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Reciprocity in Silicon Valley: The prominent role of gift giving among tech entrepreneurs in the Bay Area


During my three months of fieldwork in the Bay Area on the work/private life situation of early-stage tech startup founders, I learned the real importance of Marcel Mauss’ essay The Gift (1966). In this essay, Mauss stressed the important role of gift giving in the archaic societies he studied. He argued that through obligations of giving, receiving, and returning gifts, societies create bonds, and in this way stability and cohesion in a society.

Yet, more than 50 years after The Gift was published, I saw Mauss’s insights reflected among tech entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. During the fieldwork I conducted for my master’s thesis, I observed that the entrepreneurs are attracted to work in close proximity with peers, and seek mentorship from successful entrepreneurs, investors, and in accelerators: an accelerator is a program that often includes investment, mentorship, a place to work, and connections to peers and investors. A class will go through this project together and oftentimes has a graduation at the end of the program. Although there are no grades in the program, success is measured in acquiring clients and raising capital. Startup accelerators are seen as a great means for rapid business growth. There are many of them in the Bay Area.

I encountered multiple entrepreneurs who expressed feelings of obligation to the community, and offering knowledge and insights to others. In this way, they strengthen ties within the community and help it grow. Many entrepreneurs I spoke to during my research shared memories of advice given by people in the field. They help each other not to make the same mistake twice, and save each other time by giving their route a shortcut. For instance, they share knowledge on which events are good and how to reach out to investors.

‘Sometimes it is just about building the community.’ A respondent explains. She takes time out of her busy schedule to help other people. ‘You’ve been helped by so many people in your time, so I do the same, because that is how the community works. I remember how difficult it was for myself.’

‘I think there is a very pay-it-forward mindset,’ explains one of my respondents during an interview. Comments like this were frequently made in the interviews I conducted, which illustrates the mentality among many entrepreneurs. People really took the time for the interviews, opened up to me and connected with me. Moreover, they acted as gatekeepers and introduced me to new places and events, and they invited me to their gatherings, conferences, and pitch events. I saw entrepreneurs help each other at the pitch events, where people hand out their business cards, offer advice, and solve problems together. I even encountered such mentality every other night in my own startup house, for instance during a brainstorm session wherein people put down their own work and looked at the work of someone else who needed help. A startup house is a co-living space for people who found a startup, work at a startup or intend to work at a startup. Startup houses can differ from places with private rooms to big houses with shared rooms and multiple bunk beds.

The prominence of this mindset in the tech-community came to the fore at the Startup Grind Global Conference in February 2019, a huge event with more than 8000 attendees. Here, founder Derek Andersen enthusiastically urged the importance of the key values of Startup Grind: ‘Help someone else, before helping yourself’ and ‘make friends, not contacts’.

How can this gift giving, and this feeling of obligation to the community, be explained? First of all, motives are found in creating solidarity and a sense of belonging, as seen in the previous quote. Yet there are also more selfish motivations. As Mauss explained, there is the flexible expectation that the gift will be returned. If there is a catch to all this help, it is the idea that one day, someone will do something for you in return. Not necessarily the same person that gave you the gift, but someone. It was even being said at a lecture I went to: ‘Always help people, like you have been helped, or want to be helped in the future.’

Moreover, we are talking about a community with emerging unicorns: privately owned startups, with a value of over one billion dollars. Nobody ever said it specifically to me, but I sensed that some people take pride in helping someone going from a normal startup to a unicorn. Even if they do not get rich out of their own business, maybe they can feast a little on the riches of someone they once helped. There is even an accelerator where every class member signs a contract in which they agree to fly the whole class in for a big party once they reach millionaire status.

Vivienne Schröder is a VU alumni researching tech startup culture in San Francisco. Read more of  her project developments on Medium. This piece is from her master thesis Entrepreneurship: Dream or Burden  – On the work/private life situation of early-stage tech startup founders in the Bay Area.

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