The Status Quo Culture at SF Disrupt 2012

Despite its focus on disrupting the status quo, in many ways Disrupt was a reflection of the current culture rather than a message from the avant-garde. For example, the winning startup is solving the First World Problem of being too busy to take your car to a mechanic. However, if you watched carefully there were glimmers of hope from a parallel culture, one building solutions that will truly improve the world.

Things to be happy about

Everyone is passionate about their ideas and many of them are quite compelling, even if few are truly innovative or original. If you spend too much time in the jaded corporate world, you can easily forget that people just love to make stuff.

I was also very pleased to see the international pavilions with representatives from the Global South, including Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Korea. When startups are coming from countries who excel at soccer, you know things are changing for the better. Many were just the local counterparts for get-rich-quick Americans, but many were solving real problems like access to education and moving towards sustainable energy.

These more uncommon ideas were the “promising signs” I alluded to earlier. I won’t get into too much detail here about the individual companies since I wrote a separate post for that.  I hope to see even more of these socially beneficially ideas next year and, more importantly, see investors voting with their dollars for them.

 

Things to not be happy about

It was not diverse by any measure. If I subtract the representatives from the international pavilions, I would guess about 70% of the booth operators were white males, 15% Asian males, 10% Indian/South Asian males, and 5% females (and that 5% includes the Mogl booth, which I’ll discuss below). I don’t remember any black booth operators and they were rare even among the attendees. If you were counting the VC suits that are really making the decisions about who gets funding, I counted about 100 white dudes in jeans and blazers, one woman, and one Indian guy in a white suit (sorry no pic).

I shouldn’t be terribly surprised because the founder of the conference’s sponsor, TechCrunch, was involved in a debate last year where he stood by his statement that Silicon Valley is a color-blind meritocracy. And before you question how a white male born in California would have enough perspective to make such a claim, just take a look at this picture of him with Chamillionaire.

While at the conference, I was reminded of a CNN documentary that followed NewMe Accelerator, a mentoring program for minority-run tech startups. I highly recommend watching it, especially for the scene where one of the black male entrepreneurs goes for a quick walk to grab a coffee after dark and the local police stop him for being suspicious. Watch the pure meritocracy at work!

One big disappointment at the conference in this regard was a booth by an organization called Code2040 which offers fellowships to Black and Latino engineers in Silicon Valley. But when I went to their website, I noticed that all the fellows so far were chosen from elite universities. Not quite the structural challengers I was hoping for, but hey, I guess it’s a start.

As far as numbers go, to elaborate on the female turnout, I was particularly interested in Mogl’s sake bar booth. In a strange reversal from the other booths, almost all the operators were women. Based on their about page, they clearly used every female employee they had and then some. That might be okay but since they were essentially playing the part of cocktail waitresses, it definitely was not a stereotype-busting display for the most visible group of women on the conference floor. And if you watch carefully on the slideshow on their about page, you find this little gem with the caption: “Our MoHottee’s are… well, hott!”

*sigh*

 And what about me?

What effect did being briefly immersed in this culture have on me? If I had to summarize how I consistently felt in one word, it would be repulsination (repulsion + fascination).

I personally found interacting with so many enthusiastic people vying for attention to be a bit overwhelming. As is the case in politics, when loudness is required to be heard, the best ideas do not necessarily get heard (see Chomsky on concision). One of the judges even admitted that Prior Knowledge, a predictive data engine that was one of the finalists, was inherently hard to pitch in a five minute demo. It’s far easier to get up on stage with, “Known Service X + Known App Y + This Tiny Piece I Can Explain in 30 sec = gimme monies nao.”

It was a bit hard not to come away just a bit more cynical about society, especially after seeing so many companies whose mission statements essentially amounted to “SelfIndulgent.me is a Mobilesocialcloud platform that makes inconsequential task X easier so you have more time for other inconsequential tasks!” I found myself wanting to throw my laptop in the bay and join project mayhem go live in the desert.

On the other hand, seeing the interesting ideas and the opportunities to build something truly new, I have to admit there is a contagious element to the enthusiasm. I was tempted to leave ThoughtWorks to build a startup on some of the many Great Ideas I have in my back pocket.

And not all startups were vacuous. People are trying to improve the world. While talking to some of the green companies such as Eco2Box, I was reminded that as much as I enjoy building Mingle, it’s really not helping the world out of the sticky situation it’s in at the moment and perhaps I should be looking for a real problem to solve with technology.

But then on the bus ride home I fired up Facebook to see what everyone else was doing and I forgot all about it.

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