Quoted: Y Combinator’s Paul Graham on CEOs with ‘strong’ foreign accents

“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.”

— Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, the Mountain View-based accelerator, is described by Inc. as “brusque.” Graham has called himself “curt,” which he says people perceive as arrogant. But the quote above, in answer to Inc.’s question about how Y Combinator determines which startups to fund, reeks of condescension and prejudice. Would anyone call Andy Grove, the former Intel CEO, clueless? He left Hungary at the age of 20 and eventually made his way to the United States. From the 2006 book “Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American Business Icon”: “Even in his later years, Andy Grove had an accent that could be described as more than merely noticeable.” Yet he taught at Stanford and Berkeley and spoke in public often. Other prominent Silicon Valley people with accents — we’re not sure what Graham considers “strong” — include Vinod Khosla, Sun Microsystems co-founder and now a venture capitalist, Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and a guy named Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.


Photo: Andy Grove is shown at the Grove Foundation office in Los Altos in 2011. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)


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  • Jay L. Gischer

    Yeah, the framing is a problem. Sergey Brin, Andy Grove, and Vinod Khosla have little problem making themselves understood, though they have easily noticed accents.

    So “strong” accent is the wrong way to look at it, it puts something that could be objectively framed – “can they be easily understood?” – into a subjective framework, “Do they have a “strong” accent?” – that makes it into a fertile field for bias.

  • Gary Valan

    As one with a “Non-American English” accent if I can use that term I would have to agree. However it is only limiting if I had to go pound the pavement looking from funding from people who have a mental roadblock against accents other than “educated American English.” I hope this attitude changes or organizations who have a more advanced or worldly outlook will get the business. And as your article mentions, CEOs of established companies who may have strong accents find nothing to limit them.

  • http://mankabros.com/blogs/onmedea Jill K

    If Y Combinator and Paul Graham are successful it is because of luck. Throw enough stuff at a wall and something will stick. I guess he gets credit for roping so many start-ups into his scheme. But it’s really no way to start a successful business. Here is a perspective that I agree with…

    • Michael

      How many times have you applications been declined?

  • http://andreas.com Andreas Ramos

    I wonder about Paul Graham’s accent when he speaks in German. Or Chinese. Or French. Or maybe he can’t speak any foreign languages at all? Sad…

  • http://www.kaporcenter.org Nicole
  • http://www.mercurynews.com/wiretap Peter Delevett

    Interestingly, I covered Y Combinator’s Demo Day last week and one of the founders, who’s from Eastern Europe, had an exceptionally strong accent that made his presentation a little hard to follow. Guess PG and the gang made an exception in his case.

    • http://www.estimote.com Jakub Krzych

      Hi Peter,

      my name is Jakub and I think you might be referring to my Demo Day pitch since I have a very strong Eastern Europe accent I am proud of 😛

      I am sorry it was difficult for you to follow my presentation, but coming from Poland makes it an obvious challenge to speak idiomatic English. In addition to Polish language kids like myself in early 90s were still learning Russian since Central Europe was under the past influence of Russia at that time. Then after system has changed they introduced German and we learned it in the high school. And finally at the university there were English lessons what was not enough to speak it fluently.

      Fortunately my customers don’t care about my strong accent : ) and even though PG might be right about the correlation, my job is to prove the thesis is wrong. And at the end of the day is not that bad – you could check it yourself:

      • http://www.mercurynews.com/wiretap Peter Delevett

        Hi, Jakub. Well, I wasn’t going to name names, but … 😉

        And I agree with your point – from what I could tell, the investors in the audience didn’t seem put off in the least. In fact, Estimote was one of the more intriguing pitches in the batch.

        (By the way, were I to attempt to give a pitch in French, the only other language I speak with any proficiency, I would comport myself far less ably than you did.)

  • Paul Graham

    Paul Graham is clearly a racist and sexist man.

    • http://www.mercurynews.com/wiretap Peter Delevett

      To quote the great Nigel Tufnel, Paul: “What’s wrong with being sexy?”

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  • Peter

    “and a guy named Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.”
    To Paul Graham:
    Sergey Brin has a very mild accent, I think you are really nitpicking.
    Btw, if you don’t really sound like a BBC news anchor please don’t talk about
    people having accents.

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