Seeing the Real Faces of Silicon Valley

Mary Beth Meehan and

Mary Beth Meehan is an independent photographer and writer. Fred Turner is Professor of Communication at Stanford University.

The workers of Silicon Valley seldom look like the men idealized in its lore. They are sometimes heavier, sometimes older, often feminine, often darker. Many migrated from elsewhere. And most of them earn far less than Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook.

This is a place of separation.

Because the valley’s tech companies have fueled the American economy since the Great Recession, the region has remained one of the most unequal in the United States.

In the depths of the pandemic, four in ten families with children in the region couldn’t be sure they would have enough to eat on any given day, according to an analysis by the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies. Just months later, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently added “technoking” to his title, briefly became the richest man in the world. The average home price in Santa Clara County – home of Apple and Alphabet – is now $ 1.4 million, according to the California Association of Realtors.

For those not fortunate enough to make billionaire lists, medium-sized engineers, food truck workers, and long-time residents, the valley has become increasingly inhospitable, testing their resilience and determination.

Here are 12 of them that originally appeared in our book, Seeing Silicon Valley, from which this photo essay is taken.

Ravi and Gouthami have multiple degrees – in biotechnology, computer science, chemistry and statistics. After studying in India and working in Wisconsin and Texas, they landed in the Bay Area in 2013, where they now work as statistical programmers in the pharmaceutical industry.

They rent a one-bedroom apartment in the town of Foster City by the Bay and regularly visit a Hindu temple in Sunnyvale, which has been a center of the Indian community since the early 1990s.

Although the couple worked hard to get here and they’re making good money – their starting salaries were about $ 90,000 each – they feel like they are missing out on a future in Silicon Valley. For example, your apartment costs almost $ 3,000 a month. They could move to a cheaper location, but with the traffic they would spend hours commuting each day. They want to stay but are not sure whether they can save, invest or raise a family. Not sure what to do next.

Diane lives in a spacious house in Menlo Park, the city where Facebook is based. Her home is full of beautiful items from a travel life with her husband, a Chinese businessman and philanthropist who has since passed away. The couple moved to the Bay Area over 30 years ago when he retired, and they loved the area – the sunshine, the ocean, the open spaces.

Since then, Diane has watched the area change: “It’s crowded now. It used to be nice, you know – you had space, you had no traffic. It was absolutely a beautiful place here. Now it’s densely populated – buildings rise up everywhere like there’s no tomorrow.

“The money that is rolling in here is incredible,” she continued, “and it is now in the hands of very young people. You have too much money – there is no spiritual feeling, just materialism. “

Victor came to Silicon Valley from El Salvador more than 25 years ago. He lives in a little white trailer in Mountain View, a few miles from Google’s campus. He lived in an apartment nearby, but had to leave when the rent got too high.

His trailer is in a long line of trailers, some of which are inhabited by others who have lost their homes. Victor, now in his eighties, has no electricity or running water, but the guards in his old apartment often sneak in for him to bathe and wash his clothes.

Victor always has a jar of medicated ointment in his backpack, and when neighbors twist an ankle or have a stiff neck, they know they have to knock on Victor’s trailer door. He gives them a chair and massages the sore spot until the pain goes away.

Teresa works full time in a food truck. She prepares Mexican food for a Silicon Valley clientele: hand-ground corn tortillas, vegan tamales, organic chard burritos. The truck drives up and down the valley, serving employees at Tesla’s headquarters, students at Stanford, and buyers at Whole Foods in Cupertino.

Teresa lives in an apartment in Redwood City with her four daughters. In the fall of 2017, her parents visited Mexico for the first time in 22 years. “Bienvenidos Abuelos,” announced a colored pencil on the door. Welcome grandparents.

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May 7, 2021 at 1:12 p.m. ET

“It’s very difficult for you,” she said. It’s really hard.

As a teacher, Konstance is one of the thousands of officials in Silicon Valley who cannot afford to live in the places they serve. For years she joined the commuting firefighters, cops, and nurses who sat in traffic for hours on the highways around San Francisco Bay, commuting from cheaper locations dozens of miles away.

In July 2017, Konstance won a place in a lottery operated by Facebook. It offered apartments to 22 teachers in the school district adjacent to the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park. The teachers would pay 30 percent of their wages for rent; Facebook would make all the difference. So Konstance and her two daughters moved within walking distance of the family’s school. Suddenly she was surrounded by something she had missed: time. Time to prepare hot meals at home instead of eating in the car, time for her daughter to join the Boy Scouts.

In 2019, Facebook announced it would provide $ 1 billion in loans, grants, and land to help create more affordable housing in the area. Of that pledge, $ 25 million would be used to build housing for educators: 120 apartments, including for Konstance and the other teachers in the original pilot, as long as they worked in nearby schools.

At the time of the announcement, Facebook said the money would be used over the next decade. The construction of the teacher’s house has not yet been completed.

One day Geraldine received a call from a friend: “They are taking our churches!” said her friend. It was 2015 when Facebook expanded in the Menlo Park neighborhood where she lived. Her father-in-law had started a tiny church here 55 years ago, and Geraldine, a church leader, couldn’t allow it to be demolished. The city council held a meeting for the community that evening. “So I went to the meeting,” she said. “You had to write your name on paper to be heard, so I did. They called my name and I bravely went up there and talked. “

Geraldine can’t remember exactly what she said, but she got up and prayed – and in the end the congregation was able to keep the church. “God really did it,” she said. “I had nothing to do with that. It was god. “

In 2016, Gee and Virginia bought a five-bedroom home in Los Gatos, an expensive town at the foot of the coast. The houses on her street at the time were worth nearly $ 2 million, and their houses were big enough for each of their two children to have a bedroom and their parents from Taiwan to visit them.

Together, the couple make about $ 350,000 a year – more than six times the national household average. Virginia works in Hewlett-Packard’s finance department in Palo Alto, and Gee was a former employee of a start-up that developed an online auction app.

They wanted to buy nice furniture for the house, but between their mortgage and childcare costs, they don’t think they can afford to buy it all at once. Some of their rooms are now empty. Gee said that salaries in Silicon Valley like hers sounded like real wealth to the rest of the country, but that it didn’t always feel like that here.

Jon lives in East Palo Alto, a traditionally low-income area separated from the rest of Silicon Valley by Highway 101.

By the time Jon was in eighth grade, he knew he wanted to go to college, and he was accepted into a strict private high school for low-income children. He discovered a suitability for computers and distinguished himself through school and professional internships. Yet as he progressed in his career, he found that everywhere he went there were very few people who looked like him.

“I got really worried,” he said. “I didn’t know who to talk to, and I saw that it wasn’t a problem for her. I just thought I have to do something about it. “

Jon, now in his thirties, has returned to East Palo Alto where he developed Maker Spaces and made technical education projects available to members of the community.

“It’s amazing to live here,” said Erfan, who moved to Mountain View when her husband got a job as an engineer with Google. “But it’s not a place where I want to spend my whole life. There are many job opportunities, but it’s about the technology, the speed for new technology, new ideas, everything new. “The couple had previously lived in Canada after emigrating from Iran.

“We never had these opportunities at home in Iran. I know – I don’t want to complain, ”she added. “When I tell people I live in the Bay Area, they say, ‘You’re so lucky – it has to be like heaven! You must be so rich ‘”

But the emotional toll can be weighty. “We are sometimes happy, but also very anxious, very stressed. You have to worry if you lose your job because the cost of living is very high and very competitive. It’s not that easy – come here, live in California, become a millionaire. It is not so easy. ”

Elizabeth graduated from Stanford and works as a security officer for a large technology company in the area. She is also homeless.

She was on a 2017 panel on the subject at San Jose State University and said, “Please remember that many homeless people – and there are many more of us than the census records – work in the same businesses as you. ”(She refused to indicate which company she worked for for fear of reprisals.)

While homeless workers sometimes serve food in cafeterias or clean buildings, they are often white-collar workers.

“Sometimes it just takes a mistake, a financial mistake, sometimes just a medical disaster. Sometimes it takes a tiny little insurance loss – it can be a number of things. However, the fact is that there are many middle-class people who have fallen into poverty lately, ”she said. “Their homelessness, which should only be a month or two to recover, or three months, extends for years. Please remember, there are many of us. “

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