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.
And 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.”
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.
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.
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.