I attended an invite-only industry networking event hosted by Clearstone Venture Partners last night in Santa Monica, one of several “behind the doors” networking events that seem to happen here in Southern California. Although it was held the same night as the Tech Coast Angels Fast Pitch event in Orange County and the Harvard Business Society’s annual Entrepreneurs Conference (which I heard went very well), it was very well attended by local high tech entrepreneurs and founders.
The importance of cultural context–how your ideas, beliefs and values are shaped by your culture and upbringing–came into sharp focus for me as I was standing talking with Rafat Ali (who is the publisher of Paidcontent.org) and Mike Jones, CEO of Userplane, when Rafat suddenly stopped mid-sentence and excitely said “Oh my gosh, look, there’s Vijay Amritraj!”
For those who don’t know who Vijay Amritraj is, he’s a very famous tennis champion from India (who played Wimbledon in the 1970′s, playing against such folks as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors). He’s better known for those outside India for his role in the James Bond movie Octopussy (at least for me, having grown up on James Bond reruns and having been in diapers when Amritraj was playing Wimbledon). Vijay was probably the most popular person at the event, with quite a crowd looking to shake his hand and meet him. I was talking twice with other entrepreneurs of Indian descent and twice–had a similar reaction as they spotted Amritraj.
Interestingly, I think the lack of “cultural context” in the Southern California area is one reason, that despite the many successful high tech companies here, the industry isn’t well known outside of industry insiders. Silicon Valley has its celebrities — think Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Vinod Khosla, Chad Hurley– who get lots of press not only in Silicon Valley but worldwide. Standing in a room anywhere in the world, you’d probably hear “look, there’s Steve Jobs!” or “Wow! there’s Sergey Brin!” However well that Southern California has done, I doubt you’d get the same response with Henri Samueli (co-founder of Broadcom, worth some $2 billion); Alfred Mann (Pacesetter/Minimed/etc. also worth around $2.2 billion); or even Chris DeWolfe or Tom Anderson at MySpace (though they might come close, since every teen in America is Tom’s “friend”). Perhaps it’s because because Hollywood has so much greater star power here that technology industry celebrities are just not famous enough to recognize; or maybe it’s because we just don’t have the egos and personalities that command the attention.