By Chris O’Brien Mercury News Columnist
Name a controversial subject: immigration, investment bubbles, age discrimination, women and minorities in tech, Google’s search results. Wadhwa, the most provocative voice in Silicon Valley, has likely staked out a controversial position that has everyone in Silicon Valley taking sides. And his penchant for straight talk and challenging the conventional wisdom about the valley being a meritocracy has catapulted him to national prominence online and on the airwaves.
Maybe you love him, maybe you hate him. But you can’t ignore him.
“He tells it as he sees it,” said Peter Diamandis, the co-founder of Singularity University, the school focused on the future impact of technology, who helped recruit Wadhwa to a faculty position there. “He doesn’t dilly-dally or cherry-coat anything. I have a great deal of respect for him.”
I’ve been surprised at just how quickly Wadhwa’s star has ascended since he arrived in 2009, though perhaps I shouldn’t be. See, I’ve known Wadhwa for more than a decade from when I was a tech reporter in North Carolina and he was CEO of a local software company called Relativity. Even then, he had a remarkable knack for getting quoted in national media.
But since landing out here, he’s become a lightning rod on an even larger stage. In particular, his research into the low numbers of women
and minorities in startups has managed to push the valley’s buttons.”My impression when I came out here was that Silicon Valley was the world’s greatest meritocracy,” Wadhwa said during a recent talk at a TEDxWomen’s event. But after his research showed that women start only 3 percent of tech companies, he decided: “Silicon Valley, some of your VCs have a gender problem.”
Calling out the tech industry for being biased against women and African-Americans has made him the target of some heated rhetoric:
“Keep up your fraud. Everyone is figuring you out,” tweeted Keith Rabois, chief operating officer of Square, in December.
“Worst Analysis of Entrepreneurship and VCs EVER!” John Backus, a partner at New Atlantic Ventures wrote in a blog post in August rebutting some of Wadhwa’s research on women and minorities in startups.
At times, Wadhwa seems to delight in the barbs, often citing the worst of them thrown his way during his many talks. Privately, though, he acknowledges that some sting.
“As far as the attacks go. I have to admit that they do hurt,” Wadhwa said in one email exchange we had. “I pretend not to care, but I do lose sleep when I receive the types of emails I’ve received.”
While the spotlight has never had trouble finding Wadhwa, being an academic and writer were not his first choice of careers.
Wadhwa founded Relativity, a software company, in 1997, that seemed headed to a big IPO before the tech bust. Eventually, his time with Relativity ended in acrimony with warring lawsuits over his departure that were eventually settled in 2005.
But even before then, Wadhwa had stepped back as CEO for more personal reasons: He suffered a massive heart attack in 2002 at the age of 45. Wadhwa knew he needed a lifestyle change. He wanted less stress in his life. And at the same time, he wanted to find a way to have a larger impact on what he considered to be big problems.
He’s failing miserably on the first goal.
Wadhwa turned to academic life, thinking it would be a more sedate pace, and landed appointments at both Duke University and Harvard. A couple of years later, he called AnnaLee Saxenian, a dean and professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley, saying he wanted to collaborate on some research. Saxenian didn’t know who he was, but next thing she knew, Wadhwa had marshalled a group of graduate students to gather the data, and they eventually co-authored a paper.
“I was amazed at how quickly he mobilized these students and got them doing the work,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy makes things happen.’ ”
When Wadhwa hinted he was thinking about moving to the Bay Area in 2009, Saxenian offered him a fellowship at the school for a few months that was later extended when Wadhwa decided not to return to North Carolina.
“My wife said, you can go back to North Carolina, but I’m staying right here,” he said.
At the same time, Wadhwa wrote a few guest posts for TechCrunch, the popular tech news site. He wasted no time in ruffling feathers. His first post on H-1B visas generated 590 comments. His second post, “When It Comes To Founding Successful Startups, Old Guys Rule,” challenged VCs who insisted the best entrepreneurs were young. His weekly posts quickly became a sensation.
From the start, he found himself regularly jousting online, and on panels and TV with some of tech’s most noted bloggers, VCs and entrepreneurs. One of his foils along the way has been Dr. Paul Kedrosky, a noted financial blogger who writes the “Infectious Greed” blog.
While the back and forth got heated at times, Kedrosky said he still enjoys mixing it up with Wadhwa and respects him for his passion and work ethic.
“What separates (Wadhwa) from the many Valley hucksters who share these traits is that he thinks through what he says, stays on message and he believes passionately in his cause(s) and their moral rightness,” Kedrosky said in an email. “Having said that, he’s fun to disagree with, in part because he is a purist and I’m not. We’ve fought on panels, television, etc., and now he fears me. I’m kidding. Mostly.”
Among Wadhwa’s biggest blog hits was a column last year criticizing the quality of Google’s search results as being in decline: “Why We Desperately Need a New (and Better) Google.” That again touched off controversy, and when Google eventually responded by announcing changes to its search algorithm, Wadhwa was credited with being the catalyst.
By now, Wadhwa had become a Silicon Valley star. International governments were asking him to consult on their economic development plans. And he had a manic speaking and traveling schedule.
But controversy is never far away. Last summer he appeared in a CNN documentary about race and Silicon Valley. In it, he told a group of black entrepreneurs to consider hiring a white guy to run the company so that VCs would be more likely to fund them, a comment that sparked outrage among VCs over what they felt was an unfair charge of racism.
However all of this fighting might be affecting him personally, it only seems to raise his profile even higher. For instance, he recently accepted a fellowship with Stanford Law School.
“Controversy invites conversation,” said Larry Kramer, dean of the Stanford Law School, “That’s a good thing for a university. We want to be a platform for those discussions.”
Wadhwa, for his part, shows no signs of dialing things back. His time in Silicon Valley has clearly energized him.
“This is the most innovative period in human history,” he said on stage last week at a Stanford gathering. “And it’s going to go move even faster over the next decade.”