Tech’s latest innovation looks a lot like a social club
LAST WEEKEND, 150 of tech’s most gifted engineers traveled to an Arizona resort to spend three days at an event that, despite having never happened before, is called Reunion. The group ranged from the semi-famous, like PayPal founder Max Levchin and Microsoft chief technology officer Kevin Scott, to the spectacularly promising, like Stanford junior Nancy Xu. There were a few panels, some company presentations, and a smattering of horseback rides and hikes in the afternoons. The retreat is the formal beginning of a new kind of institution, one that’s becoming increasingly popular among Silicon Valley’s elite and soon-to-be elite. It’s an ostensibly modern take on a very old idea: the social club.
This particular gathering is the brainchild of Ali Partovi, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor who is underwriting the trip through his new startup, Neo. Neo pairs a $37 million investment fund with an exclusive professional organization. Partovi thinks Neo can formalize the relationships between its members, and transform them into a network that helps everyone involved. He has cobbled together a crew that represents engineers at every career stage, from undergrads to billionaires. Like the Thiel Fellowship or the Kairos Society or even YCombinator, Neo will offer the students, or Neo Scholars, an obvious immediate foothold into the world they are just joining. But even more valuable, it will bring novel thinking and new talent to tech veterans who, like vampires, require a constant stream of youthful ideas to survive. The kind of intermingling that Neo provides will ensure Silicon Valley titans that they remain as significant to the next generation of tech companies as they’ve been to the last.
It’s also a very good way to get a first run at promising new investments by beginning relationships with startup founders early, before they’ve become founders. Partovi has just closed his fund, which his company will use to back startups. It was seeded by individuals, most of whom were Neo members; the Partovi twins made the largest contribution. Management fees will cover the costs of the three-person staff that will help Neo members connect throughout the year, plan the annual reunion, and handle investments. The hope is in connecting engineers to companies, Neo will get an early shot at investing in them. Already, one of Neo’s undergraduate members, an MIT student named Uma Roy, has elected to take an internship at a stealth startup run by a Neo member, Chris Hillar, thanks to an introduction Partovi made. Neo has invested in the startup, a company called Awecom.
More than most, Partovi understands the most valuable currency in Silicon Valley is not money, or even ideas. It’s relationships. His close-knit community has been a catalyst to his success. He and his twin brother, Hadi, studied computer science at Harvard; individually, they each helped start companies that sold to Microsoft. Together, they were early investors in Zappos, Facebook, Airbnb and Dropbox. They founded the social music service iLike, which they sold to MySpace in 2009, and then launched the nonprofit Code.org, which Hadi Partovi runs from Seattle. Their cousin is the current CEO of Uber. Name anyone in the business, and Ali Partovi has probably worked with her, invested in her, or is related to him.
Networks are only as good as the people within them; they need new faces to stay relevant. Partovi sees Neo as an opportunity, both to ensure his worth, and to reinvent old boys club by allowing for a broader view of potential—albeit, his own personal view. For Neo, he sought out members that have technical backgrounds and the desire to participate in the network: as a mentor, a mentee, or a bit of both. Partovi seized on the freedom to design a more representative social system, rather than one that accurately reflects tech’s white male decision-makers. Neo is more than 40 percent women, and 15 percent of members are black or latino. Half are under 25. He has included engineers at every career level, from newbies to mid-career engineers to notable company founders. Partovi spent time last year traveling to college campuses to help select and recruit the 30 undergraduate members, many of whom had so many competitive demands for their time—attention from corporate giants like Google and Facebook or venture capitalists recruiting them to startups—that he had to make “a very hard sell,” he tells me.
The final group includes several dozen established founders like Levchin, who has known Partovi since he was a contractor for Partovi’s first company, LinkExchange. (“He was legendary. He was 22 years old at the time,” says Partovi. “We all spoke of him with awe.”) The rest are midcareer technologists, people like Facebook engineer Erin Summers, who helped start the women’s engineering nonprofit Wogrammer. She says she’s excited to get to know folks she can tap for advice if she wants to start a company someday. “He’s selected what a tech utopia would be,” says Summers, “that was really important to me.”
But the Valley is already a tight-knit place. People know each other from college, through venture firms, or from logging time at successful companies, like PayPal or Facebook, with extensive alumni networks. For people who haven’t met yet, there’s lots of groups trying to lure elite members by professing exclusivity. Over the last decade, many entrepreneurs have attempted to transform informal networks into more formal ones, through fellowships, incubators and or other types of organizations. Like Neo, these institutions usually boast a goal of expanding the playing field so that more and different people can succeed in tech. The groups offer a golden ticket to entrepreneurs, mostly youngsters, who are just starting out. But implicit in their creation is the understanding that the playing field is expanding, whether their founders like it or not. New entrepreneurs will bring ideas that will disrupt companies and generate new wealth. In tech, if a company misses a platform shift—say, from desktop to mobile—it’s toast. In the same way, if a group of investors and entrepreneurs misses a change in the cast of characters who are building new companies, it’s shut out of future opportunities.
That’s why new investors have taken to clubs. In a crowded environment where startup capital is readily available, one way to get to know the next group of company builders is to recruit them, proactively, to an organization that will help them. YCombinator’s attempt to connect with new talent morphed into a startup-minting machine (that also minted its founders a hefty sum). Peter Thiel attempted the same move, to middling success, with the Thiel Fellowship. There’s the Kairos Society, Techstars, 500 Startups, The Wing, and myriad other fellowships, incubators and other professional groups.
Though Neo takes a similar form, the group is launching in a time of special opportunity. Networking in tech, as recent headlines have espoused, is a brutal exercise—where discrimination and harassment are the norm, and events like sex parties perpetuate a systemic inequality where women and people of color are excluded. Partovi is attempting to build a culture that does the opposite: the Reunion welcome email included explicit instructions to avoid harassment, avoid excessive drinking, and call out any violations to the code of conduct. (To be honest, I can’t remember receiving a code of conduct in a welcome email for a tech retreat.) He endeavors to create and nurture a diverse community of engineers who will in turn leave their imprint on tech, furthering his efforts.
The challenge, of course, is that like most of these groups, Neo is no meritocracy. It hasn’t bubbled up organically, to create a true representation of what the people in it will need. Like many of Silicon Valley’s constructs, it’s made in the vision of one very wealthy, super-connected, extremely well-meaning tech guy. Its future success will depend on its ability to expand beyond one man’s vision.
COURTESY OF ALI PARTOVI