The Paul Graham accent

August 30th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized | Tags:

Paul Graham is my hero. Yes, he is. I have admired him since i stumbled upon his essays in 2005. His essays are thought provoking and inspiring to engineers like me. My admiration only grew when he started YCombinator and turned into a powerhouse incubator/accelerator. He is an engineer,  entrepreneur, thought leader, mentor, angel investor, someone who changed venture investing in a significant way. He achieved everything i aspired to achieve and his thoughts and success inspire me.

It saddens me immensely, to see the slew of articles that came out the last few days. After reading them indepth, I am convinced that Paul is deeply biased against the leadership abilities of immigrants. It is even more shocking that he bases this bias on the “accent” rather than coding ability, intelligence, ideas or ability to execute. I guess it hurts even more because not only i am one of his admirers, but also a failed immigrant entrepreneur with accent.

Perhaps, it would have been easier for me to stomach it if he said immgrant CEOs suck because they can’t code lisp. His current arguments sound perilously close to “african americans cannot be good quarterbacks ” or “women cannot be good CEOS of large companies”. His attempts at justifying those interviews and comments seem like a PR representative’s nightmare. His first reaction when someone brought this up – “this is a point that people are eager to misunderstand” – is nothing but defensive reaction. Paul – according to him – is not prejudiced and/or biased, but it is the world that is choosing to view his comments through colored lens. Om Malik, seems to be giving Paul a pass, saying it is just a fallacy. Reading how Strikinly’s Chen is treated by Paul (nytimes article), it is hard for me to be convinced that paul is just a scientist making a poor inference out of faulty data. Paul seems to  have a deeply ingrained bias. Quite contrary to his backtracking tweet “It’s fine if founders merely have accents”, the NY times article details:

He spoke English fluently but struggled to pronounce words like “build,” “mobile” and, most ominously, “strikingly.” Yet Chen had clearly established himself as the fledgling company’s impresario and spokesman. While his partners spent their days writing code and fixing software bugs, Chen met with lawyers, potential investors and reporters.

The empirical data paul graham is referring to, to me, do indicate a systematic bias against immigrant entrepreneurs and not an inability of entrepreneurs to communicate.

I doubt the consequences of this slip-up are going to be consequential to Paul’s networth. Unlike a movie star or athlete or other celebrities, paul’s income/networth is not in any endorsements, tv shows or tied to public appearances. He is a “super angel” and already significantly rich. Entrepreneurs are seeking his money, connections and knowledge, and they will continue to seek those despite Paul’s personal flaws.  Today, paul backtracked from his comments and posted another essay. In that essay, he says “Everyone got that? We all agree accents are fine? The problem is when people can’t understand you.”. That statement of course, proves to himself and everyone that he is not biased and prejudiced. Of course, in eyes “people” are his neighbors, friends and investors. Not immigrants with accents. Nothing is really going to change in the little bubble surrounding paul. His “people” will reaffirm to him that he is right, he is unprejudiced paragon of virtue along with being great technologist and venture investor. It is the rest of the world that has problems. His investments will make him handsome returns and NY Times will approach him couple of years later. He will point to the two eastern european and asian “founders with accent” he funded and repeat this same mantra. “I was never bigoted. The world chose to misinterpret me”.

Entrepreneurs are resourceful. They have overcome much more significant obstacles than a minor “accent bias”. They convinced  all kinds of people to invest in them,  crossed oceans and are planning trips to the moon. Accent is a very minor challenge. I think this event will spur startups to hire (or atleast consider) CEOs with american accents before making pitch to YC. So all those product management presenters with Boston accent, get ready. Your skills are going up in demand.

I really really wish, that entrepreneurs can ignore this drivel from Paul. I hope they can read his essays and take the good out of it and leave the crap for what it is. If you are working on a great product that your customers love and an investor chooses not to invest in the product or the company, merely because you sound different – You don’t need that investor. Focus on the customer, focus on building great products. Your accent is just fine.

  1. Friend
    September 2nd, 2013 at 00:02
    Reply | Quote | #1

    The guy with the accent got 1.5 million via YC and does not seem to mind the honest feedback about accent.

  2. Ravi Dronamraju
    September 2nd, 2013 at 11:17
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Yes. That is exactly my point. Entrepreneurs want money, they will take abuse or figure out other creative ways to get around paul’s personality flaws. However, i don’t think it is ok for everyone to condone paul’s behavior just because YC companies get funded. Mark Suster’s blog
    is a great response.

  3. ACriticalThinker
    September 4th, 2013 at 02:40
    Reply | Quote | #3

    This is incorrect: “sound perilously close to “african americans cannot be good quarterbacks ” or “women cannot be good CEOS of large companies”. Being African American is not something you can change, neither can you easily change being a woman. On the latter, transvestites are not good for species, so let’s safely rule that out. Discrimination based on something that you cannot change, no matter how hard you try, is not fair in a meritocratic world.

    But an accent is hardly unchangeable. If English is not your native language, it’s a false sense of pride or laziness that’s keeping you from getting an accent reasonably close to being native. If an American wants to be accepted in a French society, it’s not unreasonable that he has to work on being understood by Frenchmen. It’s hubris if he says, he’s going to stick to only English in France. It’s the same thing that Paul Graham is talking about. Communication is a vital link in the entrepreneurial chain and if you cannot handle it, you start from a position of weakness.

  4. Ravi Dronamraju
    September 5th, 2013 at 01:04
    Reply | Quote | #4

    Actually, it is “correct” as in i wrote exactly what i intended to convey.
    By your take, it should be ok to discriminate against overweight people or bald people. Those traits are hardly unchangeable as well.
    By the way, we are not talking about “being accepted into society”. Thankfully, most of america is very open hearted and accepting of various accents, skin colors, sexual orientations, clothing choices. The new york times articles mentions that chen is fluent in english, except having hard time with few words. Paul graham backtracked with a cop-out statement “The problem is when people can’t understand you.”