Please Tell Me He Didn’t Actually Say That

This from Paul Graham in a recent Inc. interview when asked for a specific “tell” for poor likelihood of success when assessing YC applicants:

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.

At best, an irresponsibly vague and unsupported generalization. He is “not sure why” a foreign accent would impede a CEO. He doesn’t present any kind of evidence (statistically significant sample?) on which to base his conclusion. And what exactly is a “strong foreign accent”?

Perhaps more importantly, even if there is a big sample, who’s to say that this is causation and not just correlation? There might be another factor, like prejudice, that makes this bit of “wisdom” a self fulfilling prophecy. Of course, the true causal factors might be more benign, but that doesn’t change the underlying point.

Leaders should be working to make our communities more inclusive, not less so. Sure, a strong accent might make things harder. But let’s try to be more open minded and fight the instinct to judge someone’s competence or likelihood of success based on their proficiency in a language that isn’t their first, and might be their 3rd or 4th. Don’t rule them out with a lazy generalization. Find ways to compensate. Help them. If VCs in general aren’t making the effort to see beyond the accent, set the example and encourage others to follow.

This isn’t charity. That person with a strong foreign accent probably achieved a small miracle by getting from wherever that accent comes from to the point where they are making a YC pitch in the Valley… in English.

Courage and tenacity — probably important qualities in a startup CEO.

Paul Graham is very highly regarded in the startup and tech community. People look up to him and take his lead. If the quote above is really his, I wish he would elaborate. If it isn’t, I hope he disowns it and explains what he was really getting at.

This post has been updated from the original, more emotional version.