FACEBOOK’S BIG SISTER

SOMA sat down with best-selling author and CEO of Hearsay Social, Clara Shih

“Every decade or decade and a half, you get these narrow windows of opportunity and there is such a disruption in the market that you actually can change the world with an idea,” says Clara Shih from the offices of Hearsay Social, just a block from AT&T Park in San Francisco’s SoMa Neighborhood. “There are all these signs validating this crazy dream that I had five years ago and it’s all coming into play.”

Shih, CEO of Hearsay Social, is highly professional but possesses an inviting aura and a warm, friendly smile to match, so it’s fitting that she doesn’t tuck herself away in a CEO’s corner office. Her workstation is an inconspicuous addition to one of the long communal tables in the expansive, undivided space making up Hearsay Social’s San Francisco headquarters. Smiles abound and red trinkets adorn dual monitors and meeting room windows. It’s Valentine’s Day and the love and energy of a successful start up is palpable, as it should be.

With the abundance of brilliance shining in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area since the late ’90s, getting recognized—even for the most accomplished and ambitious professionals—is a little like being a sparkling diamond in a sea of sparkling diamonds. Degrees from the most prestigious universities, astronomical amounts of venture capital funding and an envied office space are now just prerequisites for acceptance into the ‘Technorati’ society. These days it seems that all you need to do to become a distinguished member of the entrepreneurial elite is to earn degrees from Stanford and Oxford, write a New York Times bestseller, sit on the board of a Fortune 500 Company, act as a keynote speaker at over 100 tech conferences, build a highly useful and lucrative internet company, be in the right place at the right time and do it all before your 29th birthday. At least that’s how Clara Shih went about it.

“I started Hearsay out of my apartment in Russian Hill with a Stanford classmate of mine,” said Shih. “Now we employ over 70 people and have offices in the Midwest and New York, as well as our headquarters in San Francisco.”

Unless you’re still working on a Commodore 64, you are at least aware of the impact social media and networking has had on almost all aspects of modern life, both online and offline. Clara, bitten with the entrepreneurial bug during her schooling at Stanford, used Facebook socially to stay in touch with Silicon Valley-based friends when she was at Oxford earning a Master of Science in Internet Studies.

“When I was at Stanford I made a lot of friends in the Bay Area. I had a great time at Oxford but really missed my friends and the fact that I was on Facebook helped me keep in touch with them,” says Shih. “I started thinking, what does this mean for the way that people keep in touch and the way that information is disseminated?’”

After completing an academic career that would make any professor proud, Shih landed at San Francisco-based CRM giant, Salesforce.com. Retaining a well-founded infatuation with social networking, the integration of customer relationship management and Facebook was, for her, a necessity.

While at Salesforce, Shih created Faceconnector, which retrieves pertinent business information to help create a more complete picture of business relationships and instantly provides an all-encompassing view of prospective and current clients. After conceptualizing the revolutionary idea, Shih had a tough time relating it to colleagues and finally took matters into her own hands.

“I asked other people to build it because by then I hadn’t been a software programmer for many years and frankly I was pretty rusty, but people just didn’t get it or they didn’t want to do it and so I had to do it myself,” said Shih. “I said okay, I’m going to do this. I didn’t have an agenda, I didn’t even tell anybody about it, but because Facebook is so inherently social, all of my friends could see in their news feeds that I had built this application.”

It’s exactly this kind of self-sufficiency that has brought Clara enormous success in every challenge she has taken on.

“Nothing motivates me more than realizing something ought to be a certain way, or that something should exist but doesn’t,” Shih passionately remarked. “It’s cheesy saying, ‘If you aim for the stars, at least you’ll get to the moon,’ but that’s kind of the story of my life.”

Her parents immigrated from Hong Kong and, typical of many Asian parents, gave her the choice of being a doctor or a lawyer at the impressionable age of 12. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” says Clara. “But I was very good at math and science so I ended up going the engineering route and majoring in computer science for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. It happened to be during a very special time in Silicon Valley during the early 2000s.”

Having your life path dictated to you at a young age instills the habit of planning very far ahead—even when you know things are going to change, Shih says. “My first week of college I mapped out exactly what courses I was going to take over the next four years,” Shih laughs. “Of course it didn’t work out, but because of that planning ahead I was able to take some classes that other classmates didn’t even know existed.”

Always looking to the future has helped shape Clara’s career organically, leading her from writing code to writing The Facebook Era, a New York Times bestseller.

“If I had never studied computer science I would have never had the skills to create Faceconnector, which led to my book deal, which led to Hearsay Social,” said Shih. “I’ve always been intellectually curious and so I’ll explore things even if they don’t make immediate sense just because I find them interesting. For that, I thank my mom.”

Text by RICH WRIGHT
Photography by GENE X HWANG

THE SPRING ISSUE


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