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Fadi Bishara seems to be one of the best connected and universally-liked people in Silicon Valley, and a few weeks ago I found myself sitting on the floor next to him — alongside a group of startup founders from around the world talking culture, values, mindset, and the founder’s journey.

This experience was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a Blackbox ‘Partner in Residence’ representing Dublin’s Dogpatch Labs at Blackbox Connect — a two week residential programme that brings ambitious startup founders from around the globe to Silicon Valley, helping them understand its culture and mindset in order to grow their business. It’s led by Valley veteran Fadi Bishara, powered by Google for Entrepreneurs, and held at Fact0ry in San Francisco.

I think I now understand why every founder I’ve spoken to raves about their Blackbox experience: the programme is all about investing time and energy in the founders themselves — people from all corners of the world who have chosen to embark on this highly unusual journey, driven by some inherent desire within to build / create / achieve but also, to do this knowing that there is a strong chance of failure.

That’s a crazy and tough life choice to make — and Blackbox serves as a moment to pause; to spend time with inspiring fellow founders and Silicon Valley’s leading figures; and to establish a new foundation upon which to grow even further.

In the words of Fadi himself,Blackbox is about helping “‘elevate the founder’s foundation, not by the playing the game better, but by playing a better game through the two weeks of reflection and ‘reset’.”

Below is a window into the world of Blackbox — a snapshot of the messages we absorbed during our time in San Francisco. No amount of words could provide a reasonable account of the programme — it’s something that simply needs to be experienced firsthand, and I’d recommend any founder with global ambition to attend if they get the chance.

Founders Set The Culture (whether they’re consciously thinking about it or not)

One of the many incredible sessions was led by Alex Tauber, founder of two startups, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, and a faculty member at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where he leads the Entrepreneurial Commitment Group (ECG), a highly respected peer network for high-growth startup leaders.

Alex focused on culture, and the fundamental impact it has on a company’s potential for growth. What made this session special was not only the content of what Alex covered, but the way he delivered it. He captured our attention from the moment he began speaking by taking a personal risk and sharing ‘gut-wrenching issues that an entrepreneur is normally not comfortable discussing openly’. His vulnerability and discussion of these issues  helped us all to open up and really look at how we behave, reflecting on how that impacts the people around us at work.

The most powerful takeaway we got from the session was that ‘leaders are ginormous signal generators’. Their behaviour provides powerful signals that create an expectation of behaviour for the rest of the team. It is this subtly reinforced expectation of behaviour that shapes culture.

Alex immersed us that afternoon in the intimate culture of the monthly networking group he leads at Stanford — an invite-only group for Silicon Valley’s best entrepreneurs. It was opportunities like this to take time and space to be honest with ourselves and with the rest of the group, led by people of Alex’s calibre, that helped make sure we not only heard these types of nuggets of wisdom, but that they resonated.

Silicon Valley Mindset & Values Matter – Growth comes from Giving

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Derek Andersen of Startup Grind led a standout session focused on the type of ‘Founder Mindset’ — and associated values — which characterise Silicon Valley.

A useful way of understanding what mindset is typical of founders (and their key employees) in the Valley is to look at the Growth Mindset concept created by Carol Dweck. Those with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe that abilities are mostly innate and interpret failure as the lack of ability, while those with a ‘growth mindset’ believe that they can acquire any given ability provided they work hard enough.

Silicon Valley founders take the ‘growth mindset’ to an extreme — they embody an insatiable appetite for growth and learning, combined with humility and a strong ability to adapt. When hiring, founders should always hire for this ‘growth mindset’, seeking out people who value growth and adaptability more than anything.

This message hit home for Blackboxers from around the world: many  have grown up surrounded by a (relatively) fixed mindset, and the group recognized a need to actively surround themselves with ambitious and visionary people who will help them foster their global ambition. In turn, we all came away with the desire to play a role in nurturing this growth mindset in our own tech ecosystems.

This idea of the crucial role that environment plays in shaping outlook was brought into sharp relief by Osayd Madi, founder of gaming company Baskalet, who joined Blackbox Connect with help from amazing startup hub Gaza Sky Geeks. His journey to San Francisco alone was exceptional — at the last minute, his co-founder could not travel, and Osayd was delayed joining the programme due to the unique challenges of the security permit system and border crossing. Osayd and his co-founder have a clear passion for designing beautiful (addictive!) games which they theme around Arab culture, targeting primarily the Saudi Arabian market. Despite the many challenges and hardships faced in a place like Gaza, at the end of the week a big takeaway for him was that he missed home and could not wait to return — with revived enthusiasm to build out his business with the team for which he had renewed appreciation.

A related concept we explored was the values that have become the norm in the Silicon Valley ecosystem: values established through feedback loops that reinforce accepted — and expected — norms of behaviour across the community. These feedback loops work because the best deals are done (with the speed that’s so critical to stay ahead of the competition) when they’re informed by trust-based relationships that are built over time, distinct from the more transactional nature of business deals done in less mature ecosystems.

These dominant values are best captured by Startup Grind:

“We believe in making friends, not contacts.

We believe in giving, not taking.

We believe in helping others before helping yourself.”

Founders are like artists (and they need to stay in touch with their creative fire)

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At Blackbox, we were reminded how despite differences in culture, background, product, or target market, global founders share something fundamental in common:  a creative energy within that gives way to an insatiable drive to create something new from scratch; to imagine and shape the future; and to take on a multitude of risks that are sometimes hard to comprehend. Founders surf the highs and lows of growing a startup, going against the norm to build something that is a manifestation of that creative energy within themselves.

Throughout the programme, the founders were given the space, away from the day-to-day tasks of running a company, to connect with that which prompted him or her to start on this journey. When you’re scaling fast and trying to stay alive, it can all become a bit mechanical — you can risk losing that magical creative and visionary energy which only the founder can bring — the energy that helps set apart your team and product from the crowd.

Fadi and his team — supported by Google for Entrepreneurs — recognise the important role that startup founders play in boosting the global economy. And those lucky enough to take part in a Blackbox programme get a unique experience where time and energy is invested in the startup founders themselves — who may go on to build, sell, and close many businesses throughout their life — and not purely in the business they are building today.

In Summary

In summary, the two-week programme was a whirlwind of intellectual stimulation, personal growth, and fun.

The first week was intense. Every morning we started the day by practicing mindfulness to check in and give ourselves the chance to breathe. At the end of the week, we had a group “retrospect”, where we shared concerns in a space full of trust and compassion which had been crafted so skilfully throughout the preceding days. And to top it all off, we got to hang out like school children — cycling around the Bay Area, chilling out in Sausalito, and enjoying time together like a big, crazy, global family.

In the second week, the rate of learning and sharing accelerated, with each of us getting the chance to make some sort of breakthrough in one way or another — be it by embracing the belief that our product is truly worth fighting tooth and nail for, or even by perhaps acknowledging that the founder fight might be too much for some, and it might be nearly time to call it a day.

On the final day, we were led through a visualisation exercise — where we all “met” our future selves, and got a sense of where our current  path is leading us in the future. The results were profound. This connection with our future selves gave us the chance to connect with our higher selves, allowing us to check in and make sure that our busy reality is aligned with where we truly want to go.

Looking back, it was an intense fusion of insightful talks led by respected Valley founders, thoughtful sessions on culture, mission, and values, interspersed with grounding mindfulness breaks and lots of great craic, — all rolled into this two-week immersive experience that is just impossible to put into words.

If you’re a founder who’d like to learn more about Blackbox Connect, please feel free to contact me at liz@dogpatchlabs.com — I’d love to hear from you!

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