Y Combinator founder Paul Graham is listed as a "major contributor" to FWD.us, Mark Zuckerberg's powerful lobbying firm whose primary focus has been immigration reform. But just because Graham wants to bring foreign workers to the U.S., doesn't mean he'd let them into his fabled Silicon Valley accelerator.
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.
It should take considerably less than half a brain to realize that prioritizing speaking English like an American is going to eliminate huge swaths of potential entrepreneurs. Someone who may have learned English as a second language later in life, someone whose native tongue isn't a Germanic or Romance language. Or, say, someone who is more obsessed with building a great idea for a company—maybe even an idea that appeals to those overseas consumers keeping Silicon Valley startups afloat.
"We're data-driven about investing money in people with smart ideas, except for those who pronounce English the way most of the world does."— Anil Dash (@anildash) August 27, 2013
Graham might as well have said strong foreign accents are just "not a culture fit."
Worse, he tries to present his dubious logic as some quasi-scientific finding. When a commenter on Hacker News noted that tech recruiters rank candidates by "communication skills" as "a proxy for whether they were an immigrant or not, in order to try to avoid discrimination laws," Graham responded yet again by bringing up how foreign accents don't fit the pattern he noticed over the years, dialing back strong accents as, surprise, merely a communication issue.
It's not our top criterion. It's just one that I'm willing to talk about publicly, because there's no way to fake it.
We're not against funding people from outside the US, and we fund a lot of them. But 564 startups is enough to see patterns, and the empirical evidence about very strong accents is striking.
And I am talking about failure to communicate here. I don't mean strong accents in the sense that it's clear that someone comes from another country. I'm talking about accents so strong that you have to interrupt the conversation to ask what they just said.
What horrible entrepreneurial instinct correlates to a strong foreign accent? Coming up with an me-too idea? Failure to launch or hit a home run? Those charges could be leveled against plenty of Y Combinator startups. Graham doesn't specify. But he didn't seem as bothered when sticking to the pattern—let's be clear, we're talking about a white, young, male CEO—worked against him.
Take the New York Times profile of Y Combinator:
Like any savvy marketing executive, he wanted to isolate patterns that portended ill, which he called “negative predictors.” He was already aware of a few — investors tended to be biased against older founders, for instance. “The cutoff in investors’ heads is 32,” Graham says. “After 32, they start to be a little skeptical.” And Graham knew that he had his own biases. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: ‘How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!’"
I reached out to Graham to ask him how he reconciles his aversion to strong foreign accents with his financial support of FWD.us. He emailed back the following evasive response:
I meant accents so strong that people can't understand
you. It's fine to have a foreign accent as long as people can
If you're planning an article in the Gawker tradition, you're
presumably planning to misrepresent me as having said that
foreign accents of any sort are bad, and that I'm therefore
xenophobic. But I didn't say that.
Still, when the "major" financier of an immigration reform lobby is reluctant to fund CEOs who come across as strongly foreign, you have to look at the real reason that FWD.us (and the tech companies that back it) are so eager increase the number of H1-B visas when there's no shortage of talent at home.
It's certainly not to make them the next Mark Zuckerberg.
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[Image via Getty]