It's hard to explain Drue Kataoka. There's the hair. The intimate spiritual moments with aged Silicon Valley dons. And this new music video about net neutrality, co-starring Facebook fameballer Randi Zuckerberg. Think of Kataoka, perhaps, as Silicon Valley's Julia Allison.
Not merely Julia Allison come the Valley, but a Jullia Allison only the Valley could breed; a fameball selling California's tech-money nexus on the notion it can turn its business ethos into a spiritual conscience. For attention-hungry Zuckerberg, the mildly political video above is just another in a series of high-profile lip dubs; for venture capitalist Tim Draper, another chance to clown. Kataoka, though, describes herself as a "Silicon Valley artist," and seems determined in certain scenes to elevate the clip into something of a performance piece.
Art and spirituality are, in fact, key to how Kataoka sells herself in the Valley. She is, on the most basic level, a blogger and Web entrepreneur, like virtually everyone else in the California tech enclave. Kataoka even attempted to hit her wedding guests up for free venture capital. But her ValleyZen blog offers big shots something special: the rare chance to blather on about their inner philosophy and intricate belief systems.
They leap at the chance. In one of four videos, Draper hugs and dances with Kataoka; book publisher Tim O'Reilly gives her a tour of his treehouse at home in Sebastopol; TV host Charlie Rose and Tesla CEO Elon Musk consent to backstage interviews.
The archetype for a ValleyZen sit-down is the one Kataoka did with her partner in the venture, uber attorney Bill Fenwick, who counts Apple Inc. among his clients.
Fenwick pitches Zen Buddhism as excellent preparation for corporate battle. With militaristic East Asian music in the background, he says:
There is an awful lot of similarity between the principles of Zen and what happens in a battle... If you can get enough people... to find commonality, you've got a force that's going to have to be reckoned with.
Kataoka also touts the practical benefits of Zen for venture capitalists:
It's a composure, a poised kind of calm that would allow to innovate and create and think of new ideas.
Innovation is not exactly a traditional religious selling point. But the dubious repurposing of Eastern religions into corporate strategy is hardly new, either; like Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has taken to using Sun Tzu's Art of War as a tactical business manual.
Kataoka is the perfect icon for this sort of awkward fusion. In a region overloaded with computer scientists and MBAs — men obsessed with numbers and code — there's something deliciously off-kilter about a "classical and jazz flutist" who claims "Japanese Samurai heritage" and specializes in a "2000 year-old art form of Japanese brush painting." She's drawn cover artwork for Wynton Marsalis, completed a commissioned portrait of 49ers Coach Bill Walsh and done extensive work for Stanford University. In fact, according to a student who attended the college in the late 1990s, her work became comically ubiquitous:
She... somehow managed to wrangle some deal doing art for the vast majority of official Stanford posters. So... every time you'd get a flyer for like homecoming or something, it'd look as though you were being invited to formal tea in Kyoto. It was weird.
"Drue does a really good job balancing funky and classic pieces. Her signature sleek '20s-style bob, bright red lipstick, and matching nail polish always make a statement, and she clearly isn't afraid to stand out."
Brush strokes, music, fashion, Zen: Everyone in Silicon Valley wishes they were this eclectic. The Bay Area man is supposed to be a renaissance man; it is not enough to be merely a venture capitalist or a programmer or a journalist, one should also be a rock-climbing, spiritually involved yoga instructor with a quirky electronic pop band on the side. Hence the local obsession with the annual hippie drug and art fest that is Burning Man.
If you feel like something of a let down in this regard, well, why not look to Kataoka and ValleyZen? In New York, where attention is worshipped via the media industry, those feeling insufficiently self promotional can look to the high priestess of fameballing, Julia Allison. In the Valley, where long hours coding or selling so often conflict with the eclectic ideal, Kataoka sells instead a facade of well-roundedness, with Pacific Century Asian flare to boot. And, soothing music and talk of Zen aside, she does so just as aggressively as her East Coast counterpart.