Beyond the Financial Crisis: Optimistic Entrepreneurs Look Ahead

White-tied teenagers and tycoons in tennis shoes were the order of the day at this year's annual Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford event.

As I've noted in past years' columns about this event -- which began with a solo speech of mine back at the turn of the century -- SVCO has grown to become not only one of the most important events of the school year for the university's Said Graduate School of Business, but also begun to turn Oxford into perhaps the entrepreneurial center of Europe.

At the university itself, the impact has been astounding. That first year, I polled the audience to ask how many of the 500 in attendance thought of themselves as entrepreneurs. About 20 percent raised their hands.

This year the number was 90 percent . . . and nearly the same number had already started their own companies. Meanwhile, the Oxford Entrepreneurs Club, created by undergraduates, now has an astonishing 4,000 members -- the largest club on campus, and the second only to Stanford University.

SVCO has taken place in good years and bad, at the peak of the boom and the bottom of the bust, in the weeks after 9/11 -- and, this week, in the midst of the global uncertainty about the credit crunch.

On Sunday night, for the first time, we participated in a debate at the legendary Oxford Union, the great Gothic wooden hall (built in 1823) that has served as the training ground of generations of future British MPs and prime ministers.

It was a bit intimidating, after warm Winter Pimms in the lounge, to tour the Union's hallways and look at photographs of participants in past debates, including Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, Malcolm X and Benazir Bhutto (the last a former Union president).

The theme of the debate was "Resolved: The problems of tomorrow are greater than the entrepreneurs of today." Needless to say, this was like waving a red flag in front of real entrepreneurs, who believe in their chromosomes that no problem is unsolvable to a dedicated start-up team armed with enough venture capital. So, needless to say, the entire line-up in opposition to the theme was high-tech types, including Jerry Sanders, founder of San Francisco Science venture capital, Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, Julie Meyer of Ariadne Capital, and Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn.

By comparison, and perhaps just as unsurprisingly, the side in support of the theme mostly consisted of academics and World Bank types. They seemed a lot more comfortable in their tuxedos, while the Valley folks had that look of high school juniors dressed up for their first prom. In fact, they looked a lot less comfortable than the young officers of the Union, who weren't much older than high school juniors and were dressed in white tie and tails.

To have listened to the opponents, you wouldn't have guessed that any of them had a single doubt that entrepreneurs could handle any task set before them, short of immortality -- and they were willing to give that a shot, too. I did my part, as well, giving the first opposition speech from the audience -- all while wondering if any of the studs had popped out of my tuxedo shirt.

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