With the rapid growth of the tech industry, Stanford’s connection with Silicon Valley has gained recent attention in the media. Stanford alumni like Peter Thiel ’89 J.D. ’92 and Elon Musk regularly make headlines for their achievements in the industry, and tech leaders, including president John Hennessy himself, occupy prominent positions back on the Farm.
But despite the popular perception of Stanford as a center for tech and startups, the history of the University’s relationship with Silicon Valley is not widely known among students. However, the industry’s rapid growth has also produced problems in the Valley that Stanford students themselves have the potential to help solve.
Connected in history
Stanford and Silicon Valley grew up together. While the University’s foundation in 1891 predates the high-tech industry, both the University and Silicon Valley owe much of their history to the same man: Frederick Terman ’20 M.S. ’22.
Terman served as Stanford’s dean of engineering and has since earned the title of “Father of Silicon Valley.” Leslie Berlin Ph.D. ’01, project historian of the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford, explained that Terman’s leadership profoundly reshaped both the University and the Valley in two distinct ways.
“First, [Terman] directly encouraged the development of what today we would call high-tech industry in the area,” Berlin wrote in a statement to The Daily. “Second, he helped to build departments within Stanford that provided excellent technical educations for Stanford grads to carry into industry.”
This reciprocal relationship between Stanford and the tech industry continued through later decades.
David C. Brock, author of “Makers of the Microchip” and research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, stressed the importance of mutual exchanges between Stanford and Silicon Valley for their development.
“Stanford really benefitted an enormous amount once the semiconductor industry got going,” Brock said. “There was a lot of knowledge transfer from industry into Stanford. So there is flow that way, and at other times flows outwards and flows of personnel, too.”
The corporations that began under this relationship created a regional identity that still endures. Brock explained that one of those companies was Hewlett Packard (HP).
“[HP] was really a seminal electronics company on the peninsula,” Brock said. “[It] was certainly extremely important in establishing elements of the business culture.”
According to Brock, HP also was one of the first tech corporations to emphasize philanthropy.
Hennessy, who is also a member of Google’s Board of Directors, has watched the tech industry evolve since he started his own company, MIPS Computer Systems, in 1984. He explained that while leading tech companies of that period, including Sun Microsystems and Cisco, were co-founded by Stanford alumni and remain deeply tied to the University, other facets of the industry have changed dramatically.
“The focus of the industry…was on technical uses of computing,” Hennessy said. “This whole consumer aspect to the industry didn’t really exist, and that’s changed dramatically.”
Hennessy also explained that the sheer magnitude of companies in Silicon Valley has grown and identified the continued congregation of tech in the Valley as the industry’s greatest recent change.
“When I came [to Stanford], the central location of the computing industry was on the East Coast, and that’s completely shifted,” Hennessy said. “The valley’s strength as the center of the technology world has actually grown.”
Tackling the problems of growth
However, the ensuing influx of corporations and people has posed challenges for the region, such as access to housing and transportation. These problems have proven especially urgent in San Francisco within the last five years as the city has become the home for large numbers of tech workers and companies.
“Prices of houses, how do people get around, traffic…these are becoming giant problems,” Hennessy said.
Jane Kim ’99, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, sees the Valley’s development as posing challenges particularly in ensuring sufficient housing for the influx of workers.
“We need to build more housing in San Francisco, and we are, but so does the region,” Kim said.
She also spoke about the importance of maintaining strong communities despite the rapid growth.
“What I hear a lot from residents is that they want tech workers to be really integrated into San Francisco,” Kim said. “They want to see them on the Muni. They want to see them riding their bikes.”
Kim explained that Stanford has the potential to tackle these problems by educating workers in philanthropy, encouraging community within Silicon Valley and advocating for more accessible housing and increased public transportation funding.
Hennessy also agreed that Stanford could play a role in solving these challenges.
“The University continues to be a place where people do innovative work…and have a role in ensuring that contribution gets to the outside role,” Hennessy said.
Challenges aside, Hennessy believes that there are reasons to be optimistic for the future of Silicon Valley, starting with Stanford.
“[Both Stanford and Silicon Valley] emphasize excellence and getting great people from around the world,” Hennessy said. “It’s a community that thrives well on diversity. It’s a pretty good meritocracy.”
Contact Michael Gioia at mgioia2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.