Silicon Valley. There are few names and phrases that can fire up the imagination quite like Silicon Valley, imaginations that flirt cautiously between the illusion of what we think Silicon Valley is and its reality. A quarter of a century after the first dot-com boom, San Francisco’s tech industry has become synonymous with innovation, so much so that you could argue that the Valley has taken a tangible location such as San Francisco and turned it into an intangible idea. Last month I was humbled enough to win the opportunity to step into this idea, a rare opportunity to align the fantasy of Silicon Valley and the reality.
Silicon Valley has been a talking point for years so you might wonder- why the focus on it now? And what is my personal fascination with the place? Well, let me introduce myself, I am Beni Ngwamah the Co-founder and CEO of WEKA. An early stage fintech leveraging technology to combat poverty and financial exclusion in Africa. I was born and raised in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, also known as “Kin la Belle” (Beautiful Kinshasa) by the locals.
The nickname is an homage to its dwellers; millions of men, women and children that have turned a city characterised by its economic scarcity, into a ground of constant creativity. This environment is what inspired my first steps into entrepreneurship. As a child, I designed and manufactured handmade toy cars from strips of copper wire, using tin cans for wheels and traded these cars in local street markets. Innovation can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
Championing the message that innovation isn’t limited to a particular demographic are organisations such as Foundervine and Colorintech. They are doing incredible work to highlight the potential that exists in underrepresented demographics in tech . People like me. The issue at hand is a pervasive one, for example in the United States men hold 76% of technical jobs, and 95% of the tech workforce is white. The work of the Diversity and Inclusion teams I came across during my visits to the companies in the Valley was encouraging. In particular I was drawn to the phrase “Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Sounds almost poetic right? Some may say that this allows that there is, and will be, a specific group that controls the "pace" and "space" of the dance floor but maybe that is discussion for another day.
For all its challenges with diversity and the fact that everyone talks about the same things: startups, AI, machine learning, and startups using AI and machine learning. The ecosystem in Silicon Valley challenges you to dream big and then dream bigger. Every early stage founder I met had an infectious self-belief to change the world. Many embodied Facebook’s motto to move fast and break things. Many more were living incarnations of the American dream and this was inspiring. The self belief has been the greatest take-away from this experience with
Foundervine and Colourintech. With a less than 10% success rate as a startup founder, I need all the self belief and support that is available.
I hope to come back to an improved Silicon Valley. One that takes care of the mental health of its homeless and does not just strive for diversity, but embraces and celebrates it.
The European tech scene is at juncture whereby it is carving out an identity for itself and as such, there is an opportunity to learn from our friends across the Atlantic, hopefully we can create a tech scene where people care about diversity and want to work on things that really improve our world. One click at time.