A comment about “founders and their accents” by YCombinator’s Paul Graham in Inc. magazine, led to a minor brouhaha earlier this week. Graham, today went on to elaborate further on his comments to Inc magazine in an essay. His original comments (were also made to the New York Times earlier this year) promoted me to write, Patterns, Fallacies and why they have no place in my Silicon Valley.
This (accents) is and will always be a deeply personal issue for me. Argument I made in my piece from earlier this week still stands, regardless of Graham’s elaboration, which is just that — an elaboration and it totally misses the point of why people like me, LA-based venture capitalist Mark Suster and seasoned technology executive Nilofer Merchant were really dealing with the issue of conflating accents and capabilities.
“We have a lot of empirical evidence that there’s a threshold beyond which the difficulty of understanding the CEO harms a company’s prospects. And while we don’t know exactly how, I’m pretty sure the problem is not merely that investors have trouble understanding the company’s Demo Day presentation,” Graham writes in his essay today.
Empirical evidence according to Wikipedia definition is “evidence is a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation or experimentation.” It is a good (though debatable) approach in scientific experiments, but when used to make judgments about peoples (especially if you don’t have a clear explanation for your own beliefs) then it is really worrisome. When an empirical observation is passed out as wisdom, all it does is set up a dangerous precedent and such thinking only reinforces certain canned beliefs and propagates fallacies as truths and maxims.
If folks want to help founders with accents or other disadvantages, then let’s find ways to help them and not rule them out because there is an arbitrary 2-minute-30-second rule. A speech expert can help and so can other experts — as a talent scout, your job is to find the best talent.
I don’t Yankees ever thought even for a minute that they shouldn’t pay top dollars for Hideki Matsui because he didn’t speak English or couldn’t communicate to the Steinbrenner family in English. All that mattered — he could hit home runs. Hell, he didn’t speak the language and still got endorsement deals from US companies.
Either way, I don’t think, accent is the only gating factor in communicating effectively — sometimes words spoken in plain unaccented New England english are also open for misinterpretation (as the recent brouhaha has shown) and thus requiring a need for better elaboration. Whether they communicate the point, is again debatable.
5 thoughts on “Further thoughts on founders & accents”
Hello Om. It’s usually about the group doing the recruiting: people recruit in their own image. If they take ‘image’ to include characteristics/attributes, then accent may not necessarily be a factor. If there is an unofficial policy of recruiting from the same perceived social class, accent may come into play. But if companies continue along the trend of recruiting solely in their own image, they will suffer from a lack of diversity and vigour. The comfort zone has a price.
In sports, managers tend to recruit for performance and skill sets. They’d also be looking for someone with the right balance of personality traits who can fit into a team. But if they get a particularly talented player with the wrong dynamic in his/her personality, there may not be a good fit. Similarly in the workplace: it can be hard to accommodate talent.
It appears, in PG’s observations, accent were the singular (or primary) reason for CEOs not able to communicate effectively. He observed, “You have to go far down the list to find a C.E.O. with a strong foreign accent.” And so, he concludes, from his “lot of empirical evidence” that “One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent.”
But then, he declines on twitter.. says, no accent isnt primary reason. https://twitter.com/paulg/status/373497761108213760 So I am confused why he didnt point out other non-accent reasons of not being able to communicate.
I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but I suspect PG was merely sharing a raw correlation data point he thought was appropriate for the interview. He wasn’t fully portraying a weighted perspective on YC’s positive and negative indicators, so I don’t think it’s strange that the story only covered this one anecdote. It was a new / potentially interesting perspective he is uniquely privy to, and was helpful to prospective founders (since his original comment indicates he sees accent as something under a person’s control to change). In his essay, he claims he said this was one of many factors included, but that quote wasn’t included in the final article. http://paulgraham.com/accents.html
That said, his data is from a pre-selected population. Ranking YC companies by valuation would give you YC companies already “penalized” (whether fairly or not is outside the scope of this point) for this kind of strong accent. Thus, strong accents in this dataset would already be more difficult to find. He might have recognized that his off-hand remarks are others’ canon, and a topic so race-adjacent might warrant more clarity.
Finally, I don’t know that Matsui is a great example of your point. In fact, he may be the opposite. He’s an example of fantastic talent whose job doesn’t entail much communication at all. He needs enough english (or a translator) to cover the basics, then it’s all reading pitches and putting the ball where it needs to be. That sounds more like a rockstar individual contributor than a startup founder to me. There is certainly room for someone like this on a founding team, but it seems reasonable that it would be a negative indicator in general. It would then be left to the many other signals to make an educated funding decision for each specific case. (eg. id Software needed Carmack, who by all accounts rarely communicates at all).
I agree with your comment: “If folks want to help founders with accents or other disadvantages, then let’s find ways to help them … ”
The pool of potential talent who can effectively take the reins of a startup is already modest in size, taking into account not only smarts and expertise, but intangibles like “will to win.” It’s crazy to further reduce this unique pool of talent because of diction.
Anyone who lets themselves be limited by Graham’s anecdotal analysis is letting themselves and what they might work to create – be limited. Period. Too many parallels to other petty points of discrimination to deserve more than rejection.
Wash your hands afterwards.
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