How to engage Silicon Valley in global development

By Catherine Cheney 03 January 2017

A view of buildings in Silicon Valley. Photo by: Christopher Yardin / CC BY-NC

Silicon Valley representatives of U.S. government agencies have been meeting regularly since a daylong retreat at the home of Todd Park, the former U.S. chief technology officer.

“Even though we have vastly different portfolios, people in Silicon Valley see us all as ‘the government,’ so we need to have some level of coordination amongst ourselves,” Zvika Krieger, the State Department representative to Silicon Valley, told Devex.

Last month, President-elect Donald Trump gathered tech leaders for an intimate summit in New York City, but it remains to be seen what his presidency will mean for U.S. government engagement with Silicon Valley, which has been a priority for U.S. President Barack Obama.

In the meantime, beyond the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, both of which have invested in Silicon Valley engagement, other nongovernmental organizations working on international development, global health, and humanitarian response are increasingly sending representatives to the West Coast.

Devex recently caught up with a number of Silicon Valley liaisons to gather advice for organizations looking to direct the attention of leaders in this tech and innovation hub toward global problems that could benefit from their dollars and ideas.

Zvika Krieger talks with Devex about the need to be more strategic in who you engage and how you engage.

1. Consider ways to engage.

There are a few different models to build a bridge to Silicon Valley, from launching an entire local office, as the Department of Defense has done, to sending representatives on frequent trips, the strategy favored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“You have to think out of the box and in terms of what is scalable, and if it is scalable, you really have to have a big play in mind,” said Christian Merz, senior program officer for digital solutions in the agricultural development program at the Gates Foundation.

Based in Seattle, he travels to San Francisco often. As he explores applications of information and communications technologies for smallholder farmers in rural areas, he said he has prioritized opportunities that serve the business interests of companies.

Silicon Valley operates on informal relationships, and basing people in the Bay Area helps U.S. governmental agencies, or nongovernmental organizations, coordinate their priorities and approaches, said Eric Daimler, White House Presidential Innovation Fellow at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

"The people not acquainted with technology, who are not in this space, will think the easy things are hard and the hard things are easy,” said Daimler, who focuses mainly on artificial intelligence and robotics. “They will get those backwards or mix those up.”

More than a dozen U.S. government agencies have opened Silicon Valley offices, and each of them are taking different approaches, learning from each other along the way. The DoD has gone through a reboot of Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, after it failed to gain traction the first time around. Meanwhile, other agencies are sending a single representative to build relationships with the technology and innovation sector, a move some celebrate and others criticize.

“Putting one person there and thinking that is going to solve the problem is different from deciding you’re going to live there, put a stake in the ground, and build an operation,” said Maura O’Neill, the former chief innovation officer at USAID, who was a proponent of basing USAID’s Global Development Lab in the Bay Area rather than in Washington, D.C.

2. Build a rolodex.

The 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit convened entrepreneurs from around the world, founders and investors from Silicon Valley, and U.S. government representatives, including Obama himself.

Danielle Cass, the tech sector liaison for USAID’s Global Development Lab, was one of the key organizers of the event, which focused on how to support entrepreneurs to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges, no matter where they are based.

"My first year, I put 5,000 miles on my car and had five meetings a day, and that's how I got that great rolodex of contacts out here to engage the tech sector in global development,” Cass told Devex.

Getting the big names such as Uber founder Travis Kalanick, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman on the stage, and mobilizing $315 million in capital from the private sector to support emerging market entrepreneurship, was a return on investment in relationship building, she said.

Cass is mostly focused on Silicon Valley engagement in support of Power Africa’s Beyond the Grid effort, Feed the Future, and global entrepreneurship. For example, she’s leading USAID’s partnership with the venture capital fund and accelerator 500 Startups for its upcoming Geeks on a Plane tour to Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. Since building up her rolodex, Cass is now opening it up, offering introductions when they makes sense to the growing number of liaisons tasked with building global development partnerships in Silicon Valley.

Danielle Cass, tech sector liaison for the Global Development Lab at USAID, shares her advice for engaging with Silicon Valley.

3. Define your challenge and value add.

“People here don’t want to build the next burrito delivery app,” Krieger told Devex.

He used this line, his favorite way to describe how members of the technology and innovation want to take on more complex problems than those that have defined their day jobs, in a recent meeting at the Google campus in Mountain View. It turns out Project Wing, a unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., had just launched a partnership with Chipotle Mexican Grill, meaning that burritos are in fact the focus of the most extensive U.S. test yet of routine drone delivery of products. But Alphabet Inc. is also behind technologies that could be game changers for global development, which is why the State Department partnered with X, its research and development facility, for its Clean Energy Access Tech Challenge at the University of California, Berkeley in September.

“People here don’t like to just chat,” Krieger continued. “They don’t like to just sit back and pontificate on global trends.”

His three main missions in Silicon Valley are to explore how emerging technology will impact foreign policy issues, to involve the technology and innovation sector in responses to global challenges, and to ensure that visitors schedule meetings that matter, make clear asks, and follow up. At Hacking for Diplomacy, a course he teaches at Stanford University, he explains to students that the State Department can offer credibility to startups aiming to distinguish themselves, workforce engagement to organizations competing for talent, and new users to companies trying to get their products to market.

U.S. government agencies and nongovernmental organizations alike need to consider what value they can add and define what their needs are, said Melissa Ho, managing director of the Silicon Valley office at the Department of Homeland Security.

“Being more transparent and open about challenges we face has been extremely valuable to the startup community because they don’t know how to help us if they don’t understand that,” she said. “They said, ‘Talk to us in terms of problem sets and use cases.’”

Often, when people in Silicon Valley hear the word development, what comes to mind is software development, or perhaps fundraising, but not global poverty. What is critical is to translate in terms that appeal. When Silicon Valley liaisons discuss the Sustainable Development Goals, they find their audience tends to view issues like renewable energy or financial inclusion not as a foreign aid problem, but as an investment opportunity.

4. Identify ways to solve problems in partnership.

When walking into meetings with technology companies such as Planet Labs or venture capital firms such as Andreessen Horowitz, Cass always frames the conversation as: “This is the problem. You guys are experts at this. How can we work together to solve for this?”

By exploring these opportunities with an open mind, Silicon Valley liaisons can consider technology solutions that might not seem to be suited for the population they aim to serve. Then comes the hard work of figuring out how to adapt and customize those solutions so they are affordable, appropriate, and accessible in developing country contexts. To what extent Silicon Valley companies will work as partners in that process depends on factors like whether they view the project as corporate social responsibility or core to business.

“Investors see the writing on the wall,” Cass said, mentioning mobile phone penetration among other global forces directing the attention of Silicon Valley to emerging markets. “What this means for the traditional global development community out here is there is more opportunity than ever to hook into that drive both from an investment point of view and from a technology point of view.”

The most effective meetings are those where the objective is clear, Cass said. She emphasized the need to be specific in your request, make sure the meeting does not meander, and follow through. In other words, get ready to move quickly from conversation to action.

“The U.S. government and the global development community can move really slow,” Cass said. “But people here have [attention deficit disorder] and if you take too long they'll move on to the next thing.”

Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup,” talks with Devex about successful and unsuccessful models of Silicon Valley outposts.

5. Go beyond innovation tourism.

Before Krieger moved to San Francisco, there was a complete lack of coordination between State Department bureaus or U.S. embassies requesting meetings with Facebook or Google or Apple, he said.

“To be honest, a lot of them have no idea why they’re coming out here,” he told Devex. “They just know something is happening out here and they want to tap into it but they don’t know why.”

Individuals looking to engage with Silicon Valley should first determine which problems they are trying to solve, then which companies might be the best matches given their goals, rather than reaching out to the big name companies simply because they are the most known, Krieger said.

Organizations would benefit to go beyond “innovation tourism,” with a packed itinerary of tours and meetings that do not amount to any real outcomes, said Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup.”

He pointed to Park, the former U.S. CTO and a tech advisor for the White House, as an example of what works in Silicon Valley engagement. Others who spoke with Devex also nodded to Park as someone who helped set Cass, Krieger, and others up for success.

“Most people do not have the level of commitment to do the preparatory work to set up their innovation outposts and labs to succeed, in which case they’re a total waste of time,” Ries said.

Cass came into her role with little experience in the global development sector, but she was known as a tremendous networker. Her experience working as a journalist then later in technology and public policy gave her a unique combination of skills and contacts to connect people and ideas, said Aman Bhandari, who was a senior advisor to Park, and recommended Cass for the USAID tech sector liaison role. Anyone in her role must be able to tell a story and build a community in order to tackle the goal they are pursuing, in this case the mission of USAID, he said.

“We’re still in the infancy of what technology can do vis a vis government and social impact,” Bhandari said.

Silicon Valley liaisons are not only meeting with one another, but also sharing what they are learning, with each of them agreeing that the involvement of the technology and innovation sector in sustainable global development is needed now more than ever.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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