21 thoughts on “Patterns & fallacies: Why they have no place in my Silicon Valley”

  1. Thanks for writing this. I was quite baffled by Paul Graham’s comments in the Inc. article, and could find no good way to explain it, especially coming from the 500startups program, where international founders are actively courted and welcomed. During pitch prep, the 500startups staff brought in a speech instructor and helped simplify the pitches so that everyone, regardless of accent and English proficiency, could deliver a 3 minute pitch that is clear and easy to understand. Turns out, it is not that hard compared to building a successful company.

  2. I feel sorry for Paul Graham and for his terrible mistake or may be narrow minded view, measuring people by accents.
    Please don’t forget that even if you are born somewhere in the USA, you will have an accent in another state (:-)).
    Success is not a function of accent and in fact a lot of the Silicon Valley successes is built by various accents owners. The numbers and the reality speak higher than opinions.

  3. Bravo. Another nostalgia moment, Om.

    I worked for a spell long ago in another universe called Louisiana. Moved there from New England. I couldn’t have sounded more different if I tried. Louisiana accents are soft and subtle – but distinctive.

    So, I put a sign up at the entrance to my work area, “DANGER! NORTH AMERICAN WILD YANKEE. Please do not feed.”

    Humor worked. Even with one co-worker who was a KKK member.

  4. Thanks Om. Having come from India, I brought my accent along. Before I came to the United States, I lived in a few countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and France) and in each country, I thought I should do something to change my accent but when I looked around, I saw that every other person had an accent too. Finally, I gave up on doing anything about it.

    Although I have not been directly affected by this, in my heart I know that some people find it difficult to understand what I am saying (especially when I am speaking in public) so I go out of my way to prepare a lot more – have compelling slides to help me get my point across, work on stories that will help clarify a point. In a way, having that limitation has made more more humble and prepare a lot more than someone who won’t have that problem.

    On a lighter note, I was at Inbound conference last week and heard Arianna Huffington speak. She addresses this topic right at the beginning of her keynote (please watch: 00:30 to 1:05) here:

    Thanks again.


  5. Om,

    I followed your twitter feed re: this topic and had a few light-hearted exchanges with Lydia Leong of Gartner re: this topic. Personally, I don’t (and hope others also don’t) think for a moment that PG is a racist, his essays reveal a deep level of thinking and ability to simplify complexity into a layman’s language.

    Communication is a fundamental principle of any human action, and it is imperative that people “communicate” effectively. However, communication is a 2-way street where the listener must also make a full effort to understand what is being communicated – verbally and non-verbally. In today’s hyper-connected world, people, especially VCs who hide behind ADD to justify poor etiquette – like checking emails, interrupting – need to stay grounded and pay attention to what is being communicated.

    Entrepreneurship isn’t a sole specialization of America or Americans, although the bulk of investors and investment money is focused on America. Everyone of us has a different identity and biases, and where PG needs to correct his position (attributed or otherwise) is in opening his mind to where his ilk can add value to the discussion instead of mindlessly discarding ideas, people and businesses based on surface level characteristics and assumptions.

    1. No one who ever says something totally clueless about brown people or how they speak is every really a racist, just misunderstood.

      Clueless about women who can’t take a little harmless flirting.

      Clueless about utterly inane startups receiving millions to launch yet another paradigm shifting me-too social portal while real businesses started by people who didn’t happen to go to Stanford can’t raise a nickle.

      Clueless is a 23 year old millionaire complaining about all the bothersome proles begging for food killing his caffeine buzz or perhaps god forbid putting a scratch on his Porsche.

      It’s about men and women with nothing more than the shirt on their backs (and the connections that come with an elite education) being freed from having to deal with people not like them mucking things up.

  6. Om,

    I’m on the fence about this one. I was lucky enough to come to the US at an age where I never developed an accent and spoke English as if it were my native language (albeit with a NY accent). At the same time, here in Germany, where I’ve lived for over 17 years I still to this day have a very heavy accent in German. Every native speaker immediately knows I am either from the US or the UK. Usually they presume UK as I am fairly fluent in German (more so the case for Brits than Americans in their minds).

    Anyway, my point is that I too was always aware of my accent. It was even heavier in the early days but I made an effort to remedy that. At the same time, I never considered going to a language course where someone would try to “get rid off” my accent. It defines me here in my role. Everyone knows I speak with this heavy accent in German (think Schwarzenneger’s English but in reverse back in Terminator days) and I made sure I am always comprehensible.

    It’s a fine line in terms of what Paul writes. Yes, one should never discriminate against a heavy accent when picking founders yet at the same time, if a founder doesn’t do his best to become “understandable”, where else is he lacking? I got the gist of what Paul wrote yet I can see where misinterpretation would be possible. At the same time, living the problem in another language I know what it means to “make it work” and technically, no one is held back (unless due to physical issues) from improving their accent. As a VC I always told entrepreneurs here in the EU that if they ever wanted to go to the US, they better speak understandable English or they are toast.

    1. Paul,

      Can you elaborate on the demographic for whom the founder should “become understandable”? Learning English (since English is the language referred to in PG’s interview) when one isn’t taught English starting from school-level takes a significant amount of effort later in life; developing an American-friendly accent comes off as insincere at worst and ineffective at best. People end up feeling like caricatures.

      I speak 4 languages, have tried my hand at learning Japanese, French and Spanish, and I know the struggle of learning a new language as an adult. Not impossible, but nowhere near native skill levels.

      Given this context of struggle with a language, should a founder invest in learning the nuances of English or focus on running his/her business?

      If I were to turn the tables on PG and his team, why don’t they learn Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese or Hindi in order to be the valuable advisors they claim to be?

      1. Yes Naveen, I can easily define the demographic: VC’s. All US VC’s (as well as most international VC’s) speak English (and many with accents). Further, that demographic includes customers. In the US you will mostly be speaking English when pitching your product. Hence “you want my money, you speak my language”. I didn’t say anything about “accent”. I said understandable English. By “understandable” I mean fairly correct grammar-wise and with a decent level of technical vocabulary.

        The argument that VC’s or customers should learn your language is ridiculous. It’s the US and the language is English. If you can’t pitch or get your point across, you are going to have a very difficult time. Hence as a VC and to help the entrepreneurs I was speaking to, I made sure they were prepared.

  7. a brilliant and great reminder for many of us. “… book by it’s cover”..? yeah, we all do that.

  8. Interesting article, Thank you @Om!

    As a US immigrant from Germany, I have an accent. Most people think it’s light but there are some people who just cannot understand a word I say.

    My point: “hard to understand accent” is a relative thing.

    Having said that, the ability to communicate effectively is important.



  9. Om,

    Even though I have lived in the US for 25 years, I still have a strong French accent.

    Some like it, some don’t. I don’t loose sleep over it.

    As you write, one is made aware of her/his accent when listening to a recording of their voice.

    Regarding language, we might be confusing 2 things here, accent and vocabulary, fluency.

    Coming from Europe (same must be true for people from India), I knew British English and had to learn differences with American English.

    Having lived in same state since I came to the US, for past few years, i introduce myself as ‘The French Guy from New Jersey’ which often breaks the ice.

    My 2 cents

    Serge (the Concierge)
    Twitter: @theconcierge

  10. Thanks for a great article Om. I am not in what context PG said that but definitely no entrepreneur wants to work with folks who cannot see world beyond accents. I am indian and i have been living in the bay area for the past 13 years. Though my startup failed i dont think it failed because of my heavy accent.
    People who think accent is a problem, please take a look at this presentation – http://hbr.org/2013/06/how-to-give-a-killer-presentation/

  11. ‘Accents’ are an additional burden that a huge number of immigrants bear – it silences them in public in a country where you need to speak up. I am of Indian origin, and have seens friends and family ignored when they speak to a policeman or give a public talk – most ordinary, unremarkable people seem to want to talk to people who talk like them, walk like them, wear shoes like them! Immigrants of all shades are too familiar with this story- the accented immigrant asks a question, the unremarkable American looks not at the speaker, but the person in the speaker’s group who most closely speak with an American accent, and it’s deja vu for the speaker – she/he is shut in deeper into his ethnic world once again. You know what I say, all accented speakers, smile and ask one more question, and then one more. Be heard and do speak up.

  12. Talib’s a good read, but for more in depth info on how and why we form biases, check out Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Kahneman’s a psychologist who won the nobel prize in economics for his work in prospect theory (how we make economic decisions). It’s an easy, incredibly interesting read that still informs the way I do, and think about business on a daily basis.

    1. Martin

      Thanks sharing that book. I have read it and it is as you say, quite amazing.

      Deeply appreciate you making the recommendation. If any others, I am all ears.

  13. Thanks for the insightful article Om. If Paul and YC pay attention (data) to accent and consider it as an indicator of who will succeed, how about gender, race and ethnicity? Where does it stop?

  14. Om, I think that folks mis-interpret what PG meant. He did not say that anyone with an accent will have a hard time – as long as you can communicate well. Which you can do even with an accent (many Indians, Europeans etc are great communicators with accented English). His point was that if you cannot communicate your point because of your heavy accent then you will have a harder time. (Actually even if you speak like a native American and cannot communicate your point, you will have a harder time)!!!

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