The Protestant roots of Silicon Valley symbolically died with the passing away of Valley hero Bill Hewlett, cofounder of Hewlett-Packard, the area’s first high-tech firm. On January 1, 1939, he and David Packard, classmates at Stanford University, launched an electronic measuring-device company from a one-car garage in Palo Alto. Six decades later, Hewlett-Packard led the Valley in revenues, with $47.1 billion.
A close friend remembers that Hewlett, a longtime member of the liberal Palo Alto Presbyterian Church, had an old-fashioned devotion to God and country. Hewlett’s son recalls how he would sit in his father’s lap and learn “how to follow the score of Handel’s Messiah.” Out of his traditional Protestant ethic came the famous “HP Way” of teamwork, flat hierarchy, innovation, and quality.
In the last two decades, church attendance in the Valley has been hardly the norm. It was, in fact, a curiosity. Today, however, as executives count the empty workplace parking slots as layoffs persist, parking spots at evening Bible studies are in short supply.
“I could hardly get to sleep last night; I was so excited about what is spiritually happening here,” says John Brandon, a top executive at Apple Computer, in an interview with Christianity Today. Start-up churches, new Bible studies, and a growing network of prayer groups are having a subtle but significant influence on the high-tech industry by changing the hearts and minds of entrepreneurs, who in turn are changing the way they work.
Silicon Valley Fellowship has emerged as a network of Christian high-tech leaders. It has organized itself into a parachurch ministry that sponsors small groups as well as monthly lunches. At a January event, for example, former Microsoft executive John Sage traced his career from Harvard to high-tech to founding Pura Vida Coffee, which markets high-quality coffee beans to support Christian ministry in Costa Rica.
At one of the new Silicon Valley Bible studies, Christian executives (many of whom asked not to be named) face their fears. During the session, the mood is glum. “I am sitting in the midst of company turmoil,” David tells his fellow Silicon Valley executives.
“We are in a recession,” another says.
“No, a depression,” another CEO corrects.
Greg Slayton, the CEO of ClickAction.com, functions as the elder statesman of the Bible study. Slayton remembers that when he came to Silicon Valley, he sensed how even Christian leaders were under its spell.
“I couldn’t get them to return my phone calls. I wasn’t an immediate IPO [initial public offering of a stock] prospect,” Slayton reminiscences with a touch of bitterness.
Now in his early 40s, Slayton’s habit of walking light on his feet, as if he is ready to race at any moment, makes one want to run after him wherever he goes. But this evening, he too is on the edge of exhaustion from his frantic pace. “The sense of isolation is a curse,” Slayton warns. “It is the curse of 10,000 acquaintances. You find no one to talk to when things go really bad.”
During the meeting, one new member recounts his challenge. “I am winding down a company,” he says. “There is such ugliness and not much charity.” He was ill-prepared by his business school to make ethical decisions while in catastrophe. “I could have made a lot of money for the company and myself by ripping off our customers before we go out of business.” As he speaks, his cheeks redden with anxiety and pain. He might have sold software that would have been orphaned one minute after his company died.
Many Christian executives in Silicon Valley keep something in their office to remind themselves of where they came from and to whom they are responsible. One executive’s wall features three framed newspaper articles denouncing his ethics and leadership abilities.
“It keeps me humble,” he says. Slayton has his kids’ artwork spilling off the walls of his office into the hallway—looking more like the kids’ finger-painting room than the office of the president. “It reminds me not to forget my family, and reminds my employees too.”
As the discussion turns to how these executives may be Christian witnesses in the workplace, the Bible study has come to exactly where Slayton wants it: How to bring about lasting change. “What are we taking away to do differently tomorrow?” Slayton asks. “If there isn’t some practical impact, we are wasting our time.”
Praying for Intel
Immigrant-owned enterprises are now a majority of all start-up corporations in the Valley. A quick drive down Highway 101 to the south end of the Valley brings into view via Technologies, where an openly born-again executive, Chen Wen-chi, is turning his company away from its reputation as a cold-blooded attack dog in the chip-making business to being both competitive and compassionate.
You would not guess, at first appearance, that Chen is head of the third-largest chipmaker in the world. He moves diffidently, even shyly, down the hall, in his rumpled black suit, white shirt, and dark tie. His calm and alert exterior signals his intelligence, discernment, and an ability to plan ahead. He quickly checks off the large and small changes he has made in the company to glorify Christ: strategic decision meetings preceded by prayer in every via facility worldwide, Bible studies and praise sessions at the end of the work week, and increased attention to needs in the local community.
“We don’t just plop a factory down and forget the community now. We help with water treatment and give engineering scholarships,” Chen says. “Even our chip names—Joshua, Samuel, Ezra—tell of our business struggles and how God has led us.” Yet at first the feisty chipmaker put off invitations to attend church with replies like “You have got to be kidding! I tried it!”
Chen took a job at via Technologies in 1987, becoming CEO in 1993. Chen thought he couldn’t fail, but he did. Under his leadership, the company foundered. Intel sued to put via out of business over patent infringements.
Suffering business pressure each weekday, he dismissed friends’ invitations to church so he could catch up on his sleep. Whether he was in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, or Silicon Valley, Chen’s answer was always “No, I’m not interested.”
But Chen couldn’t sleep on any continent. He says he wasn’t bothered by the state of business as much as by his feeling that the crisis showed he lacked some essential ingredient of life. He tried diets, fortunetelling, and more work. One of via’s owners kept suggesting he go to church.
Finally, he says, “I thought I would give God a challenge. I asked, ‘Lead me to believe you.’” His Christian friends joined in the prayer, though his older friends were more skeptical. “It was [God’s] miracle that I changed. It took place by God continually placing challenges before me. Then in 1995 I decided the Bible is a logical book, and I became a Christian.”
Chen announced his decision to his astonished employees. He and the chairwoman of his board started to pray that God would save the company and transform it to his glory. Chen knew that his life and his company were being changed fundamentally. He saw answers to prayer and old business partnerships renewed. His friends and acquaintances from earlier days do a double take when they see his big, dog-eared Bible flop on the table during business meetings.
“God is placing me in Silicon Valley so I can be his servant here,” he says. “And it gives me more rewards. They now come from within. Before, I would fluctuate like the stock market.” His view of business has changed, Chen says with a wry smile. “I even pray for the people at Intel now!”