Further thoughts on founders & accents

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.

A letter from Om

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