Google Co-Founder: Davos World Economic Forum Is Like Burning Man "Except We're All Wearing Clothes"

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Sergey Brin

Sergey Brin, president of Google parent Alphabet, tells the event in Switzerland about the company's culture, why governments and businesses should collaborate more and how he may still finish his PhD.

Sergey Brin, the president of Google parent company Alphabet, on Thursday lauded the technology company and Silicon Valley's culture of pursuing new ideas and businesses, even if they don't succeed, arguing that it allows for innovation and creativity.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in a session that was live-streamed, he said his first visit to the event in eight years reminded him a bit of Burning Man in Nevada.

"Not having been to Davos in eight years, I'm even confused in a good way, because there are all these business executives and CEOs and everybody wondering how are people going to find purpose and what about all these refugees, what about income inequality," he said before drawing laughs by adding. "I kind of feel like I'm at Burning Man — almost, except we’re all wearing clothes."

On a more serious note, Brin told the Davos crowd on Thursday that outside of the Forum, "oftentimes, there is a very antagonistic [relationship] between government and business," which he said is "very unhealthy." He called on all to focus on tackling issues "in a real collaborative way."

He was also questioned about the culture at Alphabet/Google and Silicon Valley in general. "We are just lucky to have the environment that tolerates making lots of risky bets and tolerating the failures that inevitably result," he said about the company.

In that context, he also shared that he thought about the idea for Google as part of his graduate student project at Stanford University and asked his advisor whether he should become an entrepreneur or finish his PhD, the advisor said: "Why not!? Go for it, and then if it doesn't work out, you come back, you finish your PhD, which I am still planning on doing."

Brin said "that mentality permeates Silicon Valley, and I think that's one of the strengths that it's not viewed so negatively to try something even if it doesn't work out."  

Asked about Alphabet/Google's key values, he said: "For whatever weird reason, maybe it's because we are San Francisco hippies, Google has always had a little bit of that social responsibility view." And he added: "It can’t be the case that companies such as ours are just purely profit motivated. ... You can't just think narrowly, this is your business, you are just going to maximize earnings, it doesn't matter what else is going on around you." 

Asked if he had any idea where Google would go when he started it, Brin said: "I could not possibly have imagined." 

What's his advice for young people? Brin said "you should have fun" instead of thinking about an IPO from the start or trying to be number one in their field on a global basis, explaining: "I certainly had no dreams of economic success." He concluded: "I would encourage young folks to take chances and pursue their dreams and try to silence out the voices that say well, actually there are a thousand startups trying to solve self-riding bicycles or whatever they happen to be doing."

 

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