Today, my memories of September 11, 2001, when the world froze and I stood paralyzed as images of people jumping from the Towers repeated and repeated and repeated, are mixed up with memories of other days when time stopped — the deaths of each of my parents, my brother, selling off my dad’s cattle, days that closed one chapter of my life and initiated another, whether I knew it or not.
In the past, I watched landscaping crews saw limbs off of trees where birds were nesting in the spring and early summer. I thought I knew how those hysterical creatures felt as their homes and offspring tumbled to the ground. But 2020 has shown me I didn’t, I couldn’t, watching safely from the ground.
Today, I see images of cataclysm on a Biblical scale — the California fires and melting ice caps, human-induced tragedies, unintended consequences of — let’s call a spade a spade — our greed and ambition. I think of the lives destroyed and the unimaginable suffering of those beautiful lands and the wildlife trapped by fast-moving flames and melting ice.
None of us knows what will follow. Have we learned from our mistakes? I wish I could say, “Yes, absolutely!” But that’s yet to be seen.
So here, on this day, I’m offering a prayer that we rise above our prejudice, greed and hate to preserve what we love and somehow figure out how to move together into a future that honors our best selves.
Magical thinking gets us through what seems unendurable — grief, pandemics, subjugation, airplane flights. But now is not the time for it. We need to be sharp and practical to build the future we want for our ourselves and our country.
When the shelter-in-place-order hit, lacking medical skills, I pitched in to help with the collateral damage — an avalanche of unemployment applications. The experience has given me a catbird’s seat on the future of the job market here in Texas, home of the Texas Miracle, and it is not a rosy picture.
In Texas, jobless claims top 2.3 million
I’ve been without work more than once, and I can assure you it is no fun. Take away the job, the income, the camaraderie (even when it drives you nuts) and what’s left? Those of us lucky enough to have an education, skillset and professional network will probably be okay. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.
I’ve sorted applications from oil workers in south and west Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico; substitute teachers, restaurant and fast food workers, millwrights, puppeteers, musicians, pipeline consultants and business process engineers, cosmetologists, travel agents, dentists and their hygienists, retailers, financial planners and anesthesiologists. Their names have the ring of Africa, China, Vietnam, Japan, the Middle East, Mexico, Latin America, rural Texas, the Ukraine and Poland.
“I work for pennies, not hours”
Early on, I opened an application with a handwritten note. Written in block letters by a deck hand on a shrimp boat, it said,”I work for pennies, not hours.” There was no self-pity, just the facts from a man with four kids and a third-grade education. A laborer from Donna, Texas, was out of work because he unloads onions from Mexico. Take away the trucks, and there is no job. The pandemic anticipates his future. As autonomous driving and robotic technology develops there will be no need for him.
Consider a 30-year old former Lyft driver with a wife and a four-year old son. When we met in April, he was taking three classes towards a career in cyber security without really understanding what working in the field would entail. He worked 10-hour days, six days a week while taking three classes, found he couldn’t pay his rent, became discouraged and dropped out of school.
Accessible, hands-on approaches with a global outlook
Disasters crack open change, and the pandemic may very well re-shape education to address reality. Instead of competing to get into a high-cost university to realize her dream to become a veterinarian, my friend Cherie’s daughter enrolled at Blinn College where after a couple of years, she’ll be able to transfer seamlessly into Texas A&M University and enroll in one of the best veterinarian training programs in the country.
Austin Community College will soon have four incubators where students get hands-on experience in their future careers. Bioscience, gives students access to a wet lab, which until recently was hard to find in Central Texas. The Fashion incubator features a huge 3D printer for designers and makers, and Entrepreneurship jump starts budding small businesses, something we’ll need in coming months.
A fourth, advanced manufacturing, will train students to use the sophisticated design equipment and processes that produce semiconductors for the factory and consumer of the future, chips that will take advantage of 5G and the Internet of Things. Graduates will be qualified to fill well-paying, high-demand openings at local employers Samsung, Advanced Micro and AMD.
Widening the lens to see the world
Even more remarkable may be an award-winning project at Del Valle High School, a chronically underserved community in the shadow of the Austin Bergstrom Airport.
Using Zoom and a partnership with the World Affairs Council of Austin, the Global Scholars Diploma program connects students with policy experts around the world to explore racism, immigration, climate change, global infections — issues that will shape their future. At left, these young women welcomed me when I visited to watch a regularly-scheduled moot court session with University of Texas law students.
Del Valle and Mike Cunningham are not taking a traditional approach to education. Working on a shoestring budget and leveraging local resources, the program teaches its students to think. It encourages debate, tests opinions, builds confidence and the patience to listen to other views. It nurtures participation, an understanding that the world is bigger than our own backyard, and a sense of a human responsibility that transcends the day-to-day.
Nurturing human dignity
Among Yuval Harari’s many provocative writings is a statement that humans have evolved too quickly to develop the dignity shown by the large predators of the past, who both ruled and served.
Needless to say, we’re not doing a very good job on the dignity front. We murder one another in the name of law enforcement. We brutalize the wildlife that shares the planet with us in the name of “sport.” We deport sick young immigrants who have contracted Covid-19 while in federal detention, transmitting the virus to their home countries.
Dignity is a big concept on which everything we call civilization turns. Our sense of human dignity determines our self respect, which in turn determines how we treat one another, the planet we rely on, and the beings we share it with. It’s difficult if not impossible to maintain our dignity if we lack the training or education to get a job that supports our children, if we’re too sick or obese to endure a full day’s work, or if other people look down on us because we can’t communicate effectively.
Education will not address all of our problems. But it is part of the baseline. Our world is trending in a direction that reflects more of the East and less of the West that defined the last century. If we are going to change direction, this is a moment of full of possibility. Just recognizing the opportunity and working towards a better future would be a fine thing. Because if we don’t do it, who will?
Giving up a habit, even such a small one as that morning cup of tea, can lead to a re-evaluation of our very habits of being. It’s a process that requires deciding who you want to be, paying attention, and getting help.
I had no idea I could learn so much from a cup of tea.
For decades, I’ve started my day with several cups of black tea so strong my friends consider it coffee. The tea, doused with creamy local milk, has been my kick start. I’ve also had, unpredictably and without any direct relationship to the tea, chest pains, vertigo and diminished energy. I blamed it on allergies (allergists outnumber mosquitoes in this town). But in December a test result prompted a call from my doctor who received a dose of reality: I inherited my father’s heart condition.
“Remember, getting sick is the first step in getting well.”
My friend Jessica Buckley
The fatty milk I loved to put in my tea had to go; in fact, the entire dairy section had to go. I dithered. I rationalized. I delayed. It took hours in waiting rooms full of people with their next-of-kin and a litany of tests costing as much as a Tesla, to convince me my morning tea habit was not worth the price.
One habit leads to another, and pretty soon you have yourself
Which got me thinking: If I don’t need the milk in my tea, what else do I no longer need? Why do I have a storage unit full of the past? Social obligations that are a duty, not a boost? Why have I let misunderstandings fester with siblings, friends and colleagues?
The easy fix would be to reduce the milk and clear out the storage unit, but the point is much bigger. If this collection of habits define me, which ones do I actually need to move forward? Is this the me I want to be? And do I have the guts to change?
The rule is to start small. I’m starting with — and I know it sounds silly — my fear of not getting my morning tea and milk. If I can give up my milky tea, will it give me the courage to examine those other habits crouching behind fortresses of defensiveness, vanity and just plain ole fear.
To be undone by fear is a sad thing. Why not try something different?
Pay attention and re-evaluate
We don’t pay attention, particularly to ourselves.
Again, the rule is start small. The first step is to pay attention to our bodies, so that when they falter, as the will, we can take corrective action. Consider my friend Sherida. We met for an early dinner, in the late afternoon when the blue-hairs gather. I asked her how she was able to leave work so early, and she told me she was taking iron infusions for severe iron anemia. She’d missed her annual check up for “two or three years,” which required her body to steadily adjust to lower and lower levels of iron.
“I didn’t notice anything,” she explained. But then there was that daily nap, constant nibbling and those shadows under her eyes. She didn’t have the time to pay attention until she was pulled up short by her doctor. “You’re a go-go woman,” she reported, “all go and no pause.” No quibble there. Sherida works a full-time job, takes care of a bi-polar son, is active socially and sings in her church choir.
But if we aren’t paying attention to the bodies we live in, how can we pay attention to our habitual reactions to angry colleagues or, heaven forbid, family members. Absent facts collected through observation, we can’t draw conclusions. We can’t get help, and we can’t change.
“Paying attention …makes room for the views of others. It allows us to begin to trust them — and more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes it safe to try something that may fail. It encourages us to work on our own awareness …It requires us to understand that to advance creatively, we must let go of something.”
Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.
If you take care of someone else, as almost every woman I know does in some capacity, you are in the danger zone. Caregiving is the gold standard of absenting oneself from oneself. It is a selfless act and a necessary one. But unmonitored, it also extols a high price. Caregivers, particularly family members who care for elderly relatives, can find their own lives diminished financially, socially and physically.
The typical family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman caring for her widowed 69-year-old mother who does not live with her. She is married and employed. Approximately 66% of family caregivers are women. More than 37% have children or grandchildren under 18 years old living with them.
I learned this the hard way. I put my life on hold for over a decade to take care of first my dad and then my mom. When my mom died and it was time to return to the job market, I was paralyzed. The habits and routines I’d built around caregiving left me unprepared to resume my own life. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I hadn’t been paying attention.
I’m a big fan of Reboot’s Jerry Colonna. I met Jerry when he was an editor of one of the leading technology magazines in New York. He later became a successful venture capitalist, burned out and is now an executive coach who helps the CEOS of start ups chart their path through “radical self inquiry.” His message is foundational to anyone who wants to lead a successful life: “Who have I been all my life? Who do I want to become?”
“The notion is to recognize that if things are not okay, if you’re struggling, you stop pretending and allow yourself to get help. Even more, it’s the process by which you work hard to know yourself — your strengths, your struggles, your true intentions, your true motivations, the characteristics of the character known as ‘you’.”
“How do we get the things out of the way that are barriers to being productive?”
Which takes me back to my friend Sherida. Sherida was raised her grandmother in Mississippi, and she laughs as she tells the story of how her grandmother taught her to make her own decisions. When she was about 10, Sherida decided to fake an illness to get her grandmother’s attention. The only pills she could find in the house were in a bottle of Midol. She poured them onto the table and waited for her grandmother to come home. When the door opened, Sherida grabbed a handful of pills and pretended she was going to swallow them.
“Go ahead, child, take those pills. They’ll either kill you or leave you deformed.” With that, her grandmother walked away. Sherida put the pills away.
So here I am, sitting with my cup of morning tea which today is black tea with soy milk. Tomorrow? Who knows. But this I know: the future is staring me in the face, and I better be prepared.
Mentoring is more than a one-on-one career-directed interaction. It’s also the process of teaching others — on a very practical level — what is okay and what is not okay. Case in point: MassChallenge Texas chooses SAFE Austin as its community partner to guide technology entrepreneurs in formulating corporate policy for the #MeToo era.
Working the room at MassChallenge Texas‘ holiday party, I wove through the tech entrepreneurs to discover SAFE’s JackieSmith-Francis pitching, not the newest app, but what our community can do to curb human trafficking, in essence, reminding us how we should treat other human beings.
Smith-Francis was there representing SAFE as MassChallenge’s community partner. While 50 years ago, predators used fists or a gun to prey on their victims, the current weapon of choice is often the Internet. A whopping sixty-three percent of abused kids are entrapped online according to THORN, a nonprofit that investigates the intersection of technology and abuse. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to educate future innovators on the wider implications of their applications?
Follow the money
Texas, with its growing population of Range Rovers and Teslas, tops one “best of” list it’s not proud of: Texas has more active human trafficking cases than any other state. The cities where MassChallenge has offices, Houston and Austin, are trafficking epicenters. While Houston is more active, Austin attracts traffickers from all over the world with SXSW Austin City Limits and Formula One.
Unlike in-your-face challenges like homelessness, human trafficking operates under the surface, often invisible and generally exempt from prosecution. In a vivid example of a policy far outpaced by the speed at which technology is applied, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act provides a legal firewall which shields Internet platforms like Facebook and Craigslist from crimes committed by people use their sites. A child may consider an offer legitimate because they see it on Facebook, never realizing that Facebook is just delivering the goods.
Should Section 230 prove insufficient, an industry has sprung up to mask the identity of companies willing to pay for protection. In a fascinating piece of investigative work for The New York Times, Gabriel J.X.Dance reports that 10 percent of the world’s top sites use Cloudflare to ensure even the tech savvy can’t detect their Internet location. Cloudflare, a billion dollar cybersecurity firm based in San Francisco, was named in 10 percent of reports of hosted child sexual abuse material and over 130,000 complaints about 1,800 sites reported to the Canadian Center for Child Protection since 2017.
Never underestimate the power of being smart about how you lead
Dispiritedly scrolling through the news this morning, I reminded myself a single, determined voice that’s smart in their approach can say, “this is not okay,” and build momentum for solving seemingly insurmountable problems. That’s the multiplier effect of leadership, and that’s what MassChallenge did by sponsoring SAFE.
Because in a moment of serendipity, just as MassChallenge was setting out the holiday lights, a state judge refused Facebook’s request to dismiss Houston attorney Annie McAdam’s lawsuits on the grounds of Section 230 protection.
Ms. McAdams, a personal injury attorney, is suing Facebook on behalf of a trafficked client. Her point? Why can’t Internet companies like Facebook (or Craigslist or the myriad of other sites that host content that foments hate and abuse) do more to warn the their users? We hold car manufacturers accountable for air bags that don’t inflate, cigarette companies for encouraging a lethal habit, why are we not holding Internet platforms accountable for sexual slavery taking place on their platforms?
Set an example
Mentorship can go way beyond a one-on-one career-directed exchange. It is one very accessible aspect of leadership, the secret sauce that creates that multiplier effect. Mentorship can be organizational as well as personal, social and professional, and is often so subtle the mentor doesn’t recognize their imprint.
I was astounded to hear a dear friend who has refused to be sidelined even by a case of advanced Parkinson’s, wonder why a former colleague called to check on him every week. This is a man who has shaped so much of the city’s entrepreneurial culture and never neglected to make time for mentorship. People remember.
Was MassChallenge mentoring us partygoers, reminding us of the slippery slope from the workplace harassment that spawned the #metoo movement to human trafficking? Of the absolute necessity of putting policies in place to protect the vulnerable in both the corporate and broader corporate arenas?
Changing the status quo requires public as well as private sector leadership. Texas is fortunate that Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX), the Lead Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Chairman Emeritus on the House Homeland Security Committee, has stepped up to the plate by sponsoring outreach events and promoting the awareness that leads to broad changes in public policy.
As we close one year and embark on the next, I’m reminded of my friend Francis Nail’s advice, “If you pray for anything, pray for forgiveness.” We have much to be grateful for, but we’re also responsible for our sins of omission, problems we’ve allowed to fester and grow. Let’s remember that each of us and especially those who mentor the next generation must be vigilant in working to make this world a better place.
“Send them back” is an echo from the first Americans, the Native Americans , whose Ghost Dances were the inspiration for Jeffrey Gibson’s stunning “This Is the Day” exhibit which challenges us to rethink our culture and traditions for a new time.
Walking through Jeffrey Gibson’s extraordinary installation, “This Is the Day,” you hear an echo: “Send them Back.”
Gibson, a gay Native American artist, draws inspiration from the Ghost Dance Movement of the 1890’s, a religious movement that united the Plains Indians in the hope their rituals would banish the white settlers and the U.S. government from their lands.
In one of America’s blackest moments, the tribes’ community terrified the U.S. Army. Fear trumped any better angels, and we are left with the massacre at Wounded Knee.
But this is not the story Gibson tells. He invites everyone to the party, mixing old trading post blankets with Biblical verses and lines from pop tunes. He moves us forward.
“Somehow the past has to situate itself within the present.”
“This Is the Day” asks us to come up with a better ending to a story riddled with fear and racism.
Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.
“This Is the Day” is at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas through September, courtesy of Hamilton College’s Wellin Museum of Art. All the photographs are courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson and the Wellin Museum.
Five business leaders walked onto the stage of the Texas-EU Summit to talk about managing transatlantic businesses. Two run European units based in the United States; two developed European units of U.S. practices; and one has done it all. Four wore stilettos.They didn’t have much time, and they had something to say. Not one wanted to be called out for her gender, and not one considered that remarkable.
The hardest thing: Finding and keeping talent
Without question, the biggest challenge confronting a European company in the United States is finding and retaining talent. “Americans’ resumes look great, but you have to train them,” said Belen Marcos, president of Cintra US, one of the world’s largest private developers of infrastructure. Marcos, an engineer by training, noted that in Europe educational credentials are paramount. Americans job-hop more than European hires. They tend to specialize and resist working in areas outside their specialty.
“Europeans are generalists. They expect to do many different jobs.”
Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US
Navigating European statutory regulations
Disruptive business models challenge both business and cultural norms. Consider the vacation rentals that have turned many traditional neighborhoods into latchkey hotels. Cristina Silingardi, a Brazilian with deep finance experience, helped Austin-based HomeAway successfully navigate the sticky process of integrating acquisitions in both Spain and Brazil.
“Understand the statutory regulations before you do business … It went off without a hitch.”
“Contracts are part of the law in Europe,” said Liz Wiley, an attorney and partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC. who specializes in intellectual property.
“Very little if anything can be negotiated (in Europe). Expect negotiations to take much longer.”
Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US
Marcos knows a thing or two about the subject. Her company Cintra is part of the Spanish infrastructure provider Ferrovial. She and her team negotiate the construction and long-term management of roads, airports and concessions, many of which are public-private partnerships.
Codes vs. negotiation. Consider privacy.
Europe is not a monolith. Both EU and country-specific regulations come into play when determining who owns what. For example, “the EU has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but France has its own data protection authority, the CNIL, which handles GDPR complains and defends the French position with GDPR-related issues,” said Wiley
“The United States is not a code country,” commented Wiley, “We make our own deals.”
Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC
Wiley, whose practice includes both French and American startups, recommends first filing for U.S. patent protection, then filing in other countries to ward off infringements.
Soft skills matter
“When in doubt, err on the side of formality,” advises Wiley. And in the hurley-burley world of entrepreneurs, she recommends oral presentation training for cautious French startups that compete in the winner-take-all American pitch culture.
Sharon Schweitzer’s company, Access to Culture, cross trains business people to be effective in other cultures. Recounting an incident where two older Czechs silenced their giggling younger colleagues with a steely glare, Schweitzer said the significance of a seemingly minor incident caught her by surprise.
But do high heels also matter?
The specter of political change is everywhere. Here too, dress is brand. This year’s Yellow Vest protests revealed the deep divide between France’s privileged class and rest of their country. As I’m writing this, on the other side of the world, young people in Hong Kong wear black and mourn a man in a yellow raincoat.
Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s testifying before Congress, stripped of his signature t-shirt and uncomfortable in a blue suit? Melania Trump in a white pussy-bow blouse and sky-high heels? Dress is political, and high heels stand unrivaled as a symbol of gender and power. Flip flops may reign in U.S. youth and tech enclaves, but search “business women” and you’ll find women in power in wearing heels — because they choose to.
In another culture where talent and a diverse work force weigh heavily on its future competitiveness, Japanese women unsuccessfully petitioned their government to ban gender-based dress codes (#KuToo), and specifically high heels. My guess is there’s another shoe to drop there.
In 1869, men in the Wyoming Territory needed wives. Politicians in Washington needed more voters in the Western territories. So Wyoming gave women the vote. John Morris wrote to a national magazine promoting women’s suffrage:
It is a fact that all great reforms take place, not where they are most needed, but in places where opposition is weakest; and then they spread.
John Morris, following the Wyoming Territory’s decision to give women the vote
“To be sustainable, change takes time,” Wiley noted. Would this panel have happened 30 years ago? 20? Maybe.
With that thought, I’m pulling out my high heels to wear sometime soon.
Hats off to Ana-Barbara Llorente and Pendas International, for sponsoring the panel, and the World Affairs Council of Austin for hosting.
Austin, Texas, the site of the June 2019 CULCON Symposium on U.S.-Japan Collaboration was also the site of SEMATECH, a public-private partnership that modeled how to manage an international competitive crisis.
Three things are clear about the future: technology will determine competitiveness; talent comes in all colors, nationalities and genders; and the problems are too big, too complex to solve in isolation.
The annual CULCON Symposium on U.S.-Japan Collaboration was held in Austin last week, the site where 30 years ago a rallying cry of “make America great again,” created SEMATECH, now a model of how government, industry and academic institutions can work together to manage competitive crises.
Today Japan, nestled precariously between North Korea and China, is doing something similar, boosting its competitiveness in science and technology by expanding university-industry partnerships and building a more inclusive work force.
Who owns the future? The electromagnetic spectrumand 5G
Bursts of “make Japan great again” thinking punctuated the session. In what was apparently a last minute change to his presentation, cybersecurity expert Dr. Motohiro Tsuchiya, pointed out that the United States owns Japan’s electromagnetic spectrum, the highway for next-generation 5G mobile technology, the internet of things (IoT), as well as x-rays, gamma rays and radio waves.
Thirty years ago, who would have thought something called the “electromagnetic spectrum” would become so essential to a single country’s competitiveness? But 5G technology has vast implications for not just cellphone upgrades, but but for medicine, business and national security. Case in point: Russia recently signed an agreement to allow Huawei, a lightening rod in the U.S.-China trade war, to develop the country’s next-generation wireless network, but since the Russian military owns their electromagnetic spectrum, there could be blips in its implementation.
This world and then the next
Dr. Takashi Tanaka, an expert in machine learning at the University of Texas and like the other panelists a product of international collaboration, pointed out that rocket technology can also be applied to missiles, a critical capability for an island nation with testy neighbors.
Proprietary rights in space? Dr. Moriba Jah, an expert on Space Domain Awareness, brought up the ever-controversial Elon Musk’s launch of 60 Starlink satellites into the crowded night sky, the first of a proposed fleet of 12,000 designated to provide global internet coverage.
Funding and talent
Innovation is all about funding and talent, which implies a partnership between the public and private sectors. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provided the seed money for SEMATECH. The National Science Foundation funds emerging sectors like artificial intelligence where American leadership is increasingly challenged. Japan, a global leader in robotics, is stepping up its investment in other sectors as well.
“Last year (2018), the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, the government’s science advisory body, announced a 7% rise in spending on science and technology (to 3.84 trillion yen), after years of stagnant funding. The government is considering another 100 billion yen for the upcoming fiscal year to pay for exploratory research aimed at achieving what The Mainichi newspaper calls “moonshot” results. The government is on track to hit a goal of spending 1% of GDP on science and technology in higher education by 2020.”
David Swinbanks, Nature, Nature 567, S9-S11 (2019)
Talent is increasingly collaborative. The CULCON panelists referenced cultural barriers in Japanese universities that inhibit the collaboration, from silo-ed departments to paying research assistants. But then again, perhaps the group’s of Austin as a meeting site was significant. The city is a case history in how a single successful experiment in public-private collaboration, SEMATECH, spawned a vital tech hub that continues to attract jobs and talent.
Stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm
I shared Churchill’s quote with my seatmate, Mr. Naoyuki Agawa, who asked a bedrock question of Austin’s assistant city manager, Ray Arellano: What do you say to people who have failed? Mr. Agawa teaches American constitutional law at Doshisha University in Kyoto, following a long career practicing law in New York and Washington and a stint as Japan’s Minister for Public Affairs.
His point was well taken. Without role models, without examples, without encouragement and social and financial support, failure is a hopeless quagmire.
I said I could do it, and I did it
Eureka! Beamed into the panel discussion on space technology was a Texas success story. Mykaela Dunn, a native of tiny Stafford, Texas and a recent aerospace engineering graduate from the University of Texas, has just started her internship in the California-based Stealth Space Company, courtesy of a Brooke Owens fellowship. Dunn encouraged the audience to consider more than grade point averages (GPAs) in evaluating talent, mentioning that she had to remind herself to do the same.
Titanic trade clashes, Chimerica, Huawei,’s blacklisting, theft of intellectual property — oh my! As the trade war with China intensifies, Tyler Johnson’s “The Way of the “Laowai” reminds us that international business is an art; opportunity, a matter of perspective.
In the titanic trade clash between China and the United States, Tyler Johnson’s is a calm, sane voice. But then he is a businessman, and businessmen get things done. Johnson spent the go-go years between 2005 and 2015 growing Dell’s Asia-Pacific business. He saw the blossoming of Chimerica and now, on the cusp of what is starting to look like a nasty separation, reminds us there is an art to conducting business with another culture.
What he learned is the subject of a new book, The Way of the Laowai, a testimonial to taking a global perspective. (Laowai means outsider or alien in Mandarin.)
Take note, America: The self-selected attendees at Johnson’s “World Spins” talk were almost all Chinese. As one explained, “I want to learn how you think American companies should compete in China, from your perspective.
The scale of the trade clash is enormous, and the stakes are high.
China is the world’s most populous country. Its breakneck development over recent decades has added hundreds of millions of consumers to the global marketplace while supplying a vast assemblage of low-cost goods… It is the source of roughly one-third of the world’s economic growth.
Separating business from policy is a sticky wicket, especially when two radically-different cultures have bound themselves so tightly together economically. As Li Yuan, the New York Times New New World correspondent wrote :
The two sides have plenty of reasons to distrust each other. The United States blames China for heavy job losses, theft of corporate secrets and cheating at the rules of global trade. China credits the hard work and sacrifices of its people for its success and sees the trade war as driven by American fears of a prosperous Chinese nation. (Photo/Doug Mills, The New York Times)
But in the end, business is business, and sometimes getting things done requires a “whatever it takes” approach.
In China, government initiatives drive almost everything. It’s important to understand those initiatives and analyze how they figure into your business model. The more you understand what the government wants, the more likely you’ll be aligned …
A laboratory for future innovation
Over the past 25 years, China has become what Oppenheimer Funds calls a “laboratory for future innovation” for U.S. companies. Big Tech-funded R&D centers place scientists from both countries side-by-side to crack breakthroughs in pivotal data-intensive areas including artificial intelligence and cloud computing. Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) funds basic research in AI. Google opened an AI lab in Beijing and has a research alliance with Tencent on cloud services. Jeff Ding, a graduate student at Oxford and the force behind the China AI newsletter, is well worth following for a deeper understanding of cooperation between the two countries in R&D and technology (AI) commercialization.
But there are concerns. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston recently severed ties with three scientists over their ties to China and policy violations with research grants from the National Institute of Health. Writing in The New York Times, Mihir Zaveri noted that a report commissioned by the N.I.H. also mentioned that 39 percent of the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine won by Americans have gone to foreign-born scientists.
Data, ethics and national security
Research spawns innovation and ethical (cultural) concerns. The facial recognition technology that San Francisco banned out of fear it would be abused by the city’s police, is being used in some form by companies in China to save pigs from the devastating spread of untreatable African swine fever — and allegedly to suppress minority populations.
“Today’s battles are all about data, how you get it, who has access to it, and who you can share it … With 1.4 billion people (and limited enforcement of privacy laws), there is plenty of data in China.”
Then there’s national security. At an intelligence forum sponsored by the University of Texas earlier this year, Sue Gordon, the principal deputy director of National Intelligence, acknowledged the reality of concerns over “dirty networks.”
“We have to figure out a world with diverse technology we can’t control.”
Sue Gordon, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence
Huawei, the subject of Gordon’s reference to “dirty networks,” is a stunning case study in whether a Chinese company, genetically bound to its government, can thrive as a global technology company. Huawei has made it a point to develop an entrepreneurial culture based on best-of-breed Western business processes.
“Only by learning from them with all our humility can we defeat them one day.”
But its blacklisting by the Trump administration is having a trickle-down impact. Just yesterday, Reuters announced Google restrictions on Huawei customers’ purchases of its proprietary offerings, a move analysts expect will hit Huawei’s European business hard.
A big world full of opportunity
At the eye of this hurricane, The Way of the Laowai is a reminder that opportunity is a matter of perspective.
There are roughly 196 countries in the world and close to 800 billion people. That’s a lot to wrap your brain around. Each of these countries is complex in its own way … In every location you want to do business in, you need a grasp of these particulars. In each place, business needs to be conducted differently… The world is big and full of opportunities if you can keep your perceptions in place.
As proof, Johnson proudly brought along his smart, confident 13-year old, Mandarin-speaking daughter Reese, a living demonstration of all there is to be gained from learning the ways of another country. Indeed, she corrected him several times.
The March 29 deadline for a Brexit go now/go later/no go (unlikely) is around the corner. Despite some defections, especially in fintech, many U.S. companies are opting to stay. The tragedy has spotlighted two leadership flaws: the hubris in calling for a referendum and the inflexibility in dealing with it.
As I made my way to the Capital Factory, that go-go hive of entrepreneurial-ism in the center of Austin, to hear what the U.K. Dept. of International Trade had to say about Brexit, I thought about a University of London marketing class I took years ago. The professor, a Scot, turned to a world map. He drew a line between Europe and the United Kingdom. Then he drew an arrow across the Atlantic pointing toward the United States and made a prediction: At some point, the British will break away from Europe and join the United States in an economic block. Prescient fellow.
Borders, walls and disagreements
It takes guts to tell your story when the facts aren’t clear, but the U.K. team did an admiral job. Representatives from the British Consulate’s Department for International Trade, law firm Taylor Wessing and accountancy Blick Rotherberg were optimistic that even the Irish border conundrum could be resolved — at the last minute (“That’s the way Europeans do things.”).
It was one day after Parliament sent Prime Minister Theresa May once more into the breach of negotiations with the European Union, and less than a week after Congress reached an agreement to pause the longest government shutdown in U.S. history so our elected officials could settle a disagreement about a wall between neighbors.
Do we stay or do we go?
Ross Allen, the New York City-based director at the U.K. Department for International Trade led the discussion, reminding us that the United Kingdom has a special relationship with the United States. The two countries are genetically linked — in language, history, laws and culture — and those commonalities matter a great deal.
Data Privacy: Privacy continues is a hot button for the U.S. GDPR is in place in the U.K., as is Privacy Shield. Regulation is a moving target, but there is a common foundation.
Business Headquarters: “Pragmatism” is the operative word. Considerations such as degree of industry regulation, the need to move people around Europe, the size of the organization, labor laws and tax rates all factor into a decision.
Regional Differences: London will continue to be its own country, as are all great cities. But other regions, particularly the north, where businesses that rely on international supply chains will be hit hard – Leeds, Northern Ireland, Wales. I read this morning that U.K. automotive production declined 8% in 2018, as investment plummets and jobs disappear.
Trade: Separate trade agreements are in the works with Israel and talks are underway with South Korean and Japan.
Defense: NATO, an intelligence community that’s joined at the hip.
Worst case scenario? On March 29, Parliament decides not to decide. A second referendum to stay in the E.U.? Too late and too expensive. Unlikely.
“I am England”
Every muddle has its heroes, and I asked Vice Consul Haileigh Meyers and her Silicon Valley-based colleague David what they thought about Prime Minister Theresa May.
She (Mrs. May) is a true public servant, and she realizes she needs to get this done. She’s driven by a commitment to public service.
UK International Trade and Investment British Consulate-General
Imagine taking a job that no one else wants, a job that brings you defeat and humiliation by even your closest allies. Imagine sticking with that job as other opportunities more to your liking and skill set pass you by. If you haven’t read the New Yorker piece on Mrs. May, do. Here’s hoping Queen Elizabeth, another woman who knows a great deal about sacrifice in the name of public service, can offer guidance from her own long tenure as leader of a nation that faced and dealt with dwindling political and economic power.
Closing the session, Allen tossed out a provocative idea: “What if it’s just like Y2K, and we wake up and nothing happens?” Some of us remember the panic that preceded the turn of the century hysteria about whether networks and data centers could tolerate the transition between “1999” and “2000.”
After the session, I rode down in the elevator with Drew Haas, who is moving to London next week to open the U.K. office of San Saba Pecan. They have a warehouse outside of York, and Drew will be growing the business in Europe, where almonds are vulnerable to some stiff Texas competition.
POSTSCRIPT: Inflexibility: The flip side of determined leadership?
UPDATE March 18, 2019: The BBC reports Mrs. May will try to get her proposal passed after two rejections, something the now-famous House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled as a no-go unless there are “substantive changes” to the proposal. Will Mrs. May charge into the same brick wall once again?
The Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum called for closer cooperation between government and the technology community. Is a public-private partnership in our future?
We expect our government to keep us safe. The Constitution cites “providing for the common defense” as part of the reason to even have a government. In the best of times, protecting a country as proudly technology-driven as ours is a tough job. And these are not the best of times.
Ranking members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were in town recently to talk about the challenges of overseeing national security in a cyber world. Below, from left, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Moderator Stephen Slick.
“Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us communicate, but it can also be meddled with,” said Burr. “We need to change the entire architecture of government to recognize we’re not in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century, and that’s not just government (alone), it’s how we integrate that into the private sector.”
We can thank the Russians and Facebook for jump starting a public conversation about technology, sharing, business models and national security. Consider the complexities. Our finance, hospitality (Airbnb), mobility (Uber and Lyft), communications (Apple, Facebook and AT&T), oil & gas (pipelines), as well as many power, water and utility networks, are privately owned, managed and vulnerable.
A broken partnership and the spectre of 9/11
Technology has historically been a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. Nuclear technology came out of World War II. The networking technology behind the Internet came out of the Defense Dept. via DARPA and the PARC research facility. But these days, the companies with the research and development muscle to push the boundaries of technology are global, rich and fast-moving. Thanks to Edward Snowden, intellectual property concerns, employee activism and a large customer base outside of U.S. borders, they don’t necessarily trust government to lead them down the right path. Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven, the Army’s first implementation of artificial intelligence is a case in point.
“We don’t want to stop innovation,” Cornyn explained. “But we need the private sector to be responsive to the needs of government.” He made a cautionary reference to the government’s failure to predict the incomprehensible horror of the Sept. 11 attacks:
“The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance and effective organization.”
Excerpted from The 9/11 Commission Report
There are striking similarities between Big Tech and Washington. Both profess transparency but value secrecy. Both think globally and maintain strong international allegiances. Both know results matter. Both value the rights, freedoms and security our nation represents. Best case scenario, each provides a check and balance on the other.
Guardrails for the application of new technologies
Big Tech recognizes emerging technologies like AI are potentially dangerous. In June, Google published a set of internal principles that were accompanies by a cautionary memo from its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, “We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use.” “
“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”
Sundar Puchai, chief executive officer, Google
But Google’s AI principles don’t work for everyone. America’s fiercest competitor, China, requires companies to give up their source code, both figuratively and literally, for government applications. It has made artificial intelligence the cornerstone of its long-term strategy for technology leadership and a way to automate social control. Witness a recent issue of Jeff Ding’s excellent China AI newsletter for a translation of a white paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) for an outline of “how Beijing aims to use AI to automate censorship, control of public opinion, and improved public security.”
“If America gives up its leadership ability to set a a framework, it’s not going to happen,” warned Senator Byrd. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, both a founder of and an investor in technology companies, was more blunt. “We need guardrails…. We constantly reach out and beg them (the private sector) to work with us in a meaningful way.”
An inflection point in American history
Senator Ben Saase (R-NE) also spoke, describing the long-term race with China as “an inflection point in 230 years of American history,” an opportunity to “organize the American people around long-term competition with China.”
Senator Burr suggested that a public-private partnership located perhaps in North Carolina or Austin could develop the “architecture of cooperation” between the government and private sector.
Certainly, the Army took a calculated risk with its newly-formed Army Futures Command. Based here in Austin, AFS is an entire brigade charged with drawing talent from the start up community to develop the weapons of the future. It’s a big cooperative initiative with a challenging scope.
Never waste a good crisis
Austin has a solid track record of public-private partnerships, most successfully with SEMATECH, formed in the late 1980’s when the semiconductor industry was fighting a losing battle with the Japanese. But P3s are no silver bullet. They are highly collaborative. Competitive issues can be a barrier. They require the participation of top talent. Crises come and go, and their goals and structures must adapt:.
A crisis is helpful to attract support, but there must be an overarching vision to give it the flexibility to adapt as things change. Political, social, economic, and technological conditions are fluid and a P3’s structure, mission and goals needs to reflect those changes.
Collaborationis key, modeled from the top and rewarded at all levels of the organization. Beware of making intellectual property a barrier in this integral process.
Large companies have the resources – talent and support – to collaborate. Smaller companies quickly become overextended. Set realistic expectations with leadership.
Define ROI in terms of the organization’s goals. Establish incremental ROI benchmarks to demonstrate early successes. People will be watching.
A closing note on intellectual property
Intellectual property is a concern in any collaboration, but restrictive IP requirements can torpedo possibilities. I found this article by Charles Duhigg a fascinating case study of the Silicon Valley mindset. It describes tech’s proprietary focus on IP and the lengths Google took to retain the knowledge inside a top engineer’s head, the intriguingly perverse Anthony Levandowski. The piece closes with this quote from Levandowski, who as of this writing is working with Chinese investors to fund his self-driving truck start up:
“The only thing that matters is the future… I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that History to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”
Anthony Levandowski, serial entrepreneur and former top Google engineer
For more information, here is a link to the presentations from the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum, “The Return of Great Power Competition” and the inspiration for this entry.