From the outside, Silicon Valley seems the centre of the innovation universe – but the reality is somewhat different.
True, some of the world’s most innovative companies and individuals are based there. But the question is: where did the original ideas come from?
As someone who worked closely with Hewlett Packard Enterprise powerhouse Meg Whitman for three years, Jacqui Ferguson knows the Bay Area intimately.
The Scottish tech guru served as CEO for HPE’s UK, Ireland, Middle East, Mediterranean and Africa business, which employs 10,000 people, for almost three years after spending three years on the West Coast of America as Whitman’s chief of staff.
Ferguson was surprised to find that many entrepreneurs based in Silicon Valley had dreamt up their business ideas elsewhere.
“It was amazing but a bit surreal,” she told BusinessCloud. “One of the myth busters for me was I assumed all innovation was coming from Silicon Valley but when I arrived there I realised it was people going there with ideas – they weren’t all being thought up there.”
So what is it that attracts them? “It has the ecosystem to nurture and the capital to invest in those ideas,” says Ferguson, who moved out to Silicon Valley in 2012 but is now based back in the UK.
The area had a village feel, she says, with lots of positives like companies who would otherwise be rivals collaborating “for the greater purpose of changing the world”. However it wasn’t all picture-perfect.
“It is hard to live out there – there are so many billionaires and the cost of living is incredibly high,” she says.
“But it’s not pricing people out – they figure out different ways to be innovative so they can access the area when they’re young and don’t have a lot of money, like sharing accommodation or sleeping in motorhomes.
“They’re figuring out how to be part of it all.”
On the experience of working with Whitman, who resigned earlier this year, she said: “Working with Meg was like five MBAs all at once.
“She’s very good at getting to the nub of the point and her strategic critical thinking is excellent. She has a pace about her and is also really motivated around the people, so for her taking the job at HP was about re-establishing a Silicon Valley icon – that’s what motivated her.
“Everyone works in the same industry there, so your neighbour works for LinkedIn or Facebook – it’s how I imagine it feels to work in Aberdeen where everyone’s in oil.”
Ferguson is a non-executive director at several companies, including Tesco Bank, and an advisor to the Scottish Government.
She says she’d love for the UK to develop its own Silicon Valley.
“We’re starting to see tech centres here, with progress being made in London and the North, but Silicon Valley is unique in the way it has its own ecosystem,” she said.