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News - June 29, 2012

No problem is too big to tackle

by Angela Hey

The Churchill Club recently held the first annual Great Silicon Valley Oxford Union Debate on the motion, "This House Believes That the Problems of Tomorrow Are Too Big for the Entrepreneurs of Today".

Executive coach Joe DiNucci, formerly of Digital Equipment, Silicon Graphics and Immersion, opened the debate. Closing remarks by veteran Silicon Valley writer Mike Malone clinched the arguments. The motion was narrowly defeated.

Two entrepreneurs, John Wood and Matt Flannery, are solving tomorrow's problems. KQED's Dave Iverson interviewed them at the Computer History Museum.

Wood, a former Microsoft China business development executive, founded Room to Read to educate children. Trekking in Nepal, he ventured into a village library where popular paperbacks left by trekkers were locked away as books were scarce. The village wanted to educate its youth, but clearly the novels were unsuitable as textbooks. As a child, Wood loved his local library. He wanted to help, so he left Microsoft. Room to Read has since opened over 13,000 libraries and over 1,500 schools. It has published over 700 books in local languages and served more than six million children.

Wood cautioned the audience against thinking that you need technical solutions to problems. In the age of Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad, books are a superior solution when you don't have electricity, WiFi or tech support. Room to Read could not have grown without web technology. It depends on social media for publicity and running local chapters that fundraise and build awareness.

Flannery is CEO and co-founder of Kiva, a website that lets you loan money to entrepreneurs in the developing world, and now locally too. I first met Matt when he was a programmer at TiVo. He spent the evenings writing code for the Kiva website.

Flannery went to Africa and started by loaning money, mainly to women, through pastors. Simple technology to transmit money to individuals was unavailable. As Kiva grew they disbursed funds to recipients through field partners such as aid organizations and local non-profits. Flannery noted that recently Kiva has been able to send money directly to recipients' cellphones. Lend as little as $25, either as an individual or as a team member. Google's employee team has 149 members who have loaned over $42,000 in 1,448 loans. Springer Elementary School has 13 members on its team who have loaned over $15,000. With over 22,000 teams, you may find one for your alumni network, religion or geographic region.

Iverson pointed out that Silicon Valley, known globally as the world's technology capital, is not the world's philanthropy capital. Is it because they are too busy building businesses? Or is it because they prefer to invest their capital in for-profit ventures?

One reason why Silicon Valley is not the world's philanthropic center is that relatively few technology executives have made billions. A few Silicon Valley luminaries have signed The Giving Pledge, where America's wealthiest voluntarily state they will give at least half of their riches to charity. The list includes venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Oracle founder Larry Ellison and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Notably, Google's chairman and founders are not on the list, yet the company arguably is having the biggest impact on global problems. Google provides access to knowledge, educating remote communities. Google Maps can track flu outbreaks. Google Alerts can inform people of disasters. is devoted to solving world problems with technology. It helps save the world's disappearing languages, finds missing people in disasters, maps crises and tracks child predators.

Wood and Flannery believe they have better lifestyles after quitting more traditional technology jobs. Their advice — if you see a big problem, go for it.

Angela Hey advises technology companies on marketing and business development. She can be reached at


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Posted by Angela Hey
Mountain View Voice Blogger
on Jul 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Angela Hey is a registered user.

You can see Matt Flannery and John Wood being interviewed by Dave Iverson Web Link

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Posted by Joe DiNucci
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2012 at 10:29 pm

A few points: First, the trivial one: The Proposition was not narrowly defeated. The vote reported the night of the debate was 55% Opposed. Turns out that was based on a margin of 4 votes out of a total vote of less than 90 people - out of a room full of 520 people. The only thing that did not work that night was ther voting technology! A later survey turned up a margin of 55-45 in favor, though again the number voting was less than 100.

More significantly, the stories cited above are truly inspiring. I've loved living in the Valley for 32 years precisely because of that spirit of restless innovation. And the twist here is how some seasoned and successful entrepreneurs have brought that spirit and some low-tech solutions to solev problems. Terrific. Light those candles, by all means. But tackling and really solving massive issues like dwindling energy supplies, lopsided food distribution and more will require alignment of the energetic innovators, government policies and even some of the those old, massive and death-resistant mega-corporations.

Thanks for a provcative and fresh insight.