What single issue will separate the winners from the losers in the next technological era?
That was the message of this year's seventh annual Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford Conference, which took place this week.
SVCO has become, perhaps, the premiere event for young entrepreneurs in Europe, and having attended all seven, I have found it interesting to watch the rise of tech entrepreneurship in this region.
The program originally began with me eight years ago, when I was invited to the Said Business School to give a speech to an audience of students; and even now, each year I participate by helping to moderate at least one of the panels, and teach a couple of master classes.
These days, the audience is usually standing room only, the halls filled not only with students, but probably a couple hundred business executives, reporters, academics and bloggers. Heavily represented is the Oxford Entrepreneurs Society, which hardly existed when I started, and which now boasts 3,000 members.
Some of those members, as well as graduated Oxford MBAs, were sitting on the dais with me — and it was gratifying to see that some of the students in the audience five years ago, were now successful executives in their own startup companies.
Eight years ago, I began a tradition of asking the audience at the main round table how many considered themselves to be entrepreneurs. Back then, no more than 20 percent raised their hands. This year, that number was up to about 80 percent, including not just commercial, but social entrepreneurs, committed to bringing those same business-building skills to nonprofit organizations. With numbers like that, it can indeed be said that Oxford University, that 8-century-old institution, is now, itself, the heartland of entrepreneurial education in Europe.
Just for fun this time, I added a new question to my poll: How many members of the audience were, at that moment, instant messaging, twittering or blogging about the event? The result was an astounding 15 percent. Add the camera crews filming streaming video for Web sites, and reporters recording the event for podcasts, and what had begun as a formal speech to a passive audience at the beginning of this decade, is now becoming a global interactive event.
The second change that has taken place at SVCO is in the message being delivered by the distinguished guests from the Valley. At the beginning of the decade, guests like Jeff Skoll of eBay and Elon Musk of PayPal, talked about taking the entrepreneurial skills they'd learned in the high-tech industry, and applying them to other markets. These days, of course, Skoll runs one of the most celebrated and honored production companies in Hollywood, while Musk has been busy building rocket ships and the Tesla electric car.
By 2002-2003, in the middle of the dot-com bust, it was difficult to find good news to bring to the Said students, and almost impossible to convince many of them that high-tech would survive even this crash, and that entrepreneurial opportunities would soon again be on the rise.
The one message we did hear from panelists during that period, notably Evan Williams, then of Blogger.com, was that a new type of Web phenomenon — social networking — was beginning to catch fire, and that clever students would be wise to look at business opportunities in that field.