Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Silicon Valley, Diversity, and the Organization Kid

My friend Christian Tom forwarded me this article here about inequality in tech. Here’s a representative graf right here:
Technology innovation is something anyone can undertake these days. Or so we are told.

The notion that low barriers to entry (via low cost or free online office management tools, open-source software and Internet connectivity) enable anyone with a laptop, a cell phone and a good idea to become an instant tech entrepreneur is one we hear often in tech circles.

But what we don't hear or talk about is the fact that the new innovators fit a very narrow profile. They mostly come from more affluent backgrounds, are well educated and are rarely minorities. Many have gone to well-known business schools and colleges and fit comfortably into the mainstream business culture found in places like Silicon Valley. The obsession with hiring engineers and other employees from top schools at companies like Google is Exhibit A.

It is no surprise then that much of the gadgetry and Web services leaping from the minds of talented young innovators are geared toward young, well-educated, affluent white kids -- people just like them. When was the last time you heard of a groundbreaking tech product targeting seniors, the disabled or young black men?

It’s a very interesting point, and not something that can be easily slotted on the true-false spectrum. It’s, you know, complicated.

It’s pretty easy to tell that the bias of Silicon Valley is towards the upper-middle-class Bobo: the winners of the meritocratic game. These people are mostly, but not all, white. They are generally tolerant and welcoming of diversity; this does not mean that they have been exposed to a diversity of experiences or people.

You can tell this very superficially. What’s the hot new startup these days? Lord knows what the earliest of early adopters are glomming onto, but from what I can tell, the hot one is Foursquare. Foursquare is the descendant of Dodgeball. One of its competitors is called Burbn. Foursquare is in the social media game with Facebook. There’s an entire universe of goofy-sounding internet startup names, and, generally being founded by the twenty-something bobo, are defined by the premature nostalgia of that particular cultural group: we romanticize stuff like foursquare, dodgeball, etc.—i.e. the fun and games we had as young youths. As far as I can tell, that’s not the aesthetic for kids outside of the meritocratic/hipster persuasion. The name that’s an exception to this is Facebook—which of course refers to a physical book that incoming college freshmen receive, with the pictures of everyone in the incoming college class. But that’s the exception to my specific point that proves the larger argument: the mentality of Silicon Valley is the mentality of twentysomething organization kids.

But is that really so bad? Whatever you can say about Facebook’s awful privacy policies, it’s plainly very appealing to more than just the college crowd. As it turns out, Twitter appeals to more than the organization kid crowd. So whatever the blind spots of Silicon Valley, it produces products that appeal to a wide crowd.

The author of the piece anticipates this very well and argues that there aren’t a) many products aimed towards, say, minorities and senior citizens and b) the founders of companies aren’t sufficiently diverse and venture capital funds should make an affirmative effort to target potential entrepreneurs from these communities. I can’t really judge a) very well because I’m not privy to every startup, stealth or otherwise—how are we do know that these startups targeting those groups simply haven’t succeeded? Or that they simply aren’t popular? I think this is a question beyond both me and him and requires further, more detailed study by some enterprising researcher.

b), though, is something that can be addressed. It’s an argument about cities and social capital, in essence. East Palo Alto is merely a mile away from Palo Alto and so is probably only a fifteen-minute drive at most from the big venture capital funds, but belong to different social galaxies. The most relevant barriers to entry aren’t technological but are, in fact, social and cultural. And this is a problem that afflicts more than just minorities and seniors (the author’s focus)—the Midwest also doesn’t receive much venture funding, despite several excellent universities, the traditional incubators of startup talent.

Very accidentally—I mean, I read this while studying for the LSAT—I read about a very interesting distinction: institutional authority and intellectual authority. The former derives its authority from the office or institution it represents; the latter derives its authority from the quality of argument, the rhetoric, the way of winning someone over to your way of thinking. Silicon Valley aspires to and often fulfills the latter, but it has a high degree of institutional authority. So when we say there are low barriers to entry, we mean that we think that the sole necessity is intellectual authority, but that just ain’t so. For one, there’s funding—you have to be able to talk to one of these venture capitalists and convince him or her of the rightness of your position. That requires more than intellectual authority; it requires the ability to communicate in the same language, to draw on the same assumptions, to see the world in similar ways. And, as we say, there are blindspots in the organization kid’s worldview, as well-intentioned and as broad a worldview as they generally have. So let’s say you chuck it and go with bootstrapping: no money, just figuring it out. Well, you’ve still got to have money—you’ve either got to work part-time or get support from the ‘rents. Either of these things is difficult. But more difficult, I suspect, is publicity: you have to get publicity to attract attention and interest to your toils in obscurity. And the same kinds of problems that apply to the conversation with the VC also apply to publicity.

So the question is, how to cultivate some institutional know-how among the poor, the minorities, the outsiders in the community. And that is an interesting question, isn’t it? Because ultimately, while Silicon Valley is good at what it does, it’s also a universe comprised mostly of dudes, who are mostly white or immigrants. The untapped talent pool is pretty large. Speaking of the people I’m most familiar with (besides the organization kid milieu)—black people—are obviously and incredibly entrepreneurial. Check out Off the Books if you doubt me…What separates the guy in the inner city who’s figured out how to convert his barber shop into a club at nights to make sure there’s always business going on from the guy who founds some hot startup is cultural inclusion. The article that started this whole thing, well, the author has some interesting suggestions of what venture capitalists specifically can do, but I’m not sure it’ll amount to much on its own. We’d like to think there’s a hack here—a simple solution with big, positive ramifications—but we’ve been trying for years and years to find a hack. Maybe it just doesn’t exist. Maybe the only thing that can do it, ultimately, is massive, sustained effort to include everyone in the country’s rewards and prosperity.


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