Jackson Heights: Possibilities And Limitations

Vinod Khosla
Vinod Khosla (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
(written for Vishwa Sandesh)

Jackson Heights: Possibilities And Limitations
By Paramendra Bhagat (www.paramendra.com)

I have had people tell me, go to California, go to Manhattan at least, this is not the place. I have been to California, and through my daily readings of news in Silicon Valley I have a pretty good feel for the culture there. Manhattan is but a short train ride away. You get on the E or F and you are in Manhattan in 10 minutes, maybe 15. There are people who work in Manhattan but live in Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania even.

There is something to be said to the culture of Silicon Valley. The top venture capitalist in NYC is on record saying it will take NYC decades to get where Silicon Valley is already in terms of startup culture. One generation of successful entrepreneurs provide seed funds and mentorship to the next generation of entrepreneurs, and the network keeps growing.

The first investor to put in half a million dollars in Facebook made his money for being one of the founders of PayPal: that half million became over a billion within years. The first person to put 100,000 dollars in Google made his billions for being one of the founders of Sun Microsystems: that 100,000 became over a billion in less than a decade. The guy who put his money into Twitter made his money by selling his company – Blogger – to Google: he sold Blogger for a few hundred million, his stake in Twitter is worth billions. Vinod Khosla made his money in hardware but is now a top investor in clean tech: he is the richest Indian in America. I don’t know him, but I do know someone who does.

But when I have approached local Nepalis who might have made middle class money through old economy ventures like law or medicine or the restaurant business for seed fund money for Nepal hydro, the reaction is, what’s wrong with you? Do you not have your own money? Are you so lame? That is the cultural difference between Silicon Valley and Queens.

I have met many merchants in Jackson Heights - most of them Indian, several Pakistani and Bangladeshi – to shore up interest in the idea of a virtual mall. The interest level, at least starting out, has been tepid (“Come tomorrow”) to non-existent (“We are not interested”). I have scaled back. I might have to start with an online community to go on to a virtual mall to perhaps a physical mall, a smart physical mall.

Walmart is the most successful company in the history of the world, and Sam Walton built it in the South, the poorest region of America. They are like the American Humla-Jumla. Message: do not underestimate Queens.

So what is the lure in Jackson Heights? The first one for me is that I guess you need a hometown. Jackson Heights for me is like going home without getting on the plane. It is also like being able to go to New York City, the capital city of the world, without getting on the plane. But the bigger lure is diversity: more than 50 countries are represented in Jackson Heights, the most diverse town of the most diverse borough of the most diverse city in the world. Even when I come to software and clean tech, I come from the human interaction angle. My feel for group dynamics is the number one thing I bring to the table for both, that and vision. I need the people to be there.

Jackson Heights has the largest concentration of Nepalis in the city. If you are thinking Nepal hydro, it is a good place to be. After all the idea is to marry NYC money to the fast flowing rivers of Nepal. You are trying to play matchmaker.

There is high tech and then there is high touch. Software would be high tech. People are high touch. In many ways high touch is old like wisdom. In several ways high touch is post high tech. The diversity of Jackson Heights is a great backdrop where to keep honing your people skills.

There are white folks to whom all Chinese look literally the same. I have met white folks to whom I look Arab. The day 9/11 happened I was in a small town in Kentucky. The locals called the cops on me! A month later I was in an office setting in Lexington, KY, in the open foyer. I overheard a guy in a cubicle talk on the phone: “There is an Arab in my office!”

But then there are seniors in my homevillage in Nepal who think the Christians belong to some kind of a fifth caste, way below the Dalits in the village. That village is not exactly progressive on gender issues. You have to maintain perspective when talking about race.

Give me broadband. Give me the subway. Give me my smartphone. Give me a mobile hotspot to go with my smartphone. Give me a Chromebook. Give me people. Give me a water bottle. Give me samosas. Gimme, gimme.
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