I am back in the Bay Area today to see clients (and to celebrate my youngest daughter’s 22nd birthday with our annual game of hoops). In recent weeks, there has been an undercurrent of stories that contend that Silicon Valley has become the new Wall Street. Among the allegations and high-profile incidents are mistreatment of female employees, excessive and arrogant behavior by senior executives, unimaginable wealth, the fake news phenomenon, WikiLeaks’ most recent data dump, and inattentiveness to local community issues of housing and transportation. The precipitating events were largely related to Uber, including the now-famous blog post on Medium by a senior female engineer, the video of CEO Travis Kalanick in a heated discussion with an Uber driver, and the gigantic Snap IPO. But the inclination to label an entire sector “evil” based largely on the problems of one company is too easy and unfair.
I was on “Charlie Rose” last week with Max Chafkin, the Bloomberg Businessweek reporter who uncovered the Uber video; Bill Cohan, a Vanity Fair contributor and a long-time chronicler of Wall Street; and host Gillian Tett, U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. Tett started the discussion with the assertion that the excesses of Wall Street might be spreading to the technology industry. Cohan and Chafkin largely agreed with the assertion.
Here is why I disagree:
1. People go to work at Wall Street firms to make a lot of money. They may not love what they are doing but the punishing hours and travel are incredibly well-compensated. By contrast, the engineers at technology firms do believe that they can change how we all live. They like the money but they have a more messianic approach to life, in which everything is possible.
2. The best tech companies are led by founders with entrepreneurial zeal and strong egos. They consistently deliver what we want and what we need, at prices that decrease over time. The Wall Street firm is a long-standing institution with a more established hierarchy.
3. The tech company needs to win in the war for talent. This means much greater focus on the employee, not simply as cog in the machine, but vital member of a programming team in a race against time and competitors. Wall Street is up-or-out, dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest.
4. Many of the leaders of tech companies are non-American, while Wall Street firms are universally British or American. There is a more universal Valley culture, less tied to national identity.
5. Tech firms retain strong connections to local universities, employing students while in school and recruiting the best of them as permanent employees. This allows executives such as Andrew Ng of Baidu to keep one foot in academia (Stanford in his case), which brings openness to ideas and a more tolerant culture.
6. Tech CEOs have been willing to speak out on issues of the day, from immigration to LGBT to privacy and security. The finance CEOs have been remarkably silent, especially since the Great Recession and the subsequent increase in government regulation.
7. There have been remarkable commitments to philanthropy by Bill Gates, Marc Benioff, Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar, and Laurene Powell Jobs. In fact, they have changed the nature of philanthropy through activist investing in good causes.
Tech is the most trusted segment of industry according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. But there is much still to be done, and tech should learn from the missteps of the financial industry. Tech is currently operating from a position of strength but that, like anything, can be fleeting. The behavior of a few of the sector’s top executives is unacceptable, and its involvement in public policy is often in response to crisis instead of a planned approach that considers the broader needs of stakeholders.
The tech industry should make bold commitments to address pressing societal issues. Today on International Women’s Day we’re mindful that the tech sector needs to put a stronger focus on the recruitment, retention and promotion of women, who are under-represented in the industry. And the impending storm that the impact of automation will bring should be addressed by a pledge to re-educate and redeploy displaced employees into new positions.
We need the tech sector to succeed in its evolution. It has the greatest chance to navigate the populist call for change by proving that business can make money for shareholders while improving society.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.