Berkeley is known for many things.
The protests, the hippies, the arts, homeless people, the diversity and the acceptance of that diversity (you can literally see every type of people and every type of activity in this city, and anyone who has actually lived here would stop seeing them as different types of people, just as people).
Berkeley also has the best public university in America, and actually the only public university that ranks above the Ivy league schools in many disciplines. (Public universities usually suffer in rankings not because of the students’ quality or the teaching quality, but because of the professor-to-student ratio, which is lower than those of private schools. Why? Ask the government about funding for public schools.) UC Berkeley was the reason I came to Berkeley, and for a while I hardly thought of the city as anything but the school. For a while, the academic life was my only life, and what I had planned for was a straight path into academia (and never out of it). But things change, and on some days, I feel lost. This is when I find that the city of Berkeley is more than the university it contains. That it has people who want to make change, who actually do it, who are willing to teach others how to do it, and some that are all three. Perhaps even more importantly, it hosts the environments where I can meet those people.
The dinner event that HUB Bay Area organized last week is one of those environments. Originally, I was hesitant to go, the official name of the event is “Innovate Berkeley: Sustainable Economic Development – East Bay Social Innovation Dinner”, and its list of participants include CEOs and founders of companies, architects, scientists, people who have not only ideas but the experience of doing something pertaining to the economy, and what do I put in the register box? “Student”. I was hesitant because I didn’t have anything to bring to the table. In the end, I went.
The evening began with some beer drinking and mingling. The ice breaker is a casual handshake and “what brings you here?”, followed by “why not, right? there’s free drinks!” with a chuckle. (I don’t drink, so I chuckled along with my glass of water.) Arriving on the earlier side would make it easier to get into groups, and you would get more time to talk to people, so you get to know more people before breaking up into tables for dinner. (Guess who arrived late?) The dinner is accompanied by a presentation. This time, it was an incredibly inspiring and engaging talk by Dr. Mike North about innovations, how they can be born and how they can be useful. After the talk, everyone moved around again, some grabbed desserts, most started or restarted discussions about ideas, careers, business, community developments. Serious topics. By the end of those conversations, business cards were exchanged.
Although I didn’t have anything to bring to the table, it was alright to be on the receiving end, at least this time. I learned from Barbara Hanna about computer vision, from Mike North and Jaki Levy about engineers and entrepreneurs that get together on the weekends to build communication systems for communities in Gambia, or foot brace for children in Nicaragua. Their projects connect professionals of different fields and materialize their ideas together. I listened in on a conversation among a landscape architect, a software architect and an environmental study post-grad, the topics ranged from business management to insurance policies on buildings. There were artists too, not just tech people and businessmen, and there were talks of practical art projects. The age difference was hardly any barrier: the accomplished people in their 60s were generous, and the start-up owners in their 20s and 30s were confident.
Those conversations, the people and the dinner as a whole represent Berkeley as a city, where every idea is welcome, and everyone is open to new ideas. But unlike the usual social events, these people weren’t playing nice. If you’re wrong, they tell you that you’re wrong, and they explain. Isn’t that how innovations come about, and how Berkeley is a hub for innovations?
Over the course of three hours, I felt completely intimidated, but also motivated. My line of work is one of the farthest way you can remove yourself from humanity, both spatially and chronologically. (I study light that came from outer space 30-40 million years ago. For comparison, homo sapiens appeared about 0.5 million years ago. The folks who study dinosaurs at least still stay on earth). You can imagine the impact I make in people’s lives today: it’s non-existent. The knowledge I have about solving human world problems? Also non-existent. How can I fix that? Where do I fit in this innovative crowd? I haven’t figured it out. So I’ll keep thrusting myself into this type of event until I figure it out.
I’ve published a less personal version of this post on the Daily Cal, not as an abuse of my editorial power (although it may appear so 😉 ), but because I believe that there are other students who would like to know about this type of event.
Logistics: HUB Berkeley Innovation Dinner is a monthly event organized by HUB Bay Area. The dinner is hosted at HUB Berkeley, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94704. Early Bird tickets cost $31.74 each.