5 Learnings From My First 6 Months in The Valley

This week, I hit my sixth month in the Valley. In October last year, we packed up our lives into suitcases, took our 5-month old on a 20 hour plane ride, and landed at Stanford University, where we both started new gigs: my husband, a PhD in statistics at Stanford, and I, setting up the Smart Nation and Govtech office in the U.S., working on partnerships, strategy & research, engagement & communications of Singapore’s tech agenda.

It’s been exciting but exhausting to be a start-up parent, start-up at work, and start-up socially, leaving all the comforts of knowing and being known back in Singapore. This is a more personal post, but I wanted to share five things I’ve learned about starting life in the Valley, since people often ask. I don’t think I’ve got it right all the time, but I thought I’d pen down some thoughts my six-month checkpoint, and see how it evolves over time.

Regardless of the reason that brings you to the Valley, I hope you find this useful.

  1. Be Generous

When I arrived in the Valley, I hardly knew anyone, save for a few college friends (most of them stayed on the East Coast). I was nervous about building up a network for my job. Again and again, I was surprised by the generosity of people I met. I told them about my objectives, and they generously made introductions and shared their insights.

Generosity is the ethos of the Valley. How is this different from other places I’ve lived in? I won’t deny that the natural human instinct is to ask “if I help this person, what’s in it for me?”. Some people are risk averse when it comes to this question, not helping unless they are sure they will get something out of it. In the Valley, people are more willing to take a risk that they will gain nothing in the short-term from that specific interaction, but that their generosity will come around one day.

Always pay forward generosity. As I go about my day, I keep in mind the people I’ve met and the professional and personal interests they’ve shared. I keep a look out not just for my own interests, but theirs as well. Nothing makes me happier than to help people to connect: to see minds meet, interests aligned, new opportunities explored. I’ve been lucky to facilitate many of these in the past six months, both within the Valley, and across the U.S. and Asia. I’ve experienced “what goes around comes around” first-hand.

2. Be Clear and Concrete About What You Bring 

While generosity is pervasive, I urge people not to take this for granted. Silicon Valley is a prime destination for “innovation tourism”. I have had many people approach me to link them up for “learning trips”. In general, people in the Silicon Valley are game to meet new people and share what they know. But people are also very busy. When I make an introduction, I like to be sure that the person on both ends will benefit – whether it is a new insight, a new partnership or investment opportunity, or access to new networks.

Hence, my second learning is to be very concrete about what you bring to the table when you reach out to someone. It need not be a fanciful effort. Share about the idea you are exploring professionally, or personally. Share about your (our your organisation’s) experience, and how it might align with the person’s interests. If you have details about collaborations that the conversation could result in, share that as well. Be upfront about the opportunities and uncertainties.

3. Find your Voice

The third thing I learned was the importance of finding your voice. People in the Valley are often genuinely interested in you as a person – beyond your professional capacity. What was your journey? Why do you do what you do? I boil it down to a natural curiosity; a bent towards learning from others’ experiences.

I’m not one to naturally write, or get in front of an audience. But I started writing (www.techandpublicgood.com) and speaking at conferences, inspired by the many conversations I had with people who asked me deeper questions, after we had finished talking about work. Some pointed out that my eyes lit up when I talked about how technology could be used for public good, and how my experiences working on education, poverty and housing issues shaped my views. When I communicate on public platforms, none of it feels forced because these are issues that resonate with me.

 Finding your voice has a snowball effect for building relationships. As I wrote and spoke, people with common interests contacted me from around world – all over the U.S., Australia, China, Singapore, the UK, Rwanda, Korea, Germany. My blog has had over 10,000 readers over a few months, which surprised me because I the content is not exactly “light”. People who both agreed and disagreed with my views reached out to debate. One of my favourite things: having start-up founders share their passion for working on social issues (such as elderly caregiving, pre-school, workforce development), and, based on my experience in these areas – being able to give good advice on the challenges and opportunities.

By finding my voice, I’ve also been able to play the role of a bridge, facilitating conversations and link-ups between governments, civil society and tech founders on issues at the intersection of tech and public good. It drives contacts towards my work as well.

4. Find Time to Think and Invest Deeply 

My husband recently commented that being back in school for his PhD has been far more mentally tiring than working. Here’s what we concluded: when we work, we exercise many different capabilities, some of which require less intellectual effort. Especially when starting up, there are a million things to do, people to meet, process kinks to iron out. It’s easy to be swept away by the operations.

To make space for deep thinking, I’ve identified several areas where I have no ready answers, but which I think would be super impactful for Singapore if we get right. Every week, I set aside a few hours to work on these issues. I’ve developed hypotheses, and have a small circle of people I meet regularly to exchange ideas with. One such area is the policy, technology and data needed to tackle job displacement at scale.

Setting aside time for these things takes a little faith because you aren’t entirely sure how it will contribute to the bottom-line, or what is expected of you. But I’ve applied this principle in every job since I started my career, and I can assure you it does. In my first job, I felt strongly about equalising opportunities in pre-school education, and worked on a small side project reviewing all academic literature on the outcomes of preschool education. Because it was the right time, it became one of the key impetus for major preschool reforms, which I had the chance to work on subsequently. 

5. Keep Your Perspective 

Finally, find ways to keep a broader perspective of the world. One of my best friends from college left the Valley shortly before I arrived. He expressed relief to be moving out of a place that was so “uniformed” – all about tech, largely upwardly-mobile and highly-educated. Another recently told me she plans to move permanently to Rwanda, because you can’t avoid the realities of human suffering the same way you can in a developed country – even more so the Silicon Valley.

Especially with the 2016 Presidential Election behind us, we all realise we live in a bubble. Even after moments of self-reflection, it’s tough to keep a broader perspective: My news and social media feeds, meetings and calls are overwhelmingly tech-related.

In the next quarter, our family wants to get more involved in community service (though admittedly, with a one-year old, it’s harder to get out!). In the mean time, one of the things I do is to make sure I read a book in a completely different field every few weeks. My two favourites this year: “Hillbilly Elegy” – a compelling narrative on the social issues facing middle America – and  “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”, which helped me reflect on geopolitics, race, and foreign policy.

Back at You 

As I write this, I’ve realised that these need not apply just to starting life in the Valley. They could be applied to starting out in any new place, or even to building a new network in your existing home. Many of you have experiences that far exceed mine. Would love to hear your thoughts!

Also, I am back in Singapore for the month of May and would be happy to catch any of you there.

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Having a child helps keep better track of time. In the six months we’ve been here, our baby has grown into a toddler who walks everywhere, and has a mind of her own. It reminds us of the need to stop, reflect and savour each moment we have. 
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