Capital of innovation
Growth | Ideas | A new mindset
An immigrant mindset
Driven | Passionate | Pioneers
The traitorous eight
Fairchild Semiconductor | California
A broken country
Crisis | Failed expectations | Greece
The collapse of Pittsburgh
Normalcy | Prohibition | Violence
We need to adopt a 1920s immigrant way of thinking
Become fearless | Connect with people | Think for the long-term
Think like an immigrant (Transcript)
My grandfather – Michael – was the seventh son of a seventh son.
Yes. The youngest of seven brothers. As was his father before him.
Now, I don’t know if you have ever heard this before, but a seventh son is viewed as someone special in many different cultures.
A gifted child, granted mystical powers by the gods.
A healer. A future-teller. Or even a werewolf.
Had Michael been born in Argentina, he would have been christened by the President himself. Same with his dad. It is rumored that Juan Perón christened
1,982 such kids during his three terms in office.
But Michael was born in Cyprus. And all that meant was that his family did not have enough money to support him. Michael was forced to emigrate from a
very young age.
The Great War had only just finished in Europe. There were 8m dead.
There was poverty, famine, persecution.
Michael was part of a lost generation with no future.
A generation desperately looking for a way out.
On the 14th of May 1920, Michael boarded the «RMS Pannonia» for New York.
He was 17 years old.
There were 840 people on board. Spending 24 days at sea.
The first bit was easy – Patra, Naples, Valencia.
Then, it was all rough waters. Dark, crowded, smelly. Infections everywhere. And quite cold if you dared go up to the deck for air.
At long last the Pannonia docked at Ellis Island – a “pleasantly situated island” as an estate agent once called it, known for hangings of pirates and convicted
Everybody who got off the ship was tracked and labeled.
Everyone was wearing a number tag.
Arriving at Ellis Island as an immigrant back in the 1920s, the first thing you came across was a long staircase leading to the Great Hall.
Slots of 30 people would go through, subjected to a detailed medical examination and asked different questions to confirm that they had enough money to
support themselves in America. You actually needed a formal invitation letter to come in. From a friend, a relative, any random acquaintance.
Those who struggled up the stairs or failed any one of the 29 questions were denied entry and sent straight back to their country. Heartbroken.
Those who went through – as new American residents – would sail past the Statue of Liberty on their way across the bay. A reminder that they were about to
enter a welcoming new land. This was the gateway to their own American dream.
Michael eventually ended up in Pittsburgh. He found a job working at Andrew Carnegie’s steel mill. Carnegie was at that point in time the wealthiest man on
earth and this was the largest mill ever built.
It was hard working in a steel mill – Michael was effectively living in a hot furnace every day of the week, producing steel cables, bars and wires that would be
used all over the world.
Pittsburgh was going through some golden years in the 1920s.
The origin of jazz. Art deco. Women being allowed to vote.
These were the Gatsby years.
And the end of the Great War helped.
2m troops back on US soil – all eager to settle down, to have families, to start a new life.
There was plenty of money to go around – industrialists were investing, setting up new plants, rebuilding. Pittsburgh was buzzing. It was the Silicon Valley of
A few miles from Carnegie’s mill, in East Pittsburgh, Frank Conrad was about to make history. On a surprisingly warm November evening, Frank made the first
ever radio broadcast. Sitting in a wooden shack on the roof of the «Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company», Frank and his colleagues
broadcasted the results of the 1920 presidential election. An election race to decide the 29th president of the United States.
And it was all live. For the first time. On radio.
Frank’s broadcast lasted 18 hours. These 18 hours marked the beginning of the radio revolution. A brand new industry in the making. An estimated 1,000
people tuned in that first night. By the end of the 1920s, 12m households had their own radio device.
There is no question about it: Pittsburgh was the capital of innovation of the 1920s.
The birthplace of new ideas.
Frank alone had more than 200 patents to his name.
What made Pittsburgh special though? How did it become the place all entrepreneurs wanted to be? And are there any learnings for us in this day and age?
There were a number of reasons behind Pittsburgh’s success.
But one key driver set it apart.
The entrepreneurial thinking that defined Pittsburgh in the 1920s had a lot to do with the waves of immigrants coming into town.
The exploratory mindset they brought with them.
The population of Pittsburgh grew by seven times at the turn of the century.
Thousands and thousands of people came in from Europe. Flooding the place with new ideas. New customs.
Pittsburgh was a true melting pot of races, religions and cultures.
And those who took the boat to America were a special breed of people.
They were driven. They were passionate. They were pioneers.
They were leaders with strong survival instincts. A go-getter attitude. Adventurists with their own perspective on what is risk and what is return. How the two
of them come together.
The immigrants of the 1920s were used to having the odds stack up against them. But they also taught themselves early on how to adapt. How to play the
Looking at my grandfather and his generation, three character traits defined them.
These helped them succeed in their newly found homeland:
They were fearless.
They had nothing to lose. They were free from their past. They had guts. Their immediate circle was left behind – in the old country. They had few things
holding them back and they had no problem reaching out to people they did not know in order to get things done.
Mark Granovetter, a Stanford sociologist, defined such contacts as the «weak ties» of your network. He spent a lot of time studying them. He even conducted
a social experiment back in the 1970s – tracking job hunters and their effectiveness in finding work. His findings? 84% of the people who were successful in
finding a job did so via these weak links – people they did not know as well.
The immigrants of the 1920s leveraged these weaker ties and benefitted a lot from doing so.
They became good connectors.
When people from my grandfather’s generation came to America, they had no relevant background, no language skills. It was probably the first time in their
lives that they got to interact with people from different cultures, different religions, different races. They spent the first few months observing. Listening. And
that helped them become better connectors, as Malcolm Gladwell’s would say.
There is a lot of research on how the ability to adapt across diverse groups of people is even more powerful than having a huge network of similar-type
contacts. Ronald Burt wrote about this extensively in his latest work.
There is also strong evidence that diversity fosters creativity. Brian Uzzi famously studied all the musicals ever produced on Broadway in an effort to
understand what makes certain productions commercial successes and what makes other tank. He studied all 2,258 musicals ever produced. The conclusion
was clear – musicals that involve more diverse groups of people have a much better chance of succeeding than more uniform teams.
The immigrants of the 1920s learnt to adapt fast and they used that to their advantage in connecting diverse groups of people.
They were in it for the long-term.
Immigrant communities tend to be collegial. Immigrants appreciate the importance of helping one another. They typically develop longer-term rather than
transactional relationships. Someone helped them while coming into the country and they helped others back. Call it social capital, karma, the spirit of giving
back. Or better still, the principle of reciprocity. The need to give before taking.
Bob Burgh’s research in 2007 draws on this exact point. His book: «The Go-Giver» focuses on the effectiveness of such longer-term social interactions.
There is no doubt in my mind, that my grandfather and his generation built much more long-term and meaningful relationships than the ones we build today.
These three traits enabled the immigrants of the 1920s to develop a «vision advantage».
Through the years, they acquired a certain clarity of mind, a different perspective that allowed them to see things more calmly and focus on what really
It is no surprise that immigrants do well in entrepreneurial settings.
In fact, the Silicon Valley would have never been what it is today without them.
Take Fairchild Semiconductor, as an example. Starting in the mid-1950s, Fairchild was not only a huge entrepreneurial success. It was directly linked to the
genesis of another 92 companies, generating more than USD 2.1 trillion in value.
That is more than the GDP of India.
From the «traitorous eight» founders of Fairchild Semiconductor, five of them were immigrants.
This still holds today. Look at «the Paypal Mafia». Peter Thiel is German. Elon Musk is South African. Reid Hoffman spent significant time abroad.
There are cases like this all across the Valley:
52% of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were not born in the United States.
25% of patents are held by foreigners.
40% of publicly listed companies in tech were founded by first generation migrants.
Israel is another case in point. A start-up nation in itself, built on entrepreneurial values. It has the highest concentration of start-ups in the world – 3,500 of
them in high-tech. That is 3x as many as Silicon Valley. It is the third country represented on Nasdaq after the US and China. And all this despite being the 100th
smallest country in the world and being able to fit in Europe 459 times.
40% of Israelis were born abroad.
Still, it is the mindset not the place of birth that makes the difference.
Start-up ecosystems that grew to be successful, all adopted an exploratory mindset. The thinking of an immigrant. And that gave them a huge competitive
We live in a broken country in desperate need of new ideas.
Greece is currently going through a financial crisis, a social crisis, a crisis of values.
All at the same time.
Things have never been this bad.
We had a collapse in GDP of 25%.
Youth unemployment is over 60%.
Crime is at an all time high – one robbery every hour, one homicide every other day.
It is perhaps the first time since my grandfather’s journey to Pittsburgh that people in their twenties are faced with a lower quality of life than their parents.
And yet, we somehow seem to be lacking a willingness to change.
The entrepreneurial drive to make things better.
It makes you wonder.
Have we lost our ability to innovate?
Have we made our world too small?
Have we become too complacent?
It seems that we have become quite insular as a society. More homogeneous. We build social barriers to keep people out. We rely on middle-men in
everything we do and we find it hard to trust new people. This is not surprising. We have been raised in a world of lies and failed promises. Unrealistic
benchmarks. We do not know any different.
The previous generation could not have left us with the world in a worse state.
I believe that today’s challenges present an enormous opportunity for us to do things differently. There is a need to rediscover ourselves, to develop new
leaders, to get ownership of our future.
And to do this successfully, we need to become fearless, we need to learn how to connect with people and to start thinking for the long-term.
Just like the immigrants of the 1920s did.
So how do we instill this exploratory mindset into the new generation?
Can we really change the way twenty-year olds view the world?
These are questions my business partner and I have spent a lot of time thinking about.
Emilios and I moved to Greece four years ago. In launching our company we faced a number of challenges. The first one was finding people willing to back our
dream. Emilios and I reached out to 2,500 targeted investors. We met with 300 of them in 14 different countries. This process took us 18 months. It took us
three whole years from the time we left our jobs to selling our first policy. During that time, Greece sworn in 5 prime ministers, 7 ministers of finance. We
waited 106 days for the Bank of Greece to give us the green light. Just for us to start operating.
Setting up a business in Greece is difficult. And most of the horror stories you hear about are true. Still, it is the task of inspiring the younger generation that
we find the most challenging. And exciting at the same time.
We are hopeful. Unlike most of the generations before them, Generation Y seem to be doers by nature. Grounded. With realistic expectations. We have hired
32 people over the past four years, the great majority of them are under 30.
Our conclusion? It is possible to change people’s mindsets, but it takes a lot of work. More importantly, you need to first change your own way of thinking.
Fight your own prejudice:
Get them young.
The average age of our team in Greece is 29. We tend to hire people with no relevant experience – it is better to invest the time and train someone from
scratch. It is easier to teach than to reform. Particularly if you are trying to disrupt a traditional industry. We have had a range of professionals join us. A part-
time musician. A farmer. A bee-keeper.
Get them hungry.
Passionate. Intellectually curious. Find people who want to change things. People lacking that feeling of self-entitlement – people paranoid to perform.
Let them fail.
Our education system does not promote entrepreneurship. As a society we do not cope well with failure. And this is a Pan-European problem. Unless you give
people responsibility and let them fail, they will never learn. Encourage people to take risks – challenge them to question their own assumptions.
The golden years of Pittsburgh did not last that long.
Not everyone was open to new ideas.
The 1920s were a time of growing conflict between those who could accept change and those who would not. Between those whose minds were open to
modern views and those who stuck to fundamental beliefs. Between progressive thinkers and those who would rather return to an America of the past.
In this struggle, Pittsburgh frequently became a battleground.
Warren Harding got elected as America’s 29th President with 60.3% of the vote. This was the highest margin in history. Harding was conservative, stuck in his
own ways. He advocated «a return to normalcy». He put a stop on immigration.
The 29th amendment of the Constitution introduced the Prohibition. America went dry.
The Ku Klux Klan, which was practically dissolved at the start of the century, reached its highest popularity ever with 5m active members.
Violence started spreading – a bomb in Wall Street killed 38 people, constant strikes and protests for better pay led to thousands of injuries.
In the clash between old and new, foreign ideas are suspect.
Pittsburgh went through a huge roller-coaster ride in the 1920s and gradually collapsed into obscurity. Despite its promising start, it did not adapt fast enough.
It did not keep up with the times. It closed up and lost the ability to reinvent itself.
TED is all about reimagining our future, not reliving the past. Focusing on the things that can be fixed rather than those that can’t.
We’ve covered quite a bit of ground today. And we cannot save the world in 18 minutes.
But if there is one thought I would like you to take with you today is this.
We need to change our mindset. We need to open up, to learn from others and to embrace diversity across the board. It is absolutely necessary to do so, if we
are to adapt to a much more turbulent world. Perhaps more importantly, we need to learn to give before we take. To get rid of our complacency. To break
away from our past.
It is up to us what history will say about our generation in the years to come.
Adopting a 1920s immigrant way of thinking may give us a better chance.
We need to become fearless.
We need to learn how to connect with people.
We need to start thinking for the long-term.