Vivek Wadhwa wears many hats. He is vice president of research and innovation at Singularity University; a fellow at the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University; director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University; and a distinguished visiting scholar at the Halle Institute of Global Learning at Emory University. He is the author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, which was named by The Economist as a “Book of the Year of 2012.” In 2013, TIME listed him as one of “The 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech.” He specializes in entrepreneurship and public policy.
You’ve written about the rise of Indians in technology. What lessons can other minorities and women take from their success?
Thirty years ago, there were practically no Indian CEOs or CTOs of technology firms. They faced discrimination and didn’t fit the “patterns” that venture capitalists like to fund. Today, they comprise about 15 percent of Silicon Valley startups. Indians have gone from being perceived as low-level managers to hotshot CEOs.
The way Indians achieved success was to first acknowledge that a problem exists and work together to fix it. They started sharing knowledge, mentoring, and learning from one other. The most successful started funding the startups of the next generation.
Women and other minorities face the same problems today. The best way for them to rise above these problems is to do what the Indians did: Lift each other up.
What are some insights from your work at Singularity University—which educates leaders about cutting-edge technologies in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterial—that C-level executives should know about?
Most people are aware of the advances in computing. They have seen the processing power double every 18 months—as prices dropped and devices became smaller. In the technology industry, this progression is known as Moore’s Law. The iPhone 5S of today has a processor that is more powerful than the Cray supercomputers of yesterday. What would require a large building and a water-cooling system now fits in a pocket.
Such advances are not only happening in computing, but also in the fields of robotics, sensors, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, 3D printing, and medicine. Futurist Ray Kurzweil noted that as any technology becomes an information technology [that is, once it can be expressed in digital terms, such as the coding of the human genome], it starts advancing exponentially. That is what is happening in these fields.
It has become possible for startups to come out of nowhere and rapidly build technologies and business models that challenge the incumbents. C-level executives need to learn these advances and be prepared for competitors to emerge from industries that they don’t consider a threat. They need to work to make their existing businesses obsolete and to invent new businesses—before someone else does.
What public policy steps should governments, particularly in the U.S., take to promote entrepreneurship?
Governments should focus on improving education and infrastructure and removing regulations and social barriers that impede innovation. They should fund basic research so that ground-breaking discoveries can be made.
They should not try to invent innovation systems or “tech clusters”—because they can’t. It is the scientists, working hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs, who can build the world-changing technologies and who make the innovation happen.
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