Lessons Learned: Silicon Slopes 2020

February 13th, 2020

Topics: Big Data / Analytics Culture Enterprise IT Entrepreneurial Tech Gamification Privacy Social Talent & Workforce Security Healthcare

In late January 2020, the Center for Digital Strategies descended upon Salt Lake City, Utah, with 3 CDS Fellows for the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit. Silicon Slopes “is one of the largest and most prominent annual tech events in the world, bringing out more than 20,000 attendees” featuring 2 days of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and conversations around the startup ecosystem in Salt Lake and beyond. 

While we don’t anticipate any of the Tuck attendees to pack up and move to Salt Lake after they graduate this year, each left with a new appreciation for the technology world outside of the coasts. Specifically, some of the key takeaways from their trip are highlighted below.

Doing Well and Doing Good Can Co-exist…Successfully

  • “Doing well financially and doing good socially are not mutually exclusive.” Doubling down on this, SIRI founder Tom Gruber challenged those to understand the implications of their decisions in terms of data usage and how it can (and should) be used for the customer’s good. 
  • Transparency Championed by….Mark Zuckerberg?
    • In a shockingly candid Q & A, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stressed the importance of Facebook’s weekly internal Q & A he hosts with his employees. He says it keeps him grounded and gives him a better idea of what his thousands of employees are concerned about
    • Zuckerberg offered a passionate defense for Facebook as a platform that brings global communities together much more than it divides them.  

Funding for “Flyover States”

  • Tired of seeing start-up profits made by Utah companies leaving to pay back VCs in California and New York, Silicon Slopes founders launched a Utah-focused Venture Fund to support the growing tech landscape in the state
  • AOL Founder Steve Case impressed Summit attendees describing is hit-the-road “Rise of the Rest Seed Fund,” where he travels in a custom coach supporting and funding rising entrepreneurs across the country

Rising Tide Lifts all Ships

  • Utah–and the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, especially–has done an exceptional job bridging the tech, arts, and government communities together to further the state’s goals. Case in point: by 2022, Utah has set a goal to teach computer science in every Utah school. This endeavor is supported by the tech community, which understands that homegrown talent is one of the best ways to recruit in the near- and long-term. 
  • Tech & the Arts: A match made in Sundance. For the first time ever, the Sundance Film Festival premiered one of its entries at Silicon Slopes. Following the premier, the film’s director shared the stage with former US Ambassador and current gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman to talk about international diplomacy and the film’s subject matter. 

When it comes to technology and startups in the United States, places like Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston loom large. After all, these cities are home to some of the largest names in tech. While these cities may dominate the headlines and boast the most unicorns, they are far from alone in innovation in the tech space.

As any of the 3 Tuck students would attest, the caliber of the conference surpassed expectations in terms of content, access to tech and government leaders, and learning opportunities. 

Silicon Slopes is also markedly different from other tech conferences. During the course of the conference, we were continually impressed by the seamless, natural ways event organizers suffused technology, the arts, and government into nearly every facet of the event. 

Holistic Thinking in Business Can Lead to Immense Success

Late last year, the Business Roundtable announced that companies should serve more than just their shareholders. Their statement posits that companies have a responsibility to their stakeholders, which includes their customers, their employees, and the communities in which they operate. 

“Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.” -Jamie Dimon

This statement inspires equal parts applause and eye-rolling, depending on the audience. For some, it is mere lip service from Wall Street and tech billionaires who are looking for some good PR. On the other hand, it can be seen as a bold call to action from people with the power to make real, tangible change in the way businesses operate. 

In Salt Lake, though, we witnessed case after case of companies embracing their responsibilities not just to their bottom line but to everyone in their value chain. Time and again, we heard from founders, CEOs, and product managers that “doing well [financially] and doing good [socially]” are not mutually exclusive. 

For our students, this was a refreshing attitude that most of them hadn’t seen companies put into practice in real terms. One example of this principle in action came from SIRI founder (yes, that SIRI) Tom Gruber. During his presentation titled “Pioneering AI Accessibility for Everyday Consumers,” Mr. Gruber noted that in an age of endless data collection, companies have the choice to either use that data to manipulate consumers into desired behaviors or they can use that data to improve the overall customer product and experience. He encouraged the participants in his session to understand the implications of their decisions when it comes to data usage, and we left the session with a new perspective on how data can be used for good. 

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Company Values and Transparency

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

A week before the Silicon Slopes 2020 summit, attendees received an email from event organizers announcing that the headlining keynote speaker for the conference would be Mark Zuckerberg. 

During his Q & A Keynote on Friday afternoon, Zuckerberg touched on a number of subjects like privacy, regulation, and religion. Reflecting back on this Q & A session with Zuckerberg, Corine Graber-Alvarez T’20 found it interesting that he stressed how important it is to have company values that are honest and congruent with how an organization operates. She elaborated that the values should help direct the actions of employees and that internal communication is key. Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg hosts an open Q & A with employees every week, where they can submit questions anonymously and vote on top questions. For Zuckerberg, he uses this as an opportunity to understand what people are talking about or are concerned about. 

What we all found especially interesting during the course of the Q & A with Zuckerberg is that he seemed to genuinely believe Facebook is building a product for the greater good. To his credit, he didn’t shy away from tough questions about Facebook’s role in misinformation campaigns or toxic trolls on the platform, but he often brought the conversation back around to the ways in which Facebook aims to build a global community that brings people together, not divide them. 

Salt Lake Builds, Fosters, and Attracts Top Talent…So Why Were all the Profits Leaving Utah?

According to Statista, in 2018 venture capital investments in the United States were heavily concentrated in California, New York, and Massachusetts. In 2018, Utah registered $165m in venture funding, compared to $74b in California in the same year. To put that in perspective, Utah received less than one percent of California’s overall venture capital investments. 

Salt Lake City’s success in startups and scaled companies hasn’t happened in a vacuum or in secret. It is true that many outside the state have yet to take notice of Salt Lake’s outsized impact in the technology space, but that isn’t the case for venture capital firms looking to bet big on past and current success stories.

While many of Salt Lake’s most successful companies to date (Qualtrics, DOMO, and Ancestry to name a few) benefited from venture capital investment when they were growing, the founders of these companies and others weren’t content with the fact that much of the financial success their companies provided eventually left the state of Utah for California or New York.  

When Silicon Slopes established itself as a non-profit, it did so to empower “Utah’s startup and tech community to learn, connect, and serve in an effort to make entrepreneurship and opportunity in Silicon Slopes open and accessible to all.” 

With so much venture focus outside of Salt Lake, however, the founders of Silicon Slopes knew they needed to take a drastic next step in order to “make entrepreneurship and opportunity…open and accessible to all.” This is why it was all the more exciting that we were present when DOMO founder (and former Ominture founder) and CEO Josh James and Qualtrics co-founder Ryan Smith announced the formation of the Silicon Slopes Venture Fund. While specific details about the fund were sparse at the time of the announcement, Smith noted that the overarching goal of the fund is “”to see companies get even bigger than Qualtrics [who sold to Adobe for a record-setting $8b]… and do it in this state.” 

Venturing out of State with AOL Founder Steve Case

The announcement of the Silicon Slopes Venture Fund was a stand-out moment of the conference. What we found particularly interesting, too, was that famed technologist and AOL founder Steve Case is literally hitting the road and listening to pitches around the United States. During his address to attendees, Case talked about his time at AOL. He discussed that AOL’s location (outside of Washington, DC) was beneficial for the company very early on, especially since when AOL was founded, the internet wasn’t in the public domain yet; it was controlled by the government and a handful of universities. AOLs proximity to Capitol Hill allowed Case to lobby for an open internet, and well, the rest is history. His point, though, was that disruption doesn’t have to come from Silicon Valley, New York, or Boston. 

Case doesn’t just talk the talk, but he is currently walking (or driving…) the walk. Case’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund wants to empower entrepreneurs outside of Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston. Traveling the country in a “we’re with the band” style tour bus, Case and his team think “venture capitalists must look at what’s happening in the Silicon Slopes and make sure it is happening in other places.” 

One of the key takeaways from learning about Rise of the Rest and the Silicon Slopes Venture Fund was that people with roots in Salt Lake are keenly aware that entrepreneurs and business owners across the country are on the verge of disrupting established domains but lack the financial resources and mentorship that venture capital provides. Each of these efforts aim to close that gap.

Far from a cash-grab, we left the conference feeling like these two independent efforts came from a place of community and a spirit of paying it forward to the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. 

“We,” not “I,” in Salt Lake: How Tech, the Arts, and Government Work Together

Upon entering the Salt Palace Convention Center, an exuberant volunteer handed us the event program that would serve as our guide for the summit. Flipping through the pages, we noticed a diversity of events and topics from leadership, women in tech, and responsible AI. 

What we didn’t expect to see was “2020 Utah Gubernatorial Debate” and “Sundance Film: The Dissident” in the program.  

If you’ve ever attended a conference, you know the days are long, you’re on information overload, and as soon as that last session ends, you’re eyeing the exits. Silicon Slopes was different, though. At the end of Day 1, we were tired but energized by the events of the day. Our initial plan was to get dinner together as a group. After reading the synopsis of The Dissident, however, Nadeem Almoyyed T’20 suggested to the group that we stick around and watch the premier of the film. 

The film, directed by Academy Award-winning documentarian Brian Fogel (who won the award for his last film, Icarus) follows the events leading up to and following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The subject matter is difficult and the film itself doesn’t shy away from some of the more graphic details of the murder. 

The film was incredibly well done. At Tuck and in the center, we encourage students to think about and tackle difficult issues. Watching this film debut for Sundance at Silicon Slopes was living proof that our students lean into challenges and are open and prepared for difficult conversations. 

The fact that Silicon Slopes had the foresight to partner with the Sundance Film Festival, which was happening at the same time in nearby Park City to debut a film was a testament to the holistic way in which the Utah tech scene embraces their community at large. 

After the credits rolled, the director came on stage for a Q & A. He was joined by special guest Jon Huntsman, former US Ambassador to Singapore, Russia, China, and current gubernatorial candidate. Ambassador Huntsman was able to provide a unique perspective on the international implications the murder and attempted coverup by the Saudi royal family of Jamal Khashoggi had. 

Leaving the convention center that night, we all felt the weight of the film and had a lively, thoughtful discourse on our way back to our hotel. 

Utah Tech Heavily Involved in Local and State Politics with an Eye for the Future

Utah has one of the youngest populations in all of the United States. With the highest concentration of millennials anywhere in the country, Utah has–and continues to–invest heavily in education programs within the state.

By 2022, Utah hopes to teach computer science in every single school in Utah. This effort is the result of tech and government leaders in the state working together to develop and foster skills that students will need to be successful in the future. Given Utah’s tight-knit community, there is also a hope that talent will stay (or return) to Utah to work and live. 

Another example of technology and government working in tandem played out onstage at Utah’s first gubernatorial debate ahead of the 2020 election. Moderated by Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Bettes, six candidates debated in front of attendees for the better part of an hour. Betts’ questions included topics like school vouchers, gun legislation, business taxation, and the candidates’ support for President Trump.

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