LAST WEEKEND, 150 of tech’s most gifted engineers traveled to an Arizona resort to spend three days at an event that, despite having never happened before, is called Reunion. The group ranged from the semi-famous, like PayPal founder Max Levchin and Microsoft chief technology officer Kevin Scott, to the spectacularly promising, like Stanford junior Nancy Xu. There were a few panels, some company presentations, and a smattering of horseback rides and hikes in the afternoons. The retreat is the formal beginning of a new kind of institution, one that’s becoming increasingly popular among Silicon Valley’s elite and soon-to-be elite. It’s an ostensibly modern take on a very old idea: the social club.
This particular gathering is the brainchild of Ali Partovi, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor who is underwriting the trip through his new startup, Neo. Neo pairs a $37 million investment fund with an exclusive professional organization. Partovi thinks Neo can formalize the relationships between its members, and transform them into a network that helps everyone involved. He has cobbled together a crew that represents engineers at every career stage, from undergrads to billionaires. Like the Thiel Fellowship or the Kairos Society or even YCombinator, Neo will offer the students, or Neo Scholars, an obvious immediate foothold into the world they are just joining. But even more valuable, it will bring novel thinking and new talent to tech veterans who, like vampires, require a constant stream of youthful ideas to survive. The kind of intermingling that Neo provides will ensure Silicon Valley titans that they remain as significant to the next generation of tech companies as they’ve been to the last.
It’s also a very good way to get a first run at promising new investments by beginning relationships with startup founders early, before they’ve become founders. Partovi has just closed his fund, which his company will use to back startups. It was seeded by individuals, most of whom were Neo members; the Partovi twins made the largest contribution. Management fees will cover the costs of the three-person staff that will help Neo members connect throughout the year, plan the annual reunion, and handle investments. The hope is in connecting engineers to companies, Neo will get an early shot at investing in them. Already, one of Neo’s undergraduate members, an MIT student named Uma Roy, has elected to take an internship at a stealth startup run by a Neo member, Chris Hillar, thanks to an introduction Partovi made. Neo has invested in the startup, a company called Awecom.
More than most, Partovi understands the most valuable currency in Silicon Valley is not money, or even ideas. It’s relationships. His close-knit community has been a catalyst to his success. He and his twin brother, Hadi, studied computer science at Harvard; individually, they each helped start companies that sold to Microsoft. Together, they were early investors in Zappos, Facebook, Airbnb and Dropbox. They founded the social music service iLike, which they sold to MySpace in 2009, and then launched the nonprofit Code.org, which Hadi Partovi runs from Seattle. Their cousin is the current CEO of Uber. Name anyone in the business, and Ali Partovi has probably worked with her, invested in her, or is related to him.