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The Wall Street Journal: Want to “Change the World”?

Posted by The Wall Street Journal March 1, 2013.

By Yuliya Chernova

Silicon Valley dreams bigger than the rest of the country, according to an analysis of LinkedIn profiles.

People who include the keywords “change the world” in their professional profiles on the business-networking site are far more common in the San Francisco Bay Area than in Greater New York or Los Angeles, Venture Capital Dispatch found. Out of about 8,300 people in the U.S. who use “change the world” in their profiles, 11.5% reside in the Bay Area, 10% in greater New York and 6% in Los Angeles.

Compared with the total number of LinkedIn profiles in each region, San Francisco has twice as many such profiles in its area as do New York and L.A. The amount of change-the-world profiles is still a tiny percentage out of the millions in the three urban areas.

The Bay Area “has long attracted people who in a way believed that they are doing visionary work, almost doing God’s work through technology,” said Chuck Darrah, chair of the anthropology department at San Jose State University and co-founder of the Silicon Valley Cultures Project.

The proliferation of self-proclaimed world-changers may be driven not just by the region’s pull on utopian thinkers, but by the increase in seed financing over the last two years and the resulting greater number of startups. With young companies increasingly competing for capital and talent, some founders may try to stand tall and shout from the mountain tops about their potential and worth, not to mention trying to instill a connection to their company in employees who have the option of working elsewhere.

“The space has become one where you need to sensationalize and hype what you are doing,” said Jon Sakoda, partner at Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture firm New Enterprise Associates. “That lends people to being evangelical and calling themselves the people that change the world. I don’t think they are delusional. I think they are trying to do their job.”

“We’re dreaming big dreams,” said Paul Rosenfeld, co-founder of startup Fanminder, which helps small businesses use social media for marketing and that was acquired by Total Merchant Services in December. Rosenfeld quit a well-paying job to start his company, which was a scary decision, he said. He and his partner needed to convince other team members to believe in their dreams, he said—that’s why he included the phrase “change the world” in his LinkedIn profile.

“We were getting [the engineers] through buying them into our vision,” said Rosenfeld.

For some people changing the world is just a core belief that drives their entrepreneurial dreams. Joe Lonsdale, an entrepreneur and general partner with new venture firm Formation 8, proclaims on his LinkedIn profile that he is “interested in understanding and reversing the decline of Western Civilization.”

He also writes in his profile that he is “helping [the Seasteading Institute] change the world by building a new frontier for humankind.” Lonsdale is a board member of the Seasteading Institute, which says on its website it is aiming to build “seasteads,” or floating cities, which will give people the opportunity to “peacefully test new ideas about how to live together.”

Lonsdale is hoping to invest in startups that make technology to improve financing, government, education and energy. “If you make any of those work better, you help everyone else,” said Lonsdale, who has founded startups such as Palantir Technologies, which has been deploying its software to optimize data processing in counterterrorism, fraud detection and other uses, as well as Addepar, which tackles financing system optimization.

“A lot of us think that there are a lot of challenges our civilization faces, and technologists have the best chance of tackling them,” he said.

While to those outside Silicon Valley the ambition and drive on display in the region may appear “egotistical,” it’s not necessarily delusional, says Darrah. For many the role of tech companies like Facebook and Twitter in galvanizing political change has been proof that Silicon Valley does, indeed, change the world.

“We have no more arrogance than the rest of the population,” said Ali Behnam, co-founder and managing partner of Riviera Partners, a Silicon Valley recruiting firm.

In a way, Silicon Valley allows young people at least the dream of having it all. In other parts of the country, college graduates often face a dilemma–whether to pursue high-paying careers in finance or go into low-paying nonprofit work that gives them the opportunity to “change the world.” But those who come to Silicon Valley often don’t have to choose, said Darrah.

Nationally, people working in nonprofit organizations trail only people working in marketing and advertising when it comes to change-the-world profiles. But in the Bay Area, nonprofit workers take a distant fifth place, trailing would-be world changers working in the Internet, computer software and information technology categories. That suggests utopian thinkers aren’t confined to low-paying nonprofit work in the Bay Area and believe they can help society while also working in a financially rewarding field.

“The money is important to the equation,” said Behnam. “Money in the absence of a mission and doing good, sets you up for a culture that’s not sustaining,” he added.

There’s another reason why Silicon Valley residents may feel the ability to change the world, perhaps more now than ever. Technology is becoming more accessible and cheaper, so that people feel they have access to the necessary tools to implement their ideas. “There are few places in the world where a developer or a single individual can make a huge impact,” said Behnam.

“This is the part of the world where people who believe they can influence the future for the better come to build things,” said Lonsdale.