How to recreate Silicon Valley: Role Models

In recent history, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been symbolized by Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, but those gentlemen were attracted to entrepreneurial pursuits in the Valley because of the success of those who proceeded them.

Less than 100 years ago, the Santa Clara Valley, the area that was to become the entrepreneurial powerhouse called Silicon Valley, was best known for its abundance of fruit orchards.

When railroad magnate, robber baron and entrepreneur Sen. Leland Stanford decided to build a university for all of California’s children, he insisted that the students learn practical and useful knowledge. From the beginning, the attitude has always been to transfer knowledge from the classroom into the real world.

This culture of practical application organically spread beyond Stanford University classrooms and into the Valley.

Federal Telegraph was the first successful high tech company in the Valley. Financed by Stanford professors in 1908, the company helped to create long distance radio communication.

The example of successful entrepreneurs continued with Hewlett and Packard, Varian Associates and the founding of Fairchild Semiconductor in 1958. Hundreds of semiconductor startups in the Valley came directly out of Fairchild Semiconductor. These startups were often called Fairchildren. Alumni startups of Fairchild include Intel, National Semiconductor and AMD.

One of the unique cultural aspects of Silicon Valley is the attitude of its residents. Neighbors often discuss investing in startups. New technologies and ideas are often embraced. Crazy ideas are welcome.

The importance of entrepreneurial role models cannot be understated. Of the hundreds of Silicon Valley wannabes in the world, very few role models have emerged. That is a key reason why entrepreneurs like Elon Musk (South Africa), Marc Andreesen (Chicago) and Mark Zuckerberg (Boston) were attracted to developing their businesses in Silicon Valley.

“There are so many role models of people starting companies that it begins to get the air of normalcy,” said Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, on his decision to start his own company. Cook grew up in Southern California and cut his teeth in the business world in Cincinnati and Boston. “I don’t remember people starting businesses very much in Cincinnati, and I certainly don’t in Boston.”

One of Silicon Valley’s greatest entrepreneurs, the late Steve Jobs, told us in 1994: “Hewlett-Packard was the genesis of not just the concept of starting your own company, it was the primary role model in the Valley.

“The entrepreneurial risk culture has a lot to do with role models, starting off with Hewlett and Packard, and models of engineers that started companies, models of marketing people that started companies.“

Role models provide entrepreneurs with a sense of security. Even if it’s a very fragile sense of security, there’s always comfort in knowing that someone else has paved the way before you.
Next Month: A Culture That Forgives Failure. This is the first in a series of columns taking an in-depth look at what made Silicon Valley what it is today.

John McLaughlin is founder and president of the Silicon Valley Historical Association.