Tech companies and their “obsession” with big cities

On Sunday afternoon, two colleagues, their partners, and I left the resort and drove to a spot 15 minutes away for a horseback riding activity up a mountain. While waiting for everyone to sign their waiver forms and for our guide to organize the horses and get us together, the man in charge of the waiver forms started looking at each of us up and down, conspicuously scrutinizing us and wondering where we were from and why we were here. After asking us what our relation was to each other, if we were friends, colleagues, where we we from, we told him that we all work at a San Francisco-based technology company and were here for a work event to celebrate high-performing employees.

“So you work in technology, huh?” the guy snorted, clearly annoyed by our response. “Well, I have a question for you!”

We all exchanged quick looks. This wasn’t going to be fun.

“Why is it that these big technology companies with all this money choose to open in big cities with high rent and high costs of living and just ignore all these other cities in the middle of the country and in areas that aren’t as expensive?” he said, visibly annoyed. “You have all this money and you could be opening in places that have more space, have better quality of life, and could most importantly be offering jobs to people who really need them! And you’d also be paying less rent and smaller salaries! Isn’t that a win-win?”

A colleague of mine slowly starts to explain that one reason for this is that VCs who invest in companies may want the companies close by to them. Our VCs are all in Silicon Valley, so they’d want our company to be in San Francisco.

The skeptical horseback rider waiver forms guy was still skeptical. “But you’ve got other offices that aren’t the headquarters that are in New York and Amsterdam! How do you explain that? Is it just that you don’t want to help cities in Nebraska or Iowa?”

I finally chimed in and said that the talent pool just wasn’t quite the same in Nebraska and Iowa, and it would cost a lot of money to relocate talent from major cities like New York to Omaha. It even takes money to relocate people from San Francisco to Chicago, where the tech scene is lesser developed,, yet we all consider Chicago a major urban metropolitan area. He raised his eyebrows at me when I said this, and my colleagues looked at me like I was crazy.

“You’re saying that the talent pool isn’t in Nebraska or Texas? You think their people just aren’t as talented?” he pressed me.

“Yes, I am saying that based on our recruiting efforts and what other companies have found,” I insisted to him, completely undaunted. “Even big relocation packages aren’t enough to get these people to uproot their lives and move to these random places.”

It was as though I’d ruffled his feathers. His face was turning red. “But don’t you people eventually want to settle down, move to the suburbs or rural areas to have a better quality of life and raise kids, have a family, have space?” he insisted back to me with his own inner argument coming out with fangs. As each word came out, his volume was rising and his irritation was being unleashed.

“Honestly?” I said back, totally unfazed. “Not really. Most young people these day don’t want that kind of life. More and more people are staying in the city. And well, not everyone wants kids.” That last bit could have sent him into attack mode.

But to my rescue, our driver had walked over, mid-conversation, and realized what was going on. She asked to speak with him in private, during which I could hear her scolding him to stop judging their guests and that we were actually giving them business that he should be grateful for.

“But I’m not judging them!” he yelped back. “I’m just asking questions!”

Well, he actually was judging us. And he was also asking questions. He doesn’t really get what we do, but he thinks he does. And he thinks he gets the bigger picture. But he doesn’t. And I’m happy to call him out on it and tell him the truth regardless of whether he wants to hear it or accept it. People who are out of touch with reality are just the bane of my existence. He thinks we’re discriminating against cities in the middle of the country? Most of those people just lack the skill sets we need. And the others think they’re too good for the jobs that “illegal” immigrants perform, everything from farming and harvesting to back of house work in restaurants across this country. But I’m sure he doesn’t even know that, and if he did, he’d refuse to accept it.

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