At the age of 13 I was a geeky outsider, and online life (BBSes in that pre-Internet age) allowed me to find the first tribe of people that I really related to. It was that little band of outsiders that got me into coding, hacking, design, and startups. In my first experiences with the online world no one knew your race, age, gender, or really anything except for your ability to make words, code, or art.
Silicon Valley thrives and survives because it is a meritocracy, perhaps the most inclusive place in the world. Years ago Paul Graham wrote a piece on “Cities and Ambition” that still resonates with me. His premise was that every major city has a culture with a prevailing value: Cambridge, MA values how smart you are above all else, LA values fame, NY values money, etc. For me the best version of silicon valley has the embodiment of that early online community; valuing what you could make above all else.
But that’s not the only silicon valley.
Chamath wrote a provocative piece this week (“Bros Funding Bros”) that underneath its sensationalism resonated strongly. The worst version of silicon valley is a Hollywood-like club of insiders where you are on the career track from Stanford to high-growth-startup-of-the-month to Y-Combinator and beyond. It’s hard not to think of VC dinners I’ve been at where I had the oddest name in the room, and there wasn’t a single woman there.
So now we’ve started trying to measure diversity, to chart it out and rank it. I think it’s valuable in one sense, to illuminate where we are really underrepresented. But I also worry that staring at one or two imprecise KPIs is not going to get us any closer to the world we want. The issue lies much deeper than simply watching a male/female % chart and declaring victory if it ticks up.
For instance in the rankings attached to Chamath’s piece, why do Asians count as an ethnic group but Arabs do not (perhaps surveyors were making the common mistake of confusing ethnicity with race?). Similarly, Erica Joy wrote yesterday about her experience at a Google event on diversity where “there was no mention of any other forms of diversity besides ‘women’”
Once we are talking about women, and African Americans, shouldn’t we also be talking about socio-economic diversity as well? Ultimately, we should also hire more LBGT, Arabs, Turks, Asians, Kenyans, rural Kentuckians, etc.
I have now made some personal rules now about investments I will make, events I am willing to attend or promote, but I want to be able to do more. And in order for us all to do better, we need to enlist one of our best traits, our culture of learning.
We have been teaching each other about the craft of startups every day, from LTV calculations, to K rates, to how to manage people. Now let’s talk through the mechanics of how to build a startup culture that is still a tribe, but one that self-organizes around valuing differing backgrounds.
We should do these things not to make a diversity ranking chart go up, and not even as a moral imperative (although that’s a good enough reason). We should do it because seeking out differing views and maintaining the outsider mentality has allowed so many wonderful things to be created here.
From Apple to eBay, and more recently from Lynda.com to Postmates, there are stories again and again of immigrants and outsiders pushing through and finding a way to make their dent in the world in this town.
It’s why I’m here, to help us all build the largest group of outsiders ever assembled.
Thanks to Andrew Parker, Kevin Thau, Lo Toney, Maureen Fan, Sara Mauskopf, and Siqi Chen for reading drafts of this post.