Legend has it that more than two millennia ago, Jason and his band of heroes, the Argonauts, set out in search of the mythical Golden Fleece from the city of Iolcus in Ancient Greece. On their perilous journey, this motley crew encountered obstacle after obstacle, adventure after adventure before finally reaching Colchis to retrieve the one object that could ensure their city’s prosperity. With this goal in mind, Jason and the Argonauts outsmarted the fire-breathing dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece and returned victorious to Iolcus.
This famous myth is one of the first tales—but by no means the last—of one group’s triumphant return to their native land after foreign adventures in pursuit of success. The modern-day Argonauts—foreign-born, US-educated entrepreneurs risking it all to help their countries and regions grow—has been the focus of AnnaLee Saxenian’s research for decades. Saxenian—dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning—turns the topic of “brain drain” on its head by exploring how "brain circulation" by immigrant engineers from Silicon Valley, California has transferred technology entrepreneurship to emerging regions in China, India, Taiwan, and Israel, boosting their economies in the process.
Over the course of her more than thirty-year academic career, Saxenian has looked at the fast-paced, ever-changing world of technology from multiple angles in her dozens of research articles and two books, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, published in 1996, and The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy, published ten years later. Her insights into the growth of regional economies and the rise of the diaspora networks that sustain these economies have traveled around the world with translations of her books into Chinese, Japanese and Italian. The tremendous attention her work has received is equal to her passion for it: “I love research because it involves piecing together information as well as building and testing hypotheses about specific real- world phenomena.”
Her interest in research began as an economics student at Williams College in Massachusetts in the early 1970s. A native of the state, Saxenian grew up in the leafy, well-to-do Boston suburb of Concord in a family that valued education above all else: “My parents gave me the freedom to choose my own areas of study, but they expected me to do well. They also had a great respect for teaching and scholarship, which I think shaped my own aspirations.”
Although many of her friends and neighbors were from families who had roots in Concord since the American Revolution, Saxenian was the granddaughter of Armenian immigrants who fled the Ottoman Empire for Massachusetts in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide. Despite the norms of the era, Saxenian says that her maternal grandparents encouraged all three of their daughters to finish their university studies before marrying. “This attitude was quite unusual at the time. I have always been proud that my mother was a graduate of Radcliffe College, Harvard University’s prestigious sister school before it went co-ed.”
Though drawing strength from her mother’s educational triumphs, Saxenian ultimately followed in her father’s footsteps and pursued her doctorate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he had studied engineering years earlier. “During my time at MIT, I had the good fortune of receiving a scholarship from AGBU at a critical time during my dissertation work, allowing me to make additional trips to Silicon Valley for my fieldwork. Being at a major engineering hub like MIT also helped me to understand the mindsets of the engineers who would come to be the subject of my work.”
During my time at MIT, I had the good fortune of receiving a scholarship from AGBU at a critical time during my dissertation research which made a huge difference in my work.
Saxenian’s research stems from a longstanding interest in economic development, specifically the factors that make cities, regions and countries rich or poor—and how these conditions can change. Though Armenia has not yet been a topic of her scholarly work, Saxenian sees in retrospect how her thinking was shaped early on by her grandparents’ stories of the old country: “The New Argonauts concentrates on the contributions of highly skilled immigrants to the growth of Silicon Velley and the way diasporas increasingly link distant technology regions. I wasn’t fully conscious of it when I began the project, but this focus almost certainly reflects intuitions I developed as a child in a houseful where social ties between affluent Armenians in America and their poorer counterparts in Armenia were a reality.”
These days as dean, Saxenian is engrossed in the exhilarating task of training a new generation of students who will soon go on to revolutionize technology as we know it. “In 2014, my colleagues in the School of Information and I launched an online master’s degree in data science, which has been very successful so far. Now we’re in the process of starting a parallel online degree in cybersecurity, which we plan to debut in 2018. Interacting with young people about ideas is endlessly interesting at an intellectually dynamic university like Berkeley. And now I’m old enough to see many of my earliest students succeeding in their own careers. What could be more rewarding?”
Saxenian is only hopeful as she looks out on a technological landscape filled with potential for her school’s more than 450 students and other socially minded individuals: “There are so many exciting opportunities in technology today! You can work anywhere in the world if you have studied emerging, cutting-edge fields like digital activism, artificial intelligence and many others. But we especially need people who not only understand new technologies, but also their human, social and ethical implications. We need thoughtful, well-informed technologists who prioritize ethical and social concerns in technical design.”
For Saxenian, her students and her Argonauts, technology in the twenty-first century begins at this nexus.
Banner photo by Jason Doiy