Randi Zuckerberg had a thriving career at a certain pioneering social-media company. But Silicon Valley culture—or the lack of it—brought her back to her New York roots.
If you had asked me at age ten what I wanted to be, I would have told you—without missing a beat—that I wanted to sing on Broadway. If you had asked me where I wanted to live when I was 21, I would have laughed and said, “People live outside of New York City? And not just ironically?”
So, naturally, after graduating from college I found myself living in California for more than a decade as an early employee of a tech company, and a start-up entrepreneur. OK, so Facebook wasn’t just any tech company. And I wasn’t exactly suffering in sunny, palm-tree-lined Palo Alto. While it was a far cry from my home town, Silicon Valley in the early 2000s was intoxicating. The trifecta of top engineering schools in the Bay Area led to top start-ups, which led to big investor dollars, creating an ecosystem that simply could not be replicated elsewhere. All the kinetic vibrancy of New York City at full tilt couldn’t match the intellectual dynamism I found in the offices lining Palo Alto’s University Avenue.
Of course, other cities tried to re-create it. New York had Silicon Alley. London had Silicon Roundabout. Los Angeles had Silicon Beach. We found them adorable. Around 2008, I witnessed a conversation in which one colleague asked another, “Did you hear they are doing an event in New York called Internet Week?” To which the other replied, “No. I guess they forgot to invite the Internet.” That was pretty much the sentiment. Yes, the occasional outlier success happened in other places, but real technology was happening in Silicon Valley.
Soon engineers and tech entrepreneurs became the new rock stars, and the pressure cooker of digital start-ups began heating up even more. A tighter time line between forming a company and having a successful exit—all before the age of 25—became the model. Instead of taking seven to ten years from start-up to profitable outcome, we started hearing about the Instagrams of the world, who went from idea to billion-dollar buyout in eighteen months. If Instagram could do it, the thinking went, then everyone could.
But everything has a cost, and I found that cost to be a culture that left no room for personal passions. If you weren’t head down, 24/7, focused on your company and driving ruthlessly toward its success, you were considered frivolous. The early days of “this is a marathon, not a sprint” were replaced with “fail fast” and “move fast, break things.” In came meal-replacement drinks so you wouldn’t have to leave your desk to eat, and “micro-dosing” of such substances as Ritalin—and even LSD—to increase the productivity and frequency of all-night coding sessions. If you were exceptionally ambitious and willing to run yourself ragged for a few years, you would have unparalleled career opportunities and the chance to make yourself a small fortune—or in some cases, a huge one.
I loved every minute of working at Facebook, the company my brother started, where I took on a variety of roles culminating in head of consumer marketing. Most days, I still think about it and miss it the way you would a fantastic gap year of travel that you know you could never re-create even if you went back to the same places with the same people. I loved the idea of connecting the world, but I also longed to express the other side of myself, the one that had been to Broadway shows throughout my childhood, that had played Nancy in Oliver! and Ado Annie in Oklahoma! in school productions, and toured with an amateur opera group in summer. The one that sang with the acappella group the Harvard Opportunes in college. I formed an eighties rock cover band, Feedbomb, with current and former colleagues, and sang in a hotel piano bar while at the World Economic Forum in Davos to unwind after a long day of conferences. Many of my peers were critical of these pursuits, seeing in them a lack of seriousness. Perhaps there was simply a bigger target on my back because I was a Zuckerberg. Or perhaps it was my gender, since in my experience we were judged more harshly than men. Extracurricular activities deemed appropriate by the tech community were centered on showcasing how hard core you were: triathlons, Ironman races, heli-skiing.
After leaving Facebook in late 2011 to pursue my own endeavors, I started to notice more cracks in the walls. While we were seeing a greater number of female founders—I started my own angel investment fund to support them—stories about their difficulties in raising money were common. I picked tech products and apps to invest in that were aimed at new mothers (my first son was born that year), women in male-dominated fields, and encouraging coding and STEM studies for girls.
Meanwhile my husband, Brent Tworetzky, and I were elated to become first-time homeowners. Until—fortunate as we were—we found that the beautiful suburban house we had bought did not make us happy. Brent and I are urban people, and we quickly realized that maintaining a property, along with three cars (one for the nanny), was not for us. For three years, I felt like we were carrying that house around on our backs, and I longed for smaller, simpler, city living.
Then, two years ago, I received an unexpected phone call: The producers of Rock of Ages, an eighties musical on Broadway, were looking for a new guest star, one who would bring in a social-media audience. Did I want to perform in their production for a few weeks? After glancing around my living room to make sure I wasn’t being punked, it sank in that this was an actual offer—and I burst into tears.
Those weeks on Broadway were a revelation. I threw myself into learning the dance numbers and solo songs my part required, buoyed by a wonderfully welcoming team. Stepping out for my debut performance distilled for me everything I loved and had put on ice. Though I was obliged to unplug for several hours a day (unheard of for me), I felt at home on that stage. The intimacy, the focus, and the support from my cast-mates created an atmosphere not unlike that of a start-up. The producers asked me to prolong my run, but I had discovered I was pregnant again, so I needed to part with my sparkly leotard.
I wanted to hang on to the magic, however. A year later, my husband and I decided to move our family, now with two young boys, back to New York City for good. We found an apartment on the Upper West Side; no multiple cars necessary. My aim was to combine my artistic activities with my tech background as part of a new generation of entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to be well-rounded.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in 2016, the New York tech scene appeared to be entering an age of maturity and excitement, much as Silicon Valley was in the early 2000s. Of course, there were differences. For one, New York City itself is as much a part of the tech culture as the companies are. Rather than being taken by luxury shuttle bus to the gated community of your workplace, enjoying its numerous in-house perks until you leave at night in an UberX, in New York the tech companies blend seamlessly into the city. Everyone travels on the good old public transit system, bringing you face to face with all kinds of people, and offering constant reminders of why you are solving the problems you are trying to solve using technology.
Go to any coffee shop in Silicon Valley and you’ll hear the same conversations about raising capital, start-up valuations, and companies in trouble. In New York I have been shocked by the fact that even people in tech talk about the arts, politics—and train delays.
Silicon Valley start-ups tout the ideals of being “lean” and “scrappy,”of “hacking” things. It’s common to see motivational posters—bordering on company propaganda—on office walls encouraging employees to think and act this way. But say that to New Yorkers and they’ll laugh at you. They don’t need to be told to be “lean.” They live in shoe box apartments and don’t own cars. They don’t need to be told to be “scrappy” or to “hack things.” If you’ve ever witnessed a mom taking her kids on the subway with a stroller and shopping bags, you’ll see just how scrappy and resourceful we are. And while the delivery of items, especially food, is all the rage among Silicon Valley start-ups, well, news flash! New Yorkers have been getting everything delivered for decades! Lean, scrappy, hacker—these are words that are built into the DNA of NYC, motivational posters not required.
In New York, almost everyone I’ve met on the tech scene will talk to you, without a hint of embarrassment, about their daily SoulCycle class, their screenplay, book club, or music group. This multiplicity of interests also means that “content” is more highly valued; it is not merely a “platform,” whose success is measured in number of users, minutes of engagement, and daily actives. In New York, quality is more important than sheer volume; having your own voice is prized over letting just anybody upload their creations.
Before you jump down my throat on Twitter, yes, I realize not all these points apply to every company. But New York has allowed me to bring together tech, the performing arts, and entrepreneurial women. My Oxygen TV show, Quit Your Day Job, assesses and rewards mostly female-driven business ideas. My children’s book, Dot., has been made into a cartoon by the Jim Henson Company, and I host a weekly SiriusXM radio show, Dot Complicated, devoted to women in my industry. I love putting two different ways of thinking together—the innovative, visionary minds of Silicon Valley, and the gritty, scrappy New York spirit. Oh, and I still sing at every opportunity.