Like any other freshman, I weaved in and out of club tables on Sproul Plaza, desperate to find a community to call my own. Having no finance or business background and keen to know more, I went to the popular consulting clubs to learn more about their work, soon realizing that they more closely resembled professional companies than recreational clubs. There were consulting clubs working with Fortune 500 companies, data science clubs working with BART and Walmart, blockchain clubs trading Bitcoin. With opportunities to join such organizations, I presumed this was my gateway to all the amazing things I had read about Silicon Valley, the cutting-edge tech, the opulence, the intense culture of creativity.
Like many other kids, I gravitated toward Berkeley partly because of the job opportunities near Silicon Valley. In my mind, I had painted the school as the glittering cradle of innovation, wealth and technology. It seemed like the home of budding tech investors, computer scientists and the most brilliant people on this planet, who would occasionally take rides in their Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Once I arrived in Berkeley, it didn’t take me too much time to notice the inextricable connection between the campus clubs and the Silicon Valley.
From freshmen trying to start crowdfunded microfinance platforms to Kiwi Bots scurrying around campus to deliver food, the entrepreneurial mindset was obviously widespread. I even saw it where some students were trying to construct business models that would allow them to charge others to do their laundry for them. The notion of finding solutions and turning them into working businesses was omnipresent, and I was thrilled to be among such people.
But I had just skimmed the surface of business possibilities. I wanted to dig deeper into them. I wanted to know whether this problem-solving culture truly existed in Silicon Valley or if it was merely an idealistic mirage. With this question in the back of my mind, I met one of my father’s college friends, who now works as the technology program manager at Applied Materials, for dinner. After excitedly talking about my experience in school and expectations for college, the conversation turned to his work. I couldn’t resist the urge to ask him about the veracity of everybody making millions through stock options in the Bay Area. He told me that that while it used to be more common for companies to pay their employees in stock options in the ‘90s, that isn’t necessarily the case anymore. This new information was the first blotch on the glorious picture of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area I had in mind.
The next day, our last day before move-in, my parents and I wanted to spend time together in San Francisco, roaming around the pier, eating shrimps at Alioto’s while watching breadmaking at Bistro Boudin under the beautiful Bay Area sunset. We called an Uber, expecting a mundane and rather ordinary ride. With each bend in the road, our conversations with our driver took a new turn, meandering from debates on British colonial history to the politics of our home countries. Eventually, these tangential stories converged on our driver’s past. We learned that after graduating from college with an engineering degree, our driver worked briefly before joining the team of a multimillion-dollar startup. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. Driving around San Francisco as an Uber driver was now his mainstay.
I got out of the car and said bye to the driver listlessly, feeling a knot in my gut. Although I had known every startup didn’t transform into a booming business, in my idealistic mind, the success rate was much higher. My limited knowledge led me to subconsciously believe that starting a business was a sure shot to prosperity.
As attractive and shiny as Silicon Valley appears to aspiring youths like us, it is an immensely competitive environment. The success stories we have grown up reading about are representative of only a handful of startups, like a sea of thousands of oysters where only a few actually possess pearls. About 3 percent of companies in the valley end up getting funding. The unicorns we read about in the news are the top 1 percent of that 3 percent, which is a miniscule proportion. Making it big is tough, but not impossible.
As difficult as it seems, I feel that success or failure doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the idea of making it big in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area is the stuff of dreams. What matters is that the spirit of entrepreneurship has influenced numerous young, curious minds to find solutions to some of the most challenging problems around us, like water shortages, health care and homelessness. It doesn’t matter if the vision of coming to Silicon Valley for your big break is generally unrealistic. What matters is that this dream provides an incentive for all of us to work together, share ideas and devise solutions.
I am truly glad I’m in a community of innovators and people with an unwavering passion to make the world a better place.
Abhishek writes the Friday blog on the financial and economic aspects of being an international student. Contact him at [email protected] .