Does tech discriminate against suits?

All hands engineering meeting at Airbnb
What happens if you break the programmer mold in one of the most casual professional environments in the world?

“What is your favorite texture?” This was the question posed during my first New Hire Chai Time at Airbnb, by a wonderful Greek man named Davide. The answer came easily to me because I was wearing it on my chest — super 150 Ermenegildo Zegna wool. The fabric still felt new to me, but it was quickly becoming my defining characteristic. Over the next three months I’d experience both support and implicit discrimination for this simple preference. I dressed exactly how I wanted and proudly worked to disprove people’s first impressions.

At college I’m recognized in part by my love of fashion and clothing. I frequently compliment my friends on overly specific parts of their outfits, and have developed an unhealthy relationship with an old polish tailor on campus. But, things didn’t start this way. Two years earlier I had entered freshman year of college, having never given attention to how I dressed — ill fitting GAP jeans and Quicksilver hoodies were fine. My girlfriend at the time tried to convince me of the artistic merit of a $1,000 pair of shoes, but middle-class-Reno-public-high-school me didn’t buy it.

The next year I bought it. Not $1,000 shoes, but the concept. Feeling down about a breakup and hungry for some self improvement, I set aside a paycheck from my summer internship. Using this money I would find the perfect suit and wear it to work each and every day the following summer. After months of looking quizzically at GQ magazines, trying on over priced garments, and speaking to over 5 tailors, I acquired a broad lapel grey suit and a slim navy suit. They were my pride and joy, and I’d fight to the death anyone who’d ever spill coffee on them.

People thought my plan was a bad idea. When I told my computer science friends of my plan to wear a suit every day, they laughed and shook their heads. Why the hell would I do that? Silicon Valley is about individuality and programmatic rebellion against the man, so wear your shorts and slim-fit American Apparel T-shirt goddammit. At the time I paused to consider if I would be better off in New York.

Silicon Valley vs Mad Men — who would you rather be?

Google searches aren’t very supportive either. The CEO of Wealthfront recently posted on Quora:

Silicon Valley has a peculiar and yet virulent bias against the suit. It’s even a euphemism for an overly-conservative, corporate-buzzword-speaking, pointy-haired-Dilbert-boss. No one wants to work with an “empty suit”. — Adam Nash,

What happens if you break the programmer mold in one of the most casual professional environments in the world? As I discovered, people single you out. They smile when the quirky and brilliant hacker wears pajamas and rollerblades to the office, but when they meet the coder in a suit, their polite expressions falter for a second. You hear them asking their friends “why is he wearing that here?” as you walk past. The number of times I was reminded that “You know, you don’t have to wear a suit here,” contradicted the idea of not having a dress code. Airbnb advocates a culture of belonging, and it seemed like my choice of dress was putting it to the test.

Jonathan Mildenhall, Former Coca-Cola VP of Global Advertising Strategy

There was one other man who would wear a suit to the office—Jonathan Mildenhall. We would compliment each other in the mornings on our dress, and bonded over both having lived in England. His guess that I owned 12 suits rather than 2 brought home the perception I had created. Halfway through the summer I wrote him this email:

Hi Jonathan,
This email, totally not inspired by the meeting we just had, is to thank you for making me feel a sense of belonging at Airbnb in a very simple but important way.
Some people around the office have noticed that I tend to not dress in the same style as everyone else. I have worked as a software intern before in San Fransisco, and I knew that I would receive some confused looks for what I wanted to wear, but I feel most comfortable wearing a suit to the office and what better place to try to be myself than at a company where the motto is “Belong Anywhere.” As long as I can remember my father would work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, wearing a suit to the office. I’ve always wanted to follow his example.
For the first couple weeks I felt nervous about how I dressed, and as I’d leave conversations I’d always catch people asking each other about my appearance. Some people compliment and some joke. A fellow intern found herself in a Lyft a few weeks ago where other employees where gossiping about some snobby intern who always wore a suit and didn’t fit the company.
I have a thick skin and don’t at all mind the way people react — I went to a college in Sheffield for 4 years as the only American at the school and learned a long time ago the highs and lows of standing out. What has made me feel belonging most at Airbnb has been you simply saying “Hi” in the hallway and complimenting my suit. Its given me a small sense of camaraderie and made my day. It gives me confidence that there are places in this industry that allow me to do what I love while still dressing how I want to.

I shot off the email and forgot about it till the following day when I was searching for a snack in the break room. Johnathan came up behind me and clasped me in a bear hug before pulling me into a meeting room. With incredible focus and charisma, he assured me that wearing a suit was exactly what I should be doing. He had shown the email to the founders and according to him, I did in fact understand Airbnb’s culture. His reassurance encouraged me to see through my summer of suits. As if to prove I had made a small impact during my stay, the day after I finished my internship the entire data engineering team wore suits to welcome their new manager.

“Don’t be into trends. Don’t make fashion own you, but you decide what you are, what you want to express by the way you dress and the way to live.” — Gianni Versace

This summer I dressed exactly how I wanted, while still maintaining respect for my company. I urge you to do the same. Fight the uphill battle against industry culture and psychology. People will conflate your appearance with how you will perform. Your discord with stereotypes will catch attention and scrutiny. Regardless, whether its a suit in tech or a t-shirt in finance, it’s up to you to proudly disprove people’s first impressions.