Monthly Archives: May 2008

The secret sweatshops of San Francisco

On the way to the airport today for a business trip with a colleague, we stopped in an alley, not far from Market Street. Through a locked gate and up three flights of stairs (no elevator) we entered a world that I would never have guessed existed that close to the financial district — or, in fact, anywhere in San Francisco.

A large room was filled with Chinese women on sewing machines. There was plenty of natural light and an apparently friendly atmosphere. My friend is in start-up mode for her own fashion label (business trips like ours help pay the bills) and she needed to check some of her production. She looked at having her work done in China, but decided the ease of involvement with something just over the Bay Bridge more than made up for the slightly higher costs.

I met the owner, an amiable Chinese man who apparently works seven days a week. The women sewing don’t speak English, apparently. The fourth-floor walk-up in the heart of San Francisco didn’t evoke for me the classic images of a manufacturing sweatshop, but it’s hard to think of another word for what I saw at the top of the stairs.

How extraordinary that apparel manufacturing like that can survive in one of the most expensive cities in the US.

The Midwest challenge

Dayton has more patents per capita than any other American city.

That’s perhaps the most surprising line in Richard Longworth’s Caught in the Middle, a well-argued manifesto written to help the Midwest confront the challenges of globalization. There is plenty in Caught in the Middle that I disagree with – his implicit elevation of manufacturing over other economic pursuits and his belief that higher education should become more attuned to current workforce issues, to name two – but I think his central thesis is unarguable.

Longworth concentrates on how the Midwest has largely failed to adapt to this century’s knowledge-driven, global economy (exceptions include Chicago and pockets like orthopedics mecca Warsaw, Indiana). His reporting on the sheer blindness of some regions – Cleveland, take a bow – is deeply worrying. For those with larger horizons, the issues that are graphic in much of the Midwest can equally be applied in many other regions around the world.

And can that snippet about Dayton, Ohio really be true? I wonder. Longworth cites the Wright brothers, of course, but also the invention of the cash register, microfiche, the bar code, the parking meter, the movie projector, the stepladder, the parachute, the gas mask and the pop-top can. That’s an impressive list. But more patents per capita than Cambridge, Berkeley, Palo Alto, New Haven, Redmond, Yorktown Heights (IBM research), Murray Hill (Bell Labs), etc? It seems unlikely to me. But I’d love to be proved wrong.

Untangling cause and effect

One of the most useful books I read last year was The Halo Effect, which debunks many of the management fads and mantras that pass as holy writ in many companies. Phil Rosenzweig laments the shoddy methodology that invalidates so much “research” into management.

Fortunately, there are a few management thinkers who buck the trends Rosenzweig chronicles. Andy Hargadon is one of my favorites. In his latest post he questions whether the popular vision of Google accurately captures the keys to an innovative corporate culture (Hargadon’s post is a response to a very good Adam Lashinsky article in Fortune): Hargadon’s cautionary conclusion:

The next time someone points out an organization’s innovative innovation practices, think hard about whether those practices were there when the real innovation took place.  Then think about where you’ve seen them before, and what happened to those companies.

Google Maps gap

I’m very much a Google Maps person. But for some reason Google Maps doesn’t plot directions in Mexico. Yahoo Maps, in contrast, does. My sister has also purchased the GPS map data for her Garmin. I hope that works.

Road trip

Somehow I’m an American who survived into my second half century without ever really going on any kind of road trip in my native country. I’m unexpectedly remedying that deficit in a minor way by helping my sister drive to her new home in Mexico.

I flew to Dallas this morning where I joined my sister, who had done the tough slog down from Chicago. We spent today driving relentlessly south in Texas: through Waco, making a brief afternoon stop in Austin (home of the magnificent cowboy boot sign above), through San Antonio, and fetching up tonight in the border town of Laredo.

Our hotel, the charming La Posada, is literally on the border, overlooking the Rio Grande. We could walk to the International Bridge, which is the border crossing, but we’ll be driving my sister’s over-stuffed Toyota FJ Cruiser over the border in the morning. We then plow on aiming to spend the night in San Luis Potosi, before doing the final leg to San Miguel de Allende on Tuesday morning.

The landscape through Texas was, to tell the truth, not that interesting. The most notable sights were the stunning wildflowers on the freeway median, which my sister reckoned were the fruits of Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify the nation’s highways.

Brain drain chronicles

I read two unrelated accounts of brain drains today.

First, the Financial Times reports that Germany – Germany! – faces an acute shortage of engineers. For every 100 “old engineers” (a term not defined in the article), only 90 young engineers are being trained in Germany. Worse, many of the engineers that are being trained are leaping to Switzerland, which faces its own engineering shortages.

One of the principal reasons Germany is the world’s leading exporter is because of the excellence of its engineer-heavy manufacturers, particularly the Mittelstand companies that dominate global markets in highly specialized niches. I can’t imagine a more worrying portent for the future of Germany’s economy than a shortage of engineers.

In a very different context, Haim Watzman argues that Israel should seize the opportunity to recruit the world’s best and brightest to its universities and companies. I had a conversation this morning with someone about the chimera many regions chase of being “another Silicon Valley”. The truth, we agreed, is that there is only one Silicon Valley. We also agreed that there is one possible exception – Israel.

But as Watzman explains, Israel isn’t seeking out the world’s talent, unless they are Jewish. Like many other Jews, I take vicarious pride in little Israel’s continuing abilities to push out world-class innovations. But the blinkered strategy described by Watzman can’t last forever. There is a continuing brain drain and no reciprocal flow:

We’re draining brains because the Israeli meninges allow brains to flow only in one direction–out. It’s time to match the drain with a funnel that will bring new brains in.

Annals of great columnist timing

I love the Financial Times, but their choices of outside columnists have frequently sent me into despair. I’m glad I didn’t break out the champagne a few years ago when they finally got rid of the ludicrous, self-important Tyler Brûlé – because they senselessly brought him back a few weeks ago.

The paper got what it deserved this weekend. Brûlé’s subject? The potency of “brand Beirut”:

Lebanon is not in need of a tourism campaign just yet as it needs to get many other rooms in its house in order first (a president perhaps?) but one day a “Liberal Lebanon” initiative could be just the slogan to bring back millions of tourists who are tired of being nannied in their home markets.

I’m sure in some circles this counts as edgy and far-sighted. I don’t see how making a newspaper a laughing stock is a good idea.