“Find a thing that upsets you and pisses you off and go fix it.”
Oh, and use your phone less. Get off social media.
That was the advice Friday night by Chamath Palihapitiya, one of University of Waterloo’s wealthiest graduates – perhaps the wealthiest – to the 1,000 registrants from all over the world taking part in Hack the North, the annual student hackathon unfolding this weekend at UW.
“Go prove to yourself [that] you can start something, build something, finish it, be proud of what you built and not care about someone judging it. Then go and solve a big problem,” said Palihapitiya to applause from the packed and rapt audience of hackers and students at Hagey Hall.
And it’s no wonder that Palihapitiya's words were closely listened to. By any measure, his life has been extraordinary.
Born in Sri Lanka in 1976, Palihapitiya came to Canada with his family at age 6. His father, who had worked for the Sri Lankan embassy in Ottawa, was afraid to return to Sri Lanka due to changing political winds and the family claimed refugee status, living in Ottawa on welfare. After attending high school in Ottawa, Palihapitiya enrolled at University of Waterloo and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.
By 2004, he was a vice-president with AOL, the youngest in its history. He then went on to Facebook, which was then little more than a year old, becoming a member of its original senior executive team.
Today he is primarily known as the founder and CEO of the venture capital firm Social Capital, which manages more than $2 billion in assets, and as a part owner and executive board member of the NBA’s defending champions, the Golden State Warriors.
Wikipedia says that Palihapitiya is now estimated to be worth US$1.2 billion. When that figure was shouted out to him Friday night by a member of the audience, he shouted back: “It’s actually much better than that.”
But chasing money, Palihapitiya said Friday night, is doomed to leave you disappointed and unfulfilled. Instead, he said, find something that moves you, motivates you, angers you, do something about it, and money will flow as a consequence.
“Let’s go fix the hard things that matter,” he said. “Let’s figure out how to eradicate this virulent strain of populism that’s emerging in the world. Why are people so angry? Why are people so unhappy? Let’s fix the boundary conditions for that. Let’s show them a better path.”
Hack the North is a 36-hour event where participants solve problems with technology. Projects are evaluated on the final day by a panel of judges. The event, the biggest of its kind in Canada, takes place annually at University of Waterloo. This weekend will mark its fifth incarnation.
Palihapitiya has at various times served as something of an outspoken social conscience for the culture within Silicon Valley. When he attended the Waterloo Innovation Summit two years ago he described capitalism as “fundamentally broken.”
Fixing capitalism, addressing social problems, was behind his decision to found Social Capital, which has a stated mission “to advance humanity by solving the world’s hardest problems,” and the company began investing in education and health care before it was common practice. The fund has raised US$1 billion and was an early backer of Slack, among others.
Palihapitiya has also been outspoken in the past about the drawbacks of social media, including Facebook (he won’t let his children use it). “It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other,” he has said in the past.
And he reiterated that theme on Friday.
“I think there’s a massive risk that so many of us are unfortunately raised in an environment where we can be tricked into feeling inadequate. At any point in the day, do you feel inadequate or jealous or envious when you’re on your phone and interacting on whatever site? Be honest.
“Can you imagine the impact of that compounded day after day, year after year?
“My advice is find ways of breaking that cycle. Friends are the answer. Being outside, as cheesy as that sounds, is the answer.”
Social Capital, and Palihapitiya, have come under criticism in recent days, with the recent departure of several of the firm’s key executives and a number of stories questioning the direction of the company.
Palihapitiya did not address those stories directly Friday, but he appeared to be hinting at them at one point when he said:
“It’s great to see the press cycles and see how inaccurate they are.”
He did, however, confess that the past year has been a difficult one for him.
“Look, I’ve gone through a very tumultuous year,” he said. “This past year I have had deep, meaningful personal changes. I’ve got divorced. I was in the business of making money for many other people, and myself, and I was not in the business anymore of solving hard problems. So I’ve had to reconcile and course correct.
“I’ve had realizations ... that a lot of the people I call my friends were a surrogate family I had built around me to compensate. These were people I was paying. That’s not a family. Respectfully, that’s not. Those are colleagues.”
Success, he said, depends on acknowledging the forces that shape us – family, friends – and being aware of our own insecurities.
“We all are suffering – or benefiting, both – from the legacy of how we were raised. It all really dictates your decisions. The root cause of all good and bad decisions is your sense of self worth.
"So, in my case, I figured out that I care about three things. I care a lot about professional accomplishment. I do. It’s a scorecard that makes me feel whole when I felt worthless. I care a lot about social capital, not the company I built, but the term, and the sense of affiliation and belonging to the people around me.
“And I care a lot about having a few really deep, profound emotional relationships in my life.”
Dhananja Jayalath, left, and Chamath Palihapitiya Friday night at the opening of Hack the North. (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)