New York - In the small city of Palo Alto, which boasts roughly 65 000 residents and sits on the southern shores of San Francisco Bay, two intriguing news stories were being played out this weekend.
One revolved around Facebook, whose sprawling headquarters lie just to the north.
A long-awaited stock market flotation elevated this one-time local start-up to the status of $100bn (R8.4 trillion) corporate behemoth and in the space of a few breathless hours, made thousands of lucky Palo Altons multi-millionaires.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, at 28 years old, became one of the world’s top 20 richest people as the flotation netted him more than $19bn.
The other involved Steve Hilton, UK prime minister David Cameron’s official “blue sky” thinker, famed for his free-wheeling ideas, idiosyncratic taste in clothes, and preference for walking barefoot.
After reportedly growing tired of life as the premier’s official strategist, this influential member of the Notting Hill and Chipping Norton sets last week cleared his desk at Downing Street to begin a year’s “sabbatical” at Stanford University.
Compared to Facebook’s blistering stock-market debut, Hilton’s arrival in town was relatively low key.
Yet both Hilton and Facebook’s busy Fridays bear witness to a singular, quite remarkable phenomenon: at this point in the history of capitalism, with the internet revolution in full swing, there are few more exciting, lucrative or dynamic places in the world, for an upwardly mobile person in possession of a creative mind and burning ambition, than this small city on the western coast of California.
You only have to drive through Palo Alto and its neighbouring towns and cities – together known as Silicon Valley – to appreciate the region’s future place in our civilisation. Sandwiched in between smart residential neighbourhoods and retail districts are vast “campuses” where today’s tech giants plot world domination.
Within 20 minutes of Stanford, the nearest thing Palo Alto has to a historic institution, is the “Googleplex”, Apple’s “infinite loop”, and the home of long-standing tech giants such as HP, Oracle, Intel and IBM. Ebay is next to the nearest airport, San Jose, Twitter lives in southern San Francisco, and the venture capital firms that help them tick are on Sandhill Road. It makes for a breathtaking display of creative and commercial might.
As London was to Victorian industrialists, and New York to the wealth creators of the 1900s, Palo Alto is fast becoming the capital of the world to bright young pioneers hoping to make the 21st century tick.
“Everyone is so full of energy here. It’s where all the brightest minds come, attracted to new ideas. I just feel blessed to be part of it,” says Kirsten Keith, mayor of booming Menlo Park, a stone’s throw from Facebook HQ. Per capita the region has more billionaires, and more residents in possession of a PhD, than anywhere else on Earth.
“We are where the modern world is emerging from,” says Jamis MacNiven, owner of the coffee shop Bucks of Woodside, a Silicon Valley institution where countless start-ups have been born.
Hilton, 42, will find this music to his ears. Palo Alto and Hilton are so naturally compatible they might have been purpose-built for one another.
His freewheeling personality, honed in the world of advertising and marketing, seems perfectly suited for Californian academia.
His disdain for sartorial protocol, which saw him walk barefoot through Downing Street, puts him in right at home in a world where people like Mark Zuckerberg are never seen without a hoodie.
Hilton’s interest in green issues are, meanwhile, in line with local values (residents are often described as the world’s most left-wing billionaires), while Hilton’s use of cycles as a preferred mode of transport sits naturally with Palo Alto’s status as the most bike-friendly city in America.
“This place is about winning the future, not about making a ton of money. If all you want is cash, you’ll just go to Wall Street and work for a hedge fund. This place is for people who want to change the world,” says McNiven.
House prices are breathtaking, naturally (a decent family home costs $3m-$6m), but their appearance tends to be low key. Zuckerberg has an outwardly-modest $7m pile in Palo Alto’s College Terrace neighbourhood.
Penelope Huang, a Re/Max broker in the area, says: “It’s like living in a bubble, and when you go anywhere else, you just want to come right home.”
After the bubble of Downing Street, what more could Hilton want? – The Independent