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Land of milk and honey: Innovation, entrepreneurship and Silicon Valley | An interview with Rev. Bruce Baker

What is it about Silicon Valley? Why did this agriculturally gifted valley give birth to so many of the world’s leading technology firms while simultaneously becoming the cultural landmark of the entrepreneurial spirit? Someone who not only has studied the Valley extensively but also was part of several Silicon Valley giants shares some insights with Religion & Liberty’s associate editor, Sarah Stanley.

Rev. Bruce Baker began his career interested in entrepreneurship and technology but was called to the ministry two decades in. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in applied science from the California Institute of Technology in 1978 and a Master of Business Administration from Stanford University in 1981. Baker cofounded Four Pi Systems Corporation, where he earned five patents for his inventions in X-ray physics, computer software and machine vision. After the company was bought out by Hewlett Packard in 1992, Baker began managing in the brand-new department of handheld mobile computing devices at Microsoft. After four years at Microsoft, he was called to attend seminary. He received a Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2001 and a Doctor of Philosophy in theological ethics from the University of St. Andrews in 2010. He is ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and serves as executive pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington. In 2010, he began teaching business ethics at Seattle Pacific University where he is also the main contributor to the scholarship and research activities of the Center for Integrity in Business.

R&L: In your work, you’ve asked a question that many others have asked about Silicon Valley: How did this “gratuitously gifted” region give birth to so many world-class technology companies? But your explanation uses “biblical motifs” to describe the innovation and entrepreneurship there. How do you connect these biblical themes and concepts with the technical and very secular culture that prevails in Silicon Valley?

Rev. Bruce Baker: I think we learn something about entrepreneurship and the history of the Valley by using the biblical motif and looking at it through a theological lens. At the outset I need to say that there’s also a risk here. The risk is that we start to think there’s something religiously motivated in this wave of entrepreneurship and technology, and there’s not. I don’t believe there is. Rather, what I’m asking is, What can we learn about human nature, about how entrepreneurship works and about what makes it a good thing for human flourishing? What can we learn about that by looking at it through a biblical lens?

When I do that, the first thing I see is the parallel between the story of the original founders, the “Traitorous Eight” of Fairchild Semiconductor. Led by Bob Noyce, they became sort of the seed, the progenitors of generation after generation of these inventive, productive, exciting technology companies that followed on after them, with Intel being the big one that came next. Noyce was one of the founders of Intel. It was in 1957 that they left Shockley Semiconductor, founded Fairchild and launched this new initiative. Now here are the things I find in common: When I look at it and compare what they did to the Exodus story, it’s just interesting. In both cases there’s a valley and there’s a land flowing with milk and honey.

During the 20th century, it was called “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” Everything grew there: apricots, cherries, almonds, peaches, pears, plums. And so it was a garden. In both cases, there’s a visionary leader. In both cases, the people are entering this new land with an idea that they’re going feels different somehow. I want to study that next.

You’ve already briefly touched on this. Other U.S. regions, and other countries, have tried to replicate Silicon Valley. But the Valley has a deeply networked infrastructure of talent, service companies, world-class universities and venture capital and other finance firms. Can you instill what amounts to a spirit of innovation in another place and culture that easily, and is the Valley’s success repeatable?

Well, I think it was organic in the Valley. So I don’t think it was instilled, per se. The closest thing you can come to saying that it was intended or instilled would be to look at Frederick Terman. Terman was the distinguished professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. And he was a teacher of Hewlett and Packard. He encouraged them to go and create—a metaphorical “Go West, young man” sort of speech they got from him to create new technology. And he saw the opportunity for Stanford University, in particular his field of electrical engineering, to create a fresh wave of innovation and industry. So he was a visionary that way. But if there is a way to instill it, it’s a mystery. I guess the closest thing I can point to would be a kind of faith for trusting that new technology will create opportunities that we haven’t even foreseen yet. And that it’s worth investing in for its own sake, even though you can’t see how it’s going to pay off. It doesn’t matter. It’s worth doing anyway.

But you don’t see a copy of Silicon Valley popping up in, say, India or somewhere?

Well, it’s happening . . . it is happening all over. I mean, India has Bangalore— although I haven’t been there—is an example. Hyderabad is another one; it’s kind of similar. It’s got a whole fresh wave of tech entrepreneurs. And what we’re seeing now is actually people who have earned their chops in America, in universities and high-tech businesses, going back to India. Many of the Indian nationals are going back to India. In fact, I have a friend from Microsoft who did that. He was a manager at Microsoft. Indian-born, very successful manager at Microsoft. He left Microsoft, started a new software company and went back to India to start there. So it is happening around different places. It’s not just something you can plan. I think it’s organic, which, again, fits with our biblical understanding of how things happen.

In his book Knowledge and Power, George Gilder wrote that the market economy, or capitalism, is by nature giving because the risk it assumes is uncertainty; no real knowledge or assurance exists in a world of “unfathomable complexity that requires constant efforts of initiative, sympathy, discovery and love.” Socialism is deterministic, capitalism is altruistic. Does that ring true in light of what you’ve seen in the tech world?

It does. And I think the key is this: there’s an element of grace in it. And I think it catches most people by surprise. And it sounds like an oxymoron, to think that what keeps the economy alive is grace. But I fully believe it does. What keeps the economy alive is the same thing that keeps the human spirit alive. It’s grace. And a healthy economy has grace embedded in it somehow. Every transaction needs to contain an element of concern and care for the shalom of others and the shalom of the community. Or else that economic system will die. And history has shown that repeatedly. So I completely believe that. And I think you raised a really good connection there, because entrepreneurship is a place where that’s essential. The Silicon Valley model, and entrepreneurship in general, is not ultimately driven by money. It’s not driven by someone’s desire for money. It’s just not. It’s driven by a desire to create something of use, to create something of value. The money certainly comes . . . it’s just secondary. The money comes in as the necessity of doing it in a way that’s pragmatic and sustainable and enables you to create jobs and get it done. But the thing at the heart of creation is not money. It’s the desire to create something of value or something beautiful.

Let’s talk about the ethical and moral culture in the tech industry. There’s a deep strain of technocratic thinking that approaches almost every human or social problem as something that might be fixed with better software code or a new app. But you’ve said that no amount of “social entrepreneurship” will do much good unless people are willing to actively address corruption, dishonesty and chaos. How has that message been received?

That is a tough one because there are so many great advantages to using data and applied big data in ways to create new efficiencies or monetize relationships. So there’s a tremendous economic force we’re dealing with that wants to commoditize. Here’s where I think we risk crossing the line: it’s when we commoditize human relationships or the humanity of the relationship in the workplace. The big power of big data creates a pressure in that direction. The pressure in that direction, eventually, in some places, is going to cross that line. The hard question is figuring out where it crosses the line. Because a lot of what it does is really good. It helps cure disease. It helps eliminate poverty. It helps people in struggling third-world economies to actually have an opportunity to make things better that they didn’t have before. So big data is a gift in that sense. So where does it cross the line? And what I keep going back to in my studies and teaching of this is that I keep asking, “Well, what’s the impact this is having on human dignity?” And so that comes back to the question, What does it mean to be human? That brings us back to our faith at some point. We eventually end up there. And you have to ask whether the way we’re doing this is contributing to human dignity and human flourishing or whether it’s somehow demeaning it or impinging on it? It’s a tough question.

With many tech entrepreneurs viewing their businesses as essentially social institutions, does that make it easier to view their work more deeply, especially in a sense of vocation or mission in a Christian context?

Another great question. Yes, it helps. There’s an opportunity here, and we’re seeing a lot of good tech companies take advantage of that. Microsoft does it. Google does it. Many others. They have an expectation that their employees are going to use some of their time to be involved in social purposes, using their skills and their gifts. And I admire that. And I think what that does for the company, whether it’s Microsoft or Google or whoever, is create an awareness within the community of work that we’re involved in a greater reality. We’re not just playing a game. It’s not just about winning the most market share or winning the most users. There’s actually a greater reality here. When companies deliberately pay attention to that, I think that builds up the ethics of their own company internally for what they’re doing. Don’t be evil. This is Google’s mantra.

But, yes, it keeps people mindful. And mindfulness is important. Mindfulness, actually, is one of those analogs that I’m studying in my research. Because I’m looking at how companies keep people mindful of this, just what you’re asking about. And so I think you’re hitting on one of those analogs that does that and helps build up the ethical climate.

The tech world is a place where great successes and unimaginable riches have been achieved and celebrated widely. You don’t hear much about failure, which is a lot more frequent than success. How do you pastor people who are dealing with shattered entrepreneurial dreams?

Well, I think it’s largely a hypothetical question for me. Just so you know, I’m not talking about any particular person or particular case. But the fundamental thing is recognizing that our life is in God. I’m coming back to basics: understanding who you are.

For me, it’s about identity. That’s the key thing. I want to help draw people back to their true identity. A shattered dream, that’s not your true identity, I would counsel that person. That is what is happening in your life journey at this moment, to this company you are involved with or to this venture you’re involved with. That’s not you. Your identity is in Christ and him alone. And from my personal experience, then, I can share with them how I’ve experienced that, because I have. When we look back on our lives, I think any one of us can ask, “What have we really learned that really matters? Where’s there wisdom in my life?” Guess where we end up coming from? We end up coming from the failures and the pains, because that’s where the real wisdom came from.

And it turns out to be a wisdom we never asked for. We didn’t want it, but yet there it is. And that is how God works in our lives. My experience, he takes everything and uses it. And that has amazed me about our God. He takes everything and uses it. All the pain, the horrible things that happen, the failures—he does something with them. And so the blessing is to know him and to know that’s who he is and to know that’s what he does. And a lot of times that’s hard to see, so the pastor’s role in that situation is to understand that that person can’t see clearly and to walk alongside them in the midst of it. Ultimately, the pastor’s job is to be able to point to that reality without being able to heal it.

As a pastor, how do you bring the gift of the gospel to a tech culture that may be thoroughly unchurched or even hostile to Christianity—especially in a diverse, multicultural place where many may have been raised in spiritual traditions outside of Christianity?

What people need in that situation is a winsome witness.

So what does that look like? They need to see someone who is living their life in a way that there’s something attractive and winsome about it—in the way they handle adversity, in the way they treat the people around them. I’ve noticed people like that at work, for example, in that tech culture. And I’ve noticed something about that person. I’ve never heard him or her demean another person in a meeting. I’ve seen that person always be an encouragement. And you notice little things like that, the more explicit things. That helps. The other explicit thing you can do—that is noticeable, that helps people—again, is to help them get their bearings, help them get their context. Remind them who they are and always be reminding them of the greater reality, that, whether this product succeeds or fails, it’s not going to change who they are.

And one way of reminding them of that is what changes people’s lives—to get into relationships. So helping them to be involved in relationships outside of the high-pressure, high-stakes, high-intensity game they’re caught in, which is a great, fun game, you know? But when it wraps people up, they can lose their bearings. So, again, it’s helpful to have some involvement in something outside of that. It could be a social venture. It could be initiatives at work that take our technology and use it in ways purely motivated by serving. It’s looking at our company and business as service and always putting that first. So there’s a variety of ways to try to help cultivate those relationships and make them part of our workplace culture.