Pitch for impact

Recently, I judged at a startup pitch event. The event was atypical and its goals contrasted with the surrounding startup culture. Such events in Silicon Valley happen often where the number of investors might actually outnumber entrepreneurs. In this case, a handful of volunteers helped youth entrepreneurs from a local school.

As a volunteer judge, I look for innovation, and the “spark skills” coined by BUILD: communication, collaboration, problem-solving, innovation, grit, self-management. For nearly 20 years, BUILD has fostered youth entrepreneurship amongst students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. The odds are stacked against them as they prepare for life after high school.

The kids prepare hard and always deliver at these competitions. What amazes me is how they strive to give back in spite of their fragile roots. They try to solve problems in their communities with really cool ideas and products.

Many move onto college based on their ability to develop their spark skills.  Unlike the rest of Silicon Valley, these youth don’t get absorbed by the successful startup culture around them. BUILD brings this culture to them.

The tech consumer culture (i.e., social media) is fully embraced by BUILD students. However, the secret sauce of tech entrepreneurship remains a secret for these kids. They have many rungs on the ladder to climb in order to catch up to their well-heeled peers. At the top, there is an aristocracy of folks either blessed from legacy roots or from successful tribes (i.e., Asian-Americans). Many others in Silicon Valley got the right education. Here’s a recent article in The Atlantic which highlights privilege and social mobility. Success breeds success. It takes capital to make much more. That’s good news for about 10% of the population. Teaching your kids to do well is the default expectation. Giving back is just as important.


A small demographic of elite strivers can’t do enough to sustain a society even if they tried (as the article alludes to). The American economic engine revs forward. However, America has become a divided and dangerous society for those who don’t live in gated communities.

The American dream once sustained middle-class prosperity. When the middle class deteriorated, American civic life took a hit, triggering social chaos.

Every time I visit India or another developing nation, I see about 10% of the population under bright lights, while the rest remains in darkness. Half the population in India doesn’t even have internet access. It’s impossible to navigate India and not see gut-wrenching poverty.  At the same time, India has as much opulence and extravagant wealth as one might find in the Hamptons or Newport Beach. But, it’s locked away and sheltered from the rest of that society. Will America become India faster than India becomes America? Today, homelessness pervades nearly every block in San Francisco in spite of remarkable growth and its perceived “5 star” quality of life.

We need to do more for the 90% falling behind. Instead of building taller walls, we need to extend the table. The table of opportunity needs an extension beyond Silicon Valley. The secret sauce of entrepreneurial education should be shared outside of our ivory towers.

Organizations like BUILD connect the dots and bridge the divide. This is how to make America great again.