21 Comments

Summary:

If history has taught us anything, then the line between patterns and fallacies is nearly invisible. In a place where we talk about inventing the future, the patterns (or fallacies) of the past can prove to be counterproductive and create unnecessary biases.

At the start of every day I make myself three promises — I will limit the amount sugar I consume, have little or no salt and whatever I do, I will not let my preconceived notions come in the way of learning. I am successful about half the time, but rest of the time I am faced with my own limitations and weaknesses. A scone here, a little curry there, and of course, looking back into the past and making a snap judgement about something in the future — such as my inability to grok Vine.

The fact is that we use patterns we have seen throughout our lives and we start to draw conclusions based on those patterns. As we grow older, we accumulate more data in our brains and as a result to start to rely on the patterns generated by that data more and more. As a result, we often find ourselves unable to recognize change, embrace change or realize that something might actually be different than what came before it.

paulgraham_240x3203And the patterns we rely on lead to physiological biases — a concept that Naseem Nicholas Taleb explored in his Black Swan Theory. A simpler way of explaining that is if you walk looking backward, you are more than likely to run into a pole, a tree or a car. And while I don’t mean to discount the pattern recognition, I would say we should think of it — at best — as an ephemeral yardstick of accumulated wisdom.

So why am I talking about patterns? Because I read this interview of Paul Graham, who started YCombinator, a startup incubator based in Mountain View, California. He told the Inc magazine the following:

One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I’m not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can’t if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it’s a strong pattern we’ve seen.

Graham, who made a similar observation in a story in the New York Times, later tweeted to clarify that what he meant was that accents “so strong that people can’t understand them. It’s fine if founders merely have accents.”

Accented nuances

Paul and YCombinator have backed many successful companies that are headed by people with accents. I also understand that what he told Inc magazine (and the New York Times earlier) was a factual observation from the data collected and had the context of nuance. When he made those comments to the media, he was talking about the negative influence of accents from the context of Demo Days.

But unless you know the context or nuance of Graham’s observation, this observation quickly becomes a fact in our age of instant amplification and in the process create unwarranted biases, which ultimately eat away at the meritocratic foundations of Silicon Valley. Sure, a heavy accent can make things difficult to understand in a 2-minute pitch on a demo day in a room full of venture capitalists — most with some form of ADD. In this hot house, if you can’t communicate your vision properly, then your chances of success are less than stellar.

The inability to communicate is merely not an issue of difficult-to-understand accents but also includes the inability to articulate your idea, stage fright or simply social awkwardness. They are all going to cause communication problems with investors, employees and even in real-world relationships.

Think of it this way: If YC is the best-way router of startups and innovation, and if investors flock to demo days because they believe Graham and Co. have identified the best options, then it doesn’t matter if you have a Skype or a Tidemark — you might get left out because you have an accent. That to me makes no sense. But if a two-minute pitch on a demo day is defining the candidate selection process, then perhaps there is a need to change the lens through which we view the world.

Whenever we talk about accents, race or gender, I was reminded of that scene from Moneyball, when Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane — after having lost Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen — is sitting in a room with his scouts. The scouts are talking about various players and one of them says, “He passes the eye candy test. He’s got the looks, he’s great at playing the part. He just needs to get some playing time.”

Those baseball experts were falling back on fallacies — arguments that sounded good even though facts stated otherwise. And so will Silicon Valley if we don’t constantly question the patterns themselves. Just because you hit the ball out of the park three times in a row doesn’t mean the fourth swing will also result in a home run.

Silicon Valley & The Scent of Money

Innovation is a universal language

In my Silicon Valley (which is a symbiosis of an idea and an ideal and not a physical landmass), an accent is not a barrier to entry to innovation and or a measure of one’s entrepreneurial ability. Andy Grove, the legendary chief executive of Intel and a Hungarian by birth, has an accent. Andy Bechtolsheim, who hails from Germany and started Sun Microsystems and more recently created Arista Networks, has a mild accent. And so do Vinod Khosla (Sun, Khosla Ventures) and Jayshree Ullal (Arista Networks.) How about Arianna Huffington and the founders of Zoosk — Alex Mehr and Shayan Zadeh? What did their accents sound like when they were starting out — like they do today? Maybe, maybe not.

Arista's Andy Bechtolsheim at GigaOM RoadMap 2011

They all have accents — which is just a euphemism for voices that sound different from how we believe people should sound. “There is an enormous amount of information carried in the accent and the prosody of human speech,” my friend Steve Crandall wrote to me last night, pointing out that while we might be comfortable with watching animated characters, we still want human accents instead of computer-generated voices. Accents add texture to our world.

Then, perhaps, what is being viewed as a pattern is nothing more than a fallacy, in other words a misguided pattern of reasoning and nothing more. What really is an accent? I mean everyone speaks with an accent. Accents are what make us unique. In our post-internet connected world, we are all locals and all foreigners — somewhere. When I talk to my colleagues, I have an Indian accent. When I am in India, my family thinks I have an American accent.

I think a lot of people who speak differently from a group don’t quite realize that they have an accent. I often argue with my mum or my colleagues that I don’t have an accent — or at least that voice in my head doesn’t think I have an accent. Just a simple act of listening to my own podcasts is good enough to show my inner voice — I sound different than I think.

An interconnected world without borders

The issue of accents is highly personal for me. In the early days as an immigrant in my new homeland, I found my attempts at getting interviews with media organizations ended abruptly mostly because people found me, my name and my accent strange. I guess I was different than others. Then one day, I learned of a job I desperately wanted. After about a few dozen messages and many faxed resumes later, Forbes.com founding editor David Churbuck thought that my accent wasn’t that strange after all and hired me. Those early rejections prepared me for one thing — not taking no for an answer. Adversity is and will always be a self-selecting process.

That one chance changed my life. We need to take a chance — on the weird, the crazy, the funny sounding and odd looking — they just might change the status quo. The fact of the matter is that it is not the entrepreneurs who should be rejected based on their accents, but instead it should be investors.

After all, if an investor who doesn’t have a few extra minutes to understand a founder who might be different will also be unable to find compassion and empathy when the shit does hit the fan. How can you take any investor seriously if instead of focusing on technical prowess and power of the mind, they have a bias against how you look, what gender you belong to and how you speak. Why have a bias against couples as founders?

There is one pattern which has mattered in Silicon Valley in the past — a pattern of brilliance. And it is the only pattern that should matter — everything else is just a fallacy.

Update: Paul Graham on Friday, August 29 elaborated on what he meant when talking to the reporter.

  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.

    Share
    1. Where there is a problem there is a solution, as long as people want to find a way to solve that problem. Thanks for your comment, Eran

      Share
  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.

    Share
  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.

    Share
  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.

    Rajesh

    Share
  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.

    Share
    1. Richard Bottoms Tuesday, September 3, 2013

      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.

      Share
  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.

    Share
    1. Naveen Venkataraman Thursday, August 29, 2013

      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?

      Share
      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.

        Share
  7. John Saddington Thursday, August 29, 2013

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

    Share
  8. Natascha Thomson Thursday, August 29, 2013

    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.

    Best,

    Natascha

    Share
  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

    Share
  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/

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post