Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came to Stanford University on Wednesday with imitation on his mind.
He had just met with Apple founder Steve Jobs and toured Cisco Systems. An earlier visit to Twitter's San Francisco headquarters ended with Medvedev sending his first tweet. He seemed that much closer to realizing his goal of recreating Silicon Valley in a Moscow suburb. He even looked the part of a valley venture capitalist, trading the politician's suit-and-tie uniform for jeans and a blazer. "I wanted to see with my own eyes the origin of success," he told a packed crowd in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Speaking in Russian and using an English interpreter, he lauded the valley's ingenuity as his inspiration to wean Russia's economy from a dependence on oil and increase investments in technology.
He's already promised government funding and tax breaks in an effort to lure scientists and businesses to Russia. But cash from the private sector has been slow in coming, as corruption and a lack of government transparency make investors wary. "Unfortunately for us, venture capitalism is not going so well so far," Medvedev said in a meeting with Provost John Etchemendy and other Stanford officials before his speech. "No one wants to run the risk," he told the group that included former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz, both affiliated with Stanford's Hoover Institution, as well as Stanford's Dean of Research Ann Arvin and Jim Plummer, the dean of engineering. "It's a problem of culture, as Steve Jobs told me today. We need to change the mentality."
But Medvedev – who now heads to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with President Obama before the leaders attend the G8 and G20 meetings in Canada – leaves California with signs of hope and promise. Following his meeting at Cisco, CEO John Chambers pledged $1 billion toward high-tech innovation in Russia. Still, Medvedev realizes that Russia must embrace a combination of innovation, education and entrepreneurship if the country really wants to duplicate Silicon Valley.
Stanford has played an integral role in the area's development. Following World War II, the university was at the forefront of government-sponsored technological research, becoming the focal point of innovation in the area. Frederick Terman, an electrical engineer and dean of Stanford's School of Engineering, taught students like William Hewlett and David Packard – encouraging them to combine an entrepreneurial spirit with their technological creations. He helped create what is now the Stanford Research Park, which has given companies like Hewlett-Packard, Varian and Facebook room to grow.
The university also established the Stanford Research Institute, where Douglas Engelbart developed the computer mouse and other ubiquitous personal computing components in the 1960s. The collision of education, technology and venture capital investment spawned Internet giants like Yahoo and Google, and has kept Silicon Valley a hotbed of new ideas and business.
"Stanford is a place where the best and brightest young people from around the world come for a few years," Plummer, the engineering dean, told the Russian president before the speech at Dinkelspiel. "Then they go into Silicon Valley with their ideas." Medvedev said he wants to create an atmosphere that mirrors the relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley, and acknowledged a brain drain that's costing his country bright young scientists and business leaders. "It's really about having an environment in which people feel free to explore ideas," Rice, a Stanford professor of political science, told Medvedev. "Many succeed, many more fail. You have to feel free to fail." Medvedev said he's pushing Russia to become a more open country. He stressed the need to tackle corruption and increase transparency and political stability while getting rid of "senseless government interference." "Russia is a young democracy," he said. "We've come a long and very rapid path and our political system is constantly developing."
But most of all, he advertised his country as a promising business partner – a land of opportunity that holds the same potential and promise as Silicon Valley did when inventors were toiling in garages and thinking of ways to blend their technological ideas with innovative business plans. "Russia is trying to become an open country," Medvedev said. "Open for partnership."
Medvedev's visit marks the first time a major Russian leader has come to Stanford since Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev spoke on campus in the early 1990s. Gorbachev first came to Stanford in 1990 while still in office, attracting thousands of spectators and delivering a speech in which he declared, "The Cold War is behind us." He returned two years later as the former Soviet leader to talk about the political reforms he had enacted.