In Silicon Valley (A Prologue)

In Silicon Valley, I will like starting tech companies in my thirties for the same reasons I liked having open-heart surgery when I was four, or kissing my high school track coach with wine coolers in the parking lots of meets when I was fourteen. I will like it for the same reasons I liked toiling over chemical physics, multivariable calculus, and computer programming in graduate school at twenty-four and pulling all-nighters as a product manager at twenty-eight. I will like it for the same reasons that, later, I will like sitting in the dark and eating an entire bowl of Halloween mini-sized Twix and Snickers after my investors fire me from my own company at forty, and for the same reasons I’ll like exercising to the point of exhaustion, or swimming through the suicide straight beneath the Golden Gate Bridge with my son as witness, as if I might prove my invulnerability or submerge my shame.

I used to believe that only those who had experienced violent trauma or abuse, or who had done things well outside of socially acceptable or prescribed narratives, deserved to feel, or even could feel, shame. But I see now that I hadn’t understood the terminology. Shame is the universal feeling of not being good enough, of being unworthy, and studies show only sociopaths don’t feel it. They also explain why some of us feel it more than others.

Shame is not guilt, nor a useful map of wrongs done. Shame is both cultural and personal: we pick up messages about who we should be, what we should be, and who we shouldn’t be from politics, education, culture, media, religion, marketing, and from our parents, lovers, and friends. What happens when our expectations for what is good enough are unreachable?

I have always been a California girl. I hunger for the coastlines, the edges. I chase the highs to outrun the lowest of lows. I like living this way, or once, I thought I did. That doesn’t mean I don’t hate it, too; that I am not exhausted and often terrified by the bipolar swings in this cult of the extreme, or desperate to teach my sons that they can live in-between.

*

I was born in Silicon Valley, but barely. What I mean to say is not that I almost wasn’t born, though I suppose I wasn’t, or that there was some trouble with me at birth, although that is also true, but that the place I was born in, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1971, had only recently been identified as “Silicon Valley.”

Before 1971, the land between San Jose and San Francisco was known as “The Valley of the Heart’s Delight” — a patchwork quilt of purple toned prune and green apple orchards and golden fields, just beginning to be stitched together by technology’s thin silver fences and the bones of its low cement walls — and my parents, whose main desire was to start up a family, had never set foot in California. They met in Bloomington in 1965, at Indiana University, married quickly, moved to Bethesda for public service work, and spent much of the rest of the decade dealing with negative test results, a surgical procedure, temperature charts, and various other unromantic strategies that bore no luck upon my mom’s endometriosis-lined loins. By 1970, doctors in Bethesda told her pregnancy didn’t look likely. Then my dad’s employer sent him west for another degree, to Stanford.

Stanford rose up from the floor of the valley like the paradisiacal images of independence and intellectual worship my mom, a Savannah girl whose mother and grandmother both had college degrees in education, and varying degrees of bipolar disorder, had only seen in movies and magazines. She knew no one in the new place and missed the drip of southern sensuality from home, but heartily resigned herself to suppressing her fear and adapting to a new culture on the other edge of the nation, feeling lucky to have landed, if anywhere so foreign, then yes exactly here. Here was modernity and normalcy and intellectual reward combined with life-affirming beauty, strength, and delight. There seemed to be no threat of danger or doom. “I loved Stanford,” my mom would tell me often, “loved Palo Alto! But of course, it was different.” It would change a lot, too.

My parents’ was not the typical local dream of technological or entrepreneurial expedition, not the Silicon Valley brand of risk-taking sparked by “The Traitorous Eight,” men who met in Mountain View in 1956 at Shockley Semiconductor, defected together in 1957 to found Fairchild Semiconductor, then dispersed again a decade later to make a series of pinprick tears that would split the heart of the technology world wide open. In 1968, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce co-founded Intel, and in 1969 Jerry Sanders started Advanced Micro Devices. But it was January of 1971 when the term Silicon Valley was born in a series of articles, titled “Silicon Valley, USA,” which appeared in Electronic News, a weekly trade paper offered alongside such intellectual repositories as Women’s Wear Daily, Home Furnishings Daily, and Supermarket News.

The news about my heart was announced in December, 1971, a few days after Dr. Greene requested a chest x-ray at my two-week-old checkup. The pediatric cardiologist leaned against the table and said, “Sarah will need open-heart surgery,” and my mom’s vision went black. The doctor reassured her: I wouldn’t die. I’d be fine. There was a big hole but they knew how to fix it, which Dr. Shumway — renowned as the first doctor to do a successful heart transplant in America three years earlier — would do when my heart was grown, when I turned four. But, Dr. Greene explained, they’d need to shut down my heart while they did it. I would lie there, a gutted fish, dead but for the grace of technology until they rebooted me. That, my mom says, is what scared her. Of course it would.

The best metaphor I’ve heard for having a child is having one’s heart walk around outside one’s body. The comparison is eloquent because it describes two hearts that once beat inside a single body, in tune with and controlled by the mother’s rhythm and pulse, that are now untethered and open (only the mother knowledgeable of how vulnerable the child has become), and because it illustrates the ridiculous — imagine, your heart walking around outside your body! — extreme of a mother’s love, which is both euphoric thrill and shame-filled terror.

*

In Silicon Valley, I am twenty-three and starting a graduate program in engineering at Stanford. I live in a pool house in Atherton, where I have just finished writing a bad novel and being a nanny — temporarily playing a stay-at-home mom.

In Silicon Valley, it is 1995. I have just discovered a new drug called Prozac, and I am sure my real life is about to begin. I want to be a professor. I don’t know any entrepreneurs.

In Silicon Valley, it is pre-almost everything. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are developing PageRank, which will enable Google two years later. eBay has just been launched as an unknown online service called Auction Web. We buy our books at the bookstore, our toilet paper and toothpaste at CVS. Mark Zuckerberg is one-year-old.

I meet Noah at the department mixer on the first day. After two hours, while the guys next to us debate the viability of a new company called Amazon and we drink beer and talk about Telluride and soccer, I’m pretty sure I love him.

In Silicon Valley, the dot-com bubble inflates with us inside it, and I inhale ambition like the sweet-tasting nitrous oxide I learned to crave after knocking out my two front teeth on a diving board when I was ten. It is really good shit, and I pivot my plan to profess and take a job at Cisco. I travel around the world and teach men about the best way to run their Internet backbone. In Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Beijing, and Herziliya, men buy me lunch and ask my opinion, and I let them. I like the way this makes me feel smart. In Vegas, I work the product booths at COMDEX and CES and men mistake me for a “booth babe” while I talk about router speed. They say, “You sure don’t look like an engineer,” and I’m not offended. Yet. Instead, I like the way this makes me feel special.

In Silicon Valley, I marry Noah in a Jewish-like ceremony by a pool in Menlo Park. We sell some stock to pay for the wedding. The rabbi I find on the Internet marries us with generic vows that I Google, and all four of our divorced parents walk us down the aisle. After the wedding, I sell my consignment-store-bought dress on eBay for three times what I paid for it. On our honeymoon in Italy, I use the money I make to buy sensible shoes I will wear to work for decades. This will remain the proudest financial exchange of my life for a long while, because it is public, and because I believe it reflects the way I want to be seen: rational and non-materialistic — unconcerned enough with my appearance to buy a second hand wedding dress for $200 — and less than extravagantly privileged. I tell the story often.

In Silicon Valley, I give birth to Wilson, take six months of maternity leave, and then stop traveling. I edit data sheets in my felt walled cubicle while Wilson sits in the daycare at my office building, down the hall. I watch an image of him in the corner of my computer screen and feel sad, though it’s not because I think he’s not being well cared for. It’s because I realize I no longer give a fuck about the Cisco 12000 Gigabit Switch Router, but I still want my career. I am terrified of failing as Wilson’s mother, which has nothing to do with working mom guilt. I am sure his three months of constant screaming, of colic, must have been partially my fault. I was nervous and weepy in those months at home, while Noah was stalwart and calm. My work shines like armor, protecting me and legitimizing my worth. We also have apartment rent to pay.

In Silicon Valley, it is 2004. We have a house now. I give birth to Ben and my boss lets me work from home three days a week. I do gymnastics class with Wilson and read him books at library time and teach him how to head a soccer ball. Ben smiles along with us around town in his BabyBjorn: it is pre-Bugaboo stroller. My confidence grows, and also, my joy. Wilson memorizes professional soccer players’ names and yells “Zambrotta! Did you see that?” as he scores in the small goal in our new foam-covered playroom/garage. I see, and cheer him on. I abuse the work deal and use a lot of that time to play with my sons and train for Olympic distance triathlons. I am ashamed of the cheesy clip art I shove into slides to mask lack of content or zeal. I train harder and win a few races. These victories soothe the shame.

Then the HR guy calls me in. “We’ll need you to work harder,” the soft talking twenty-something in Dockers and a faded polo shirt tells me. “In the office, every day.” I am relieved by the impossible ultimatum. “I quit,” I say. It is the easiest decision I’ve ever made, and one of the most privileged. HR tries not to flinch, but I see it and it is pleasing. Hell no, I think. This can’t be my story, but neither, I tell myself, can staying home.

In Silicon Valley, I’m thirty-three and I can see what it takes to be special. I decide to learn how to be an entrepreneur.

I share a garage in Palo Alto with two other startups. The San Francisco Chronicle comes to the garage to photograph me for a story. The story says I’m a “local powermom” because I’m an entrepreneur, mother, and feminist who organizes events that demand equal pay and fair time off for mothers. I work around the clock and don’t earn much money. I only organize the one event the article talks about.

In Silicon Valley, my business partner, Abby, gives me 20% of the company when I join, and an iPhone for Christmas so that I never have to miss anything ever again. I take up the habit of refreshing my email every three minutes. I wake at 4 in the morning and roll over to look at it. The unread messages are like pills that pack a quick hit — popping bright, white, and oblong.

The New York Times does a story on my partners and me. We are three moms making a BPA-free baby bottle shaped like a breast. Actually, we are remaking it. Abby is the daughter of the original founder. Her dad shot himself, but left a note asking Abby to quit her job as counsel at Yahoo! and reinvent his boutique baby bottle business. She says the company had nothing to do with his death, that he was sick already, and that she, too, is sick of the round-the-clock legal work at Yahoo!. So that’s what she’s doing: reinventing the bottle. I help her.

In Silicon Valley, I see my picture in the paper and my product in the display windows. My boys ooh and squeal.

We win a design award for the bottle, which prompts the Times story. The other winner of the award that year is the iPhone. A small specialty market I’ve never shopped at but just discovered called Whole Foods sells the bottle. I take Wilson and Ben to the Palo Alto store to see it when it goes up on display. We walk along the unfamiliar aisles that smell grainy and sweet, like wet earth and granola, until we find the bright blue and orange packaging. I take pictures of Ben and Wilson standing in front of the rungs and rungs of product with the logo I made and words that I wrote. The feeling of pride — of seeing my precious boys smile in the same frame with my plastic bottles is warm and dizzying, like the flush of an epidural or three glasses of wine.

Target sells the bottle, too. But the week after they begin offering it, Abby accuses me of sleeping with a potential investor I swim with, and fires our third partner. The next month, I quit. Abby sells the company for the price of its patents. None of us make a dime.

In Silicon Valley, I parlay my baby bottle failure into another startup I don’t conceive of. I am flown to New York by another set of venture capitalists, who have already funded an entrepreneur in Manhattan named Philippa. For five years, I co-found companies with Philippa, and am funded by Dan and Samir. Our first two shut-downs are seen as almost necessary entrepreneurial chops, temporary injuries, even valuable expertise. Most startups shut down, and, in Silicon Valley, VCs actually like to see that their founders can change course quickly and start up again, despite public humiliation and internal pummeling.

This is called pivoting. I pivot well.

Our third company soars. Philippa and I hire an evangelical youth group leader who lives in Texas and drives a pink Hummer to run sales. She says things like, “I’m praying a lot this week,” instead of, “Here’s what the numbers say,” as we lead up to earnings reviews. We bring Mandy to a pitch on Sand Hill Road. She says, “I know God put me on the earth to build this sales force.” Now that’s good backing, the VC says with a wink.

Despite Mandy, or perhaps because of her, we raise $6 million. I hire fifty employees and we sit in a new office with two break rooms and a receptionist desk. We fill only one break room with peanut butter pretzels, popcorn, and Snapple, and we never have a receptionist. Philippa doesn’t move here. She stays in Manhattan. I am every employee’s surrogate mother.

In Silicon Valley, local business owners know my company. For a time, my employees love me. I love them back. I pay them well. I buy birthday cakes and cards, and give rewards for forthrightness. I am a good mother to them, and to my boys.

My content manager, who works from home because she’s a mom with four young kids, posts on Facebook: “I just saw my baby’s first steps thanks to my flexible job. Thank you, Philippa and Sarah.” I’m proud of this. I also think about how if I had a baby, I might miss her first steps. This is despite the fact that I never miss a soccer game, or a practice.

In Silicon Valley, my community knows me. My friends and family buy my company’s deals and help me promote them. I feel like a local hero. There is joy and eroticism in the work, and also in the coming-back-home. For a time, I feel connected by a live wire threaded straight through the heart. I feel like a teenager, out late after dark with a boy, listening to Young Turks by Rod Stewart.

In Silicon Valley, I wake daily at 4 a.m., roll away from my sleeping husband, kiss my sons’ foreheads, and tiptoe down the stairs to rendezvous with my Inbox, where fifty or sixty new emails await me. I answer them immediately. In the glow of the moon and the glare of the iMac screen I fire off decisions and congratulate myself for my enterprise and deed.

At 5:30 a.m. every other day (Noah, always the equal partner, and I trade off), I drive to the public community center in my swim parka with my work outfit, swim bag, laptop case, and handbag piled beside me. In the pool, I swim several miles, digging deep beneath the surface to feel my body burn and then to let my limbs go loose in the water, to undulate and play. Thoughts of new website icons and marketing messages ping against my pink goggles in uncanny video images as I slice through the bioluminescent-lit pool in the dark. Slights from my investors, like “I’ll do this presentation for you, you don’t need to talk,” slingshot through my biceps like rubber bands and I slap my wrists against the water, then carve them deep in hourglass figures, down. I can speak, they pull. I just have something different to say.

When the moon starts to fade, I hoist myself out of the vat of blue and head for the locker room consumed with the business decisions at hand. In the communal shower I scald my lactic muscles and chat about swim sets and life setbacks with my Masters teammates, each of us halfheartedly lamenting our age. The truth: I feel high. Then I dress. I am known for getting out the door before anyone else is out of a towel. You’re so fast, Sarah! they say. Slow down. I just wave and head off.

By 7:00, I’ve procured my favorite coffee and gooey blueberry molasses muffin (which I eat only the top of) from Café Borrone, and am speeding toward the office in San Mateo with a drenched shirt collar. I am efficient: productive, if not well coiffed. I refuse to waste the last few moments before dawn blow-drying my hair. It is the darkness and emptiness of the streets I love most about mornings just after my swim, as if in that town of early risers, supermoms and overnight successes, I alone have beat the sun.

Often, I blast Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” at volume level 16 in the dawn’s light and break into a smirk before doing an embarrassingly white shoulder pump and chin jut move — in and out like an actual turkey. I hate Eminem for his gay bashing, his misogyny, his trashy romantic drama, but I love him too for the way his music lets me live inside a rage I can’t yet name.

At the office, I fire off more emails, review the latest launch schedules, give talks via Skype to the sales force, prep for upcoming partnership pitches, have one on one reviews with direct reports, and eat the bottom of my blueberry muffin, which I have saved for just this purpose, with a cup of stale coffee for lunch. I get home for dinner, usually by 4 o’clock. But the actual eating feels almost irrelevant. I do not have to fill food journals, or fret over whether taking one more bite of Grape Nuts makes me weak. Entrepreneurship is like a round-the-clock, all-I-can-eat validation buffet. Here’s what I should know well, but ignore: after each binge there’s a purge, and also, the other way. When we refuse to admit our vulnerability, in one way or another, we always pay.

On those drives to work when I hit the onramp and gun the gas, I imagine my husband and young sons back home just starting to wake, and the van shudders beneath my body with echoes of their praise: “You own your own company!” and “You’re the boss, right Mommy?”

“She is,” the always-supportive Noah, who also runs a tech startup, says. We both know this isn’t wholly true, that we are beholden to our investors and ever at risk of being ousted. And I must sense at some level that my Sisyphean striving is deeply flawed. But I let this declaration stand. Why not? My sons are proud of me.

They do not know that most startups fail, that I will fail. They only know that I do what their town is famous for, and this makes me famous in their eyes, too. I gobble up this heady pleasure. They are sure their mommy can do anything; to them I am smart and strong. This is success to me. It is also temporary. In a dichotomous culture, our emotional currency gets flattened, and we learn to deal only in coins with two flip sides.

In Silicon Valley, our third company begins to pivot toward decline. I have to lay off my content manager who works from home, and our HR manager, who threatens to sue us when we lay her off in the third round. We hire a temp to help with the rest of the layoffs.

Then Dan and Samir fire Philippa, replace her with a wildly successful herbal supplement salesman named “Chaz.” A few months later they fire me, and alert us both there will be no further pay or severance, and force us to sign away our equity. We don’t make a dime.

This is called failing.

Still, in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs are judged not by whether we fail, because we all do, but by how we respond to failure. When my investors fire me and erase everything I’ve done — every decision I’ve lost sleep over, every dear friend I’ve hired and promoted and then laid off, every external and internal validation that I allowed my work to bring me — the only thing I want is to keep the image of myself — in-control, successful, right-doing — that is central to my identity, intact. I think that by recognizing my situation as privileged and devoid of actual tragedy — I am not personally in financial trouble, nor living in a war zone, nor dealing with death, illness, or true external adversity of any kind — I can immediately accept it. But I can’t.

What happened? People ask when they see me at school pickup. What now? I tell my story over and over, but I don’t really tell it, because I don’t yet really know it. I explain in plain English that I had a disagreement with the investors, or with the business model. I say I was done wasting my time on lame daily deals — who were we to think we could compete with Groupon? What good were we doing the world? Other times I describe how proud I am of what we built together for our employees — a distributed sales force that gave hundreds of women part-time flexible work and helped local businesses — but claim I am passing the torch, taking a break, coming home to write.

In the first few weeks, I get asked by other entrepreneurs to start other companies, and I’m tempted: I know how to chase the sun in the tech world and strive. Soon, I run into a friend named Lisa. She’s self-funding a new venture and she asks me to be her partner. For two days, I consider it. Night one, I have two dreams. I dream that I’m on the front page of Time Magazine with Lisa, and then I dream that I call up my investors and say, “Hey, listen up. I made it after all.” On the second day, I swim for two hours instead of one hour because I can’t stop. In the shower, I feel alive again, like before, but then the endorphins wear off and I feel like my normal self again, which is low and confused. But I do realize I don’t give a fuck about Lisa’s business, or co-founding any more businesses at all, ever.

This discovery terrifies me. If my response to failure is to drop out of the tech world I no longer want to inhabit, will that teach my Silicon Valley boys that I’m a quitter, that I am weak? If I pivot my striving toward something less measurable, perhaps more tender and deep than product launches and fundraising, will my surgical sutures rip open inside my chest and expose some condemnable yearning I don’t want to see? Or, expose something condemnable in the achievement-oriented and privilege-blind striving I have submerged myself, and my family, in? What will I lose by re-opening my own heart?

In Silicon Valley, I do not yet know enough to ask the right questions, or pause to wonder what the risks and outcome of this operation might be. I do not yet know enough to ask what I might gain. Instead I wonder: if the treatment is examining the cult of the extreme, then after the anesthesia wears off, will I regret living here and staying to raise my sons? Will I be blackballed or shamed into silence by those who don’t agree with what I expose? Or, as I later do learn to ask, will I stay and continue to speak, shame be damned, both for my boys and for everything that is larger than my own family?

From the car I call Lisa and say no to her partnership offer. There’s really only one thing I can do. I am privileged to be able to do it. I go home to figure out who I’ve become. But quickly this figuring becomes about much more than me. What, I will begin to examine and write about, are the broader socio-economic and political repercussions of a privileged class of culture-defining citizens stuck in a cycle of striving and shame?

In Silicon Valley (A Prologue)

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