“It’s Complicated” with Paul Graham: A Call for Civil Discourse on Sexism in Our Community
“Silicon Valley isn’t made up of heroes and villains. It’s led by complex people, who are doing a whole lot of good and also making mistakes along the way.”
By Elissa Shevinsky (Co-founder & CEO, Glimpse)
I’m saddened by the recent attacks on Paul Graham. Not that a deep dive into a fund as influential as YC isn’t warranted — it is. But the tech community has made a mistake in rushing to judge one of its most influential members based on an article behind a $399 paywall.
Like so many of us who experience sexism on a daily basis, I’m appreciative that these conversations are happening. We need to start funding people based on actual specialness, rather than on superficial traits. But we need a less violent and more constructive dialogue. Surely there is a middle ground between not discussing these issues at all, and the kind of mean spirited conversations fueled by Valleywag’s reporting.
People are complex. Men like Paul Graham are much more than one interview that went wrong, or even a series of regrettable mistakes. I know Y Combinator. Not intimately — but better than most of the critics. I owe much of my entrepreneurship to Graham. He was the first investor to take me seriously and give me good advice.
Graham’s encouragement at a key inflection point led me to build my first startup.
Graham probably doesn’t even know who I am. That’s part of what makes this story so important. My story matters because when I was an unknown– not yet even a founder — Paul Graham took the time to listen to my ideas, take me seriously, and offer honest and useful advice.
I met Graham at a YC recruitment event in New York, several months before I ever put together my first Delaware C Corp. After folks like Alexis Ohanian gave talks about entrepreneurship, Graham spent an hour or so meeting with aspiring entrepreneurs.
I waited in line, patiently, watching him kindly but without any sugar-coating tell entrepreneur after entrepreneur why their ideas wouldn’t work. So when he I pitched him on a Jewish dating concept and he told me to go do it, I was doubly motivated.
He first took some time to explain to me that he was married and didn’t know much about online dating. He asked me to explain the industry. I told him about okcupid and JDate and white space in the market. Graham forgave my b-school lingo, caught on quick, and was the first person to tell me to go build okcupid for Jews. In retrospect, he didn’t say that it was a billion dollar idea — or that he’d fund me — but green entrepreneurs need to start somewhere. That was my start.
He asked if I knew any devs. The only one I was close to was my ex-husband. I remember sheepishly stuttering over how that wouldn’t do. Graham was very kind, and saw the humor in it with me. We agreed I should go find myself a co-founder. I suppose that was the moment when I really became a startup entrepreneur. I’d been in startups –and part of founding teams — since 2000, but there’s nothing quite like venturing out on your own.
Perhaps someone else would have told me to learn to code. Quite frankly, I’m glad that Graham didn’t. I know how to code, and Pax and I take turns running the development process. But there’s more to startups than writing code — there’s legal docs and hiring and design and getting users. I prefer partnering with hackers, and focusing on those other pieces of the business.
Graham said that the next steps would be to build something and iterate on it until my female friends loved it. Then I should “run around and get all the girls that I know signed up.” This remains the best advice I’ve gotten on building a dating startup. It remains the basic plan for Glimpse (just substitute “people” and “VIP early adopters” for “girls.”)
My story is just one example, but how many other women owe their entrepreneurship to Paul Graham? How many otherwise overlooked entrepreneurs got going because Graham was willing to give them a chance?
Silicon Valley isn’t made up of heroes and villains. It’s led by complex people, who are doing a whole lot of good and also making mistakes along the way. Paul Graham has done a lot of good, and we owe him some consideration for that. I’m not suggesting a free pass. Rather, we owe someone like Graham some investigation and conversation, rather than attacks based on rehashes of questionable articles behind paywalls.
What’s great about startup people is they’re committed to learning and growing. They evolve. If you watch footage from Startup School 2013, you can see PG doing live YC interviews. He’s genuinely trying to correct his blind spots. More than any other investor that I’ve seen, he does not want to miss the next Facebook.
Graham’s intense self-reflection, and his efforts to get better at spotting “specialness,” is a very good thing. It’s a rare trait. It also means that there is significant overlap where Graham and Graham’s critics want the same thing.
We all want to see Y Combinator funding the very best possible people, and for the YC partners to correct any and all blind spots.
As someone who falls in YC’s blind spots along a number of axis — I’m female, often in a mixed gender team, older, have a liberal arts degree, and self-identify as a CEO more than as a hacker — I want this more than most. YC influences the rest of Silicon Valley, so Paul Graham’s blind spots matter. A lot.
We should be able to agree that what we’re really looking for is “specialness.” However, “specialness” is elusive. What do Jobs, Zuck, and newcomers like Kevin Systrom, Brian Chesky, Drew Houston and Evan Spiegel have in common? Besides being white, male and having attended schools like Stanford and MIT?
Given the current list of unicorn founders, it’s not surprising that white guys from MIT get investors excited. What else should they be looking for? There’s more to Systrom and Spiegel than being white and male — but whatever it is that makes them unique is hard to pin down.
If we’re going to create a more diverse funding ecosystem, then we need a productive conversation about what really makes successful founders — how to identify that “specialness.”
Of course we also need more women building billion dollar companies — and investors funding them. That will change the heuristic pretty quickly.
This is a call to both the institutions in Silicon Valley, and their critics, towards an ongoing civil discourse on women in tech. If these conversations can start happening in more respectable forums, then Valleywag will lose some of its power. And we’ll be on a path towards a more hospitable ecosystem for everyone. We can do this.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
About the guest blogger: Elissa Shevinsky is an app developer and serial entrepreneur. Shevinsky co-founded Glimpse with Pax Dickinson, published “That’s It — I’m Finished Defending Sexism In Tech” and is now focusing on women in tech and privacy online.