Love, Silicon Valley style, returns to earth

DURING one incredible month in its dotcom heyday, Silicon Valley was minting 64 millionaires every day, many young and mostly male. It was a heady frontier of newfound gold, a realm of fast profits and fast people.

The San Francisco Bay Area, by media accounts, was a bachelorette's dream – "The Valley of the Guys." Palo Alto boasted 36 percent more men than women. Magazines and Internet sites profiled male tech magnates in all their Palm-Pilot splendor, inviting women to drool over "Hunks of the Web."

But when the dotcom bubble deflated, hot air left the singles scene, too. Gone are the Gatsby-esque parties and use of job titles as pickup lines. In the wake of dotcom breakups, many singles are trying harder to build long-term relationships in their personal lives. Men are less arrogant, women less choosy.

The saga of courtship here, in America's capital of new wealth, is a parable of the cultural excesses that can accompany sudden riches – and the realignment that results when wide-eyed dreams collapse.

While the tale reflects wider societal trends, it is also a window on the unique culture of America's high-tech entrepreneurs in this bucolic region of sun-bathed hills and tinted-glass software factories.

Clearly, in the domain of love, this area has clicked onto a whole new URL.

Thanks to company shutdowns, Palo Alto – the erstwhile mecca of masculinity – is now just 49 percent male.

But bigger than any numerical adjustment is the shift in mood.

It's evident at City Tavern, a mecca for 20-somethings in San Francisco's ritzy Marina district. Gianni Arnoldi, who has worked behind the U-shaped bar for five years, recalls the frenzied social scene. Swaggering dotcomers, with exuberance matched by narcissism, often approached romance as another adventure in capitalism, he says. "Guys would say, 'I work for this company, this is how much money I'm making, this is what I'm driving' – and that's what the girls would gravitate to."

Today, several Nasdaq nosedives later, the bravado is gone.

The protocol of courtship is not to ask someone what they do – but if they work. And if they don't, "there's no stigma," says Andrew Stern, a 20-something employed at San Francisco's Bang Networks. "How your company's going to take over the world is no longer something you talk about "

And fancy dinners? So 1995. "There's not the same cachet to being a dotcom CEO or a director of business development," continues Stern, himself a director of business development.

Values – not BMWs

Personal ads have also undergone a sea change – or at least an e-change – growing more numerous and more humble. Where ads in the late 1990s hinted at expensive lifestyles, today's wishlists are "more down to earth," says Craig Newmark, who runs the San Francisco online community Craigslist.org. Increasingly, he says, the personals refer to "old-fashioned values," or wanting to "start out as friends."

Julie Paiva of Table for Six, a San Francisco matchmaking club for "elite singles," also sees a dramatic value shift. She says the men she interviews now have wishlists emphasizing personality – and mothering skills. It's no longer "someone who's 5-foot, 8-inches and 120 pounds," or "someone who looks good on my arm when I go to ... benefits."

And where women once demanded men with impeccable social skills, they're now focusing on "his values, if he's interested in family" – and are more open to "nerds."

Since tech stocks tumbled, Paiva's business has soared. And since the crash, she says, clients "freeze" memberships far more often – meaning they've found serious partners, and are taking a break from singles events.

Marriages, indeed, are on the rise. Between the "boom time" of 1997-1999 and the bust of 2000-2001, the number of marriage licenses issued annually in Santa Clara County leapt 19 percent.

Suddenly, bended knees

Apparently, even as start-ups found it exponentially harder to get funding after "black April," men found it easier to propose.

Ravi Bellur's startup folded in August 2000. Within a year, four of the original six men had married, and a fifth had proposed. "With the start-up over, the way that so many of them proposed ... within months of each other, was uncanny," he says.

Granted, the shift to commitment was sometimes less than romantic. "One guy told a woman, 'You're my new start-up' – and she liked it,' " says Po Bronson, author of "The Nudist on the Late Shift" and "The First 20 Million is Always the Hardest," both set in Silicon Valley. Still, he says, many people are pouring the energy that used to go into 100-hour workweeks into cultivating relationships.

But if the race to the altar has quickened, the pace of life in general has slowed – a trend reflected in the trappings of the singles scene.

Lavish tables laden with caviar and sushi have made way for mashed potatoes and bread, and cookies have replaced petits fours and tiny frosted cakes, observes Valerie Britt, executive director and founder of The A-List, a newsletter about Bay Area galas. Events once set in plush rooms with famous bands have moved to more humble settings, with local bands or DJs.

So what, exactly, has disappeared? The word that comes up most often is "entitlement."

"There were absurd expectations of what companies would do in terms of profitability," recalls local entrepreneur Garth Patil. "Similarly, there were absurd expectations of what one was entitled to – a good-looking man or woman in the Valley, with a lot of potential."

Newfound masculinity

For all its dynamism, the tech world is a bastion of male wealth. As of 2000, women entrepreneurs received just 2.3 percent of venture-capital dollars, and of the 100 highest-paid Silicon Valley execs, only nine were women.

With men dominating tech jobs and tech wealth, the industry boom – and dating hype – accentuated stereotypes: wealthy nerd bachelors versus gold-digging women. Locals pointed derisively to the "bridge and tunnel" set – East Bay women who prowled in "banker bars."

In some cases, transportation involved wings, not wheels.

In the winter of 2001, for example, a man invited Nhi Nguyen to Las Vegas. He sent a private plane to pick her up, and got Ms. Nguyen, a channel manager for Nocpulse, her own villa at the Bellagio Hotel – complete with private pool and personal wait staff.

Pundits have compared the frenetic dotcom culture to a wartime mobilization, as throngs of young men poured in to take up engineering and business jobs in high-tech's trenches.

For Patil, who dropped out of Stanford University to join the fray, the new masculinity was a boon. "I was never a stud in high school – and I all of a sudden became popular among women for these nerdy things, business and technology.... It was like stardom."

Upgrade mentality

He describes an "upgrade" mentality, analogous to the way programmers and engineers hopped between jobs. Enchanted with quick success, and used to high-tech's flux, singles often weren't seeking long-term relationships.

That easy-come, easy-go atmosphere – intoxicating to some – fed an anxious scene. Skewed sex ratios raised the competition.

With almost everyone short on time, formal courtship went the way of typewriters. One San Francisco Safeway, famous for its pick-up scene, was christened the "Dateway" by locals.

That isn't to say that no one sought a soul mate before the crash of 2000, or that singles here no longer care about money.

Indeed, to Rich Gosse, chairman of San Rafael-based American Singles, motivations of love in the Valley are the same as those on any of the six continents he serves. "The one thing a woman will not tolerate in a man is a lack of money," he declares.

With that in mind, Mr. Gosse held his annual dating convention in Palo Alto two years ago, and offered women a money-back guarantee that they'd meet at least one good man. Women crossed oceans to be there that November weekend. Of 1,000 guests, only 30 demanded a refund.

On the flip side, some professional women found Valley pickings slim – and the hauteur of new money revolting. "We all had our own money, [so] the lure of a guy with a big bank account completely diminished," says Hilary Folger, a product manager at San Francisco's LookSmart.

She suspects the search for money may have intensified as cash grew scarce. But today, uncertain dotcomers have for the most part changed their courtship tune, looking for someone to cling to when the market heads south. "If you put your time and energy into a person," Ms. Folger says, "there's at least some chance that you can control whether or not it survives."

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