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Book review: Valley Of The Gods— A Silicon Valley Story

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-04-2017 Sonya Dutta Choudhury

In 2010, billionaire investor Peter Thiel announced that he would award fellowships of $100,000 (around Rs65 lakh now) “to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom”. Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and a graduate from the US’ Stanford University, invited applications from high-school students for what he originally called his “20 under 20” programme.

In Valley Of The Gods—A Silicon Valley Story, author Alexandra Wolfe, journalist with The Wall Street Journal and daughter of novelist Tom Wolfe, describes a year in the life of the first batch of Thiel fellows. Wolfe focuses on two in particular—John Burnham, “with bright blue eyes, blond hair, and a seemingly permanent smirk, who wants to mine asteroids”, and Laura Deming, “a striking seventeen-year-old half-Asian wunderkind, (who) looked like a school girl gone bad” and wanted to create her own private equity firm to fund anti-ageing breakthroughs.

“The first year’s fellows ended up being part of my window into Silicon Valley’s elite and underbelly,” says Wolfe early on in the book, which is crammed with details of the fads and fashions of Silicon Valley personalities, like the investors, the entrepreneurs, their wives and girlfriends.

On the Silicon Valley women, Wolfe is expansive. She writes: “Instead of socialites, Silicon Valley has technolites. Far from chairing the charity ball, the modus operandi of the upwardly mobile female is to match her hobby with online payments system PayPal, sell jewellery or embroidered dog beds or pastel beds online, launch a website, and then anoint herself CEO”.

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen (wife of investor Marc Andreessen), philanthrophy professor and head of a charitable foundation, is one such colourful character. Others include Ellen Pao, once partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg.

She describes trending female fashions—“the less cutesy, feminine, and frilly you could be as a Silicon Valley woman, the better. Of course, all women like to feel attractive, which you are allowed to do, as long as it is mostly through toning, rather than an expensive dress. Skirts are ok as long as they have pockets, similar to jeans, or somehow resemble construction-type attire, showing one’s toughness.”

Burnham and Deming, the two main protagonists in the book, end up rather lost in this landscape. Burnham abandons his asteroid mining project and half-heartedly develops a personal server platform before fleeing back to East Coast colleges to study philosophy, religion and math. Deming persists with her longevity project but ends up spending more time on the techconference speaker circuit than in working on significant breakthroughs. Reading their stories, the Thiel fellowship feels like a failed experiment. Wolfe writes well but the story drifts. The fellows meander through chapters like “Aspergers Chic” and “Hippy Dippy Coding Communes”, as does the book itself, in a hotchpotch of directionless detail. 

Valley Of The Gods is not an inspiring account of an entrepreneurial life story like Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, founder of online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos, or an expose biography of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in The Everything Store. Nor is it like the Silicon Valley TV series, which works brilliantly in its caricatures of Silicon Valley eccentricities. It falls instead into no-man’s land, with some interesting glimpses into the high life of the Silicon Valley.

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