Bring Me Your Accents. Immigration Fuels Innovation

Posted on Aug 29, 2013 | 102 comments


I have lived (England, France, Italy, Spain, Japan & the US) and worked (Ireland, Germany, India) around the world.

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I became engrossed with the origins of both accents and phrases. One of most fascinating & enjoyable books on the topic is Bill Bryson’s “Made in America,” which demystifies the origins of the English language and why Americans speak more traditional English than the English do. (I know, I know … just read the book). It also demystifies any assumptions that our founders were “puritanical” – they were anything but.

If you enjoy travel, language & culture as much as I do then buy all of Bill Bryson’s books and gobble them up.

I find the recent discussion about whether accents correlate with business success disheartening.

This is not the first time Paul Graham has uttered the “strong accents” comment. I am certain that his dataset at YC is correlated with strong accents != successful graduates. I am also certain that Paul isn’t anti immigrant in any way.

Still, his factual comments are tone deaf because they are lost in translation as they are amplified in the media and we have a responsibility to call that out and not tolerate bias.

I did so before when he originally uttered the accents comment for the NY Times. In my post I noted the bias in his accent comments and also called bullshit on his statements that Demo Days are great because “the bad companies look good” and that VCs should compete to “pay the highest price & offer the best terms.”

I figure that straight-talking people like Paul would appreciate the candor but was surprised how quite a few influential people wrote me afterward and that they totally agreed with me but would never say so publicly.

Meh.

MLK

I’m with MLK. We have a duty and an obligation to speak up.

So I was ecstatic to see my old friend Om Malik speak out so eloquently in defense of accents because let’s be honest – accents are precisely what drove our amazing country and more precisely California.

Innovation comes from those who are often less well educated (study the history of Hollywood, founded by “uneducated” Jews) or foreign born founding members (Google, Sun, Intel, PayPal) let alone revered scientists like Einstein. We have loved them precisely because they were foreign-born, hungry to live here, hard-working and willing to challenge norms.

I have written before about the monocultural biases that I see Silicon Valley fall into and I know this isn’t a good thing.

I welcome your accents. Your origins. Your nuances and experiences. If I could work with 10x more IIT or Polytechnique grads I would in a nanosecond.

I love foreign-born entrepreneurs precisely because many of them don’t grow up with the sense of entitlement that comes from winning the birth lottery.

Funnily enough – yesterday I had a pitch from a Brit (with a fairly “fick” accent despite his years in the States) and a Finn (where I got to test drive my all time favorite swear world – Perkele. Ok, I love the Italian word “Cazzo,” too. Just rolls of the tongue, “Ma, che cazzo!”)

Maybe I’m a softie for accents. Heavy one’s are best. My father to this day has an unbelievably slow, deep, baritone accent from his native country – Colombia. My dad is my hero. He arrived in the US in his 20′s with nothing and a dream to make a better life for his family. He followed in the footsteps of his father who left Jewish oppression in Romania to create a new existence. It’s the global struggle for a better life.

My dad is the American dream.

My mom has an accent, too. But it is of the greater Philly kind. She’s my inspiration.

When I was growing up we had Israeli families live with us for months at a time. As a young child I didn’t know that wasn’t normal. So it was really nice last year when my dear friend Gerardo Broussi (from Mexico) got to live with us for a few months before moving his family from Mexico City to the US. My kids are “accent blind,” too. And that’s how I like it.

We had a live-in nanny for 6 years. We actually didn’t plan to – she sort of adopted us and we her. She is Filipina and my younger son grew up with Tagalog words and Chicken Adobo as his favorite dish.

My kids are growing up in Los Angeles in 2013. The have an African American president and they don’t comprehend how amazing that is historically and culturally. One of their mommy’s best friends is a gay man with three children who have Spina Bifida – two in wheelchairs. They didn’t process that this was “abnormal” – they just see it as different.

While Iran & Russia are moving to deny gay people’s existents or diminish their rights we live in a country that accepts them as the loving parents and people that they are.

When my older son was in 2nd grade he was asked to do a school project on “one thing he’d like to change about America” and he wrote that he’d like to make it legal for gay people to be married. Although I’m quite publicly in favor of gay rights to be married and equal citizens, I never forced those views on my children.

I didn’t need to. They live in this wonderful melting pot called California where we accept people who are different because … very few of us are native to this land.

There are many things we take for granted in this great country of ours – one of which is how accepting we can be of accents and origins. In my entire childhood in Northern California nobody every asked me where my father was from, what religion I was or whether my family had any money.

But having lived all over the world I know this isn’t universal.

I lived in England. I worked very closely with a Scouser with a strong Liverpudlian accent. And with a Northerner from Yorkshire. They both had “common” accents in a place that shows great deference to “the Queen’s English.” On several occasions I had my posh British friends mention how hard it would be for them to crack the inner circles of UK business because their accents were “lower class.” They told me I’d get a free pass because I was a Yank.

I’m sure some of my English friends will deny this but many years told me there is/was a strong accent bias amongst the British. I had similar experiences in France & Italy, too.

I guess if I’m honest to some extent this exists within the US, too, where some of my Southern friends have pointed out to my national accent biases.

I didn’t experience this growing up in California.

In England my son’s pre-school application asked us our religion. In India my work paper application asked what country my father (and grandfather!) were born in.

I’m not saying bias & discrimination don’t exist in California – they do. Gender bias, ethnic bias and ageism all persist.

But we have a responsibility to change that. And it starts by understanding the power & importance of diversity.

And from an entrepreneurial point of view – it starts by acknowledging that foreign-born founders that don’t match our normal recognition pattern can be some of our best innovators.

And as it happens foreign-born Americans can be some of our most patriotic citizens as well. They know how much opportunity we afford them.

Thank you, Om. For reminding us.

And for speaking out.

  • http://www.EyeOnJewels.com/ Darius Vasefi

    Thank you Mark and Om for speaking up. PG’s comments although disappointing do bring to light the many inequalities many founders face. It’s better to talk about these things than not, so I’m kind of glad he did say out loud what he believed.

    Also wondering if diverse founders actually build tougher (or better?) businesses because they’ve had to fight harder and learn better, as well as know how to sell and service prospects and clients who are as diverse as themselves.

  • Mike Loshe

    Thanks for the share! But you are 100% correct, immigration is the fuel to the innovation fire. Two of my best friends, both successful entrepreneurs, are immigrates and have contributed a great deal to our country and economy. All of this immigration talk has them both worried to the point that they even went to see a lawyer who specializes in immigration in dallas, Texas. While they were able to get all of their documentation updated to the current standards, it is still upsetting to see two guys trying to live the American dream have to deal with something like this.