This Is Silicon Valley
I am privileged to live in Silicon Valley. I was born here, I grew up here, and now I work here as a product manager at Google. The weather is lovely, the crime rate is low, and the schools are well funded. The adults have cushy jobs and the kids have endless resources. People feast on $15 sushirritos and $6 Blue Bottle coffees. The streets are filled with Teslas and self-driving cars.
It’s a place of opportunity. Many new graduates, myself included, are making six-figure salaries straight out of college, plus equity, bonuses, and benefits on top of that. I get unlimited free food at work — three full meals a day and as many snacks as I want in between. There’s a place to do laundry and get a haircut. There’s even a bowling alley and a bouldering wall.
This is Silicon Valley. Who wouldn’t want to live here?
When I was in eighth grade, over a six-month period four students at a nearby school committed suicide by jumping in front of the Caltrain. During my sophomore year of high school, a schoolmate I used to walk with to the library took her own life. In my senior year, every single one of my peers had a college counselor. Some paid up to $400 an hour for counselors to edit their essays, and I witnessed other students paying to have their essays literally written for them. My classmates cried over getting an A- on a test, cried over getting fewer than 100 likes on their profile pictures, and cried over not getting into Harvard. (I admit, I cried over that one, too.) They pulled multiple all-nighters every week to survive their seven AP classes and seven after-school activities, starved themselves to fit in with the “popular kids,” stole money from their parents to buy brand name clothing, and developed harrowing mental health disorders that still persist today, years after high school graduation.
This is Silicon Valley.
During my four years of high school, there were a total of three black students and around a dozen Latinx students in my school of 1,300 kids. On my floor at work, at a company that puts so many resources into diversity and inclusion, there are no black or Latinx engineers. In 2017, of all tech hires at Google, 2 percent were black, 3 percent were Latinx, and 25 percent were female. Upper management statistics are worse, and numbers throughout the Valley are just as depressing.
The lack of diversity doesn’t stop at work — it permeates every aspect of life. Everyone wears Patagonia and North Face, everyone has AirPods hanging from their ears, and everyone goes to Lake Tahoe on weekends. And everyone talks about the same things: startups, blockchain, machine learning, and startups with blockchain and machine learning.
This is Silicon Valley.
In my liberal arts college, conversations varied dramatically, from British literature to public policy to moral philosophy to socioeconomic inequality. Compare this to my product management program filled with new grads, where even social conversations revolve around tech — whether it’s spilling the hottest gossip on the new VP, plotting how to get “double promoted” from a Level 3 to a Level 5 product manager in exactly 22 months, or debriefing where the top angel investors get drinks on Thursday nights. (And yes, Silicon Valley has an alcohol and drug problem, too). Attempts to hold discussions about social issues are often met with bored faces and are quickly terminated. For example, a friend in the program and I have brought up climate change on many occasions, since it’s an issue we’re particularly passionate about. We’ve mentioned the worsening air quality in light of the Camp Fire that devastated more than 150,000 acres of Northern California, lamented the fact that Google still uses plastic water bottles and straws, and encouraged others to donate to environmental organizations during our company’s giving week. Each time, we were met with silence.
Money comes from changing a button from green to blue.
In Silicon Valley, few people find things like climate change important enough to talk about at length, and even fewer find it important enough to work on. It’s not where the money is at. It’s not where “success” is at. And it’s certainly not where the industry is at. Instead, money comes from changing a button from green to blue, from making yet another food delivery app, and from getting more clicks on ads. That’s just how the Valley and the tech industry are set up. As Jeffrey Hammerbacher, a former Facebook executive, told Bloomberg, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”
This is Silicon Valley.
Houses are being sold for up to $2,800 per square foot. Gentrification and homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area are so bad that they have their own Wikipedia pages. And it’s not just in the city, and it’s not just “uneducated people.” In December 2018, 4,300 students at San Jose State University — over 13 percent of the student body — reported experiencing homelessness over the past year. Income inequality levels, in both San Francisco and San Jose, rank among the 10 worst cities in the nation and the gap between the poor and the rich continues to increase.
In 2018, San Francisco passed Proposition C, a measure aimed at fighting homelessness by raising taxes on big businesses. Executives from Salesforce and Cisco supported the measure, while companies like Square, Stripe, and Lyft pushed back against the tax due to the way it would be collected.
Who wouldn’t want to live here?
One could argue that some companies in Silicon Valley do care about the poor. Many companies have annual holiday giving campaigns. At Google, employees are allocated $400 to give to an approved organization, like a food bank or a homeless shelter. But while Silicon Valley employees may donate to these causes, they also complain about the tent camps in the city “ruining the view,” and they complain about the very people they claim to care about. Over 2,200 complaints have been filed, in the last decade, about homeless people on San Francisco’s Hyde Street alone, and reports suggest that some homeless people are even harassed in an attempt to drive them out.
This is Silicon Valley.
It’s my everything. It’s where my parents live. It’s where my high school friends have returned and where my college friends have moved. It’s where I first fell in love and where I first had my heart broken.
It’s also where classmates stole my homework and cheated off of my tests. It’s where I watched parents threaten teachers for giving their children a B+ and watched teachers threaten tutoring centers for handing out copies of past exams. It’s where friends cut themselves, drugged themselves, and even killed themselves. It’s where acquaintances tried to sabotage my relationships, my grades, and my career.
It’s where everything is about networking. It’s where everyone wants something from you, and you never know when someone will betray you because they want something from someone else more.
It’s my everything. But Silicon Valley is no longer my home.
Silicon Valley is no longer my home. I feel myself being influenced by the tech bubble. I feel myself shifting my focus to money and career trajectory rather than serving those in need locally and worldwide, and I see myself being applauded and fitting in because of it. I feel myself becoming part of the machine. Living here, I reflect on my high school experiences and am filled with misery and anger. The mental health crisis among Silicon Valley high schoolers is getting worse. I think about the negative impacts of social media on mental health that my friends and I suffered in high school and how ironic it is that those same friends now work at Facebook.
I’ve been told that in every shitty situation there are three options: you can ignore the situation, you can try to improve it, or you can leave. Ignoring it is an option, but it doesn’t lead to any positive change. Trying to improve the situation is a good idea when you feel there is hope that you can make it better. And leaving is good when you don’t think things will change and you don’t know what to do.
I don’t know what to do. Since moving back, my depression has returned after a four-year hiatus, paired with anxiety, a growing disappointment in humanity, and an influx of fake, self-serving, status-seeking “friends” and acquaintances.
So, I’m leaving. But I do hope to come back someday.
I hope to come back to a different Silicon Valley. One that takes care of the mental health of its students. One that doesn’t just strive for diversity, but embraces and celebrates and exemplifies it, not only in the people, but also in their lifestyles and conversations and interests. One where people recognize that their picture-perfect lives come at a cost to others, and one where they strive to help those that they hurt.
Most importantly, I hope to return to a Silicon Valley where people care about others and want to work on things that actually improve our world, even if it doesn’t generate clicks.