A recent interview with Ycombintator’s Paul Graham on Inc. created somewhat of a backlash online for his comments on using startup founders’ accent as a filtering criteria for future success.
.@paulg so you're saying that your statement in English wasn't clear enough to be properly understood?
— Anil Dash (@anildash) August 27, 2013
(You should click over to the original tweet to see the long discussion thread that ensued)
The original quote was:
One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I’m not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can’t if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it’s a strong pattern we’ve seen.
Paul makes two points:
- People who do not speak idiomatic English (i.e, native-sounding English) will have a harder time communicating.
- If they did not rid themselves of their accent yet, they are clueless.
Following that, Om Malik has written a very well articulated article about patterns and fallacies in the valley. Om is an immigrant himself, and can relate deeply to the prejudice people have when dealing with people from other cultures – a distinction that is made readily apparent by their accent.
I don’t want to get into whether Paul Graham really just meant “hard to understand” (though his repeated statements regarding it does not articulate that well), but instead I want to offer my view as a non native speaking founder on how having an accent can actually be an advantage:
People with accents are more likely to be self conscious when they speak
Getting rid of an accent is not as easy as Paul suggests. It might be possible with months of training with an instructor, but as you get older it becomes harder to change speech patterns and frankly, I don’t have the time or find the need for that.
So what do I do instead? I pre-compose the sentences in my head instead of shooting from the hip, and construct them in such a way that aims to maximize clarity even though my English is very good (though I won’t be confused with a native speaker anytime soon). As a result, I find that I have less problems communicating what I mean than most native speaking Americans I know and work(ed) with.
Being conscious of speaking a little differently, I make an extra effort to be very concise and clear, and often have better results than if I had used my native tongue (Hebrew) – especially when discussing complicated or technical subjects. This mental exercise of simplifying and articulating what I mean for extra clarity, spills over to other forms of communication – such as writing. If you go back to my earlier posts and compare it to the more recent ones, you will see a significant shift in writing style and clarity – for the better. Most of it as a result of constantly practicing to speak and articulate English better.
On the other hand, I see a lot of native speaker who are not very good at articulating what they mean very well. In a previous post I wrote about how I reviewed over 300 applications for 500startups, and most of those contained a video of the founders talking about the product. In all honesty, I did not see any preference for idiomatic English speaking founders as far as clarity is concerned. Most of the founders suffer from the same problem – how to properly state the problem they are trying to solve and what their product does to solve it.
An accent can be an ice-breaker
Watch this video of Arianna Huffington’s keynote at Inbound 2013. She starts her speech by explaining her accent and using it to build some rapport with audience.
Arianna is another very successful entrepreneur, despite (or because?) having a very strong accent (in fact, much stronger than mine). My co-founder, Adam, has a strong Israeli-French accent, and yet had no problem delivering a great demo day pitch.
He makes it work because he speaks with confidence and he’s conscious of his accent. Adam uses his accent on many occasions as a conversation starter (“Pardon my French…”), and as our CEO he went on to raise the most money during the duration of the program (500startups summer batch #6) than any of the other batch members. This despite some investors having natural resistance, such as Paul, to giving money to people who don’t fit their ideal founder stereotype.
For innovation to happen, you have to think differently
Coming from a different culture means that I often do things differently than most Americans. Israeli culture is very individualistic and independent – great attributes for startup founders. It’s no surprising that Israel is one of the top sources of startup talent and companies – sometimes ranked as 2nd in the world behind the U.S, despite a huge difference in population size.
Different backgrounds and cultures result in different approaches to solving problems, which is necessary for innovation. International founders bring a different mindset and thought patterns to the U.S that you won’t readily find here. They tackle different problems and they build different solutions. It’s not a coincidence that 40% of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
It’s cool to be different
In our 500startup batch, we had founders from Japan, Spain, Jordan, Israel, Ukraine, Mexico, Brazil, India, Taiwan and a few others I probably forgot (oh, and a few Americans as well :) ). We had no problems communicating despite the culture and language differences, and I’m proud to call those people my friends now. Many of the batch companies have the potential to be huge some day, in no small part due to the cultural diversity of their founders.
Having an accent and being different is an obstacle only if you think of it that way. Be confident and persistent, and good things will follow.
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