mick Jagger in London), starting my venture career in 1999 in Silicon Valley, traveling around the world on my own (during which I was in Burma when the protests started in 1997), an impromptu trip into the Congo to see the devastation firsthand two years ago when I was in Rwanda, my year off in 2003 from VC to learn more about education reform by consulting on replication strategy for charter schools, working on a business plan in 1995 for a video-on-demand startup whose founder was way ahead of his time, and my time living in a frat house at UC Boulder while mentoring for the Unreasonable Institute (actually just last summer). And then there are all the dating anecdotes from my six years in NYC (but that’s a very entertaining book and I’m digressing).

Now, the present. I have just started a new job with the Omidyar Network. At the Clinton Global Initiative last September, Pierre Omidyar, co-founder of eBay, announced a commitment from his philanthrocapitalist firm to invest millions of dollars in mobile applications and services, with a focus on developing markets globally. He founded eBay to empower individuals through the use of new technology, and has created livelihoods for millions of individuals throughout the world. eBay is likely the most efficient “accelerator” to have existed to date. And now the mobile phone is empowering individuals at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. These devices are providing connectivity of the scale I hadn’t even imagined when I wrote my college essays. And I get to lead this effort in a world very different than the one I grew up in just a few decades ago. I feel incredibly lucky, to work with an extraordinary group of individuals who are passionate about innovation (in all forms, in business models, funding structures and technology) AND I get to meet inspiring, brilliant entrepreneurs every day. While I spent the past three incredibly fulfilling and fun years helping build the tech entrepreneurship sector in NYC, which is now thriving wonderfully (but wasn’t in 2008!), this is a unique role, in a unique time, for me to combine so many passions, from tech to education to investing to entrepreneurship to emerging markets to policy. I have the opportunity to build bridges from NYC to Nairobi, from Dhaka to Denver, from Silicon Valley to Singapore. At the end of the day, an entrepreneur, a person trying to build a better life for herself or himself, is the same in New Orleans as NYC as Yangon as Palo Alto as Dar es Salaam, although their individual circumstances differ. TRUE innovation is not a zero sum game. And especially in today’s world we need to empower every individual, harness every talent, in every corner of the globe. And learn from each other. It could be the little girl in Iraq who grows up to be a scientist that makes the discovery which will one day save an American life. Or the boy in Detroit who becomes a software developer and creates an app to educate a child in the slums of Brazil. This is MY American dream…and I applaud the administration, including my good friend and US CTO Aneesh Chopra, and all the organizations taking part in Startup America for highlighting and enabling the promise that exists in each individual.

Immigrants and the Startup Visa

•July 10, 2010 • 1 Comment

About a month ago, I was honored by the Asian American Development group, a nonprofit organization based in NYC, as one as a Top 50 Asian American in Business. The room was filled with inspiring young leaders throughout the country, including Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, most of whom were first or second generation immigrants. They were from countries throughout Asia but told of similar tales, of parents who uprooted comfortable lives and rebuilt from scratch in a new country that provided opportunity to those who worked hard. The immigrant occupations ranged from scientists to doctors to businessmen to people who came with literally a few dollars in their pocket. The prototypical American dream. My family is one of those — when I look at pictures of their home in Nairobi I often wondered how someone could leave such a paradise for the cold winters of NJ. I’d daydream of the orchids and peacocks I saw on trips back, when I was shoveling snow from the driveway. Of course I now know differently — the political stability, along with the personal and economic freedoms the US provides continues to draw people from around the world. This country would not be what it is without the hard work of immigrants, dating from the 1600s to those that arrive daily today. These groups have been crucial to the economic development of this country and fill roles from taxi drivers to researchers in university labs to CEOs to state governors.

Now, in this era of globalization and increased competition, it is more important than ever to ensure we fully harness the talents of these immigrants and make sure they can stay here, as well as welcome new workers that can contribute to our ability to stay competitive and make all citizens’ lives better. Of particular importance to the startup world is the StartUp Visa act:

Earlier this year, Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar introduced legislation to create a new visa for those who intend to form U.S.-based start-ups. “Our country should strive to attract the most talented and highly skilled entrepreneurs,” Lugar says. Under the proposal, a foreign-born entrepreneur who has secured at least $250,000 in funding from qualified U.S. investors would be permitted to stay for two years. At the end of that period, if the business has generated at least five full-time jobs, attracted $1 million in additional capital, or hit $1 million in revenue, the founder would be granted a green card. The proposed legislation is backed by more than 160 venture capitalists and seed capital investors, including Khosla Ventures and Mohr Davidow Ventures. Brad Feld, managing director at Foundry Group, an early-stage venture capital firm in Boulder, estimates that the program could create up to 5,000 new companies a year.

A recent article in Inc magazine highlights the story of Graphic.ly, a company that went through the Boulder based TechStars incubator program but had to move back to the UK for once their visas expired, despite getting funding from US venture capitalists. The Seedstart program, an 8 week incubator for 5 startups that I helped launched this summer in NYC, had several talented international applicants that we had to turn down for visa reasons. We as a nation need to acknowledge that immigrants have been a key growth driver and fundamental to the success of this country — and finding ways to welcome them and help them thrive in this country will only help us remain competitive on the world stage.

What the Elephant God Can Teach Tech Entrepreneurs

•June 14, 2010 • 8 Comments

This weekend I was at a family celebration in New Jersey and spent some time with an uncle who is a chemical engineer by training but also well versed in the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures. So well versed that he is in high demand throughout the world performing weddings and other Hindu ceromonies in his retirement, giving any donations from his activities to charity. We talked about the curiousity and symbolism around Ganesha, most well known as the Elephant God. Countless friends of mine come back from India with a Ganesha statue made of rosewood, marble or sandlewood, and know that he is known as a symbol of good luck and remover of obstacles. He is invoked at the beginning of any new endeavor amongst Hindus worldwide — at weddings, baby showers, the purchase of a new car or the start of a new fiscal year. Hindu texts tell the story of how his unique form came into being:

One story relates that Ganesh’s mother, Parvati, had to go for her bath when her husband, Shiva, was not at home. As Shiva had gone on a meditation retreat and was not expected to return, Parvati ordered Ganesh to keep guard and not let anyone inside the room. But after a while Shiva arrived and when he tried to enter, the child refused to let him do so. This angered Shiva, who did not recognize his son and cut off the Ganesh’s head.
In order to make up for his mistake, Shiva promised Parvati that if she places the head of any person or thing which crosses her path early the next day, the Ganesh would come back to life. The first person or thing that passed by them was the mighty elephant. Shiva cut off its head and placed it on the torso of the beheaded child.

But as in the case with all of Hinduism, there is great symbolism in the Ganesha form. Ganesha the word comes from Gana which means “flock, multitude” in Sanskrit and Isha which translates into Supreme. So Ganesha, with his elephant head, represents a leader for the masses. As my uncle walked through the meaning behind the form, I thought of how we can all benefit from these attributes:

Large Head: No, this does not mean arrogance! It signifies the importance of knowledge. No matter how much you know there is a lot more knowledge to acquire. The most brilliant and gifted people in this world are lifelong learners. This is also how business models also evolve. I see more entrepreneurs today than before and a higher velocity of technology innovation. It is more important than ever to use cross discliplinary approaches to solve problems and arrive at answers faster. Technology usage is no longer on the fringe, it is part of most people’s daily life, be it in India, Russia, Abu Dhabhi or Silicon Valley. Thus if you are a tech entrepreneur it is imperative that you understand the world around you, the (sometimes fickle) consumers/businesses and their psyche, and how they are evolving so that you can evolve with them.

Large Flapping Ears: Last year when I was in Rwanda I wrote a post on the importance of listening. Large ears signify listening capacity. If you don’t have a (large) ear to the ground, you will miss out on your customers’ needs or your competitors’ moves. This is why a good advisory board and board of directors is key to a success of a business. I always say an entrepeneur can’t do it alone — think carefully of who you can surround yourself that will serve as ears to the ground. But there’s also a lot of distracting noise in our environment. Flapping ears mean that you have the ability to swat away any insects that may surround you, dismiss those voices buzzing in your ear that are not helpful and are distracting from your goals. As an entrepreneur, particularly one who is doing something groundbreaking and innovative (the kind I want to invest in), you will come across naysayers and people who just don’t get it. Successful entrepreneurs know who to listen to and who are the insects…which leads to…

Thick Skin: This is self-explanatory. Most people find it easier to say no than yes, to criticize than embrace. Don’t take it personally and move on.

Small Eyes: Focus, focus, focus. When we are concentrating our eyes narrow. When we are taken by surprise our eyes widen. Focus is key to successful execution and is why visionary founders with great ideas are often paired with more operational leaders. This is also why it is important to get one product or service right, in one market, and then expand from there. You’ll have referenceable users and domain expertise to build upon. And don’t be taken by surprise (but if you have your ears to the ground you won’t be…)

Large Stomach: There’s value in taking in information and allowing it to sit and digest. Not everything useful you are exposed to will be useful right away but don’t be so quick to dismiss it. File it away and it may come back in a different form or in the same form at a more relevant point in time. This is true with people too. If you come across people that are bright and impressive, keep in touch with them. I can’t even count how many times I’ve ended up doing business with people I first met years ago and kept in my network.

Trunk: We all know the story of the mighty elephant trunk being flexible and controlled enough to pick up a peanut. You want to be that elephant trunk. Be strong, but nimble, especially as your company grows. It is too easy to get unwieldy with growth. Last week, I was honored to be named in the Top 50 Asian Americans in Business, with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, as the chief honoree. He just wrote a book, Delivering Happiness, and spoke of the importance of establishing company culture, vision, and values early on. Put in systems and policies to support these early, before you may need them, as rapid growth (overall a good problem to have) can overtake small companies very quickly. The companies that maintain a core set of values and, most importantly, employees who embody those values, are best able to survive that rapid growth. Build a strong company from within, and ideally one that has mechanisms that empower employees to stay responsive to the market.

Siri: Apple of My Eye

•April 28, 2010 • 1 Comment

It’s been a busy day of mobile tech news, including the HP acquisition of Palm, and a busy week of conversation around internet privacy, thanks to Facebook’s new privacy controls and Blippy’s credit card snafus. This is why I find today’s announcement that Apple acquired Siri, a natural language virtual assistant currently available as an iPhone app, particularly interesting.

When I first saw the company present at SXSW in March, it was clear that this company, a spinout from SRI International, was onto realizing the promise of personalized data that works FOR individuals, ie, all of us who are creating massive databases in the cloud with each click. Sure, personalization and targeting have been around the web for awhile, but most often it is for the benefit of companies, with incremental utility for individuals. Siri is one of the few companies I have seen that turns this on its head. As PC Magazine noted today:

Users simply type or speak into the phone with a natural language request (“Book me a table at 7:30 PM tonight for two at Il Fornaio” or “Find where ‘Avatar’ is playing in 3D near my office”) and Siri parses the request and interprets it in the context of one or more queries. For the first request, for example, the site would work with OpenTable; for the second, the site could query Google or other sources of information. This will be done both manually and via syncing with existing sources of our personal data such as Facebook profiles, iTunes music lists, and contacts…

By buying Siri, however, Apple has taken a step forward toward entering the search market. Unlike Google or Microsoft, however, Apple hasn’t purchased an underlying search engine, but a metalayer that harnesses other available sources of information.

Imagine the potential of combining location based information, social networks and personal preferences to get highly relevant real time recommendations. Progress in innovation happens from leapfrogging and thinking outside the box — and this acquisition allows Apple to provide personalized, next generation mobile search. Google, Microsoft, your move…

The Gender Issue Part II

•April 18, 2010 • 12 Comments

My twitter stream and email inbox has been full of links to the NY Times article published yesterday — Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley.

It is great to see that a conversation is finally evolving on the importance of gender diversity in the technology and venture capital sectors. On my trip to Rwanda last year I wrote a blog post on why I thought diversity in general was important.

When I meet with startups one of the first reactions/comments is that they have never met a female VC before. We exist, and I count close friends, and investors that I admire greatly, in the ranks. I have also worked with many male VCs who have funded women led companies and are supportive of women. However, after 11 years as a venture capitalist, I can say this industry is one of the most male dominated that I have encountered (including investment banking — many larger firms have diversity programs, shareholders and boards that provide incentives and oversight on this issue).

Successful companies grow out of an ecosystem and network of support, and that includes mentors, investors and role models. Integration of different viewpoints and backgrounds is not always easy but research validates that there is long term payoff for any short term challenges that may exist:

For those with a bottom-line approach, analysts say it makes a difference when women are in the garages where tech start-ups are founded or the boardrooms where they are funded. Studies have found that teams with both women and men are more profitable and innovative. Mixed-gender teams have produced information technology patents that are cited 26 percent to 42 percent more often than the norm, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

Building out an ecosystem that gives ALL smart, talented entrepreneurs access to funding, and support for their fledgling businesses will benefit everyone in the long term. When I helped launch NYCSeed with Owen Davis a couple of years ago, the goal was to provide this network of support in addition to seed funding. And everyone, including the most successful serial entrepreneurs, can benefit from these networks.

But this access becomes particularly important for first time entrepreneurs, and I am seeing an increasing number of women in this category. These women are thinking just as big as their male counterparts (and sometimes are better at weighing the risks and alternate scenarios!) As technology usage becomes more mainstream and diffuses into more industries and disciplines, more women are becoming creators and users of technology as a default.

That’s why I sat on the board of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs in 1999 in Silicon Valley when I started my venture career, and continue to support women entrepreneurs through Astia, Girls in Tech and a host of other organizations. That’s why I am moderating a panel of incredible women entrepreneurs on the topic of Social Media for Social Change this Monday April 19 at GreenSpaces with Echoing Green and NYWSE. And stay tuned for a panel of tech company founders who have successfully raised venture funding, including Heidi Messer (LinkShare, WorldEvolved) Stephanie Sarka (goto.com, new stealth startup), Jen Bekman (20×200) and Jenny Fleiss (Rent the Runway) on May 27 with GIT and Astia hosted at Polaris VenturesDogpatch Labs in NYC.

This is not about singling out women just because they are women, but because they are building businesses that are going to make a significant impact on our lives in the future (while generating a nice return for their investors along the way….)

Interview on Fox Business News

•January 21, 2010 • 52 Comments

Last month I sat down with Fox Business News to provide advice to entrepreneurs looking for venture funding. There is visibly more interest in tech entrepreneurship in NYC, which is encouraging to see.
This is a clip of the video.

An accompanying written Q&A with several VCs discussing the current state of the VC market.

 
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