Almost anyone visiting San Francisco is struck by two things: first, the enormous influence of the tech industry. This is noticeable in everything from the high cost of rent, to the ubiquity of digital technologies, for example the fact that you can use PayPal in some restaurants and feed a parking meter by SMS, as well as the numbers of people walking around wearing Google Glass(es).
And the second thing most striking thing about San Francisco is the street people.
Well, maybe not necessarily in that order. Because the street people are more immediately visible, both in their numbers and in the assertiveness of their presence. It makes some people sad, others angry, and still others simply confused. “Why are there so many of them?” you’ll hear the tourists asking. Visitors from abroad get particularly rattled by this view of American life so at odds with their image of it. “I just don’t understand…”
As a recent transplant to the Bay Area, I have been puzzling over this myself. Because it does seem inconsistent, or, depending on your politics, even iniquitous at first glance. But today it struck me: what if these two seemingly opposite worlds have more in common than we think? Consider:
Tech entrepreneurs Street people
Ask for money from venture capitalists Ask for money from passersby
Often have several failed ventures behind them “Failed” citizens
Tend to be mavericks or extreme individualists Alone almost by definition
Startups are ephemeral, booming or going bust quickly Live in temporary situations
What was most interesting to me about this is that, in some ways, all that really separates the homeless and tech entrepreneurs is social class and the scale of their activities. (I wouldn’t say that mental illness forms a distinction here, because the affluent are equally afflicted by mental illness; they just have access to drugs, doctors and effective treatments.)
Social class isn’t just about money and education, however. It’s also a way of relating to the world – privilege comes down to a sense of being cushioned, knowing that you will always be taken care of in some sense. People who feel this way never doubt they have options, while people who don’t feel the reassurance of privilege tend to act in the belief that, “I have no choice,” which are the kinds of actions that get them into trouble.
Scale plays an interesting role here too. A person on the street usually asks strangers for spare change, at most a dollar or two. A tech entrepreneur typically asks VCs for tens of thousands of dollars – sometimes millions. But in doing so, they are not shamed or labeled a beggar.
But finally, I think what interests me most about the parallels between entrepreneurs and street people – in some cases you might even call them synergies -is what they reveal about these social roles in our culture. It’s that old romantic notion of the individual hero: going out there to make it on his own terms, no matter what happens. Going for broke!
If you’re a middle-class (probably white) guy with a good education and great confidence in your own abilities and ideas, you can go out there and start hitting people up for huge sums of money, which you can then put into your personal projects for years at a time. Even if these projects are not successful in themselves this will not necessarily make you unsuccessful in getting even more money from people for other ideas later on. Failure is not applied as a term in these situations, either to the entrepreneurs or their projects.
Whereas the homeless are the very embodiment of failure in American culture: no home, no job, no possessions with social value or status.
Yet what the homeless do have is time, which is the one resource that every entrepreneurs would beg, borrow or steal if they could.