I was invited to speak on a panel at the University of Chicago, one of America's most prestigious academic institutions. The irony of speaking about entrepreneurship at this esteemed university is highlighted by the stark economic contrast of the neighborhood surrounding the school. The University of Chicago is located in the notorious South Side of Chicago. That's where my mother grew up.
In addition to being responsible for 87 Nobel Laureates, some of the University of Chicago's notable alumni include James O. McKinsey, the founder of the strategic consulting giant, Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, film critic Roger Ebert as well as Eliot Ness, the leader of the Untouchables. This illustrious institution happens to be situated in the South Side of Chicago. Older generations would remember Jim Croce's pop hit "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," with lyrics that state "the South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of town." Contemporary media still depicts the area where my mother was raised as an impoverished and dangerous neighborhood.
Miodrag, her father and my grandfather, survived World War II and a Nazi prison camp before immigrating to this country. He spent his early 20s grueling as a prisoner of war. Severely malnourished, he lost most of his teeth by my age. He came to America only with the clothes on his back and a tin can that fits in one's palm, protecting a few outdated European coins and an old soccer medal. Ecstatic to be in the land of opportunity, he worked diligently in Chicago's steel mills and raised a family on the South Side until he became paralyzed in his 50s.
I have only been to Chicago once in my life. It was a terse weekend when I was young. My mother preferred to show me Michigan Avenue, Lincoln Park and the American Girl Doll store instead of where she grew up. Growing up in South Side is a touchy subject for my mother. Ever since I was young, I knew not to bring it up.
My upcoming visit to Chicago is going to be a very significant point in my life. I don't believe my grandfather or mother would have ever imagined I would be invited to speak at the University of Chicago. It is one of the most exalted symbols of America, close in geography to where my family lived, yet so many realities away.
I grew up in San Francisco, where my father came to at the age of 8. The young boy came from Hong Kong not speaking a single word of English and disappointed to find out that there wasn't actually gold on the street like he had been told from the old country.
Being the son of an immigrant fortunately did not stop me from attending an Ivy League university, something that I had dreamt about as a boy. Although I could not afford to attend, I am so grateful to have been the recipient of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation scholarship.
It took for me to get invited to Chicago and imagining my grandfather coming there to reexamine the concept of the American dream. I believe the last time I truly thought about it was discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gastby in high school. These tough economic times have driven many people to forget or even to mock it.
It's been over two years that I have been working in Silicon Valley. This environment, powered by the Internet, is the closest thing I've ever experienced to meritocracy in its purest form. Users and customers don't care what ethnicity the founders are or whether they celebrated Passover or Easter. If the product provides the solution they are looking for, that's all that matters. Dreamers with a powerful idea are able to float it on the Internet, build it out, and henceforth create positive change for society. People do not care where Twitter's founder Jack Dorsey is from; they care about being given a voice to be heard. People do not care about Kevin Systrom's background; they love the idea that anyone with an Instagram account can be a photographer.
Even though no entrepreneur mentions the term "American dream," I have a feeling deep down that there are many others like me who believe in it. The tough economy is not going to stop bright and passionate individuals from coming up with innovations in process and products.
We're the Generation Y, the Millennials, or whatever you want to call us. We seldom use the phone to call. We text, we tweet, and we believe that if you had a great experience, it doesn't exist until it's posted to Facebook or Path. But we have a love for the United States, a place that has given us so many opportunities. We're using technology, social media, Web 2.0, mobile and cloud computing. These aren't just buzzwords. They are our tools for making this society stronger than ever going forward.
This isn't a story of success. This is a story of hope. Jack Dorsey's story, Kevin Systrom's story, my grandfather's story, my father's story, my mother's story, and my story are all brush strokes that are part of a much larger impressionist painting. When one takes a big step back, the tableau makes sense. The American Dream is not dead; it has been reinvented.