I was honored to be invited to speak at the graduation for the Georgetown MSFS, the program where I received my degree in 1986. The text of my speech is below. This photo was from the dinner with other speakers and dignitaries before the ceremony. Pictured is the other speaker Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi UN and Arab League Special Representative for Syria, MSFS Dean Anthony Arend, Secretary of State Madeline Albright and me behind her. I’ll post the video when available.
May 16, 2014, Washington, DC
Congratulations fellow MSFS graduates. I am honored to be here to share this special day with you, your families, friends and teachers. The fact that you are here today speaks to your hard work, dedication and significant accomplishments.
The study of international affairs has never been more important. In a world where thousands of nuclear weapons exist and terrorist states are trying to acquire them, where suicide bombers kill without warning and thousands die each day from poverty caused simply by the way the international system operates, we need to understand international relations. Put simply, international relations is about war and peace, conflict and cooperation, wealth and poverty – these are literally life and death matters. We need to understand the issues and behavior patterns between the actors in the world, be they individuals, societies, states, and corporations so that we can lead and influence them for good.
International affairs has never been more important to business – the world in which I have operated for the last 25 years.
I was bitten by the international bug during a foreign exchange program in high school. I loved learning languages and studied international relations, economics, Spanish and French. I followed a non-traditional path after Georgetown. I enrolled believing that I would become a diplomat and was fortunate to study under one of the most impressive ones at our school – Secretary Albright. However, an internship at A.I.D. writing memos that would literally be “through” layers of bureaucracy before getting to the “to” person convinced me that I didn’t have the patience nor personality for government work. I made a course correction (in Silicon Valley we call them pivots) to focus on international business.
As I graduated Georgetown the typical international business recruiters, natural resource firms or commercial banks, were growing relatively slowly. The companies whose exports were and still are growing the fastest were technology and life sciences. According to the Brookings institute, the US industries with the most patents, export the most. This makes perfect sense of course – we are competitive in intellectual capital and innovation – not manual labor. That observation (and marriage to a Californian enrolling in UC Berkeley law school) led me to Silicon Valley.
My first job was at Informix, a young growing database company. After 4 years in marketing I seized my first big international opportunity – Latin American sales. I had no sales experience but knew the product, knew the region and spoke Spanish (unlike my boss). I spent many months in Mexico and the Andean region setting up our distribution channels and then moved (with my 2 children and nanny) to Brazil to open our first office. I was only 27 and not the typical demographic to go open a new subsidiary but I was in fact ready. Prepared by my MSFS experience with unique international skills of analysis, language and ability to connect across cultures. It was a whirlwind but successful 6 challenging months of learning Portuguese, hiring staff and selling lots of software to companies as varied as Sao Paolo banks and the largest iron ore miner in the world.
I made my way to Netscape at the dawn of the internet where I managed international marketing and development for the browser. Highlights included striking a deal with IBM where we jointly translated the browser to 23 languages – a critical development in making the internet accessible in new markets. When we open sourced the browser we also open sourced the localization toolkit allowing anyone to translate the browser to their native tongue, an important step for preservation of such cultures as Maori and Welsh and other indigenous languages. This was diplomacy albeit in a nontraditional venue.
While leading the Mail team at Yahoo we aggressively expanded into Asia and Europe. Just as many of you will work for foreign companies, I then went to work at the leading Israeli security firm, Check Point, heading up several US functions and bridging the sometimes wide cultural gap with headquarters in Israel. As CEO of SugarSync, a cloud company, we leveraged international partnerships in Korea, Japan, Italy and France early on to grow our business, which was half international in our second year of revenue. In fact, in 2011 there were more people working on the SugarSync product in Korea than in California.
In summary I found that the tech world is a great place to exercise and develop your international skills in a growing, challenging and constantly changing field.
And it is a worthwhile place. Technology has tremendous impact, clearly supporting the Georgetown mission of “pursuing justice and the common good” and “creating and communicating knowledge.” Internet connectivity plus inexpensive devices plus a Khan academy or MOOC gives a child in Central Africa many of the tools previously found exclusively in the first world. Sure it’s not the Cathedral school down the street, but the gap is dramatically narrowed. It has always been said that access to information is critical for democracy and free society. Technology facilitates the sharing of information and as such has supported transitions to democracy. By accelerating mass communication, YouTube and Instagram are like the printing press of half a millennium ago – altering the structure of society. Technology can be a tool for increasing the voice of women, one of my other favorite subjects.
It’s commonly thought that, like travel, technology is a force for homogenization between cultures. That may be true but short of a dystopian homogeneous world we still need to bridge differences and technology brings us into cross cultural and political contact more frequently and more deeply. I see this happening even in the diplomatic corps. In the pre telegraph and telephone stage diplomats had more independence – that waned as those technologies allowed decisions to be made back in the home country. But I believe the trend has reversed towards a larger role in-country. I see local staff in embassies with twitter feeds and engaging in social media as part of their people to people efforts. The State Department TechWomen program, in which I have mentored two Jordanian women technologists, is another on-the-ground example. It is not just about working in technology but using it.
As productivity gains from technology can be had dramatically cheaper, it can be a force for reducing poverty. Technologies such as the cloud and mobile devices democratize access to capabilities previously only available to big companies in rich countries. Technology is so ubiquitous that there are more mobile phones then toilets in the world! We see technology democratizing many fields – agriculture, business, healthcare, media – the list goes on.
But it’s not so easy and technology companies need people like you, with international sensitivity. A case in point is Yahoo – failure to recognize all the implications of its actions, handing over email to the Chinese government, led to a dissident being jailed, Google’s European privacy disasters, Ebay selling Nazi souvenirs. The dilemma of engagement in order to influence versus withdraw or sanction to try to force change happens for technology companies such as Google withdrawing from China similarly to countries such as the US today with Russia. The exact same technologies that protect companies from hacking are used by governments for surveillance on their citizens. The iron curtain has been replaced with an electronic curtain. We have seen this dramatically in regimes resisting Arab Spring. And speaking of Arab spring, technology was a critical amplifier, not causing the change but surely accelerating it where news is breaking first on Twitter. Our intelligence agencies need to be social media experts.
Companies have significant international businesses earlier in their evolution. It is not only the Google’s and Yahoo’s of the world facing international issues. In 2010 SugarSync, like Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter and others was blocked by the great Chinese Firewall. Some of the most dramatically successful companies – WhatsApp, Skype, & ICQ were primarily international in their customer base from day one. The model of figuring out the product and customer fit first in the home market then going abroad is becoming antiquated in non-regulated markets.
As you graduate and go off into the world, my concluding message to you is this – technology is quite impactful on the international stage – mostly for good but sometimes for evil. It is important. It is exciting, and, it is fun to work on. So I invite you to join me on this exciting journey. Some of you may do this directly – starting or working in a technology company but I encourage all of you to join me at least indirectly, leveraging the power of technology to amplify your international skills and efforts wherever you chose to apply them.