The Fault Is Not in our Stars

Let’s talk about our industry’s elitism problem. 

I read Valleywag every day. It’s about third or fourth on my list of tech media sites.

To me, Valleywag is sort of like high tech’s version of The Daily Show . It’s satirical and lovingly biting. But the things it often talks about are so truthful — and sometimes so controversial — that they can’t show up in other media.

In the associate community, we often joke that one of the few rules of tech is “don’t show up in Valleywag.” It’s a line that implicitly means that you need to be extremely careful about your public presence, especially around reporters. It’s why whenever someone from Gawker, TechCrunch, or GigaOM rolls in most associates (and most VCs in general) tend to put the drinks away and put on their best behavior.

We like Valleywag. We like reading the stories. We don’t want to become one of the stories.

So this morning, when I opened up Valleywag with a cup of coffee in my hand, the alarm bells in my head rang out when I saw someone I knew.

Greg Gopman, a friend of mine, was featured in a now infamous piece on his comments on San Francisco. From what it looks like, Greg’s Facebook status as a reflection on what he saw in China and Asia versus San Francisco was copy/pasted to Valleywag.

Because Greg is in a position of authority, and because what he said toes the line in Valleywag’s crusade to (rightly) confront this generation of tech’s elitism, he made the perfect candidate of violating that one cardinal rule of tech: don’t show up in Valleywag.

Let me be clear about one thing: I’m not going to defend what Greg said. I’m assuming Greg meant to be hyperbolic in nature, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt on all of this given that I’d like to think that over the past year+ of time I’ve spent with him has given me a decent judge of his character.

But it was horrible and deplorable, and the language made him sound like a 19th century oil baron.

I’m especially not going to defend it because unlike most people in VC or in a tech leadership position I was poor and almost was homeless.

I had a rough childhood growing up. When I was six, my parents divorced. I lived with my mom for a few years as she struggled to make ends meet, but when she left work on disability there was a harrowing 18 month period where we realized we couldn’t pay rent and that we might be out on the streets.

I remember vividly my mom’s shaking attempt in vain to assuage my fears that everything would be all right — that we “would find a room or something” and that we “would have a home, I’m sure of it.”

Scary, painful memories of how hard my life was back then are momento mori that I keep with me every day. They’re constant reminders I have of how lucky I am to have gotten a college education, entered tech, and frankly won the fucking lottery in becoming a VC.

They’re the reason that when I pray at night (I’m Irish/Filipino: sue me) that I explicitly thank God for everything I’ve been given in life.

So when I see stuff like what Greg posted, I’m rightfully offended. I hate elitist behavior. I hate when people don’t realize just how lucky they are, and when they label the poor as some abject blight that gets in the way of San Francisco’s titanic rise to becoming the meritocratic* center of innovation.

*note: a meritocracy so long as you’re white, male, come from a top-tier school, and have a suitably privileged background that would give you enough disposable income to buy $3,00 tickets to SXSW

So, no, I won’t defend what Greg said about San Francisco.

But I will defend Greg.

What this Valleywag article won’t tell you is that Greg spends every waking minute of his day dedicated to AngelHack, a free accelerator program that helps everyone from poor college students to underprivileged minorities access funding and advisors in their attempt to build a successful startup out of their passion.

Valleywag is dead wrong in their line that Greg’s work “ offer(s) no apparent utility or value.“ Without AngelHack, many startups wouldn’t have receved funding or attention — both which come at an incredible premium in Silicon Valley and are disproportionately given to companies led by founders with a certain background.

You might remember this background from a previous paragraph: white, male, come from a top-tier school, and have a suitably privileged background that they can afford $3,000 tickets to SXSW.

We’re so quick to crucify Greg because we’re so horrified at ourselves in (at least in popular sentiment) agreeing with him.

In fact, the horrible elitism that Valleywag fingers at Greg is directly combated by the work that he’s done.

I’m a proud mentor at AngelHack, and I’m even more proud to work with and fund companies I’ve met there that are led by people like me who had a raw deal in life. I’m honored to have had the privilege of spending time with the smart founders I’ve met in AngelHack. And once they got to the point that they fit my firm’s investment thesis, I’d be overjoyed to stand up on Monday morning and defend them like a caffinated Atticus Finch.

Ultimately, I think the biggest problem with what Greg’s saying isn’t that it’s a reflection of Greg. It’s us. We’re so quick to crucify Greg because we’re so horrified at ourselves in (at least in popular sentiment) agreeing with him.

Hanging out with the tech crowd in San Francisco you hear things like this a lot: “The Tenderloin is a cesspool. That’s where all the poor people live.” “God I hate the homeless.” “People should just get a job. Maybe, like, they should learn to code or something.”

The last one I find is laughably horrible and strangely common. Because clearly, knowing why Bubble Sort is less optimal than Quick Sort will suddenly strip you of your poverty, kick your crushing drug addiction, and get you a $100,000 a year job at Google.

Fucking please.

We can blast Greg and what he said all we want, but his comments are symptomatic of a bigger issue: our industry likes elitism.

And this isn’t even the half of it. The class warfare problems of San Francisco extend beyond just the visible poor and disenfranchised in districts like the Tenderloin. Tech is ready and willing to turn on its own at times. At tech parties and meetings I’ve heard wondeful gems like the following:

  • “Why would I hire someone who went to a state school when I could get someone smart?” (note: as a SJSU grad I love this one)
  • “Forget whatever bullshit she said. Just like [Ivy League], we let her come for the eye candy.”

We can blast Greg and what he said all we want, but his comments are symptomatic of a bigger issue: our industry likes elitism.

We try to hide this elitism behind the shaky facade of cultural fit.

We exclude people based off of educational prestige under the pretense that they “don’t go to a target school.” We don’t hire people who don’t have “charisma” with the team, which means that you better be a 22 year old recent college grad who likes to drink and party and engage in fairly promiscuous behavior.

Sometimes we don’t even hide it. We’re so quick to prize “intelligence” in Silicon Valley that we use it as carte blanche to exclude people. Of course, instead of actually measuring intelligence (which doesn’t matter anyway — intelligence is just potential energy and like a startup requires execution and hard work), we use proxies.

Like where you went to school. Like how old you are. Like whether or not you’re male or female.

Rather than throwing more stones at Greg, I think we need to use this opportunity to seriously question our values. It’s easy to just point at Greg and say he represents a minority. But he doesn’t.

Truly the fault is not in our stars, dear tech. It is in ourselves, in that we are underlings.