To Russia with Social Media

MOSCOW – I recently was part of a US State Department/White House delegation to Russia. Our mission was to foster US-Russian cooperation, in fulfillment of the US’s policies of   “21st-century statecraft” and citizen diplomacy. That sounds high-minded, for what the Russians were most interested in was how to build their own Silicon Valley.

The Russians thought that the way forward was to give tech companies some money and put them near a great university. Presto: a new silicon valley. For their part, the American delegation assumed that you could pour in some social networking and create a civil society. As for me, I went in with my usual cynical notions, born of traveling to Russia every few months for the past 20 years.

We were a motley crew of nine techies, including eBay CEO John Donahoe, Mozilla Foundation chair Mitchell Baker, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. And then there was the actor Ashton Kutcher, of whom I had barely heard. Despite his fame, he turned out to be a serious techy and an extremely good communicator.

The lessons we learned on the trip are relevant for anyone who wants to create a Silicon Valley, or even just a “Silicon Valley-style” organization – that is, one that can innovate and implement the innovations, producing profits, happy workers, serial entrepreneurs, and a modern, vibrant economy.