Why startup culture’s shallow discrimination is dangerous

This article was originally posted on Tech in Asia.

A glance at tech publications might perpetuate the mistaken notion that startup success is the norm. But that’s far from the reality. A VC-funded startup’s chances of success, according to Harvard Senior Lecturer Shikhar Ghosh, is a frighteningly low twenty-five percent.

That means that three out of four times, your startup is doomed to fail.

Yes, those numbers are very low, and so is the money involved in joining a startup. Salaries are a far cry from those in the corporate world, and the chances of a startup employee — regardless of whether he or she is the first or the last — cashing out in an exit is very, very slim.

Why would anyone in their right mind actually join a startup?

The main draw, in short, is the much-hyped ‘startup culture’. You know, the one that promises amazing perks like flexible working arrangements, no strict management hierarchy, an unlimited vacation policy, and a ping pong table.

Image credit: Flickr user knewton_inc

These small companies set ambitious goals, too: to be a billion-dollar company, to make the world a better place, to rid the world of poverty — the list goes on.

Most importantly, it’s about the feeling of working alongside a group of talented, like-minded individuals who are prepared to go to incredible lengths to get the job done — and then some.

Without a happening startup culture, these small tech firms would go out of business in a heartbeat. And that might just be the problem.

Exclusion of ‘suits’

Recently, there was the case of the ‘discriminatory job ad’ in Singapore that caused an uproar in the local tech scene. Opinion was divided on certain phrases that the startup had used in the advertisement, such as the one below, which describes who they do not want in the company:

You are a shallow social climber whose dream is to work for Goldman Sachs because it “looks good on your CV”. You went to an Ivy League university because it would “look good on your CV”. But you couldn’t get into Goldman Sachs (or Citibank, or HSBC) because you actually have no passion for finance, just like how you want to buy that Louis Vuitton bag (because it will “look good on your social CV”) despite having no passion for design and craftsmanship. Guess what? If you were rejected by Goldman Sachs, you will be rejected by us too. For exactly the same reasons. Advice: try applying for a government job.

On one hand, some netizens felt that there was absolutely nothing wrong with making fun of those who would prefer to work in the corporate world. Some even applauded it, saying that this was the way to weed out those who might not have the drive necessary to work in a startup.

Image credit: Flickr user Ellie Ellis

They may be right. Working at a startup certainly requires a unique tolerance for risk and failure, something that a well-sheltered employee in a big corporation might not possess.

And I say might, because the thing is, he just might have it as well.

This is not to knock the choice of words in that ad. The idea of wanting to find the best culture fit for their company is admirable.

This, however, points to a larger problem with our startup ecosystem as a whole — we’ve become a boiling cauldron of discrimination, and we don’t even realize it.

What about prejudice against those beyond a certain age? Here’s what legendary Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said seven years ago:

I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. If you want to found a successful company, you should only hire young people with technical expertise […] Young people are just smarter.

As we know today, there are plenty of successful entrepreneurs out there who you would think twice about calling ‘young’.

In Asia

Overt discrimination happens not only in Silicon Valley, but in Asia as well. In Malaysia, for example, the process of applying for government grants becomes politicized because of what is called a “bumi-quota”.

According to a Malaysian entrepreneur, who prefers to remain anonymous, a now-defunct government program that he participated in used to put aside a certain percentage of their grant funding for bumiputeras, a term referring to the Malay race.

“The remaining 50 percent or so was fair game for everyone else though — [which was why] I got it,” he adds. “I was told about this from a credible source — a senior official — but he said it in conversation, it isn’t written anywhere explicitly. However, I think most founders were quite aware of this, because its the same policy for almost everything in Malaysia.”

Among startups, though, he says that prejudice is very rarely seen. “There is much less [discrimination] in the private sector because we want profit, and so we need to reward based on merit,” he explains, and adds:

“At least for startups at my level, we’re really trying hard to make things work, so there’s not really much room for it — we’d go broke.”

Subconscious prejudice

Discrimination is very much a mindset as it is a practice. One can be biased against a member of another race by calling them a name, as much as they can by unconsciously feeling uncomfortable when being in the same room as him or her.

Image credit: Flickr user Erica Kawamoto Hsu

Let’s talk about tech sexism for a while. Ariel Schrag from Matter has a theory called the ‘Ping-Pong Theory of Tech Sexism’. Here’s an excerpt from her article, in which she interviewed a female startup employee named ‘Sam’:

Schrag: Do you ever want to call out sexism, but feel like you can’t?
Sam: Of course I do. Every idea I have is put through the ringer and requires endless justification […] But like I was saying, it’s not as if you can ever solidly prove that something is sexist. And sexism is a serious allegation to make.
Schrag: So the men don’t have any self-awareness that they might be in the high position they’re in, in part because they’re men. Or about how they treat women?
Sam: No. Or if they do, they don’t care.

Discrimination becomes extremely dangerous when it is endemic, because then it simply becomes exclusion for the sake of it. The same can easily apply to startup hiring processes.

Today, it might be the exclusion of a certain type of person because, generally speaking, they don’t fit in at startups. Tomorrow, that might evolve to prejudice in the interviewing process just because a candidate walks in wearing a suit. In fact, it’s already happening:

We had a gentleman over to interview for one of our account executive positions… great resume, great cover letter, did well in our initial phone screen.
He was dressed impeccably in a suit… I stole a glance to a few of the people from my team who had looked up when he walked in. I could sense the disappointment.
It’s not that we’re so petty or strict about the dress code that we are going to disqualify him for not following an unwritten rule, but we know empirically that people who come in dressed in suits rarely work out well for our team.
He was failing the go-out-for-a-beer test and he didn’t even know it…
I told him he could take off his tie and jacket and loosen up a little bit, and he acknowledged that he felt a little out of place but said that, “you can never overdress for an interview.”
Well, dude, no, actually you can overdress for an interview and you just did. Of course I didn’t say it…

Startup culture is, by its nature, anti-establishment.

It broke the rules that corporations demanded employees follow.

It emphasized fun, freedom, and a focus on the right things.

It turned its nose up at discrimination — fancy degrees and affiliations — and brought people on simply because they got the job done.

In short, it was a meritocracy, but no longer is.

We need to find our way back to accepting, as Steve Jobs puts it, ‘round pegs in the square holes’:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

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