Square Biz: The Silicon Valley Hustle of Tristan Walker, VP of Biz Dev at FourSquare

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It’s interesting that you switched from oil trading to tech. When people think of Stanford, they think of a very tech-centered business program. How did you come about being interested in tech? You knew you didn’t like trading, but you could have done anything else.

It really doesn’t matter the industry to me. As long as it’s innovative, I’ll do anything from tech to a new type of toilet bowl. If it’s interesting and innovative I will become an expert. That’s truly how I feel. At the time, I was like, ”I’ll figure out some oil trading.” But when I came out to the Bay, I signed up for a Twitter account and I got it right away: this thing is going to be immensely powerful for the masses. I wanted to learn everything I could about this product. I got the opportunity to work [at Twitter] and learn more about it. At the time I began to think more and more about tech in general.

Growing up in New York the only kind of entrepreneurship that you hear about, whether it’s consumer goods, or apparel, were hard tangible goods. I never learned about this meta intangible texting. The amount of wealth out here? I thought that stuff only existed on Wall Street. But, depending on where you are and what you’ve done [in Silicon Valley], you can be 25 years old and surpass people who have been on Wall Street for 30 years.

Most importantly, it’s totally meritocratic out here. Maybe it’s just the location I’m in and people being so liberal, but the great thing about it is that no one underestimates anyone else. You could walk down the street, and you could be a billionaire and nobody would know. Whereas in New York you pretty much can tell who has made it and who hasn’t. So that’s why people don’t underestimate others out here, which I appreciate.

But back to your question. If making airplanes were an innovative industry in Silicon Valley, and it were interesting to me, I would have tried to learn as much as I could. I’m industry agnostic, but I’m partial towards great ideas.

How was it doubling as a grad student and a startup exec?

It sucks. I would not recommend it ever. Fortunately my timing was right. I’m in my second year about to graduate. Foursquare really didn’t get out of control until February or March of this year. So by that time it would have been stupid to leave school. So I just had to embrace it.

I’m doing 60-70 hrs a week at FourSquare, then still did the full time school thing. One thing that I realized, particularly in business school, is there are only three things you can focus on: academics, professional, and social. At any one time you can do two well, period. For me it was just academic and professional, and I knew that had to come at the sacrifice of a social life. So my social life hasn’t been as great as it could have been. But I’m ok with that because I recognized it early on. When you layer that on with my being married—I certainly have to spend time towards that as well. There are certainly some sacrifices. But it’s been great. I’m learning things in real time and applying them to school and vice versa. But it’s hard, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Why not take a leave of absence?

I felt I had something to prove. Stanford has a quasi-history of people who take leaves of absence after the first year. People have been successful when they’ve done it. For me, my first year had already passed. There were people who tried to convince me to leave school. But I thought, I can handle it. So let me see if I can and be some sort of shining light to others who may decide to do this at some point in the future. I kind of owed it to my wife to see it through. I brought her all the way across the country. I didn’t want to get all reckless again. I just wanted to finish. I spent a lot of money to do so, and I was learning a lot, and I had a lot to learn, so I wanted to go the entire way. And as long as I thought I could do it, I was going to do it. For me to drop out 3 months before my graduation? There’s nothing cool about that.

What’s next for you now that grad school is over?

FourSquare. Just more of it. I’m going to stay in the Bay Area. I’m just going to have more free time now that school is out, but it will be more of the same.

What are your thoughts about diversity in the tech space? I’ve observed the space for a while, and the comments I hear form my peers are that they don’t see a lot of people of color founding or managing startups. Most of the time the questions are, why aren’t there more people of color?

I think [diversity] is lacking in a very big way. A goal of mine is to help change that. A long-term goal of mine is to really help folks that were in my position who didn’t know much about the Silicon Valley game. I want to work to educate them on what this thing has to offer.

Potentially, one day I’d like to do my own angel investing solely for minorities. I think [the reason for the lack of diversity] is not so much discrimination but a lack of education. If folks of color could be educated on what this stuff does have to offer, then I think we will be put in an [empowering] position. There’s still some work to do. Hopefully in 5-10 years it will be different.

Our kids will be growing up in a new digital age. Look at Twitter’s [user composition] now. We’re dominating, which hasn’t been surprising to me. What’s surprising is nobody has been recognizing it and doing anything about it. But it’s up to us to recognize that stuff and make it appeal to the masses, because some day it will.

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Liz Burr is a new media consultant with Lizhini Media, specializing in advising startups and creating engaging experiences online.

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