Business

How I learned to survive Silicon Valley while living in a rice paddy

Two years ago, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a rice farming village in Thailand. I showered with a bucket, spoke Thai, and had minimal access to the Internet. Now as a writer at VentureBeat, I am at the center of the tech world. I can grill startups on their monetization plans, rattle off a list of the top venture capital firms, and knowledgeably discuss the nuances of crowdfunding.

Somehow, in the space of a year, I transitioned from the center of a rice paddy to the center of Silicon Valley. It was never a place I thought I’d end up, but now that I am here, I realize how my experience in Thailand helped me get to the position I am in today.

Culture Shock

In Thailand, I lived in the village of Wat Bot. It’s in just north of the Thailand’s middle, located about halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai in the rice paddy netherworld that few tourists ever see, even those who deviate from the beaten path. The nearest city was one hour away, and the nearest American was three. When I applied to the Peace Corps, I was a senior in college craving adventure and faced with the realities of a tepid job market and the decline of print journalism.

I was assigned to work in rural schools as an education volunteer. My job was to train teachers on progressive teaching methods and student-centered learning techniques and carry out community outreach projects of my choosing. The Peace Corps provided volunteers with three months of intensive training to acquire basic skills and knowledge for our projects as well as cultural and language instruction. While helpful, nothing could fully prepare me to step off the rickety, old bus in the middle of nowhere with an entire community looking to me to improve their struggling schools.

I had no idea what I was doing.

I learned quickly, though. You have to. I practiced speaking Thai at every opportunity, asked a lot of questions, and forced myself to constantly engage with people who could help me acclimate to this foreign world. A teacher from one of my schools introduced me to all the local “influencers” and showed me the important places around the village, like the market and bus stop. Kids down the road taught me the Thai alphabet and showed me how to do laundry using rainwater and plastic tubs. Whenever there was a massive spider in my house, the toothless woman next door came over and chased it away with a broom — until the day when I was brave enough to ignore the spiders on my own.

Every day presented challenges, but I grew accustomed to struggle and uncertainty as parts of everyday life. I grew more comfortable in the classroom and realized that despite my lack of experience, all I really needed were creativity, determination, and an open mind. The real challenge was coping with feelings of isolation, alienation, and loneliness. I was cut off from the outside world and mostly unaware of what happened outside Wat Bot.

When I departed the U.S., Twitter was an emerging phenomenon, and Pinterest had yet to be born. Few people owned smartphones, and the idea of “e-book” was blasphemous to my English-major self. I’ll admit that I was one of those [charmingly] obnoxious arty kids who craved “authentic” experience and thought a world dominated by technology was a dystopian nightmare. I did join the Peace Corps, after all: I relished the opportunity to live without technology and thought the way to save the world was one person at a time. So what changed?

Reverse culture shock

I returned from Thailand during the summer of 2011 with no idea of what I wanted to do. I considered applying to Ph.D. programs in cultural anthropology or teaching English in Japan. After three months of indecision and living with my mother in D.C., I chose to drive cross-country to Burning Man with a childhood friend and think about the future later. After seven days on the playa, I ended up in San Francisco. After one weekend filled with brunch, Dolores Park, and interesting people, I knew I wanted to stay.

Unfortunately, my expansive knowledge of fin-de-siecle literature and art, fluent Thai, and successful execution of hygiene-awareness campaigns did not translate into gainful employment. I found myself working in the culinary department at Zynga, which was my first glimpse of the tech world. On my first day, I walked dumbfounded through the halls, awestruck by the endless cereal dispensers, free Yerba Mate drinks, and the daily buffet cooked and served by a team of 50 people. I had never seen anything like it.

I worked there for a few months while saving up money, searching for an apartment, and familiarizing myself with San Francisco. I started dating an entrepreneur who moved to S.F. from Austin to get his startup off the ground. He inspired me to look to the startup realm for a job that put my brain to good use.

I left Zynga and in an effort to fully immerse myself in the tech scene, and I threw myself into an RV driving to SXSW. Somewhere between beer, concerts, and breakfast tacos, I learned about TaskRabbit, Path, AirBnB, LaunchRock, Highlight, and HypeMachine. More importantly, I met the people who worked for these exciting companies. These were my people. They were young and hungry. They were passionate, creative, and wanted to take over the world. I didn’t even work for a startup yet, but I knew that this world was for me.

I took a job at a startup that combined various elements of Pinterest, Living Social, and a digital magazine into one rather confusing product. I worked as an editor and commnuity manager: curating content, writing copy, and trying very hard to grow our meager user numbers. I acquired a very basic knowledge of UI/UX and participated in “high level” product discussions that involved our small team butting heads over how to gain traction.

It was a sinking ship, and I loved every second of it. Until I got let go, that is.

The CEO decided to “pivot” in a direction that did not require an editor. I realized that all I really wanted to do was to write. Fortunately, serendipity (and my social network) presented me with VentureBeat, which was hiring an editorial intern.

I thought it was a long shot. My background in tech was minimal, and it had been three years since I was actively engaged with journalism. During my interview, I emphasized my passion for writing and commitment to journalistic integrity. I also explained how my Peace Corps service made me resourceful, persistent, and willing to take on any challenge. One writing test later, I was hired on a contract basis.

Readjustment

My first month at VentureBeat felt a lot like my first month in Thailand, except with fewer mangos. I had no idea what to expect and was afraid of making a mistake — except this time, my limited expertise was on display to a large community of tech-savvy readers. Fortunately, after singing Christmas carols on stage in front of 800 Thai villagers, I am not afraid of looking stupid. The whole VentureBeat team was unbelievably supportive, and I found that by conducting extensive interviews with entrepreneurs and asking constant questions, I could figure out what was going on.

Just as in Thailand, I started to figure out the local ecosystem, pick up on the lingo, and grow a network of people who could help, teach, and support me. I found that writing about startups often allowed me to write about my other interests in travel, fashion, and food, and that there are tech companies out there changing the world in meaningful and sustainable ways. I am amazed how technical advancements in one area can have ramifications around the world. Take the example of payments: Simplifying the process of setting up online payment systems opens up incredible opportunities, like Kiva’s microfinance loans for entrepreneurs in the developing world and Watsi’s efforts to fund basic medical procedures for those in need.

Everything is connected, and many of these companies will have a greater impact than I ever could with my poster board and markers in a classroom in Thailand.

My experience over the past year has certainly given me a unique perspective on the tech scene — and my life. My coworkers and many of my readers viewed this as a strength, rather than a weakness, and encouraged me to apply that lens to my writing. Early this year, I was hired on full time as a VB staff writer, and when I am sitting at a media dinner debating the future of digital health or discussing Bitcoins in an editorial meeting, it is hard to imagine being anywhere else.

The transition from Peace Corps to VentureBeat was not an easy nor an expected one, but my involvement in both is motivated by the same desire to create and promote positive change.

Now if I could only understand how network virtualization works, my transformation will be complete.


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