The Secret of Silicon Valley’s Success

I’ve given a couple talks in the last few years about the specialness of Silicon Valley and how it might be replicated — get rid of all non-compete laws, stat! — but I learned a big thing while researching and giving those talks. When you’re up at the podium you can’t help but notice that the audience at tech conferences in, say, Uruguay or England is very different from those in Silicon Valley… and the difference is the almost entire lack of Asian faces.

Even I was surprised during my research to learn that 79% of Silicon Valley tech workers are immigrants or the children of immigrants. A lot of those immigrants are from Asia — my town, Sunnyvale, was 43% Asian-American in the 2010 census, while both San Francisco and San Jose are about one-third Asian. Self-identified Asians only make up 5.6% of the US population, so that is quite a bit of clustering.

And therein lies the challenge for would-be Silicon Valleys around the world. Asian people only want to live in places with a lot of other Asian people and services. Even in the age of Amazon Prime, we cling fiercely to our restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and places of worship — not to mention the really specialized stuff like sari shops, Korean-speaking doctors, Chinese language schools, immigration attorneys, Taiko drumming groups, etc. There are recreational basketball leagues here that are limited to Asians (you’re only allowed to have a certain number of mixed-ethnicity players!).

If you look at a list of the most Asian towns in the US by percentage, 8 out of 10 are in the Bay Area or Orange County (the exceptions are Honolulu, which has a very different history of Asian immigration than the mainland; and Enterprise NV which is a ritzy suburb of Las Vegas preferred by tax-dodging young retireds, many from Asia). If you look at a list of the most Asian-American cities by raw numbers, it’s like a list of tech hubs: NYC, LA, Bay Area, Chicago, Houston, Philly. The big anomalies in the link between Asianness and tech are either “overflow” hubs (Austin, Portland) which are disproportionately attractive to large Silicon Valley companies and white Millennials seeking cheaper real estate; and oddly enough Seattle which has half the Asian population of other tech capitals. (The “missing” Asians are largely Indian, and I personally suspect Indian programmers find the weather and Scandinavian-inflected culture inhospitable.)

I’m going to spare you from tedious and probably incorrect ideas about why Asians are so important to tech — fuck tired narratives about Confucianism, man — and just focus on practical stuff. One of the major differences between Asian-American tech workers and white ones is that Asians in the Bay Area are far more likely to have family or other social support which allows them to enjoy a better life even in the crushing housing market here. A non-Asian kid who moves here is going to have to hit up Craigslist to find a place to live, maybe buy a car or use Uber/Lyft, eat out quite a bit, pay off those student loans, and otherwise incur so many cash expenses that realistically owning a home requires winning the stock option lottery. Meanwhile his or her Asian-American counterpart might very well be living at home rent-free, eating Mom-cooked meals, driving dad’s hand-me-down car, and in not a few cases eventually getting some money from the fam to help buy a house — at which point Mom and Dad will also provide free childcare. That’s my neighborhood in a nutshell: almost every home has a multi-generational Asian-American family where the parents work while the grandparents trundle around with the kids in a baby carriage and the teenagers go to community college.

The good news for other countries is that the USA has recently become RADICALLY less friendly to high-skill Asian immigrants. I won’t go into all the details but visas are scarce, they’re trying to get rid of family migration — of which I and most of my billions of well-educated cousins are beneficiaries — and spouses aren’t allowed to work any more. But our stupidity is your opportunity! Grab up those Asian graduate students and build the next Silicon Valley elsewhere.