Today, we have two realities in the world. We have the hubs, like Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley, and we have the opportunity deserts, where citizens have been left with two impossible options: work low-skilled jobs for low pay, or move elsewhere.
There is some promise given the ubiquity of information and sudden uptick in those teleworking amid the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the skills to create, manipulate and expand this wealth of information are still not accessible to so many of our citizens. Millions do not live within an easy commute or having another way to connect to the companies that could capitalize on their talent. As hubs like Silicon Valley expand and swallow up the industry, housing markets go lopsided, culture wars ensue, and so many bright young men and women find themselves trapped in opportunity deserts where their potential goes unnoticed or unfulfilled.
And when opportunity vanishes, social ills are quick to fill its place. Extremism, xenophobia, poverty and addiction — the less social mobility a community has, the more susceptible they become to these factors. It’s no coincidence that as wealth becomes more concentrated in our world, our societies become more divided. Redistributing opportunity is one of the best weapons we can muster.
Two years ago, I was at the local college in Sheffield, the midsized British manufacturing town where I grew up, and I met a young man who changed my life.
He was like so many kids I’ve met in “forgotten” towns across the U.S. and England: bright, eager, and determined to build a life for himself, far beyond the housing project where he had grown up. We started talking computers, and he told me he had built one himself, all the way down to the operating system, which is a variant of Linux.
Then he told me he learned open-source coding from his father and so I asked him where his father worked, expecting an answer like IBM or Microsoft.
No, he told me, my father is a laborer in a warehouse.
And it was right then that I changed my life – because of this bright young man and his brilliant father, who knows how to build an operating system with his bare hands but is stuck laboring in a warehouse for minimum wage as there aren’t jobs worthy of his skills within a 50-mile radius of his home.
Here in the United States, we started to see ripples of change, even before the expansion of teleworking during the current pandemic. Grow with Google has set a powerful precedent by offering free skills training to anyone with an internet connection. The Public Library Association’s DigitalLead program is ramping up technology access and programming courses in opportunity-parched villages and towns across the country. And bootstrap businesses like Bit Source are changing the narrative for Appalachian workers, offering coding courses and job opportunities for coal miners throughout Kentucky.
Where coal once drove economies in America, steel did the same in much of England. I should know: my grandfather was a steel magnate, and when he arrived in Sheffield in 1853, the energy, excitement and innovation was equivalent to Silicon Valley today. Much like Pittsburgh, we were making great things, and we were doing it with more efficiency, speed and profits than the world had ever seen.
But innovation is a tricky thing, and unless you can stay nimble and be willing to adapt, industries that were once considered groundbreaking will quickly turn redundant.
Like so many cities where manufacturing once thrived, Sheffield has been ravaged by poverty and unemployment. The third wave of the industrial revolution, with its computers and microprocessors, took over our traditional assembly-line jobs. Businesses weren’t willing to admit that jobs were shifting and technology was adapting, and before they could blink, entire teams of workers were left behind.
I am on a mission to reset that balance and I call upon my fellow business leaders to join me. This past May, I launched the WANdisco Data Academy at Sheffield College, a comprehensive program for 20 promising young Sheffield residents that will train them in engineering and entrepreneurship. But I’ve also doubled down, insisting on dual headquarters for my own company, both in Silicon Valley and in Sheffield, so that the young people that we mentor and encourage can build careers and businesses at home once their training is complete.
It’s not charity. It’s good business. I have a fundamental belief that talent is evenly spread across the world. By definition, it has to be. But even while talent is available everywhere, opportunity is not. I’m committed to ensuring a democracy of opportunity where anyone with enough talent and work ethic will get the same fair shot that they would have had if they were born in a bigger city.
If you want to find excellent workers, infuse your company with new creativity and bring the very best brains to your team, set up a headquarters in a place with a lot of talent but limited opportunity. Today, that young man that I met is part of the first class of students at the WANdisco Academy, and I look forward to bringing him onto my staff when he graduates. His father is living in poverty, but he won’t have to.