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Paul Graham Responds to Founder Accents Backlash

The Y Combinator co-founder addresses the controversy surrounding his recent comments in an Inc interview. about why founders with foreign accents are less successful.
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My interview with Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham in Inc.'s September issue caused quite the stir in tech media this week. The cause of the commotion: Graham's assertion that founders with "strong foreign accents" have been less successful after graduating from Y Combinator.

Not surprisingly, the comment outraged people who believe, and with good reason, that Silicon Valley has become too homogenous for its own good. New York City entrepreneur Anil Dash's sarcastic response via Twitter is below:

dash tweet

Graham responded to various media outlets this week to clarify his point on a case-by-case basis, but now, he's taken to his own blog to make his point crystal clear, once and for all.

"The problem is not the cultural signal accents send, but the practical difficulty of getting a startup off the ground when people can't understand you," he writes.

"We have a lot of empirical evidence that there's a threshold beyond which the difficulty of understanding the CEO harms a company's prospects."

Graham goes on to say that in his own office hours with Y Combinator founders, the language barrier can impede communication. "Often when I feel it happening, I warn the founders, because most of the people they encounter are not going to work as hard to understand them as I do."

Here's more from Graham's post:

"A startup founder is alway selling. Not just literally to customers, but to current and potential employees, partners, investors, and the press as well. Since the best startup ideas are by their nature perilously close to bad ideas, there is little room for misunderstanding. And yet a lot of the people you encounter as a founder will initially be indifferent, if not skeptical. They don't know yet that you're going to be huge. You're just one person they're meeting that day. They're not going to work to understand you. So you can't make it be work to understand you."

Graham concludes his post by saying that his goal in discussing founder accents to begin with was to help founders. "I don't mind people beating on me so long as I can get that message through to founders who want to come to Silicon Valley from other countries," he writes. "It's fine to have an accent, but you must be able to make yourself understood."

During our interview, it was clear to me that this was the point Graham was making all along. To be able to communicate clearly--whether it's in a different language or simply to an audience who's unfamiliar with your product--is undoubtedly an advantage as an entrepreneur. But Graham and the rest of his Silicon Valley cohorts would be well-served to remember that, as much as we celebrate entrepreneurs for their personal role in building successful companies, often it's what they've created--and not how smooth their pitches are--that's most important.

Last updated: Aug 30, 2013




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