Margaret O’Mara is the Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington.

She received her BA in English and History from Northwestern University and her MA and Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania.
Prior to her academic career, she was a staff member to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, where she was a policy analyst – working on urban economic development, health care, and welfare reform.

Margaret is the author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, which was a Financial Times and Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2019. She is also the author of Cities of Knowledge, Pivotal Tuesdays, and the co-author of the college history textbook, The American Pageant.
She is a frequent contributor to the Opinion page of The New York Times, and she has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC World News, and PBS Frontline.

You should follow her on Twitter because she has one of the most intentional and intellectual collection of retweets that I have ever encountered.

Enjoy this interview with Margaret O’Mara!

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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Margaret O’Mara:

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. I'm on a mission to make you remarkable.
In this episode, Professor Margaret O'Mara is going to help me.
She is the Howard and Francis Keller Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington.
She receives her BA in English and History from Northwestern University, and she received her MA and PhD in History from the University of Pennsylvania.
Prior to her academic career, she was a staff member for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. She functioned as a policy analyst working on urban economic development, healthcare and welfare reform.
Margaret is the author of a great book about Silicon Valley called, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. It was a Financial Times and Publishers Weekly best book of 2019.
She's also the author of Cities of Knowledge, Pivotal Tuesdays, and co-author of the college history textbook, The American Pageant.
She is a frequent contributor to the opinion page of the New York Times, and she has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC World News, and PBS Frontline.
You should follow her on Twitter because she has one of the most intentional and intellectual collection of retweets that I have ever encountered.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People, and now, here is the remarkable Margaret O'Mara.
I'm going to start you off with a softball. Are we headed for a civil war?
Margaret O'Mara:
That's a softball.
Guy Kawasaki:
That's a softball.
Margaret O'Mara:
That's a softball question. Are we headed for a civil war? I don't know.
One of the things you learn from studying history is that bold predictions made can often be wrong, but I think that this moment in American history does have a lot of anxiety invoking parallels to the 1850s.
We have longstanding, unresolved divisions that were not properly reckoned with. In the case of the 1850s, you had a system of human enslavement. That was one part of the country was economically reliant on.
Actually, one very politically powerful segment of that part of the country, the planter class, the enslaving class, who had a very high level of representation in Congress and the Senate were very invested in keeping that going.
Quite honestly, the industrial economy of the North was the textile mills of Massachusetts needed Southern cotton. So everyone was implicated in this broader system that was at odds with the democratic principles on which the country was built.
There also were political parties that were dominated by older people who had been around for a while, and the younger generation was trying to get into to it. There had been a big wave of immigration, particularly from Ireland, of people that were seen as less than the European-Americans who were already here. They were Catholic, they were poor, they were viewed as subhuman, in many cases. So there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment.
And as the US was expanding westward there, the real fight was, are the territories going to be slaved or free? That's all prelude. That's some of the prelude to what happened in the 1860s.
Now, there are tremendous divisions and some dimensions not quite as high stakes, you have a more solidly established democracy. The Constitution's now a couple centuries old rather than just a few decades old, but I think that what we have now that we didn't have then is we have a highly accelerated media culture that is amplifying and allowing really fringe speech to gain traction at a scale and a speed that hasn't happened before.
You have, again, really longstanding divisions that haven't properly been papered over in terms of racial divisions. For example, the generations of school children have hearing Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech and then being told that fixed it, effectively.
We've seen pretty vividly in the last ten years that's far from being fixed, and in fact, not really reckoning with the structural racism, with the inequity, with the very different economic trajectories that Americans have depending on where they're from, who they are.
Those haven't been fully acknowledged and reckoned with, and that's part of what we're looking at.
Guy Kawasaki:
If a civil war were to occur, it seems to me it's not between states. It may be within states. Isn't that very different?
Margaret O'Mara:
That is really different. In the civil war, you had a whole section of the country where the people controlling opted out. Now, it's much more bumpy.
We talk about red states and blue states or different shades of purple. I'm talking to you from Seattle, very blue Seattle, but you go across the cascade mountains and you get to a pretty red rest of Washington state, and it's not as predictable.
One of the things about this moment in American history is there's been an incredible geographic and economic sorting, right? So people grow up in a small town in Eastern Washington or South Dakota or you name it, and they go to college maybe somewhere else, and they see that, "There's a whole range of jobs I could take with this college degree and if I stayed in the city than if I went back to my hometown."
So you see this incredible emptying out of population from parts of the country that were already pretty lightly populated to begin with.
We also see really just dramatically different economic trajectories and opportunities presented to people, whether you're a kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio or my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, or you're a kid growing up in one of the big affluent coastal metros.
Now, that doesn't mean that you've got it made. There's incredible amount of income inequality in some of the richest cities in America, but that separation, geographic, very different world, the world of a small town, even two hours east of where I am in Seattle, in terms of the church you go to, the media you listen to, the economic opportunities presented to you.
Guy Kawasaki:
Second softball question.
Margaret O'Mara:
Oh, God.
Guy Kawasaki:
Are we at the end of democracy?
Margaret O'Mara:
We don't know. We don't know. I think that we are, I hope, freshly aware of its fragility and not presuming that it's all going to be cool, cool, cool.
Look, there have been incredible stress tests that American democracy have undergone. I often compare the Founding Fathers to startup founders in that they did American democracy itself.
Guy Kawasaki:
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah. No, here's my comp, here's my comp. Bear with me here. First of all, a lot of guys, very male, very White, a very demographically specific and elite group in terms of maybe being relatively young, but super, super deeply have immersed themselves and become expert in one certain thing like you have, and Mark Zuckerberg is a teenager who's building Zucknet in parents' basement. Name any number of Silicon valley big names and they had that focus at a really early age.
Same thing with some of the guys who were at the constitutional convention. They were like one got into Princeton when he was fourteen and finished in two and a half years. Another one spent eight hours a day reading the classics.
As much as some founders or startup founders are into hacking, these guys were into hacking Tacitus. They were just going deep in Greco-Roman history and philosophy and all that stuff, deep in the alignment, and they pivoted.
So here we have United States. The revolution itself is this total disruption. There's been no democracy for millennia. The only way that you run things is through a hereditary monarchy. So the United States is premised on this entirely new model, totally disruptive, and becomes hugely influential.
Even then, they have to pivot. They start with these articles of Confederation that are, eh, not so much, and then they go to the Constitution a decade later or less than a decade later that has a president and a little more there, there, but they still say, "You know what? We need to iterate.
So we're going to make this Constitution amendable, and we're going to rely on amendments to make this thing actually work." It still was a pretty iffy proposition.
So this is all going to your question of democracy, is this the end? It's been more touch and go than we would like to realize. When you start digging into nineteenth century history, you see the fragility, as well as the remarkable durability of this crazy startup that is the United States, and you have the stress test of the civil war.
You have this stress test of after the Gilded age and industrialization and amass in great fortunes and incredible inequality, the stress test of world, stress test of Vietnam of Watergate, which was an extraordinary constitutional stress test.
So here we are here now. So it could go a lot of different directions.
I think a lot about where the continuities and where do things set this moment apart that set historian's habit of mind. We do have partisan divisions, regional divisions, economic divisions, failures of leadership, both parties, really, to deliver on their economic promises to certain electorally significant segments of White America, of racial change or America of every class, but this is accompanied with demographic change and positive social change that has been seen by some as threatening when it is accompanied with a shrinking economic pie.
You're like, "All these people have access to the jobs that used to be just mine that only I could have." So there's a threat there.
So it's a perfect storm of things, but there's a lot of possibility. I try to find a lot of hope in history. Where are the thing? Where do we see progress? So here I am, I'm a tenured college professor at a major research university, and I'm a woman. I couldn't have had this job a couple generations back.
My gender would've excluded me from even being considered. We're also using technologies that are allowing us to communicate in ways and connect in ways that when we sit back and just appreciate it, remarkable, and that is something that also was aided as a lot of my work focuses on by this broader political economy and choice by a society to invest in people and technologies to allow innovation to happen and give them runway to create things.
There's a lot of hope. It's awareness of the history and an awareness that you can't just let this thing run on autopilot. Why have so many voting rights been curtailed in the last several years?
Because the voting rights act was deemed by the Supreme Court to no longer be something that needed to be enforced. The voting rights act of 1965 was something that dismantled Jim Crow segregation and voting restrictions in the South that prevented Black people from voting for decades. So you have to actively work at democracy.
You can't just be like, "It's going to work. Don't worry. We're going to wave the flag, and we're American. It's going to be okay."
Guy Kawasaki:
Historically, when a democracy ends, is it a dramatic, violent siege of the palace, or is it by a thousand cuts where local school boards or local state governments are now changing voting rights? How does it happen?
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah. History happens suddenly or it happens slowly, then it happens all at once. It can take many forms, and there can be dramatic moments that aren't seen at the time as pivotal and critical.
I think one of the open questions is how is January sixth, 2021 going to be understood a century from now as the prelude to something or something that was in and of itself standalone.
The American system, it can be slow and imperceptible in part because of our system of federalism. You have many levels of government.
You have real variety and variation in terms of the lived experience of what's happening and who has rights and who has opportunity depending on where they live in the country, but I go back to those decades, fateful decades right before the civil war, over the course of the 1850s, there were plenty of people in power that would readily acknowledge that it was incredibly fractious, incredibly partisan, incredibly unsettled time. The stakes were high.
At the same time, they were like, "But it's not going to come to a civil war. It's not going to come to disintegration of the union. It's not going to come to that because that's not going to happen." Part of that was because they'd been fighting with each other since about 1789.
People were having knife fights and caning each other on the floor of Congress. There was never a kumbaya moment in American democracy. Lin-Manuel Miranda captured it when Alexander Hamilton was this guy that just drove everyone crazy. He did, and most of them, these were really strong personalities and-
Guy Kawasaki:
... somewhere in the room.
Margaret O'Mara:
... and somewhere in the room, but you don't see it, and 1930s Germany, hard to see. These things are hard to see until you can't not see them anymore.
You have to be very eyes wide open. The remarkable thing about American democracy is that there are so many levers that can be pushed where you can get engaged, including in places that seem, "Why is this important?"
We tend to have political conversations that focus relentlessly on the presidency and relentlessly on the Congress and national politics as if that's what matters.
As you point out, there are battles being waged at the level of the school board that involve a lot of boring meetings. To be someone who's going to get involved at level of local politics, you have to be willing to put in the time and effort and put up with a lot of stuff that you're like, "I could be binge watching something so much better or I could be doing my job," or something like that.
I think the other thing that we're grappling with right now in 2022 is fifty years of across the political spectrum from left to right devaluing government institutions and politicians and bureaucrats, and feeling like institutions are in the way of innovation and change and individual expression and freedom, and they're not places where you can do cool new things, and politicians either they're all jerks or they're all crooks or they're trying to be too big or they're doing things the wrong way.
Everyone's got their opinions, but no one really likes the status quo. That has really caused this pullback from civic engagement and a willingness to invest in making government work well and work in a democratic way across all levels.
Guy Kawasaki:
Margaret O'Mara:
All right. Let's get to happy stuff.
Guy Kawasaki:
No, I'm speaking to real historian. I want a historical perspective here.
Which is typically a bigger threat to democracy, voter fraud or voter suppression?
Margaret O'Mara:
Voter suppression. We see this throughout American history. Accusations of voter fraud have been something that has been perennial throughout American history.
It often has been leveled against groups of voters that are relatively disempowered or newer to the system or where their participation would change or challenge the status quo. In the nineteenth century, it was immigrants or children of immigrants, Roman Catholics, Southern Eastern Europeans, Irish, where they're starting to get considerable political power.
They have political machines who are just to make everything a little more spicy themselves, a little pretty corrupt, not always, things that buy our modern standards would be like, "That's not the White way to do it. You vote for me, you get a Turkey at Thanksgiving," kind of stuff.
At the same time, these accusations of voter fraud, actual fraudulent voting or false ballots being stuffed and the process itself being corrupted is something that accompanies these groups of voters voting.
Whereas, there might have been plenty of bribery and patronage and all sorts of stuff on the side, even when the process of voting was relatively clean, few would get accusations and it often was new groups of voters that might threaten the status quo.
So the same thing has followed and the Black vote, ever since Black people have been given the vote, first Black men and then Black women, there have been these accusations in the post-reconstruction South, White Southerners saying, "We need to have these restrictions on voting so that there isn't voter fraud," and those effectively become voter suppression.
So cases of actual fraud and much less fraud that has changed electoral outcomes are minimal throughout American history, and it is remarkable how rare it is, quite honestly, and certainly in the modern period, meaning the last several decades, but it is obviously an argument that has legs and one that was not taken seriously enough by people who didn't agree with those accusations when, say, some Republican lawmakers and Republican party operatives were accusing saying voter fraud was at work.
Democrats dismissed that as there's no basis, in fact, because there wasn't, but by dismissing it, and this has really become an entrenched belief among many people, particularly in the last two years with the rise of mail-in voting.
Guy Kawasaki:
One of the hotspots of voter fraud is a retirement community in Florida. Let's face it, but let's not go down that path here.
Is it not a reasonable conclusion that basically, conservatives and Republicans do not want Black and Brown people to vote? Is that an overstatement?
Margaret O'Mara:
I don't think it's an overstatement given the leadership, those with the most power and influence in the Republican party right now, and shaping the direction of the Republican party.
I think there are many Republican voters, and including Republican lawmakers, former and some present who do not agree with that, and in fact, after Obama's victory in 2008, the Republican party did this postmortem saying, "Part of our problem is that we need to broaden our appeal to Black and Brown voters."
So now that being said, one really important and surprising to many data point that came out of the 2020 election was the growth in some groups of Hispanic voters for and support for Donald Trump in ways that pushed against the Democrats' presumption and something that voters of color constantly remind the Democratic party that, "We get taken for granted.
You assume that we're going to be on your side," but what we're really seeing in a lot of these current efforts, if we really dig into particular efforts happening at the state level to make sure that the vote is whether through redistricting or, more importantly, through who the Secretary of State is and validating votes is something that it's very clear to see there's a correlation.
The Republican party has a serious demographics problem, and it has been advantaged certainly in presidential cycles by the electoral college system that skews and turns out privileges at present states that are more rural, that have heavier percentage of the White base of the Republican party, but playing with that system even further in a way that the Republican party knows that if voting was easily accessible, that its electoral advantage would diminish in its current trajectory.
It would have to really change the way that it's appealing and its electoral strategy.
The problem is that the base now is so solid. The Republican party has the same problem that the Democratic party had in the middle part of the twentieth century was that secret to the Democrats national success in winning the presidency, in dominating Congress, having majorities in Congress was because it was this marriage of Northern liberals and increasingly after the 1930s, Black voters, and Southern racist Democrats.
Walking that line and keeping that coalition together was a constant problem, and it was one reason that from Roosevelt to Truman it took until Kennedy and Johnson to have meaningful civil rights legislation because that was, as Lyndon Johnson prophetically said, the Democrats will lose the South for a decade because of this. Turns out they lost it for longer.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wait. You said something that I just did not grasp. You're saying that the Northern liberals, Black people and Democratic racist of the South were aligned?
Margaret O'Mara:
They were all part of the same Democratic party. So here's the interesting thing. If we go back to the new deal, so there are a lot of comps about, "Why can't Joe Biden do what Franklin Roosevelt did? Get her done."
Franklin Roosevelt had not just Democratic majorities in both houses, but massive ones, huge Democratic majorities, but those democratic majorities were made up of senators from Southern states, some of the most racist, pro-segregationist guys you're going to ever encounter. They were committed to Jim Crow and they would do what it took, but they also were really committed to the economic recovery of the United States from the great depression and to the principle of using the government as a force to revive that economy, to have the government grow larger and do more than it ever had done in terms of economic development and creating jobs.
They cared a lot about that.
That was where they had common ground with the Northern Democrats, including liberals that were pro-civil rights, who also wanted to see economic recovery and grow the government to do that. They were all Keynesians together, effectively, and Black voters that had been aligned with the Republicans but the crisis of the great depression and Herbert Hoover's failure to do anything, not just do anything for people in economic distress, but do anything for Black people in economic and political distress, brought them over to the Democratic side.
It was an economic union. It was this support of, "We see the future. The only way we get out of this shared economic crisis is through this new approach."
So that's where you find common ground in the Democratic party, but it was a devil's bargain. It's why Social Security in its earliest iteration did not cover farm workers and household workers because those were the jobs that almost all Southern Black people held, men and women, and they weren't getting Social Security benefits for those jobs even though they were employees, they were working just like everyone else.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow. So let's say it's a hundred years from now, and Margaret O'Mara 2.0 is opining to Guy Kawasaki 2.0. Will that Margaret say to Guy, "January sixth and the whole QAnon thing, all that stuff, that was the last desperate acts of the White males. The trend was not their friend demographically. They were bound to lose it, and finally, it happened, and this is how you should look at history or ..." Well, or what, I mean.
Margaret O'Mara:
Or what? Or what? I mean, it's a really challenging thought exercise because we don't know. So it's going to depend.
The demographics is destiny idea is something that too many people, particularly on the Democratic side of American politics, have counted on for too long because the structures of American governance set in place by our buddies, the Founding Fathers, those original startup dudes, really worked against that.
They worked against it on a number of levels. One has to do simply with representation, the fact we have a Senate, all fifty states get two senators even if you're a Dakota as opposed to California. It really is such skewed representation.
We see there's incredible stasis now, and these institutions are very slow to change on the electoral college, which don't get me started. That thing's a piece. It is highly problematic. The motivations for it are archaic.
If the constitutional convention saw what the electoral college has wrought, they would be, first of all, they'd be freaked out that you and I were having this conversation that we even had full autonomy and that we had electronics, but once they got over that, they would be like, "This is not the point. The electoral college is screwing things up."
So I say that even though demographics will, we are seeing a trend line away that it's making our political institutions even more minoritarian, where you have a power of retained at the national level by groups and by geographies that are not the drivers of the American economy, nor are they the place where the most people are.
We've seen this pretty dramatically in the last two presidential cycles. We think about the GDP of the Bay area versus the GDP of other parts of the interior.
I think part of this geographic sorting is a problem. It is bad that so much wealth and so much economic activity is concentrated on the two coasts. It's super, super bad.
It should be much more egalitarian. Kids growing up in a small town in Arkansas should have more futures, easily geographically accessible to them than they do, but that being the status quo, the forces are right against progress and against social and political change, positive social and political change, and egalitarianism and equity. It allows them to hold on for longer than they otherwise would.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you have any thoughts about how you're supposed to fix this fact that you're good if you're on the two coast, but not in the middle?
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah. We saw that the US did engage in a big, massive economic development, economic geography experiment in the 1940s and 1950s with World War II and the cold war and the military industrial complex.
Now, I'm not saying, "Oh, just more defense spending," because we got plenty of that, but we do have examples of government, again, partnering with private industry. That's one really critical thing about the hallmark of the way the US does this is often through the private sector, so much so that we don't always recognize how much the government plays a role in fueling our market economy because it's tax breaks.
It's things that are not like, "Here's a check," "I'm going to have this state-sponsored project." It's more indirect so you don't quite recognize this, but that's been super important in allowing private enterprise to grow and thrive as well, but we have examples of how the public sector can fuel, and it puts them on the scale and say, "You know what? You're way more likely to get this contract for this cloud computing, whatever, if you're located in Dayton."
They could do that, and there are moves from Congress in the endless frontier act, which is this big high tech investment act that's been lumbering its way through Congress, but there is a threat of Chinese technological dominance. It's something that is animated leaders of both parties to get off the stick and say, "Yeah, let's throw some billions to these places that are undervalued," because the market is going to alter geography.
There is private sector behavior, but the public sector creates incentives for private sector behavior. That's pretty critical and we don't fully acknowledge how much that's ever present, even at times where you think, "Oh, the government's small and it's letting us do our own thing."
Guy Kawasaki:
If the concept of consent of the loser were a patient, would you say that patient is in intensive care or is in triage or is in Kaiser Medical Foundation just getting a checkup concept right now?
Margaret O'Mara:
The consent of the loser, help me understand what you mean about the consent of the loser.
Guy Kawasaki:
In other words, you lost the election step.
Margaret O'Mara:
Oh, it depends on who the loser is. So what was really remarkable, stand out, this is something historians will be commenting on for a while is that after the 2020 election, Donald Trump did not go quietly.
There was a peaceful transfer of power in that there wasn't a coup or there wasn't active, that Joe Biden did get inaugurated on January twentieth, 2021, but that contesting the election, we haven't seen that before. We've had drawn out 2000 Bush V Gore. There was a long back and forth. Remember counting those hanging chads in Florida that went on forever? "Gore," the Supreme court said, "you got to stop counting," and Gore was like, "Cool, I'm going to go and I'm giving a speech and I'm going to concede." So there's always been a concession speech.
I think it depends. Donald Trump wasn't as such an outlier in American politics, and even though he's very much a product of American politics, he was able to run and win and govern because of these broader changes, particularly in the Republican party and its base over the past fifty years, quite frankly. He didn't come out of nowhere.
That being said, he is this singular personality, this celebrity. You're not going to find, even these other mini-Trump, these other politicians who very much are styling themselves as Trumpist, they're still not him.
So this willingness to just to back all of convention is something that makes me more optimistic about the patient, but the thing that's worrisome is now we have these playing with the levers of democracy that is happening, particularly where Republican parties at the state level are playing with the machinery of elections in a way that could set up something where if you do get to 2024 and Trump and or some other Republican wins, that Democrats could be like, "I'm not accepting that because you gained the system."
So that's what's really worrisome about what's going on now and the need to shore up the faith in the system. Having a bunch of Secretaries of State who are the most boring, nonpartisan people you've never heard of, that is the system working.
We don't want to know the names of the Secretaries of State. We want them to be people who ... So here's a great example. Here in Washington state, it's all Democrats up and down and sideways.
You're a very sad, lonely person if you're in Western Washington and trying to hang out and you're a Republican, but our one state level elected official until recently was the Secretary of State who's a Republican, Kim Wyman. She ran the election and ran it in a very fair way.
Obviously, this isn't a red enough state for her to have played with things, but she was really a great example of a public servant. She is a partisan office. She has a party identification that she runs, but she was not working in the interest of her party.
She was working in the interest of the process. She actually just left to take a political appointment in the Biden administration as a Republican. So those people, those Kim Wyman types, and that, too, Secretaries of State of both parties, you want them to be these country over party people, and you need those people in the system to not be making headlines, just to be making sure it works.
Guy Kawasaki:
So when you look at the status of cyber ninjas and all the work they did to uncover nothing, two historians go into a bar right after that happened, "Are you just drinking and laughing about the situation?" or do you think, "Oh, my God. This is the zombie apocalypse happening in real-time"?
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah. Well, you know what I'm grateful for? I'm super grateful that remember back in the nineties when everyone's, "Forget paper ballots. Everything needs to be electronic."
Remember that mania? Thank God we did not replace every paper ballot in America with a snazzy digital voting machine. Thank the Lord because not only have we seen the vulnerabilities in those systems, but how they can be exploited in so many different ways, and also the tangibility of a paper ballot, the credibility of a paper ballot from the perspective of the voter who's filling in the little bubble to the people who are counting it and being able to say, "This is what this is."
So that was the biggest thing running through my head. I was like, "At least we have the paper ballots."
Yes, you do these interrogations into alleged voter fraud when there isn't voter fraud and you don't find voter fraud like, "There you go. You just spent lots of money and time and airtime for the outcome that would've been obvious," because you just have to have fate.
It's remarkable how well the American electoral system runs. It's remarkable how well American democracy runs. This is temp. It is, again, amazing what these dudes who read all that Plato that they figured out, they wrote this document and look, the amendments are a big deal, the fact that you can iterate on it.
So in terms of fixes, amending the constitution should not be something that's this rare. We haven't been doing that very often and people think that there's plenty of room for amendment. There also is a constitutional originalism.
Give me strength like, "Dudes, it's not 1787 anymore, and you're not there to look at the language seventeen ways and be like, 'In 1787, when they said this word, they meant this.'" They weren't quite that careful, and they were super divided.
A lot of these things were compromises. The electoral college was a compromise. All these things were like, "We're just trying to keep this together because we got thirteen states and they all have very different stakes in it."
I just imagine in these processes where you're trying to build consensus and get all these different perspectives to agree on something so you can move forward with whatever you're building, something's got to give.
Guy Kawasaki:
We can't even agree what happened a year ago. We can't agree that it was an insurrection, it was a coup, "Oh, it was just a bunch of White people going on tour of the Capitol.
What's the big deal?" We cannot even agree on that or we're looking back in history or take an extreme example, how are we interpreting the Bible 2,000 years later? We can't even figure out what happened a year ago. I don't want to throw history under the bus, but-
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah, look, if you take the tax of the historian, let's go to the raw data. Let's go to the primary source material, which January sixth for just this incredible super abundance of everyone taking selfies, everyone live streaming it, oh, my God, what a record, what a record for historians to mine.
So you have an incredible amount of information, of primary source information, unmediated. It's mediated, but the actors themselves are creating it, which makes it a primary source and it's audio and video. It's something that's very clear cut that anyone can see and make their own judgment.
What's remarkable despite all of that and despite the immediate aftermath during and after you see Republican allies of the president and leaders of the party distancing themselves from it and being rightfully horrified by all of it, and what is quite honestly surprising to me, but I spent the last six years being constantly surprised, there was a really great meme that was running around a couple years ago that had The Muppets, Sam the eagle, like Sam the eagle, the Muppet who's the stern patriot, and then animal, crazy drummer animal.
So there was this great side-by-side that had a picture of Sam the eagle and had a picture of animal, and then above it was historians five years ago versus historians today.
So five years ago, we were all Sam the eagle being like, "Well, let me tell you about history," and now we're like, "Ah!" So much has happened that's just blown our minds and contested our presumptions about how institutions will revert to the norm, and they were false assumptions.
So we can't agree on January sixth in part because it's a live political grenade. It is still very much tied to the historical assessment of the current existence of a future political career of Donald Trump, who very much wants to stay in the game. Donald Trump cares deeply about what history thinks of him.
I was actually a contributor to a book that's coming out that's a collection, that's a historian's first assessment of the Trump presidency. I wrote a chapter about Silicon Valley and their relationship with the president.
I actually was participated in a former president had a Zoom call with that. He requested that he chat with us. So about twelve of us contributors last summer did a Zoom call with former president Trump, which was very interesting historical research.
Among other things in the course of that call, he did not take on any culpability for January sixth. Presidents, usually, when they leave office, they become more reflective, especially if they're talking to historians.
We're not that exciting. We're writing history books. We're not like Gotcha journalists. We don't have podcasts with many scores of listeners. We're history forecasters.
Guy Kawasaki:
This is your chance, Margaret.
Margaret O'Mara:
I know, but he said these things in public, too, and this was an on-the-record conversation, but he said this subsequently, the rally that preceded the insurrection, first he talked about the crowd size and how many people were there because he cares a lot about that.
He thought it was quite big, and he said it was such a great rally. There was so much love there. There was so much love for him, and then acknowledged that some people got out of hand, but really was not saying, "Oh, I should have said things differently. I shouldn't have rallied." I don't think that was tactical. It was coming from a place of firm and unwavering belief.
So there's different realities and this, again, relates to the tech world that both of us are part of or study, which is the other thing that's a factor is just this information overload that we all live in, where it's very hard to distinguish the signal from the noise, where it's really easy for incredibly untrue or highly inflammatory messages to get a lot of airtime.
If you repeat a lie enough, this was Donald Trump's tactic. You say it enough, and if people start to believe it, that coupled with this real distrust and this incredible social fracture that we're undergoing because of the coronavirus pandemic. I just don't think you can separate that out.
We're all so alienated from the normal, and we're so reliant on these electronic blips that are coming into our consciousness and mediated through, and in this incredible part as an environment where people just are so angry at each other. All those things make January 6th a real wallet card and hard to fix.
Guy Kawasaki:
So one more non-tech thread and then we'll go tech. Okay?
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah. All right.
Guy Kawasaki:
So as a historian, what is your interpretation of this movement to suppress Black history in America?
Margaret O'Mara:
This has to go with the threat that that poses. Humans love storytelling. You know that. We love stories. We love heroes. We love villains.
There are a set of stories that have been told about the United States as a better place than everywhere else, a place that's exceptional, a place whose founders are heroes, George Washington. I can never tell a lie. George Washington owned other human beings, and when given the opportunity to free them, he didn't.
They were his business model. They were his bread and butter. He needed that. He couldn't have freed his slaves and stayed solvent. That doesn't excuse it.
This is a system that five of our seven first presidents owned other human beings, and they were also extraordinarily eloquent and consequential. Their ideas and the institutions that were the product of those ideas are ideas that have not only created democracy, but expanded it over time.
So we have to hold these two contradictory ideas together once, and that's really hard. We want heroes. We want villains. You don't want gray areas.
Who's been these narratives, these heroic narratives of America's democratic beacon from the perspective of a Black person, perspective of most people of color or anyone who has been in some way discriminated against because of who they are? They will say, "That's not my America. That's not the experience I've seen."
We talk about home ownership is the American dream. If you're a person of color, you're like, "That's not my experience. I was discriminated against in buying and renting and so was my parent, so was my grandparent, and I have friends who are White who got a little boost when they sold grandma's house, and they all split the profits, and someone used that money to bootstrap a company.
I can't do that. My grandma didn't have a house or her house is in a neighborhood where it makes much sense to sell it."
I want my children and I want my students ... I have kids who are high school age, middle school age now. I want them to know and understand this as White kids. I want my students of all races and all backgrounds to understand this because this isn't about saying, "America's a terrible place," dadada, it's, "Holy cow! Look at all this stuff it's done despite all these things," and also, let's have a super clear eye view about who the builders were, how it evolved, where the missteps have been, where the progress has been, and let's identify these places where individuals, individually and collectively, made history, how'd they make a difference, how do you make a difference, how do you move the needle because American history is full of that.
There have been classroom wars for more than a century, this pushback on curriculum that is saying, "Oh, maybe let's look at this differently." There's been just pushback on anything that is taking people off their pedestal because those stories fuel us.
We idolize certain people, whether they be business leaders or politicians. We need those heroes to give you inspiration, but I don't think you need heroes to be inspired. The teaching of not just Black history, but the teaching of American history and actually centering Black history is part of American history. It's not Black history month. It's American history year, and many years, and thinking about America as a place of many experiences and trajectories and an imperfect democracy.
You can acknowledge the imperfections and still aspire for perfection, but if you just paper them over and are like, "It's all cool, cool, cool," you're still stuck in neutral. Ultimately, you're not going to get anywhere with that.
Guy Kawasaki:
I think in Germany there's a movement that wants to, no pun intended, whitewash the Nazi experience and say, "Oh, Hitler wasn't such a bad guy. Let's just change critical Nazi theory."
Margaret O'Mara:
Germany is a counter example of thinking about what happens reckoning in reconciliation, which is truth in reconciliation. This happens in Germany after World War II.
You have severe restrictions on Nazi regalia, Nazi speech. There's censorship. There are real restrictions. That has been successful until it's not like these neo-Nazi movements have been squashed. There's pro-Arian neo-Nazi movements that have remained alive and well in Europe, but they are marginalized.
For a very long time, those movements in the United States were marginalized here, too, not because of censorship, but because there weren't people in power that were saying, "It's okay to feel this way, and we're going to wink, wink, nudge, nudge. It's cool. We're on your side," which is what we saw pretty vividly with Donald Trump from Charlottesville forward.
This is also being a nation that has been through a crisis, reckoning, having a moment of accountability, and reckoning. This is January sixth commission, and what's ongoing where Congress is trying to create a reckoning, and we are not, not doing it. Look at South Africa, post-apartheid South Africa, where there's this reckoning.
One of the most moving museum experiences I've had was when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, which is just a very unvarnished and very powerful journey through South Africa's apartheid past, and with the material evidence of extraordinary racism and oppression and recognizing that makes one appreciate and value more where it has come since 1994.
Things are possible. We see in these other places around the world, including the United States, we had a civil war and getting over it took a long time. We still aren't over it, but having a moment of truth and reconciliation and accountability and like, "You did wrong and you're going to pay for it," that's a critical step that we have not yet fully accomplished.
Guy Kawasaki:
We should have a January sixth museum.
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah. I would agree. It's such a moment in the history of American politics. I'm still processing it to be clear. A dust has not settled. Again, your questions are rightly pointing out the story is not done.
So that's why it's really hard to say what's the meaning of this. We don't know if it's act one or it's the finale.
Guy Kawasaki:
Let's go to tech for a while.
Margaret O'Mara:
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. A much brighter story here.
So now, the reason why you came on my radar, although we had known each other for years, was because you were so extensively quoted in the New York Times about our friend Elizabeth Holmes.
Margaret O'Mara:
Guy Kawasaki:
So as a historian, what's your take on that whole situation? What happened there?
Margaret O'Mara:
What happened there? It's such an interesting story, Guy. You're a Silicon Valley guy. You're the Silicon Valley guy. It's like a Silicon Valley story and not.
So look, let's first very clearly outline the not.
Theranos was a medical device company located in Palo Alto. It was not a software company. It was not a computer hardware company. It wasn't even a biotech company in the way that Silicon Valley biotech.
It was not, but let's just be clear. The totally different business, regulated, slower moving, part of the problem was that she was promising SaaS style returns on the medical devices. You cannot make the ROI in the time scale. This doesn't work.
So that's that, and you don't have to travel far along Sandhill Road to find people who are very quick to say, "I passed on that." They didn't have audit reports. As soon as you started to do any minimal due diligence, it became pretty clear that this was maybe not a good ...
That being said, you had some pretty good, bold face names from the Valley putting money in, notably Tim Draper, who's still a great supporter of Holmes even after her conviction. You have Larry Ellison. You have other people who took a bit, and her board, which was the weirdest board in modern Silicon Valley.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh, my God!
Margaret O'Mara:
To be clear, they had no business being on the board of a company, this healthcare company. They didn't have expertise, but they are Silicon Valley like Bill Perry, again, these eighty and ninety-year-old foreign policy people, but this is the longer history of Silicon Valley, right?
Bill Perry came out to the Valley in the fifties to work for one of the electronics companies that was here in the defense industry. His whole career in electronics and defense underscores that that's part of the Valley's story. George Schultz, he got the Reagan administration to take the Valley seriously in the eighties. He's been this incredible ambassador and this promoter of the tech industry, generally.
So it wasn't like this was out of nowhere, but she was an outlier in that. She was in what I called the Charm Circle of People. The way it usually works is you might have a college dropout, but they've got someone who's their mentor, the person who takes them to Bucks and they chat over breakfast and dispense wisdom.
So let's contrast her with Mark Zuckerberg, another famous college dropout. He's from Harvard but he quickly comes to Palo Alto. He's got Sean Parker. He's got Marc Andreessen taking him to breakfast. I think they went to Hobby’s like, "Here, little guy. I'm going to dispense all my wisdom," and that mentorship as well as the money is, obviously, the Valley VC model that works. So she was outside all that.
So all that being said, there's so many ways in which the people who are like, "She's not one of us," totally right. What she was doing, the fraud, this is not your typical startup hustle. This is not part of what Steve Blank teaches at Stanford. This is not part of the model, right?
There's a difference between someone like Steve Jobs when you're talking about a computer like a bicycle for the mind, he was talking about that telling a really amazing story. He also had a product that worked, that was amazing, that he was also obsessed with and cared about making sure it was right before he's going out and talking, evangelizing about it, and she didn't.
Even Bill Gates, who's the guy who gave Vaporware, made that a term of art, even Microsoft eventually had a product that was catching up with the reality. So there's a real difference there.
Now, all that being said, why does she rise so high? She is a figure, is a personality, is very much a Silicon Valley culture story, and why she fell so hard as a Silicon valley culture story, and this is why.
So let's dial back to, I think this was probably around the first time you and I met each other, 2013-2014. That's when Theranos was moving into its fancy new Page Mill Road headquarters, and she's on cover of Fortune and all this stuff. This was right after Ellen Pao case.
Remember the sex discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins? So this is the first time that gender imbalance in Silicon Valley is becoming part of the public conversation. Where are the women?
Here's Elizabeth Holmes giving lie to that like, "All right. Here's a female Steve Jobs. Woohoo. We got one," and she really leans in hard to it. There's a lot of really embarrassing girl boss, hashtag girl boss stuff around.
She really is playing that up big time and presenting herself like, "I never change my outfit. I'm wearing black turtleneck every day," appropriating these masculine founder characteristics. It's super interesting, and the deep voice and all that stuff. So there's that. She's not fixing the woman problem, but she's, in a way, a response to it.
So that's part of the fascination.
Then the other thing she's doing that the Valley's getting heat for back then, you remember, it's the, "Where are the flying cars, guys? You're building apps. How many app laundry delivery services does the Valley need? You're building for the needs of a twenty-five-year-old dude in San Francisco."
So this critique of you say you change the world, but where's the world changing? So here comes Theranos and Holmes being like, "I'm changing the world and it's a pretty cool idea."
Guy Kawasaki:
"... and I'm a woman."
Margaret O'Mara:
"... and I'm a woman." So bam. So she's really riding this wave. She's riding the wave that its Silicon Valley and its success enables this founder focused culture of put immense faith and money into a young untested person and they're going to do extraordinary things because they can think bigger and they're the innovators.
She's writing this media fascination with Silicon Valley and the innovation, generally. That's still pretty unadulterated, and there's not a tech lash by then, and she's also answering the two things that tech is getting heat for, which is not doing big stuff and it's all dudes, and she's incredibly charismatic and she's really good at telling stories and she's good at your Ted talk and all that stuff.
The one little problem is the product didn't work, but she's allowed to continue this grift that she really believed, fully believed, but she's also a product of Silicon Valley because she has the same dilemma every venture backed founder has, which is they want their money.
They want to see their returns. So they want to move fast. They want you to go, go, go, go, go. They want you to deliver, incredible pressure to go to market, move fast, scale. It's the whole philosophy like zero to one, get there, go fast. Damn the torpedoes.
So she's doing that and she's doing that with a product that's way more complicated and way more regulated than anything else that this model is fostering, and she doesn't have the expertise. She's not a product person. She doesn't have the knowledge to really be the person who's the decider on this stuff.
The other thing that is making everything just bonkers and that sets apart, I'm really interested in what you think about this, because this is particularly since the great recession, this is a new Silicon Valley 2.0 thing.
Guy Kawasaki:
I can't wait to hear what this is. Okay.
Margaret O'Mara:
It's all the freaking money, Guy. There's so much venture, global venture capital.
So VC, high-tech VC used to be this little pool of, first of all, it was just a few guys, and then there the other rich people that could persuade to let them play around with their money, but here's a stat for you.
So 1999, tied to the dot com boom, that year, $48.3 billion in venture investing, venture capital invested, that year, which is about eighty billion today. Guess what that figure is in 2021? $643 billion.
Guy Kawasaki:
So it's up six and a half times?
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah, from the height of the dot com boom. There's just so much money.
Guy Kawasaki:
... or not that many companies to invest in.
Margaret O'Mara:
That's right. So first, you have companies that are given a huge runway, a really long time to go private. So IPOs have slowed so much. Even companies that are more key companies over the last decade like Uber, for example, Uber got to a G round of, I don't know if you even call it venture investing, but before, we used to have a seed round, then A round and a B round, and then IPO like Netscape, IPO after a B round, I think, and that IPO, by the way, was three-billion-dollars, maybe five or six billion in 2021 dollars. Rivian was, what? ten times?
Guy Kawasaki:
For a car, it's about 100 million bucks.
Margaret O'Mara:
It's crazy town. It is crazy now.
Go to PitchBook, and look at all the venture rounds that the companies the last ten years have had before they've gone public. It's unbelievable, and they're coming from all corners. It's not just the vision fund. It's not just this sovereign ball. It's anyone with money. It's coming in.
So Theranos was an excessive example. That's one of the things I thought so interesting in the trial was it made abundantly clear how little these investors were paying attention to anything.
You know what? Because they got so much freaking money like the Waltons and the DeVos. They have so much money that it's a rounding error for the Walton family to put whatever they put in to Theranos.
So it's just so much money slashing around the system, and the global financial system is just all roads seem to be funneling to the tech sector. There are other sectors.
So after the great recession, housing's not a good investment. You have other places to put your money, and the quantitative easing. What the central banks are doing are creating an environment that is fueling this, and it's not going to go on forever.
You've been around long enough. It's a boom-and-bust economy, but that makes Theranos, and unfortunately, very much a Silicon valley story because there are a lot of other companies out there that are riding that wave of a lot of money and it's being thrown at companies that don't necessarily have a viable product.
It's being thrown at companies that are awesome and are doing really cool stuff, to be clear, but I would expect that maybe not Theranos style stuff, but there's things that just there's no there, there and they still have the capital to do a lot, play around with that they don't have to show their cards.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh, my God. Listen, I've already had you for an hour and eight minutes and forty seconds, but I have one more topic here, and that topic is, first of all, why don't people learn from history? What's wrong with us?
Margaret O'Mara:
What's wrong with us?
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah. What's wrong with us?
Margaret O'Mara:
What's wrong with us? Here's the thing. Historians are the most annoying people to have on cable news networks or maybe it's just me because our answer to everything is, "It's complicated."
When you want a sound bite and you're like, "This is why." When I'm writing an op-ed or something and I'll send my first draft to my editor and they'll be like, "We have too many points here." I was like, "But there's complex causalities."
"We don't care about that," they do, but you know what I mean.
So why we don't learn from history is usually because the reasons things happen, it's multivalent. There's not a single because of this, this other thing happened. It's usually really conditional and contingent.
So first of all, that's one reason history doesn't repeat itself cleanly. You don't have this exact same thing happens again. Look at the Valley in the fifties. The cold war funnels this exceptional moment.
It's just, "Let's just spend beaucoup public dollars on electronics," and turns out Stanford and the little companies there are all like, "We do small electronics, communications devices," and the military's like, "We need some of those for missiles and rockets." It's just this perfect storm.
This is why I've sacrificed my multimillion-dollar consulting career going around the world saying, "This is how you build Silicon Valley," because my answer is, "We have to have White eyes and hair." I start going on to that-
Guy Kawasaki:
You have to do nothing.
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah, "It has to do with Apollo program," and that's not the answer we want, but I do have a simple answer of what you do need to do.
So learning from history is hard because, first of all, it's a lot bumpier than we want. We don't have clean narratives. It's not point A to point B clean. It's messy. It depends on a lot of things, but what we do know about history, we often distill it into really simple narratives of heroes and villains.
This goes back to what we were talking about earlier about how do you teach American history in a way that's more realistic and also empowering, most inclusive, and also gives people something to hope for and work towards. That's super important.
So the history that is easiest to make you hopeful and make you work towards something is usually the simple history where it's, "You know what? We had this amazing inventor, Thomas Edison, and he was a genius, and he created this light bulb."
So when you back up and you're like, "Yes, genius, got that, check," but also, there was enough urbanization and industrialization and there was capacity for society to scale it. There was someplace to plug in the damn light bulb.
So those things are harder, and also being like, "Thomas Edison, he had other people in his lab and then he did this wrong," that's harder-
Guy Kawasaki:
Then there's Tesla, but they'll have heard of Tesla because of the car, not because of-
Margaret O'Mara:
Because of Nikola Tesla, yeah, but that's what I love about studying these people in the past is their bumpy, funky personalities, and their quirks, and their things that they did wrong, and their failures, and appreciating them, and human beings, appreciating these figures in the past not as people on a pedestal, but as human beings, even contemporary leaders appreciating them as human beings.
It isn't, "All these Czech people are evil surveillance capitalists that are just out to steal your soul," or "They're awesome. They're innovators." They're human beings just like us. They're trying to do the best thing they can do. They're working within a context that shapes what their sense of the possible or the impossible.
They're being pushed and pulled by externalities. They're C-suite executives of publicly traded companies that are there to serve shareholders. Facebook's not going to change its business model if it's going to mean less money's coming to me, but that's how you learn from history. It's just have to be a little more, it's more stuff.
Guy Kawasaki:
So as a mom and as a history professor, how do you think history should be taught?
Margaret O'Mara:
History teachers. The first step is to make teaching generally, and history teaching a profession that super smart, motivated, excited people, both want to do and feel like they can make a really great career doing, and their economic future will be solid if they do it, and that they will also be respected, venerated, and given some autonomy.
So part of it is the front end. It's the pipeline, and it's the societal saying, "We care about this. We want to pay these people well. We want to value them."
I want my kid's tenth grade history teacher to be valued and respected and empowered. Then flowing from that, where you have people who are really well-prepared and motivated and empowered that you give them some flexibility and autonomy over how they design a classroom that is right for their students, whoever their students are and where they're at.
The most fortunate students in the independent schools or the well-funded public schools, one of the things that makes their education "good" is not only the economic advantages that they come in with because they have families that aren't worrying about putting food on the table, but also because these classrooms are often designing around experiential learning or they're giving them experiences with, "Hey, I'm going to give you a primary document and I'm going to tell you how to read it really smartly and analyze it on your own and make your own analysis rather than being told this is what it means."
So it's a matter of resources. So I don't think there's a single, "Here's the curriculum," because that's dangerous, but I also think whatever the curriculum is, it needs to be done in the spirit of thinking more expansively about the who of American history, who the players are, who's getting to write the history, who's written out of it, and how you can and bring those voices back in.
Some of the really exciting work that's been done by my colleagues who work in US history has been done on work on American slavery and finding the voices of enslaved people, who, of course, weren't leaving a written record.
They were usually written about by the people who own them, but trying to find the agency and seeing the resistance and seeing how they're fighting for their families and fighting for their own freedom and fighting for some autonomy within a system that doesn't give them any of that, and humanity for a system, and finding those voices in those stories, you can do it, but really actively thinking about who's in the story and who's left out, and how do we write them back in, as well as recognizing the people who got to write the history and why their actions and their choices were very consequential.
Guy Kawasaki:
As a mom, if your kids came home and said, "Mom, we need to memorize this timeline."
Margaret O'Mara:
Oh, God!
Guy Kawasaki:
I don't know. Did Alexander the Greek come before or after Genghis Khan? What happened in Mesopotamia and the Alexander Library? It seems to me that 100 years from, not even 100, twenty years from now, our kids right now are living through one of the most interesting times ever in American history.
So aren't they in schools studying ancient world history? Shouldn't they be studying what's happening now or do you think you need a foundation of world history before you can analyze because we're in the test tube right now, we're in the matrix right now, why aren't we studying it now?
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah, for two reasons. One, you study the past, it helps you understand the now, how you get here, and you can textualize because that's historians off is when someone says, "It's never been like this before," and usually we're like, "Oh, but actually, let me tell you about the-"
Guy Kawasaki:
"Germany, 1930."
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah. There have been some parallels. There's some continuity, some patterns. We're more polarized and partisan than we've ever been before or, "Let me tell you the many times we've been incredibly partisan and violent against one another," but at the same time, there is that learning about the past, it instills a cultural literacy that's useful in navigating the world.
I'm not a names and dates memorization person, and I really emphasize that in my classes I teach and also with my children, but dates are super helpful anchors because it matters what happened before what, the order of things, especially if there's causality or correlation.
You want to see the sedimentary layers of things building on one another because events are never happening in the vacuum. They're happening as a consequence of what happened before.
There's a certain amount of past dependence, but also the realm of the possible is often constrained or determined by what happened before.
When people push against the realm of the possible, you get more friction, and then they enlarge it and it contracts, all those things. So there's relevance to dates, but that isn't the point. The point is the process.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. So that would've been my last question, but you opened a little door that I have to now drive through, and that little door that you opened was about five minutes ago you said something to the effect of, "I could explain to you what's necessary to make a tech company successful," and I heard that and I said, "I got to ask that now from a historical perspective."
So give us the gist. You and Steve Blank go into a bar, and Steve Blank says, "You got to iterate. You got to pivot. You got to get out to the customer to get feedback," and then Margaret says, "Steve, let me tell you."
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah. Let me say I'm the yin to Steve's yang or that there's a question of business, how you build a business, and the basic internal processes and habits and learning from successful companies and the case studies and building on those and also keeping an eye on the ball and having the certain amount of flexibility, and I'm not going to profess to be the organizational management expert, but my perspective is it's the context that nestles around the organization. That's really important.
So I think about what sets companies, the ones that are successful, the ones that not, again, with the recognition that it's always a risky business as any VC knows, there are things that you think are going to work and they don't for various reasons, but it seems what the historical record shows is that, first, it's a matter of timing.
There is a right time, right place, and that doesn't mean that if you have something and the market's not ready for it, it's hopeless, you might need to pivot. That might be an indication either ahead of your time or it's just off the track, but where we see success is where bottom up action meets top down opportunity, and this is something that is a business lesson and a societal lesson.:
So you see a company. Let's take Fairchild Semiconductor. Let's go with a legend, 1957. This is the company founded by the traitorous eight that split off from Shockley because he is the worst boss ever, as well as being a genocidist and all the other sorts of stuff.
So here they are. So these guys, it's clear, these eight people are rock stars. They're at Shockley's lab because they're awesome. They have already taken the leap to move to California with the exception of Gordon Moore. They were all from somewhere else. Part of it is because they weren't guys with connections or wealth.
One thing that really set them apart is that they were from relatively humble backgrounds, and that made them maybe hungrier.
They also were advantaged by a mid-century America that created amazing educational opportunities for White men like them from humble backgrounds. You could have this upper mobility that you didn't have a century before.
So clearly, these people are extraordinary. They're extraordinary on many different metrics. They also happen to informally incorporate their company two and a half weeks before Sputnik goes into space, into orbit, the Russian satellite, and that prompts the US government to go absolutely bonkers in terms of aerospace spending and including spending on small light electronic devices that, oh, happened to be just like what they're making.
So there's this amazing symbiosis between the Silicon Semiconductors and then the ICs that they're making, and this very deep-pocketed customer that comes online. They're not a defense contractor or a government contractor in the way that Lockheed is, but that is the launching pad for the Valley semiconductor businesses, the space program, in particular, but also the military, and are able to commercialize, drive down the price, and create a commercial market for these things because they have this scaling up that happens.
So how does this fit till 2022 when someone's starting up a company? Part of it is having a really robust sense of the bigger world and the macroeconomics and the political economy around and what the trendlines are. Being really open and recognizing that these things are not orthogonal to your business, and sometimes you've got to focus and be heads down and work on product or work on whatever you're working on. You need to have people around you.
The other thing that's the key to all these successful companies from Fairchild, to Apple, to Facebook, to any rockstar company that's just knocked it out of the park, they are surrounded by mentors from an earlier generation, people who had more experience, and they're VCs, they're former operators themselves, and they're giving mentorship and money.
And they're both linking these young, inexperienced founders into bigger networks, and they're promoting them, and they're helping them build a sustainable organization. This is an Apple story, the less Mike Markkula. That's what the Steves did that set them apart from all these other guys in garages. There were plenty of personal computer startups and garages there in the Bay Area and elsewhere at that time.
What sets them apart? First of all, Woz makes the most amazing motherboard from the jankiest chip. That was awesome. So you have a basic set apart tech, but it wasn't the very, very best we've never seen, the soul.
There were other microcomputers pretty darn cool technologically, but what they did is they got Mike Markkula agreed to come on and be the ops guy and turn it from a garage into an actual, yeah.
So you have not quite adult supervision, and Markkula's, what, mid-thirties. He was still relatively young, but still he'd been at Intel, he knew.
Then you have the VC money coming from Valentine, but also, Jobs persuaded Regis McKenna to take them on, and they got rid of their first logo, which is so cute and hippy, and then they get the rainbow Apple. This recognizing that to scale, you can't just be, "I'm disrupting everything and I'm doing it on my own." This is never a solo act. Every genius is surrounded by people. They're surrounded by Guy Kawasaki. They've got people-
Guy Kawasaki:
I don't know about that.
Margaret O'Mara:
Well, but you know what I mean. We love the story of the rugged individualist, cowboy capitalist like, "I'm doing it." We have the heroes, we have the people, whether it be George Washington or Mark Zuckerberg or Steve jobs, whoever it is.
Guy Kawasaki:
... or Elizabeth Holmes.
Margaret O'Mara:
Or Elizabeth Holmes, but the way that it works is it involves lots of other people.
Going back to Holmes, that was part of the great thing she did not have. She didn't have good mentors. Her mentors were not the people with the subject expertise nor the pushing pushing back on her, nor the oversight to guide her, and she seemed very lonely.
She was this unusual singular person. She didn't have that community, and that community is part of the story of entrepreneurial success that we don't acknowledge and value enough in the way that we think about what makes for a successful startup.
Guy Kawasaki:
I interviewed Marc Benioff a few weeks ago, and he had Henry Singleton and Larry Ellison. That helps.
Margaret O'Mara:
It helps. It totally helps, and that's the amazing ... What's the secret of Silicon Valley? Why have other places not achieved what it's achieved?
Part of it is this multi-generational handing of the baton from one generation to the next, where you have the mentors and the people who've built successful companies of one generation then in turn become the funders and mentors of the next, and they're picking the winners the next.
Now, this contributes to Silicon Valley's homogeneity problem. There tends to be a little too much pattern recognition going on, right?
You're like, "I want someone. I like you, and look like-"
Guy Kawasaki:
I'm with the Stanford.
Margaret O'Mara:
Yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm. Yeah. Everyone's down in San Jose State going, "What about it?"
So there's a double-edged sword here. This is not to say, "Ra-ra. Go network," but part of the secret of the success is also part of what makes it a challenge.
Guy Kawasaki:
We have one hour and twenty-nine minutes of great conversation.
Margaret O'Mara:
Holy cow! If anyone is still hanging on here, thank you. You're my favorite. Buy my book. Buy Guy's books. You are awesome.
Guy Kawasaki:
I could not resist the opportunity to talk to a historian about politics. I'm sorry. You thought this was just going to be about tech and Elizabeth Holmes. See?
Margaret O'Mara:
There you go. I can go there with you.
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah. You said entrepreneurs need to take advantage of opportunities, so do podcasters.
Seriously, isn't it great to listen to a professor of history explain stuff?
My thanks to Margaret O'Mara for shedding light on so many subjects.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.
I hope that Margaret and I made you a little more remarkable.
My thanks to Jeff Sieh, Peg Fitzpatrick, Shannon Hernandez, Drop In Queen Madisun Nuismer, Luis to the Nose Magana, and Alexis Prom Queen Nishimura.
Until next time, be safe, be healthy, take care.
Bye. Aloha. Mahalo. All the good stuff.