The Serendipity Machine

There is something about the phrase “at the right place, at the right time” that works in a special way at Stanford. It may be the happy conjunction of the brainpower of the university and Silicon Valley. It might be Stanford’s own tech culture, or the local “ecosystem” created around it. 

The fact is, arriving here as journalists, we Knight Fellows start quickly diving into the energy of the place. Collaborate, fail fast, iterate. And network in ways like never before. Networking in the Valley has a special connotation. It means that people here are really interested in your ideas and, if they cannot collaborate, they will certainly point you to another person or in another direction.

Amplifying voices

Coming from Brazil, where media is very concentrated, I envisioned a project that would amplify the voices in journalism, that would help a new generation of professionals create their own editorial products or companies, especially on mobile devices. Brazil is a gigantic country with almost 200 million people, but it has only one really strong TV network and you can count the number of nationally influential newspapers on one hand. It is very difficult for a new generation to enter that sphere, but it may be possible through the mobile revolution — the increasing adoption of cell phones, smartphones and tablets.

Digital technologies have made the means of production cheaper, so my hope is that at least a few young journalists will try to explore the possibilities of entrepreneurship themselves. By taking the Silicon Valley mindset to Brazil, I hope to inspire and motivate them to find new possibilities. But investors are not looking into the media space in Brazil at this moment. The first feedback I got, at an event sponsored by the technology news site Tech Crunch, was not very enthusiastic but somehow expected. A few investors spoke about their interests in my country. Media was not one of them. “Too difficult to navigate, too concentrated,” they said.

Start me up

But e-commerce was. There is a gold rush to introduce new brands into that space in Brazil, which is just starting to mature, just as it did in the United States years ago when giants like Amazon.com were starting out. So I started telling people I wanted to be embedded in a start-up, to understand how it works. (What other way to approach a new subject if not as a reporter?)

I contacted Adriano Farano, a former Knight Fellow turned entrepreneur with his own cool video news app for the iPad, called Watchup. He directed me to a new project by Brazilians in Mountain View called SiliconHouse (www.siliconhouse.us). It is a bed-and-breakfast for entrepreneurs who come for a four-week program that helps them explore the culture of the Valley, meet people and possibly learn to navigate the waters of getting venture capital money.

Knowing the challenges of bringing more voices to the media landscape in Brazil, the SiliconHouse founders were immediately enthusiastic about my project. “This is important, we need something like that in Brazil,” they said, and invited me to attend their events and lectures and mingle with other entrepreneurs. We are now talking about developing a program tailored for Brazilian journalists who want to immerse themselves in the Silicon Valley culture.

Just the beginning

At the same time, a volunteer brainstorming session with other Knight Fellows about my project prompted me to cut two thirds of it, focusing on what matters the most. I had been certain my project would have three steps: 1) building a community on innovation in journalism, 2) developing content around it, and 3) building an incubator for new projects and ideas.

But the other fellows said: “just concentrate on the incubator and the other things will come naturally.” They also suggested I could get more things done through partnerships, such as the one with SiliconHouse. So, just two months into the fellowship program, I began exploring things I hadn’t considered before, then connections simply started to pop up in a frenetic way and now I’m changing my project.

This is just how the Valley is, one quickly concludes. A place where the flow of information, contacts, events, meet-ups, feedback and collaboration run at an accelerated pace. And this is just the beginning of it all. The beginning of what we as Knight Fellows call “The Serendipity Machine.”