“What’s does Canada need? A bit more frankness, and a lot more failure.”

This is such a terrific article I’m reposting the entire article here for AlbertaTechnology readers – click on the John Stackhouse image below to visit the source article in LinkedIn


For diversity and inclusion, no country is hotter than Canada. So why are we so worried about innovation, which is supposed to thrive on those values?

Celebrated for our inclusion of people regardless of race, sexuality, religion or background, we also know we have an innovation problem, which a quarter-century of open immigration, inclusive laws and social programming have failed to enhance.

Chamath Palihapitiya puts it down to oddballs, weirdos and outliers. We don’t like them.

“Why won’t we allow the outliers to feel at home?” he asks of Canada. “Why did so many of us feel we needed to leave to express ourselves?”

Chamath should know. He came to Canada as a refugee, grew up poor, worked his way to Silicon Valley and helped build a startup called Facebook. Yes, that Facebook.

“I owe this country everything,” he says now.

When he was 6, Chamath’s family moved from Sri Lanka to Ottawa, where, as refugees, they lived above a laundromat and relied on welfare. It motivated him to pursue higher education. After studying electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo, he moved to California and worked at Winamp, an early media-player company that had been acquired by AOL. That’s where he met Sean Parker, the now legendary Facebook figure (played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network) who, in 2005, introduced the young Canadian to Mark Zuckerberg. Chamath joined the social media company in 2007, and helped take it from 50 million users to 750 million.

Five years after leaving Facebook, he’s now among the most influential Canadians anywhere. He’s a co-owner of basketball’s Golden State Warriors and one of Silicon Valley’s leading social innovators, using venture capital to tackle diabetes, climate change and artificial intelligence, among other causes. In his spare time, he’s one of the world’s top poker players.

Chamath believes he could not have succeeded in the Valley had he not been raised in Canada. Public schooling, an affordable university education and a health care system that didn’t leave his diabetic father financially ruined — there were several Canadian advantages. “I identify as a Canadian,” he still says. “I have a US passport but I would never be American. I love this country.”

Palihapita was interviewed on stage last Friday at the Waterloo Innovation Summit by Bloomberg’s Amanda Lang. Here’s some of what he had to say:

On the value of coop education

Chamath was a “mediocre student,” on academic probation at Waterloo and wondering if he’d graduate. Then he took his first co-op placement. It was revolutionary. He discovered he was more business smart than book smart. He could build teams, work with a range of personalities and develop ideas.

On the value of poker

He’s a ranked player in Las Vegas, hardly because he needs the winnings. It’s the insights he plays for. For one, poker reminds him how you can start a game with a winning hand and lose, just as you can start with a weak hand and prevail. It’s also a reminder of how easy it is to lose everything, which reminds him of growing up poor as well as the exigencies of life as a startups. Highs and lows, driven not by the hand you’re dealt but how you play it. “It’s a microcosm of life, of how probabilistic life is.”

On the challenge of money

When Chamath left Facebook, he had enough wealth to enjoy life for decades. The enjoyment didn’t last a year. At times, wealth revealed the lesser side of his character. It also stripped him of the hunger that had made him who he is. He now views money as “a lubricant,” the oil needed to make better things happen. He’s changed his focus from spending to investing, to ensure he has more capital to apply to the social problems that concern him most. His favourite causes are ones that are rooted in “inequitable” systems — universally needed goods that are not universally available. Health care, education and financial services are among them.

On the challenges of charity

He refuses to call himself a philanthropist. He prefers “free radical.” It’s not just about his own money. Charity, in his view, can’t solve the big problems because it doesn’t offer enough incentives to the world’s best minds. Think Google. If social organizations could work (and pay) like Google, they’d have the same results. He’s applying that kind of thinking to diabetes, which he thinks will be conquered by the private sector, and profit-minded start-ups that are willing to test the boundaries of human knowledge and practice. Social impact investing is the mission of Social Capital, a $275-million fund he started in 2011 with Peter Thiel, Joe Hewitt (co-creator of Firefox) and Kevin Rose (Digg’s co-founder). “You have to have this probabilistic approach,” he said. “I have a very precise sense of what’s possible in the future. And I’m not afraid of losing money. I don’t care about money.”

On the challenges of democracy

“We’re eight weeks from what could be a cataclysmic train wreck of an outcome.” Remember, he lives in the world’s biggest political war zone, the United States, which is now less than 50 days from a presidential election that has been dominated by big-money interests and polarized politics. “Today, democracy is under attack,” he argues, seeing capitalism as a root problem (and he’s an ardent capitalist). Political funding has allowed a small number of Americans, including him, to sway the politics of the many. And then there are the tools of Silicon Valley, which tilt the debate even more. “Capitalism is fundamentally broken, for two reasons. One is the law. In the US, the law has allowed a couple thousand of us to bastardize the system. The second is technology, which allows us to change things even more.”

On the future of technology

Our age of technology began in 1968, with the birth of Intel. The company’s 16-bit 8086 microprocessor, released a decade later, transformed the way we compute. Everything since has been an add-on. That’s about to change, Chamath believes, thanks to machine learning. The growing capability of computers to learn from themselves will become “the new stack” on which everything going forward will be built. He and some ex-Googlers are trying to build a new core architecture, and trying to reimagine technology “at the bit and atom level.” “There will be an entirely new platform. We’re back at ground zero.”

On the future of Canada

Chamath is one of Canada’s greatest cheerleaders, but he doesn’t think we’re perfect. Because of the polarization of the US and Europe — and America’s “loss of common decency” — the world’s entrepreneurs now want to move here. Trouble is, they won’t find the world’s most entrepreneurial culture. Too many Canadians prefer the comfort of the median — middle of the road — and try to pull others there. And yet, as Silicon Valley proves perennially, the future is shaped by outliers, those who dare to leave the median.

What’s does Canada need? A bit more frankness, and a lot more failure.

The Canadian way — go along to get along — doesn’t work in a winner-takes-all digital world. Not everyone can win. Not everyone should get a star. Chamath, who readily speaks his mind, found even at Facebook in the early days, his bluntness was a surprise. Then people thrived on it, because it gave them permission to speak their minds. “It’s empowering … People flower under that kind of stuff.”

As for failure, nothing separates Silicon Valley from other cultures more than its comfort with a losing poker hand. “A celebration of failure,” Chamath calls it. “It’s ok to try things and get it wrong. It means you’re either learning or you’re right. Silicon Valley works because there isn’t a consequence for being wrong.”


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