I had lunch with Tony Blair today. (And yes, I have been waiting all afternoon to type that.)
I and a few other Silicon Valley leaders were honored to host the first visit ever for a British Prime Minister to Silicon Valley. And he fit right in (wardrobe aside, but he’s a world leader after all, and asking him to dress down for Silicon Valley would be like asking Steve Jobs to skip blue jeans and a black shirt – morally objectionable to someone).
The conversation ranged across a variety of topics, from education to cultural competitive advantage, to the government’s engagement in delivery of social services via the network.
We only really had an hour together, so I thought I’d jot down a few of the vignettes from our discussion.
The Prime Minister wanted advice on advancing the United Kingdom’s position in Europe for research and development. Nearly everyone in the room referenced Stanford and Berkeley’s role in making the Valley attractive – as a source of graduates, to be sure, but more as a revolving door for research, partnership, education, dialog. I reminded the Prime Minister that the “SUN” in our ticker symbol, “SUNW” stands for Stanford University. John Hennessy made an interesting reference, quite serious I think, to Stanford’s now looking toward the philanthropy of its graduates as a far more lucrative source of return on its intellectual property then traditional licenses or royalties.
I took a quick poll to prove a point – nearly everyone in the room was a product of public school education (myself included). So the opportunities weren’t isolated to higher education. (Mr. Jobs followed up to make the reality more painful – showing how few of us were sending our children to public school.)
And lastly, there was a discussion of wage rates and cost of living on the desirability of an economy for R&D.
My point – shared by many in the room, but not all – was that Silicon Valley’s (and certainly Sun’s) business is largely insensitive to the price of labor on the world market. As one of my staff members said recently, “when it comes to hiring, this ain’t Costco, we don’t buy in bulk.” If we can bring a product to market three or six or twelve months earlier than planned, wage rates as a percentage of total return aren’t even measurable in calculating returns. (What was Bill Joy’s starting salary? My point… who cares.)
So if you want to attract companies like Sun to your economy, focus on investing in education, in your students, and in your leaders. Focus on educating your policy makers as to why you’re committed to education – not to build presitigious institutions, but to invest in progress, academic as well as economic. Focus on the value of broad based talent as a competitive weapon, don’t be distracted by cost reducing labor.
So on behalf of Sun, and our little corner of Silicon Valley, I laud the Prime Minister for taking the time out of a very difficult schedule to visit Silicon Valley. It took courage and time.
What we all recognize to be the basic ingredients of progress.