"Yoglers" at Google's campus take its weekly yoga class, conducted by Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing.

Iterating on Mindfulness: Finding Calm in Silicon Valley

on Tuesday, Oct. 21st

A version of this story aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The annual Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco might be the only business convention in the city focused on slowing down. It brings in thousands of people for talks like “Technology and Healing” and “Three Steps To Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way.”

The San Francisco Bay Area has a decades-long history of embracing Eastern spirituality, and it’s also the longtime home of the tech sector. Yoga and meditation classes are popular with the region’s tech workers. Greeting his audience earlier this year, Wisdom 2.0 founder Soren Gordhamer told them, “Often in tech conferences and other conferences, speakers come out and they’re met with laptops open, and the speakers can’t feel you, can’t sense you, can’t be with you. So I have a lot of gratitude for the presence that you all bring.”

At Wisdom 2.0, attendees pay up to $2,500 each to learn how to better listen, connect, and observe in the course of a fast-paced life. And the conference is growing — just last week, a business-focused Wisdom 2.0 was held in New York.

Gopi Kallayil is a top executive at Google, and a regular speaker at the conference. In a Wisdom 2.0 talk this year, he demonstrated yoga postures that can be done anywhere from a hotel room to the workplace. At Google Headquarters in Mountain View, he teaches yoga every Monday afternoon to his “Yoglers,” a cohort that’s grown to a few dozen people since Kallayil began teaching these classes eight years ago.

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Kallayil’s official role at the company is Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing, and he’s just as enthusiastic about Google’s culture as he is about yoga, which he learned at an ashram as a teenager in India. He says globally, hundreds of Google workers take part in some sort of relaxation or wellness practice on the job. Facebook and Twitter offer perks like these, too.

Kallayil said mindfulness practices could become popular with millions of Americans because they’re embraced by so many workers at the most successful tech firms. “These are seen as forward thinking companies that are driving massive amounts of change in short amounts of time. In many cases the brands behind those companies, whether it’s Google or HP or Yahoo or Facebook, all are iconic brands, and that gives it a certain legitimacy.”

In fact, a well-known mindfulness program called “Search Inside Yourself” began at Google. It draws on neuroscience, and promises to build skills that will boost workers’ performance and leadership. Companies from Genentech, to SAP, to Ford have used elements of the Search Inside Yourself program, and the company has a teacher training program to help disseminate the curriculum in the workplace. It’s a major selling point that Search Inside Yourself emerged from within Google’s celebrated corporate culture.

Anthony Williams, the founder of Empowerment Yoga, says he’s been hired by tech companies that are interested in how yoga can help their workers increase creativity, productivity, and ultimately, their bottom line. He starts with simple breathing practices that can be done while a worker sits in a boardroom chair. Even among purportedly open-minded Silicon Valley types, Williams says, he sometimes notices a resistance to learning Eastern wisdom practices, but “I let them know, this is not a religion. They call it ‘the yoga sciences.’”

He reassures tech workers that, “If you don’t have a religion, I’m not trying to give you one,” and tells them to think of yoga as a glass of water — “it goes with everything.”

But Williams acknowledged that the notion of divorcing yoga from its spiritual foundation might be disturbing to some teachers, including his own, who adhere to strict protocols. “Being here in the Bay has taught me to let go of that dogma,” he said. “You need to meet people where they are, period.”

Angel investor Jason Calacanis is also interested in re-contextualizing mindfulness in hopes of bring more Americans on board — as paying customers. He told me he’s been interested in mindfulness practices since seeing Star Wars as a kid, “because I actually thought the force existed.” He splits his time between Santa Monica and San Francisco, and said it makes perfect sense that the Bay Area has become the launchpad for Eastern wisdom practices to reach more Americans — inside their workplaces, and perhaps, on their phones.

“San Francisco is barely part of the United States,” he joked recently at his office near the city’s Tenderloin district. “The way people live here is as fringe as fringe gets. You have this massively open population and some number of them want to be high performers, and another number of them want to be enlightened, actually. So it’s a perfect storm for anything like yoga or meditation.”

Calacanis first tried meditation after learning about how elite athletes were using it to improve focus and awareness, but he says most people don’t believe in the science behind it. He sees this as a business opportunity. “I think the medical industry will embrace this at some point,” he opined, “because, I think people have reached the end of road when it comes to prescription drugs.

Calacanis says there’s no “national brand” for meditation, and that’s why he just invested $375,000 into Calm.com, a mobile app that delivers daily visualization exercises and positive affirmations. Its founder, Alex Tew, said relative to a website that delivers mindfulness tutorials, going to a medication class or reading a book about it are “high-friction.” He wanted to create an online experience that would give people exposure to the underlying concepts of mindfulness in short, two-minute meditations: “just give them a little taste.”

Calm.com and other guided meditation apps like Simply Being and Headspace are trying to capitalize on a potentially lucrative market — the roughly 90 percent of the American public that has yet to try mindfulness. But to others, the idea of Silicon Valley iterating on mindfulness seems like the ultimate irony.

At this year’s Wisdom 2.0, the protesters who are known for blocking tech buses marched onstage and unfurled a banner that read, “Eviction Free San Francisco” — hoping to bring their own ideas about compassion to interested tech workers.

Protestor Amanda Ream, who’s also a member of the East Bay Meditation Center, says tech firms’ impact on San Francisco rents can’t be reconciled with Buddhist practices of non-harm. “I really believe that tech companies are at the forefront of trying to create a new corporate culture, and that this is an awkward and painful process for them,” she told me. “I hope mindfulness and the teachings of the Buddha will help bring them to the table with people like us who are living right at the edges of the havoc that’s being created in the city of San Francisco right now.”

Ream says the Wisdom 2.0 organizers later sent protesters an email later saying they could have applied to host a workshop at the conference, which Ream says costs hundreds of dollars that her group doesn’t have. “I hope that we’ll see in the coming Wisdom 2.0, workshops that actually talk about critical issues facing our city.”

After a brief tussle during the conference disruption, the protestors were removed from the stage. The speaker whose session had been interrupted asked the crowd to check in with their bodies. “What’s our relationship to conflict, and how do we show up for it?,” he asked.

It was silent for a while, then applause broke out. Already, next year’s conference is almost halfway sold out.

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ello: Can Social Media Exist Without Ads?

on Wednesday, Oct. 1st

A version of this story aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Vermont’s known for its green pastures, farmsteads, and roads free of billboards. The founders of the new social network ello live in the state, and they want to bring Vermont-like serenity to the internet.

“We set out to prove that a social network will survive and thrive that doesn’t have an business model of selling ads to its users,” said CEO and co-founder Paul Budnitz. He owns a bicycle company in Vermont, and he’s also the founder of Kidrobot, which makes high-end art toys. Budnitz said ello’s creators initially launched the site for their circle of friends. They wanted a clean online space to exchange large images and longform text. The site has been growing steadily for about a year, he said. But that changed last week, when news stories about a group of disenchanted Facebook users mentioned ello as an alternative, and set off a stampede of interest.

“We’re getting 40,000 combined signups and requests per hour…so it’s a lot,” Budnitz said with a chuckle.

You need an invite from a friend to use ello, and that amps up the allure. Many ello users I talked to, like 24-year-old Charity Walden, say they joined simply out of curiosity. “I use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat,” she said — and now ello rounds out that group. “I think it’s really cool to be there at the beginning, and see how it’s developed.”

The spike of interest in a new social network also points to intensifying concerns over issues like data mining, online bullying, and the protection of privacy. Users can’t make their ello accounts private, but the founders say that’s coming soon. And ello’s stated mission is to be profitable without selling user data — a claim that attracts scrutiny. Once it was learned that ello received venture capital money in January, the critics went to town.

Aral Balkan is one of them. He’s a privacy advocate who’s building an independent operating system. Balkan says he doesn’t want to support a VC-backed social network that will face pressure to balloon in size and value.

“If you take venture capital, that means at the very beginning, you had to present your exit plan, because that’s when the investors make their money back. Even before you built the thing, you’re selling the people that you hope to get to use it,” he said.

I mentioned to Balkan that for many ello users I spoke to, the fact that it’s ad-free wasn’t necessarily the reason they joined. Attitudes like this are a problem, he said. “We’re just rushing headlong, we’re just making things…not necessarily being critical about the impacts they will have, and just jumping from one bandwagon to the next.”

After just a few days, ello user Jimmy Chan is also losing interest in the site, but for a different reason — he says he’s not getting much out of it. “Some of my friends are jumping in to say ‘You’re all still here?’ as if it’s Monday morning, and people are still in their living room from a Sunday night party,” he joked. Chan says ello probably won’t be fun for him until it picks up traction with more friends, and offers different features.

The site’s being tweaked and re-worked in full view of a rapt online audience. The founders are responding to complaints and requests as the site takes shape. Co-founder Paul Budnitz has a relatively chill attitude about the critiques: “I’m in Vermont, not in Silicon Valley.”

He’s confident that ello can make money through a “freemium” model. Users would pay for extra features like the ability to access multiple accounts with a single login.

Budnitz maintains that the founders don’t feel undue pressure to compromise their ideals. He says they’re content to stay small and modestly profitable in a Vermont kind of way.

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The Little-Known Role of San Francisco’s Pride Parade in the Google Bus Protests

on Sunday, Jun. 29th

San Francisco’s Pride parade hit Market Street this weekend and marked 44 years of queer communities agitating for civil rights and recognition. But there’s another, emergent activist tradition being linked to Pride: the demonstrations known as the Google bus protests.

If you’ve somehow missed the slew of coverage about the protests, they’re not just targeting Google, but a number of big technology firms that use the white luxury coaches to transport workers to the South Bay and Peninsula — workers that protesters cite as a key factor in skyrocketing San Francisco rents. The first bus blockade to go viral in the media happened last December, when a labor organizer posed as a Google employee and shouted down fellow activists on Valencia Street.

But a few months earlier, the luxury shuttles had already been used by activists — one of whom was artist Leslie Dreyer — in Pride 2013. (more…)

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Photo Credit: Lydia Daniller/lydiadaniller.com

Closure of Marcus Books A Symbol Of San Francisco’s Black Flight

on Wednesday, Jun. 18th

A version of this story aired on APM’s Marketplace.

A legendary bookstore closed this year. Marcus Books had been in business in San Francisco since the 1960s, and was a gathering place for generations of black families — families that black community leaders say have been pushed out of the city in droves.

During World War II, the Navy hired thousands of workers for its Bay Area shipyards. Many of them were black migrants from the South who settled in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, where the internment of Japanese Americans had left vacancies.

A vibrant black community flourished, and music venues opened up on nearly every block, hosting jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington. The Fillmore District was nicknamed the Harlem of the West.

In those years, if you were a black visitor to San Francisco, you most likely made a pilgrimage to Marcus Books. In 1956, the NAACP convention came to town, and Reverend Amos Brown, then just 15 years old, was a delegate from Mississippi, traveling with his mentor, civil rights hero Medger Evers. It was the first time Brown met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and the first time he visited Marcus Books. “It was an iconic institution of culture, information, sociopolitical empowerment,” Brown reminisced. “Many international scholars and thinkers and civil rights leaders appeared at Marcus Bookstore.” (more…)

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Erik Moore, Venture Capitalist, ‘Unapologetically Black’

on Monday, Mar. 17th

Erik Moore’s career in venture capital began with a hot tub.

It sounds like the ultimate Bay Area cliché, perhaps even more vividly so when you hear that the hot tub in question was destined for the downtown building once sought after by flashy former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.

It was 1999, and Tony Hsieh, one of the building’s well-to-do tenants, had just sold his first company to Microsoft. Hsieh wanted to install a Jacuzzi in his penthouse apartment – but it was against policy in the building, where Moore lived, too. After the fellow tenants ran into each other one night, Hsieh drafted Moore onto the homeowner’s association. They got the sought-after hot tub installed, and became friends.

Good enough friends that Moore invested in Hsieh’s company, one called Zappos.

At the time, he told Hsieh, “I’m not sure I have ever heard of a more stupid idea than selling shoes online.” But, deciding that Hsieh’s obvious talents as an entrepreneur outweighed the apparent dead-end nature of the internet service that became Zappos (which was later acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion) Moore made the investment that eventually provided the seed money for his venture capital fund, Base Ventures. (more…)

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Reflections on Innovation Past and Present, From SF Designer Yves Behar

on Wednesday, Feb. 26th

When San Francisco designer Yves Behar was 14 years old and living in his native Switzerland, he had a design epiphany, thanks to the Sony Walkman.

An aunt had sent the device to Behar, who’s now the Chief Creative officer of Jawbone, as a gift. He told the crowd at this week’s Launch Festival that for a teenager, being able to carry his music around was revelatory enough, but there was more — the ability to plug in a second headset, allowing him and a girlfriend to create an intimate world, free from adult intervention.

This seeded his philosophy that if you’re treating customers well — emotionally, ergonomically then you’re probably practicing good design. (more…)

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YCombinator Founder: “Starting a Startup Hurts”

on Monday, Feb. 24th

The founder of YCombinator is very, very happy that he’ll no longer be running that startup incubator.

That was a recurring theme of Paul Graham’s “Fireside Chat” with Launch founder Jason Calacanis, in which Graham also touched on various lessons from working with more than 600 startups, and being flamed on Twitter for comments about foreign accents and women in tech. (more…)

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Uber CEO: New Surge Pricing Feature “Brings Humanity” to Car Service App

on Monday, Feb. 24th

The online car service Uber will offer a new feature that gives users an option to reject controversial surge pricing until prices decline.

CEO Travis Kalanick, who was the keynote interview this morning at the first day of the Launch Festival in SF, told interviewer Jason Calacanis the company wants to “bring humanity” to the app, in part by introducing the new feature. (more…)

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Eat Your Heart Out, Snapchat: Facebook Buys Whatsapp for $16b

on Wednesday, Feb. 19th

After this afternoon’s news that Facebook is purchasing messaging app Whatsapp for $16 billion, there’s a sentiment that’s swirling around in the non-tech Twitterverse: “how can an app we’ve never heard of” be worth this much? (Emphasis mine).

Sequoia Capital’s blog has a celebratory post that breaks down some of the numbers, including a key one: Whatsapp has 450 million users.

And a lot of those users are in India and the UK, where the app took off a full year before I began noticing American friends appearing in my contacts list.
(more…)

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The Allure of Anonymous Confessional Apps Secret and Whisper

on Wednesday, Feb. 19th

This post was also published on NPR’s All Tech Considered.

“I’m worth 83.7 million dollars and bored out of my mind.”

“My friend who is a banker just told me he’s working on Dropbox’s IPO…oooh.”

“The drug use in Silicon Valley is outrageous. So are the inflated egos. It’s like LA for smart, ugly people.”

Declarations like these — some plaintive, some fueled by professional frustration, and some just plain gossipy — tumble forth anonymously on the new app Secret, and because many of them seem to be coming from within the booming tech industry, the app has built early buzz. But if Secret, designed to maximize sharing and minimize risk, picks up traction, the whistleblower-enabling capability of the app could have implications for a broad range of industries that would prefer their workers be quiet as kept.
(more…)

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