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Silicon Valley is full of entrepreneurs — and some of them are native French speakers

Jean-Louis Gassée, a former colleague of Steve Jobs at Apple. Gassée is now a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Jean-Louis Gassée, a former colleague of Steve Jobs at Apple. Gassée is now a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Here’s a guest post from Silicon Valley-based reporter Alison van Diggelen

Steve Jobs has inspired many entrepreneurs in the U.S. and around the world. Today, some French tech innovators in Silicon Valley think of Jobs as an honorary Frenchman. The perception is that he was more focused on beauty and elegance, and less on money.

But although many French admired him, they didn’t copy him. And, at least until recently, they haven’t created the conditions that would allow tech innovators to thrive.

The French, of course, are known for their style. But some are asking: Why is it so hard to be an entrepreneur in France and much easier for a French entrepreneur to succeed in the United States?

Here in Silicon Valley, the French are certainly leaving their mark. There’s Pierre Omidyar of eBay fame, semiconductor pioneer Pierre Lamond and serial entrepreneur Philippe Kahn.

Jean-Louis Gassée is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. In the 1980s, Gassée was the head of Apple in France and worked with Steve Jobs. He believes true innovators are often a bit mad, but in France they need to be even more than that.

“To be an entrepreneur in France you need an additional dose of madness … the rules are so onerous,” says Gassée.

He’s talking about heavy government regulation and taxes of up to 75%. These, he says, force French entrepreneurs to be tenacious and to find loopholes. Legal loopholes, of course.

“In France, breaking the law is a sport, it’s an honor, it’s a badge to find ways to cheat the rules,” says Gassée.

When he established Apple in France, Gassée had to be creative since the government put up roadblocks to foreign competition. What’s more, Silicon Valley’s extravagant language was abhorrent to French ears.

“When our dearly departed Steve Jobs came to France to make his usual brand of hyperbolic statements, people were taken aback, resentful,” says Gassée. “People rolled their eyes. They called him fou (mad), méprisant (contemptuous ), houtant (haughty), … arrogante (arrogant). … All this was part of his genius.”

Today, that genius has made Steve Jobs a hero to many younger French entrepreneurs.

I went to a gathering of DBF, a networking group for Francophones in Silicon Valley, where I chatted with John Forge, a French entrepreneur.

“We should make Steve Jobs an honorary Frenchman,” he laughed, praising Jobs’ style and detail-oriented approach.

“Steve Jobs was very French in his approach. He was seeing technology through the eyes of somebody who studied fonts, characters, writing … on the detail, it had to be perfect.”

Forge argues that the French obsession with elegance is very “Jobsian.”

“It has to be beautiful; there’s an entire way of thinking,” says Forge. “Quelque chose qui vous parle … it speaks to you effectively.”

But Forge says that even among the open-minded French entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, there’s still some insularity.

“Where the French gather … they call that ‘The Frog Pond.’ There’s a little too much of that … ‘I want every day to have my steak pomme frites’ … to live like the French live,” he explains.

Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley has dozens of French eateries. I met with Susan Lucas-Conwell at the Douce France Café in Palo Alto. She currently leads SVForum, an education network for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

The Douce France Café in Palo Alto Lucas-Conwell is married to a Frenchman and says the French view business failure differently than in California. In Silicon Valley, it’s a badge of honor. In France, Lucas-Conwell explains, failure is one of the non-dit, the things that you never talk about.

The Douce France Café in Palo Alto (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

The Douce France Café in Palo Alto (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

To make matters worse, according to Lucas-Conwell, French government officials are expert at the business put-down.

“You will hear the administration calling entrepreneurs ‘les patrons voyous.’ Voyou is a thug,” says Lucas-Conwell.

That’s pretty strong language — another manifestation of the anti-entrepreneurial culture in France. And just think, the word ‘entrepreneur’ is French.

So while French innovators struggle Sisyphus-like up a steep mountain, the lucky ones can move here to Silicon Valley and feel an optimistic wind at their back.

“We Silicon Valley people tend to think that we run the world, you understand, and there is some truth in that,” says Jean-Louis Gassée. “Je tweet, tu tweet, nous tweetons, vous tweetez, ils tweetent … It’s an -er verb. Usage trumps rules in any language.”

“It is a wonderful thing … we are the melting pot’s melting pot,” he adds.

Sophie Woodville Ducom, another French transplant with the French American Chamber of Commerce, calls Silicon Valley “The Mecca” — a place where entrepreneurs can thrive, even if they first fail. And, if they’re really lucky, they get to push that rock to the top of the mountain and enjoy the glory. That’s the promise of Silicon Valley, anyway.

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Silicon Valley gets linguistic enlightenment from India

Dancers relax after performing during a Diwali Festival in Silicon Valley (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Dancers relax after performing during a Diwali Festival in Silicon Valley (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Here’s a guest post from Silicon Valley-based reporter Alison van Diggelen

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, will be celebrated around the world on November 3. In Silicon Valley, where Indian engineers make up one third of the tech workforce and have founded many successful startups, Diwali is an integral part of the culture and celebrations start early.

I went to a Diwali Festival in October in Cupertino. Silicon Valley’s Indian community was out in force.

On the main stage, Indian boys and girls danced; around them, vendors sold vibrant clothes and crafts. The smell of aloo gobi, chicken tikka and naan filled the air. Most women wore dazzling saris. Some elderly men wore embroidered kurtas, or tunics. But most wore the classic garb of Silicon Valley: jeans and T-shirts.

I chatted with Jasho Patnaik, a software engineer from Odisha state, in Eastern India. He said Diwali is much more than a festival of lights.

“It’s a festival of spreading love. Love is not specific to India, not to America, not to British, not to anybody.”

Patnaik added: “Love is love, light is light.”

For Patnaik, Diwali and other Indian traditions like meditation inform his view of technology. Take the word avatar, a Hindu concept popularized by the blockbuster movie. It pops up all over the place: in computer sciences, artificial intelligence and even robotics.

“Avatar is actually a Sanskrit Hindi word, it’s a spirit taking a new form for something,” said Padmasree Warrior, chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco Systems in San Jose. “Every time I see that word, it instills a sense of pride.”

This spiritual influence from India has become embedded in Silicon Valley culture. Of course words like guru and mantra have been around in America for decades but in tech boardrooms and coffee shops, expressions like coding guru and fail-fast mantra are now part of the Silicon Valley vernacular.

Junglee is a Hindi word meaning wild or ill-mannered. It was used by a Silicon Valley startup (founded, of course, by a team of Indians) that was acquired by Amazon.

Then there are the cultural differences. In Indian culture it’s hard to say “no.” Instead, according to Raj Oberoi, CEO of software startup Talygen, Indians obfuscate, often using what he calls the “bobblehead” gesture.

“A bobblehead is a unique Indian artform,” said Oberoi. “Indians have the unique ability to move their heads from left to right and it looks just like a bobblehead…on your car dashboard.”

I asked him if it always means no.

“No, it can also mean a yes. Which is what’s so confusing,” he chuckled. “Is that a yes, is that a no, is that a maybe, or are you having neck issues?”

During India’s colonial days, the English language absorbed many words from Hindi: words such as jungle, juggernaut and pundit. These words have migrated from India to Britain to America, but some well-educated Indians in Silicon Valley still talk in a stilted English of centuries past. Raj Oberoi shares some examples: Phrases like ‘do the needful’ or ‘I beg to stay.’

This old-fashioned talk sometimes leaves American colleagues in the IT world scratching their heads and seeking explanations.

Oberoi explains that it’s a rediscovery for Americans of a language that, even in Britain, is basically dying out. It’s more archaic, very formal, very flowery and it harkens back to the days of the Raj.

Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior shares an example of Hinglish, a Hindi-English mingling that adds Hindi suffixes to English words.

“Hey did you go to the Gym–shim yesterday?” Warrior said. “That means did you go work out?” Some, like me, consider Hinglish delightful. Others worry that people who use it too much will never properly master Hindi–or English.

Growing up in India, Warrior described how she was taught to conform. In Silicon Valley, her words and the way she thinks have changed.

“Close your eyes and say what words come to your mind…risk taking, entrepreneurship, out of the box…” she said. “In the [Silicon] Valley, we want talent that breaks the rules, creates disruptive innovation. These words have been added uniquely to my vocabulary.”

Silicon Valley’s Diwali Festival is a home from home for many Indians. It made Jasho Patnaik think about Indian concepts and how they may relate to his adopted home. Enlightened thought, he said, is the key to both computer programming and changing the world.

“It’s the way you think. That’s where it starts, ” he said.

It’s true: Enlightenment is coming from multicultural, multilingual India. But an American version of enlightenment is also rubbing off on the Indians who now populate multicultural, multilingual Silicon Valley.


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Fry’s Planet Word, Belizean Creole and Steve Jobs’ global speech

Writer and actor Stephen Fry has made a documentary series for BBC TV. It’s a five-part history of language that draws on academic research but is intended for a general audience.  Not unlike The World in Words.  The pod features an interview with Stephen Fry, in which he waxes lyrical about how language has driven human development. One example: our ability to convey the past and the present.  (Fry speaks of this in terms of verb tenses, though it’s broader than that: languages like Chinese don’t use tenses, but they can still more than adequately convey any number of points in time. )

Here’s how Fry puts it:

“Without this extraordinary thing…we couldn’t have got anywhere, because tense allows you to say what you’re going to do tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or it allows one person to say to another person ‘Do you remember that thing we saw yesterday? Three sunsets ago, that place there. Let’s meet there in four sunsets time.’  That’s immediately a plan, instead of having to improvise like a wolf pack by instinct…You set out a plan and then implement it. It underwrites everything that is our civilization.”

O, Lan a di free bai di Kyaribeeyan See

Thirty years after Belize won independence from the British, Belizean Creole (or Kriol)  is winning respect alongside English. The latest sign of that is a version of the Belizean national anthem rendered in Kriol.

Leela Vernon wrote the Kriol version (the full lyric is here). Vernon is world famous in Belize. She popularized Brukdown, a rural dance music– so much so that’s she’s now known as the Queen of Brukdown.

In the pod, I talk with longtime Big Show contributor Amy Bracken about Belizean Creole’s make-up and status. It’s primarily a mix of English and several West African languages. But it’s outgrown its roots: most Belizeans use it as a link language. For example, if your native tongue is one of Belize’s several Mayan languages, you’re going to need a second language as soon as leave your home town. While English and Spanish are available, they’re not as widely understood as Kriol.

Finally in the pod this week, our own tribute to Steve Jobs: Calestous Juma of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government talks about how he introduced desktop publishing to Kenya in the 1980s using an early iteration of a Mac.  The fast and cheap publication of speeches and essays helped a new generation of Kenyans rise to public prominence. Some were later elected to parliament or became judges.

Macs– and later iPods and iPhones– helped globalize local speech and localize global ideas in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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