The names of the tech workers in this story have been changed.
Ten thousand miles from Silicon Valley, in a room near the Black Sea, Yegor Karpenchekov dreams of money. At night, while the rest of Odessa sleeps and cocaine smugglers drift in and out of the port under cover of darkness, Yegor logs onto FaceTime and talks to a 70-year-old woman in San Francisco. Her name is Sally Faubion, and five months ago she recruited Yegor from the freelancer marketplace UpWork to code her apps. She believes "divine intervention" brought them together; for Yegor, it was likely $20 per hour and the promise of steady work.
Before hiring Yegor, Faubion asked for his birth date. "I never work with anyone unless I read their chart first," she told him.
Which is how Yegor learned that his new employer is a numerologist who makes her living reading birth charts over the phone. Faubion's website describes her as "one of those rare happy spirits the American dream was built around" — and she has the airbrushed headshots to prove it. Her roster of 1,700 clients includes employees from Apple and Genentech, all of whom want to know what their futures hold. Although Faubion doesn't consider herself a psychic, her talents include preternatural insight into strangers' destinies.
The apps Faubion has hired Yegor to make are not so much a sideline business as the spinning-off of her gifts into a lucrative new market: Search for "numerology" on iTunes and you'll turn up nearly 300 apps; search for "astrology" and it's more than 1,200. Sally Faubion Concepts — headquartered in a studio apartment in Lower Nob Hill — has already rolled out Forecast Wheel, whose prophetic roulette spits out fortunes such as "your financial and social status will improve when you marry"; Meaning of House Numbers, which reveals a house's prime selling or purchasing price; and Cosmic Mates, the crown jewel of the lot, which for $3.99 teaches people the "secrets of [their] personality and destiny."
"I call myself the Dr. Phil of numerology because I'm so incredibly honest and forthright," Faubion says. "I help people, and if I didn't help people I would never stay with this. The money isn't that great. You have to hustle, and I don't like hustling."
For Yegor, living in a city made occasionally symphonic by the bombs of pro-Russian separatists, hustling is a fact of life. To quote an old Ukrainian proverb: "The devil always takes back his gifts" — so you'd better make bank while you can.
That proverb could be San Francisco's slogan. Ever since the Gold Rush a century and a half ago, the city has weathered legendary boom-and-bust cycles. The '90s dot-com bubble was perhaps the climax of the Bay Area's gaudy triumphalism, and its implosion 15 years ago still haunts San Francisco and Sand Hill Road. As recently as this month, Wells Fargo's chief economist cautioned San Franciscans to "put some money aside in the piggy bank." And David Sze, managing partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners, told Bloomberg TV, "I think there's not a lot of fear. There's just a lot of belief and not a lot of fear. And those are, you know, worrisome times, and can be dangerous if unchecked."
Doomsaying has become as unsatisfying a pastime as wondering when the drought will end.
Maybe it's no surprise, then, that many tech workers in San Francisco turn to psychics for a glimpse of the future. Or that psychics, in turn, are rebranding themselves as spiritual therapists, executive coaches, and corporate counselors. The trend is common enough to be spoofed on HBO's Silicon Valley, where the show's fictional tech CEO confers with a spiritual guru. Meanwhile, real-life tech execs are increasingly candid about their spiritual hygiene: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff endorses yoga; LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner advocates mindful meditation; and the late Steve Jobs, a student of Buddhism, was mentored by a Zen priest.
The San Francisco Yellow Pages list 128 psychics and mediums in the city; there are 141 listings for astrologers (with some overlap between the categories). In the Bay Area at large, psychics are keen to cash in on tech's spiritual awakening.
Nicki Bonfilio is one of those psychics. "I have many clients from Salesforce, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Zynga, Microsoft, and Cisco," she says. We're sitting in her office in the Mission. The room is small and luminous, with white shag carpet, and white furniture, and a view of Twin Peaks glazed with white light. The decor is multicultural, as though set-dressed by a producer uncertain of her audience: a Buddha, framed pictures of the Orient, a glass Anubis. Nobody wears shoes in here.
At 45, Bonfilio has the demeanor of someone recently deprogrammed from a cult. She's serene but formal, and lithe from years of serious yoga. Her white cotton shirt matches the furniture. She refers to herself as an intuitive rather than a psychic, suggesting that the latter evokes images of "a crystal ball and a palm in the window." Hers is no amateur storefront.
"I'm a seer, and I'm also clairaudient, which means I can hear things on a different level," she says. In other words, she can read your mind.
When Bonfilio was 5, she says, an apparition of St. Francis visited her in the backyard of her family's Mill Valley home. That kicked off a childhood procession of phantom colors and 3D shapes levitating in midair. When she was 13, she experienced something like "an explosion from the inside out" — a firework in the brain that uncorked her extrasensory gifts.
"It was like going from slight color to HD," Bonfilio says. "Everything was suddenly so vivid and clear."
Bonfilio hid her talents and went about charting a traditional adult life. After earning a degree in psychology, she fell into accounting, working mostly with restaurants in the Bay Area and occasionally as a corporate controller. Still, she couldn't quell her visions. After she warned a close friend of his potentially fatal tumor — a warning confirmed by an MRI — she decided to quit accounting and do intuitive counseling full time.