Global Leadership Blog

Unique Aspects to the Culture of Silicon Valley

A friend called me the other day to ask for my input to her book. She wanted to know what I’ve felt, experienced and observed about the culture of Silicon Valley since my arrival and set up of my business in cross cultural consulting here in 2008. It was an interesting question because I couldn’t exactly put my finger on how to describe it until I took some time to think about her question.

Silicon Valley is a highly complex place, reflected in its Diversity of thought, people, and products. There have been studies and several thought leaders say Silicon Valley’s innovation comes from a melding of cultures, perspectives, thoughts and ideas. I find the complexity breeds an interesting set of contradictions (or seeming contradictions), which actually allow Silicon Valley to thrive as the multi-cultural, multi-lingual, brain-power-packed, capital of innovation it is today. The following is my humble opinion based on perceptions up to this point about the culture of Silicon Valley:

1) The Valley applauds entrepreneurs who didn’t take the traditional route (i.e. go to school, graduate, go to college, graduate, get a job and work at building your career methodically). But instead considers its heroes those who built themselves up from nothing to Billionaire-status with a new cutting-edge idea or technological advancement.

On the other hand, there is tremendous elitism around education. If you didn’t go to Stanford (or possibly Harvard) you may have a nose crinkle in your direction. It’s even important what school your kids go to, if you say they go to one school you’ll get an, “Oh” which almost sounds like an, “Ewww”. If they go to another, your speaking partner relaxes and sighs a little thinking, “Thank God you’re one of us.” Formal education is highly valued here in Silicon Valley and there is a culture of dropping one’s educational credentials into the conversation. In my opinion, they should be proud of their degrees from Stanford or other good schools. It takes hard work and a lot of money to go to attend! (Unless of course you’re the child of one of those self-made Billionaire’s, then it might be a little easier for you.) In any case, drop-out entrepreneurs and highly more formally educated folks make up Silicon Valley in an interesting cultural mix.

2) Another trait, or I might as well say it now – contradiction – in Silicon Valley is that’s it’s extremely culturally diverse. It’s a micro-globe here, you’ll regularly hear other languages on the street, in shops, at work. You’ll see every kind of culture, race, ethnicity, and can experience food, dance, events from every culture in the world. But, as much as its in your face here (in a positive way, I believe) you may never actually interact or socialize with someone from another cultural group outside your own. This is still incredulous to me, if I don’t seek it out, I won’t actually get to know someone with a Chinese, Indian, German, or Israeli background. Considering where we live, the diverse make-up of our neighborhood isn’t that high. Could it be that Silicon Valley is culturally diverse, yet highly segregated?

On the one-hand the mindset is so locally focused on Silicon Valley culture, yet most people are trying to do some form of global business. In my opinion, Global Mindset hasn’t really caught up with the operational and tactical pressures of Silicon Valley based business today. Because we operate globally, we assume we must think globally. If you listen to conversations and watch how things work here, its like nowhere else in the world, but its also not necessarily as progressive as one might think. Are we really able to style-switch thoughtfully or communicate across cultures well enough to meet the needs in global business today if we can’t even socialize with our neighbors and co-workers from other cultural backgrounds?

3) Relationship is the way it works in Silicon Valley. Getting to know someone personally, walking the dish, socializing, and “liking” them makes all the difference in business interaction, too. The mutual “use”, e.g. “I’ll use you and you can use me and that’s an obvious mutual good deal for both of us”, that exists on the East Coast, especially in New York City doesn’t play out here the same way in the culture of the SV. Here we want to get to know someone, trust them, like them and then do business or strike a deal.

Ironically it feels more laid back and friendly in Silicon Valley than in other places in the world, but work-life balance is hard to come by and most people are working “crazy hours”. The undercurrent is moving quickly, people are stressed to the max trying to compete with the next best innovation out on the market. It’s a crash or soar culture in a Valley-based company. And again I marvel at the seeming contradiction of taking the time to develop a relationship with someone vs. insane, competitive work-culture.

Anyhow, those are my two cents on the contradictions, innovation, and the culture of Silicon Valley. What do you think? Email me your thoughts!
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Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication. More About Melissa Lamson