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March 14, 2013

Valley Girls

Silicon Valley's "intentional communities" are cutting-edge communal-living compounds where tech-titan wannabes launch companies from the living room couch, fund each other's startups, and seek to change the world. For a handful of brainy, ambitious women, they're also home.

people at a table

Photo Credit: Thomas Prior

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When Joanna Bresee, a brown-haired, hazel-eyed 26-year-old, arrived at 21677 Rainbow Drive in Cupertino, California, last April to meet six prospective roommates for dinner, she was nervous. The accomplished group of scientists and entrepreneurs, ages 23 to 34, living in Rainbow Mansion — a sprawling 5,000-square-foot Spanish-tiled house perched on a hill overlooking Silicon Valley — was intimidating, she says. She'd taken care to arrive early and immediately pitched in to help prepare the house's order of farm-share vegetables for a big communal meal. The conversation flowed freely, and "at first, it was casual and friendly," says Bresee, a recent Pittsburgh transplant. Then one of the roommates, a development lead at Google, turned to her and asked abruptly, "So, what do you care about?" It was very "let's get to the meat of this," says Bresee, a former researcher at NASA who is now a user experience designer at Microsoft. But it wasn't unexpected.

A week earlier, she'd spent days mulling over answers to the six-question house application one of the roommates had e-mailed her. "It asked basic things like, 'Have you lived with people before?' but also, 'What books would you bring to our library?' and, 'What do you want to do to affect the world?'" recalls Bresee, who learned of the open spot in the house from a female friend who worked at the space-exploration company SpaceX and was moving out. Bresee mentioned Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow in her response. Now, looking at the expectant faces of the group, she recounted an experience visiting an 80-something family friend in a nursing home where this formerly vivacious woman sat alone with a TV blaring. "It seemed like a design problem, like we could create better environments for people" near the ends of their lives, Bresee told the group. When they offered her the spot, she wondered if group living was really for her. Would household noise keep her awake at night? Ultimately, she jumped at the chance to find out. "I was excited and relieved," says Bresee of the day she moved in. "I could envision myself there."

Much like the Palo Alto house in The Social Network — where Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker grew Facebook from an unknown startup to an online behemoth, and which famously included a zip line across the pool — Rainbow Mansion is part of a new crop of about a dozen technology-focused live-work communities scattered throughout the area. (Another was featured on Bravo's Start-Ups: Silicon Valley, produced by Zuckerberg's sister Randi Zuckerberg.) The houses' personalities vary. Some are hard-core into startups, while others are convivial, with a flair for hosting social events. But the inhabitants — smart and idealistic, ranging in age from late teens to mid-30s, and, until recently, almost all guys — come in search of the freewheeling, no-holds-barred environment, where local tech superstars mingle with Valley newbies and unbridled entrepreneurialism is the order of the day. Collaborative living is a tradition familiar to the Bay Area, from the Haight-Ashbury to the Esalen alternative residential community. But this time, the new captains of industry are leading the charge, and as the rest of Silicon Valley hustles to create the Next Big IPO, these intentional communities foster lucrative business relationships and connections; roommates and former roommates collaborate on startups, swap valuable contacts, and fund one another's ventures. In addition to professional capital, though, the houses provide a nurturing environment where friends form familial bonds. And who wouldn't want to be part of a family that, for fun, is taking apart an old SGI Onyx super computer and turning it into an automated drink-mixing-and-dispensing machine controlled by an iPad? Or that shares a cofounder with a ranch in Costa Rica, La Choza, where roommates can undertake community projects, like building houses for locals? At Rainbow Mansion, there's even a biology lab and workshop in the garage where residents incubate ideas like underwater robots and unmanned aerial vehicles controlled via mobile phone.

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