Living in a Silicon Valley hacker house made me examine startup culture

Off the Beat

Photo of staff Amrita Bhasin

Related Posts

“How ethical or moral do you want to be?” This is a question that I was asked more than once during my summer living in a hacker house while discussing topics ranging from the most lucrative monetization plan for startups to data harvesting. Each time I was asked this question, my initial reaction was disgust; I felt taken aback that such a question could be asked so casually, carelessly and so often. However, this was only the first of a number of questions that made me think deeper about startup culture.

Having lived in Silicon Valley my entire life, I was intrigued by the idea of startups and startup communities from a young age. I had been working on launching a financial tech startup called Sotira that I founded in early 2021 along with a few other UC Berkeley students. When the opportunity to join an all-women’s hacker house in San Francisco presented itself to me, I jumped at the opportunity to join and moved into a 14-bedroom house in Nob Hill, San Francisco.

Being around founders, hackers, creators and builders all the time gave me access to a network of people to bounce ideas, prototypes and landing page designs off of. 

Many of the college-aged founders I met didn’t even attend college; they moved to San Francisco right after high school graduation. Silicon Valley to them was Los Angeles to influencers — the city where it’s possible to achieve the dream of founding a billion-dollar startup and being the face of Forbes 30 under 30. 

For better or worse, I found that the culture of hacker houses in Silicon Valley was very much “work hard, play hard.” Founders would grind in WeWork getting the last line of code written until ungodly hours on weekdays and would let loose at 200-people mansion pool parties on the weekends. 

Calling these parties, however, would be generous; in reality, they were networking events. As a young and new founder, I was never sure who I would meet at a party and in what way that person could change my life. There was something iconic about demoing the newest version of my prototype to a fellow founder while drinking cocktails or elevator pitching my startup’s mission and exchanging slide decks with a Sand Hill venture capitalist I met at a 3 a.m. rooftop party. 

All it would take was meeting one well-connected person who could introduce me to a Fortune 500 vice president, a prominent angel investor or a top artificial intelligence researcher. As a result, I often felt pressure to network at social events instead of making genuine connections. 

And when I looked closer at our little Silicon Valley bubble, I realized friendship wasn’t the only promise that was a shallow front, it became obvious missions of “making the world a better place” were as well. I was surprised by the number of founders I met who were merely chasing money. I encountered founders who left big tech with the aspiration of building and working toward something more meaningful, yet these founders were selling their startup’s software back to the corporations they had left. 

Improving workflow management for bankers is a startup idea that can make its founder a lot of money. But, it’s not solving an issue like climate change or income inequality, and it’s not helping the average person. Being surrounded by people whose dreams and goals were based solely on monetary success made me question why this was the overwhelming culture. How come, instead, people don’t feel a moral drive to build companies that solve big social problems, rather than rebuilding an internal dashboard for a large enterprise that only a small number of highly paid employees will benefit from using? I was surrounded by some of the most intelligent people I had ever known who I felt had the capacity to solve society’s most difficult problems, yet these people were dedicating their time and energy toward solving niche issues that will never impact the average person. 

My startup aims to help nonstandard workers and independent contractors become more financially savvy and better manage their finances. And while I hope to not only help some people but create greater systematic change, when I’m working inside a bubble that so blatantly brushes off any moral responsibility in favor of gaining a competitive edge, it makes me doubt whether I’ll be able to succeed without sacrificing even an ounce of my integrity. 

I’ve grown up and am trying to succeed in a world where I’m expected to continually prove my value, not only as a leader, but also as a person capable of making change. So the fact that I can’t simply go in and fix the bug in Silicon Valley’s code that prioritizes getting rich over all else has been, and I foresee will continue to be, one of the biggest frustrations I’ll face as a startup founder.

Off the Beat columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists.