The author, Eric Ries, writes openly and attempts to be respectful on the subject of racism, a known issue stirring much emotions. I don't think he is aware of a few facts and viewpoints that African-Americans and people of color in the U.S. grasp first-hand (and which I've had to learn as white man, growing up with extended family including many racially mixed marriages and children, and myself married to an African-American woman.
1. Mr. Ries mistakenly proceeds from the assumption that all citizens (nationals too? illegal or otherwise?) are considered equal and treated as equal under the law - and by any system of employment and education, including his own past hiring process - specifically disregarding race as any part of the hiring criteria. This assumption is part of the larger assumption that we all (or all "reasonable" people) are not racist, and that is assumed that most of us don't want to be racist. the project done by professors or various ethnic origins, and remaining posted on Harvard University website, and noted in a book by Malcom Gladwell, widely read, even among white urban professionals, establishes the culture of America (even beyond US) encompasses definitive bias against people of color.
Mr. Ries appears unaware of the facts about the scope of the term and meaning of Racism, discrimination, and clearly ignorant (used descriptively here, not pejoratively) of institutionalized racism. Naturally, more factual details make the issue more difficult to discuss, since time for grasping, assimilating, and accepting the facts challenges one's character.
2. Many people, across all categories of ethnicity, education, age, also do not grasp that science also establishes that the great majority of all human behavior is controlled by the chain of built-up associations we learn from infancy, as we acquire language, as we mimic our parents & guardians, and that our actions are controlled by our subconscious. (see Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam) I'm citing science, not posing a theoretical explanation. All our public acts, such as hiring, school applications, job applications, job interviews, work reviews, grading in schools, determining who is to be fired or promoted - all of these acts are presumed by most to be "conscious" acts "of choice", perhaps especially those of libertarian or fiscal-conservative bent (lower-case categories, no insult intended) but are actually dominated by our subconsciouses, just as are our shopping habits, TV watching habits.
3. Whether we are "born" as racists seems unlikely, but as people of an age of speech, in the US, to this day Novermber 2011, we proceed through life as racially biased and discriminating people (including people on the receiving end of color based discrimination). Whether one is of Christian faith or not, the basic, more accurate view of starting from point of accepting that one begins with a deficit, a debt, is necessary before one consciously can take action to address his/her need or lack. (Comments to Ries' article include caucasian people asserting that life is not "fair", but do so while also not acknowledging they represent the millenia old racial discriminatory bias, remaining in our judicial system and social institutions, and absolutely in our commercial corporations. (everyone here aware of the disproportionately large number of people of color foreclosed upon and led into financial default by Wall Street - making money by speculating on the cash-flow of home mortgages?)
4. Mr. Ries seems unaware the starting position or "playing field" of U.S. economy is not "level"; it is not "just" (legally, justly administered and maintained) in terms of racial equality.
The common knee-jerk response to this is often "we fought a civil war for this" and "there has been no slavery since the US Civil War," or perhaps worst "slavery was abolished" - stated by those in high office and the common persons, not discerning the difference between something abolished, and something merely recorded as illegal, and proceeded after the Civil War by rejected and abolished "re-construction" plans to reform the corrupt and racist practices of the state governments in the southern U.s.; and followed by "share-cropping" and owing one's soul to the store of the industrial-revolution era businesses which substituted job-titles and I.O.U.s to the company, for the generic term "slave." What need of the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Ed. Kansas if equality had been established by the Civil War? What need for Roosevelt and Truman to denounce the frequent lynchings of African-Americans if racial equality was established? What need for the non-violent civil rights efforts of the 1960s if racial equality had been established 100 years earlier? I didn't "connect the dots" of these obvious blemishes, or gaping wounds on the record of our own treatment of our own brothers and sisters, even while growing up with African-American blood relatives in my family - in the 1970s and 80s.
5. As in item 2, above, many people of all levels or lack of education, across the centureis don't have skill and sufficient practice at questioning our assumptions, especially about broad, fundamental constructs we all rely on, like the Law and Justice. In both arenas of US Law - Civil Law and Criminal Law (these are holdovers from Europe and British caucasian-run autocratic systems with inherent privilege, not yet considered as part of the problem, and due to be reconsidered in any effort to make a single, uniform standard of justice, responsive to the profound implications of US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Kansas School Board, establishing explicitly the principle that should have been practiced and known implicitly - separate is inherently not equal, and equal justice is the point of law) - so the "referees" on the Playing Field remain operators in an inherently unjust system - ready to be challenged.
6. Mr. Ries can reexamine the wisdom, fairness, and justness of his "color blind" hiring practice, only after considering the points above. If we all include such considerations, then, most of us are ready to accept and apploy some basic principles of fairness and justice we are familiar with at a gut level, and which are true even in public courts of law. We can live while owing more money than we have. We may die in a state of financial debt. Any heir we have will have to let courts decide if any person, or any business, or if any govenment claim must be passed on to the estate of deceased who left a debt. To administer justice is to act proactively for fair and just enforcement of the law. If a real estate property has a deed with a lien filed against it, the situation is called a "cloud" on the title, which must be cleared up legally. (Though now the real estate industry operates "title" insurance to cover any necessary repayment for upaid claims.) So, enacting justice is conscious, planned, affirmative action toward establishing peace, and the rule of law. The emotionally evocative connotations to the term Affirmative Action, should be recognized as distractions.
All remaining racist behaviors of institutions, of our government, of the judiciary, of police and prisons, of universities, kindergartens, high schools, must have affirmative action extended to achieve the principles and the spirit of the basic law of the US.
7. As in items 2 and 5 above, most people in the US and around the world are unaware that by the year 2042, caucasians will be a numerical minority group in the US, for the first time in history. This is only 30 years from today. How long dare anyone permit unjust behaviors continue without seeking justice, without seeking affirmative actions for justice and restitution - just as happens every day in courts around the world when property crimes happen. Even the convicted, caucasian Ponzi-scheme, billionaire swindler Bernie Madoff has been ordered to pay restitution out of his estate. The on-going, long-running history of both overt and covert racial discrimination has innumerable records of data crying out for justice. The DNA Justice projects, providing the proof of factually-unfounded and unsupportable convictions by jurors, by us, We the People are just the numeric tip of the iceberg of the continuing corruption of the incarceration and execution of a disproportionately large portion of people of color. (I think I heard the figure established at about 6 to 1, men and women of color sentenced to long prison terms for non-volent crimes, compared to caucasians sentenced for same behaviors, on Tavis' reports on the Innocence project.)
So, yeah, life is unfair. The current population of citizens must bear the burden of admitting responsibility for the crimes against humanity we've committed and continue to commit. Bearing this burden requires the acknowledgment of unpaid debts and unrectified injustices against people of color. Just restitution must be made. When the actuarial experts finish their numerical tallies, this affirmative action of justice would result in a huge transfer of the US wealth to people of color - perhaps something along the line of the Wall St. bailout, at least in speed, once the total dollar balance due is calculated (which is likely many multiples greater than the $1 Trillion dollars given to the private investment banking firms of Wall Street, by the private bankers contracted in secret by the US Treasury and federal reserve.)
The next 30 years can be more than amazing if we all pursue justice, and embrace the "discovery" portion of the process, bringing the facts and evidence into public court, so everyone can start to break the unconscious chains of habit that currently still actively support and enforce our racist society - even in Silicon Valley.
article text below, but go to page and see the discussion comments
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can’t have missed the recent dust-up over race and Silicon Valley. Like almost every discussion of diversity and meritocracy in this town, it turned ugly fast. One side says: “All I see is white men. Therefore, people like Michael Arrington must be racist.” The other responds, “Silicon Valley is a colorblind meritocracy. If there were qualified women or minority candidates, we’d welcome them.”
I’d like to say a few words about this, but I want to do so under special ground rules.
I want to make an argument, step by step, that I hope will convince you to care about this issue, but that doesn’t presuppose that you already agree that diversity is important. And it will explain how it is possible for both sides to be mostly correct – and that we still have a problem.
So the rules are:
So – no hippies, no whiners, no name-calling, and no BS. If you want to make Silicon Valley – and startup hubs like it – as awesome as possible, pay attention.
What accounts for the decidedly non-diverse results in places like Silicon Valley? We have two competing theories. One is that deliberate racisms keeps people out. Another is that white men are simply the ones that show up, because of some combination of aptitude and effort (which it is depends on who you ask), and that admissions to, say Y Combinator, simply reflect the lack of diversity of the applicant pool, nothing more.
The problem with both of these theories is that the math just doesn’t work.
It’s a fact that the applicant pool to most Silicon Valley startup schools and VCs is skewed. Could this be the result of innate differences between white men and other groups? The math simply doesn’t hold up to support this view. Think about two overlapping populations of people, like men and women. They would naturally be normally distributed in a bell curve around a mean aptitude. So picture those two bell curves. Here in Silicon Valley, we’re looking for the absolute best and brightest, the people far out on the tail end of aptitude. So imagine that region of the curve. How far apart would the two populations have to be to explain YC’s historical admission rate of 4% women? It would have to be really extreme.
There is some research on the differences between men and women, and it has shown some differences in both average aptitude and the standard deviation of aptitude (i.e. that men have more extreme outcomes in both the positive and negative direction). But these differences are extremely small, nowhere near large enough to suggest a region on this curve with all men and no women on it. If you’d like to examine the math involved, check out this excellent slide deck courtesy of Terri Oda:
What is true for aptitude is also true for interest. Some populations are more interested in science, in math, in business, and in taking risks than others. But all of the research I am aware of suggests that these differences are extremely small – not nearly big enough to explain what we’re observing in places like Y Combinator.
This is why I personally care about diversity: it’s the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. When we see extremely skewed demographics, we have very good reason to suspect that something is wrong with our selection process, that it’s not actually as meritocratic as it could be. And I believe that is exactly what is happening in Silicon Valley.
There’s plenty of good research on the subject of team performance that shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams on many different kinds of tasks. The problem is that this research doesn’t argue for demographic diversity, but rather for a diversity of perspectives. So, again, racial or gender diversity is not an end in itself. But we have to ask ourselves: if teams are consistently being put together with homogeneous demographics, what are the odds that they also will contain a diversity of perspectives? Shouldn’t we be worried that the same selection process that produces homogenous results in one area might be accidentally doing the same in the area that we care about (but that is harder to measure)?
Does that mean that the racism theory is necessarily correct? I don’t think so. I’ve certainly heard my share of sexist and racist jokes in Silicon Valley, but hardly enough to believe that people like Michael Arrington or Paul Graham are lying when they say that they are colorblind. I think that – in the absence of any counterevidence – we should take them at their word. Besides, we don’t need racism to explain these results. Now that we’ve clarified the question to be “how do we build a meritocratic selection process?” we can look at a wealth of research that has been done in this area.
And there’s good news here. Wherever selection processes have been studied scientifically, errors have been found. These errors are called “implicit bias” in the research literature, which causes a lot of confusion, because the word “bias” connotes malevolence. But let’s leave that connotation behind – we’re entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers, for goodness’ sake. We can talk about bias like grownups.
And what the grownups have discovered, through painstaking research, is that it is extremely easy for systems to become biased, even if none of the individual people in those systems intends to be biased. This is partly a cognitive problem, that people harbor unconscious bias, and partly an organizational problem, that even a collection of unbiased actors can work together to accidentally create a biased system. And when those systems are examined scientifically, they can be reformed to reduce their bias.
The most famous example of this comes from the world of musical orchestras. Until the 1970s, almost every professional orchestra in the world was all-male. All experts in the musical world agreed on the reason: male performers had superior aptitude to female performers. They gave all kinds of explanations for why, that had to do with men’s allegedly superior skill, hand-eye coordination, interest in music, and their willingness to sacrifice so much to become a professional musician. And yet, by the 1990s, these ratios had changed dramatically. No conductors went to political correctness anti-bias training camps. No hand-wringing was needed. They hit upon a solution – by accident – that practically changed orchestra selection overnight: they had performers audition behind a physical screen, so that the judges could not see their race or gender while they played. When rating performers anonymously, it turned out that men and women played equally well, on average.
If you’ve seen the movie Moneyball recently (or read the book), this should sound familiar. The whole premise of Moneyball was the triumph of science, data, and reason over the gut feelings and beauty contests of baseball scouts. Think of the famous scene in which the scouts are sitting around a table debating which prospects had “the right look” – and Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are calling BS. Which side of the table sounds more like the admissions process to a Silicon Valley startup school, where they are often “looking for people like us?”
According to the research on implicit bias, our selection processes are making some huge, obvious mistakes. The Y Combinator partners conduct short ten-minute interviews where they make snap decisions about candidates on the spot – sometimes in as little as sixty seconds. This process, while efficient, is the exact opposite of musical performances happening behind a screen. They are even moving towards video interviews – which would bring this visual bias even earlier into the process.
Now think about the countless VC pitch meetings and “get to know you” mixers and coffees and lunches. These are all opportunities for VC’s to use their vaunted pattern recognition to try and spot promising entrepreneurs and companies early. But pattern recognition is just a fancy word for bias. And if you look at the research on implicit bias, you will find that bias is a necessary consequence of using pattern recognition, it’s part of how the brain works. We literally think faster when we see something that matches the pattern, and have to slow down to process something that doesn’t match. I think Michael Arrington provided a fascinating first-hand account of this cognitive process in action, when he described his experience struggling to name a single African-American entrepreneur. He couldn’t come up with one on the spot, but not because he’s a racist.
None of this is meant as a criticism of Y Combinator, VCs, or anyone else. It’s meant to point out that even though our current selection process is pretty good, and pretty meritocratic, it still contains bias. We can do better. And, if we do, we will make all of Silicon Valley more successful.
So how can we do better? I believe there are several relatively simple changes we could make right away.
I previously described on my blog one simple change I made to the hiring process at my last company. I asked all of our recruiters to give me all resumes of prospective employees with their name, gender, place of origin, and age blacked out. This simple change shocked me, because I found myself interviewing different-looking candidates – even though I was 100% convinced that I was not being biased in my resume selection process. If you’re screening resumes, or evaluating applicants to a startup school, I challenge you to adopt this procedure immediately, and report on the results.
Startup schools are an exceptionally good laboratory for testing these ideas. In fact, if anyone out there wants to put this idea to the test, I suggest the following experiment: for your next batch of admissions, have half of your reviewers use a blind screening technique and the other half use your standard technique, on your first screen (before you’ve met any applicants). Compare the outputs of both selection processes. I predict they will show different demographics.
Of course, this doesn’t address the whole problem. Remember, part of the defense against the racism theory is that the applicants are already skewed before any selection is done. Once again, this sounds like something you can only throw your hands up about: if it’s not a problem with innate differences, it must be a problem with our education system or some other “pipeline” problem.
So let’s take a look at this problem, too.
I once spent time with a promising entrepreneur who was not a white man. Because their startup sold a product that a lot of tech entrepreneurs buy, many of their customers were graduates of Y Combinator. So I asked if they were planning to apply. Their response: “oh, no, it’s a waste of time. Y Combinator doesn’t accept people like me.” Where did they get that idea? Surely not from YC’s partners, who as far as I can tell are scrupulously fair in their dealings with entrepreneurs. Rather, they got that impression by inferring that there is probably implicit bias in YC’s admissions process, and that they’d be better off spending their time doing something else other than applying to YC.
We all know there is a huge gender gap in computer science. But that gap means that women receive only about 30% of degrees in CS. But 30% is a lot larger than 4% – and that’s a big math problem for advocates of the pipeline theory.
Imagine that you were a professional musician thinking about which orchestra to audition for. You have a choice between an all-male orchestra that conducts interviews out in the open, and a mixed-gender orchestra that conducts auditions behind a screen. Which would you choose to apply to? Wouldn’t your answer be different if you were a man or a woman?
I think thought experiments like this are helpful for suggesting an alternate hypothesis to the pipeline problem: that there are qualified minority applicants who are choosing – rationally – to invest their time and energy elsewhere. I am not aware of any scientific study that proves this hypothesis is correct. But I have seen enough existence proofs to believe it is likely.
For example, I have been a mentor for several years in the Founder Labs program, which was originally created by Women 2.0. It’s a pre-incubator program, that helps potential founders figure out if they should become entrepreneurs. They created it as a way of encouraging women to apply to startup schools and create companies. But they took a novel approach to this problem. They did not advertise the program as being about diversity. Instead, they adopted a minimal rule: each founding team had to have at least one woman, and they privately reached out to talented women in their networks and encouraged them to join.
I remember the first time I spoke to the Founder Labs teams. I kept asking: who are you and where have you been? It was unlike any other audience I’ve seen at any other startup school: 50/50 men and women, with a surprising amount of diversity. The participants included chip designers and hard-core engineers, the kind of people that have the aptitude but don’t apply to most startup school programs or pitch most VCs. I believe the reason they came to this program was that they believed its selection process would be more meritocratic.
Groups that make a conscious effort to become more meritocratic are able to make meaningful changes in the diversity of their participants. One of my favorite examples is the San Francisco Ruby Meetup, which spent a year making the effort to improve the number of women who participate. The steps they took required effort, but not rocket science. They didn’t have to get sixth grade girls interested in programming. You can read more about it here.
There’s one last piece to this puzzle that science can help us with. It goes by the rather unfortunate academic name of stereotype threat. But a confusing name doesn’t make it any less real. It turns out that when people are in a situation that defies stereotypes, reminding them of the stereotype diminishes their performance. In one study from NYU, students were given a math test. Asking men and women questions about their gender beforehand increased the performance gap substantially. “Priming” students with questions about other aspects of their identity, did not. This result has been replicated in many, many studies.
I think this helps explain why asking more minorities to apply to these programs doesn’t work. Consciously thinking about proving a stereotype wrong impairs performance. So it’s entirely possible that a completely objective assessment of the performance of candidates in an application process will show minority candidates doing worse, because they are literally cognitively impaired.
And this brings me back to the no hand-wringing rule. Most people interpret this finding as bad news, but I think they have it backwards. It’s actually really good news. If you look at the studies, what they show is that the performance gap between groups can be mostly erased, if candidates are primed in a merit-focused way. Explicit diversity programs have the solution exactly backwards. What we need to do is to build meritocratic selection processes, and then go our of our way to tell people about them. We should emphasize the objectivity of the selection process and our efforts to weed out all forms of bias. I believe this is why certain programs, like Founder Labs and 500 Startups, that boast of their meritocratic “moneyball” approach to admissions have more diverse applicants – and participants.
When it comes to meritocracy and diversity, the symbolic is real. And that means that simple actions that reduce bias, such as blind resume or application screening, are a double win: they reduce implicit bias and they help communicate our commitment to meritocracy. As a startup ecosystem we are in the meritocracy business. This is the path towards making Silicon Valley – and every other startup hub – even more awesome.
Photo credit: Daviniodus
Y Combinator is a venture fund which focuses on seed investments to startup companies. It offers financing as well as business consulting along with other opportunities to 2-4 person companies looking to take an idea to a product. Y Combinator looks for companies with “good” ideas over companies with experience and a business model. The company made its first investments in Summer 2005. Y Combinator selects companies to finance and consult with twice a year. They are located in...