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Privilege and Inequality in Silicon Valley (medium.com/rickyyean)
634 points by dtran on Jan 22, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 292 comments

I had a similar experience starting life with opportunity debt. Single parent family whose mother had no high school education. Have ADD and dyslexia, moved around a lot with a good part my life in subsidized housing, and never graduated from high school. No one teaches you the basics, so that when you do start coming into your own and taking control of your own life you are so incredibly behind your peers socially, politically, and intellectually. I eventually went to community college as a mature student, eventually made my way to university, did a masters and then a PhD at Yale. Through it all I was always one or two steps behind and so many opportunities were missed because I didn't have money. Similarly, now as an entrepreneur I find myself being a little more conservative because you've been through a lot of bad times without a safety net.

The main story, this comment, and many other user comments are really interesting and human. Would love to see someone compile a series of them, HONY style. These stories don't get talked about enough in the startup world.

Agreed. Wrote my story below. Not sure how ranking works on hacker news, it towards the bottom. Wish someone compiles these.

Sorry for my ignorance but what's "HONY" style?

I think "Humans of New York" http://www.humansofnewyork.com/

Yes that's the one - pretty amazing stuff.

I feel like the majority of people make the mistake of reflecting on themselves and saying "if only I had this", or "if only I wasn't disadvantaged in this way"... In reality, everyone is disadvantaged in some way, and I can guarantee you that the successful people had a lot of disadvantages and setbacks. You shouldn't dwindle on what you don't have, but rather on what you do have. Successful people don't wait for the stars to align to do what they want. Safety and security is NEVER guaranteed, and if you want to be successful, you must understand this and risk it anyway.


I'm not talking about reflection at all. AS you are going through your life you are very aware of the advantages other may have. When I was going to University I also had to 30 hours a week. While friends from wealthier families could spend their extra efforts studying. In the summer, I couldn't quit my crappy job to take an internship because I needed that job in the fall. And on holidays, while everyone is getting a vacation to decompress and battle burn out, I was working.

Had to work 30 hrs a week? So did I. But I look at that as a major advantage. The experience I acquired as well as the 'adulting' life skills gave me an incredible headstart over my peers, who think I was 'born lucky' to have those skills.

Are you seriously saying that everyone's disadvantages are the same? Wow.

I think he's point is that there are also disadvantages of growing up under high income (of course it depends on parenting too). Too spoiled, cannot relate to ordinary people, etc.

I seem to remember that many entrepreneurs are born to upper middle class parents.

Not spoiled enough that they cannot work, but still fortunate to have a safe upbringing and be risk tolerant.

(I do agree with you that people are born with very different prospects depending (among other things) on parents social-economic status)

Wealth is not a disadvantage. Period.

The point you seem to be missing is that relative wealth is not a trump card that erases all opposition magically.

Getting spoiled as a child can be definitely be a disadvantage later in life :)

Easily. If someone comes from a rich family it's in a way harder for him to build a startup: he will not belong to the demographic of 90%+ potential users of any startup, and it will be hard for him to understand what they want and how to pitch it to them, same thing about employees - it will be hard to lead and motivate people not understanding what the people who need to work to pay their bills feel. This is my personal experience, while i am not rich in the 'first world' sense, when i lived in a small provincial town in Russia 9 years ago i was rich in a relative sense - if you define rich as '1%'. My attempt to build a catering business failed miserably because of these items. Programming - where my clients are of same demographic as myself - works way better.

A rich person can throw money at this problem or at least has the financial and temporal capacity to research it and gain an academic understanding. I know the conventional wisdom is to build something that you would use yourself, but towards the later stages of most b2b companies--especially ones that deal with enterprise customers--the customer is just as alien to anyone as poor people are to you. This is such a tiny issue compared to being poor.

Seriously. "I am rich so I don't know how to make a vehicle to make even more money" is so transformatively different from "I grew up without enough opportunities to know how to function in polite (white) society" that my jaw bunched reading it.

This industry makes me profoundly sad sometimes. Often.

Making more money out of existing money is not a startup. It's an investment. Basically a reverse to startup.

I am morbidly curious what you think the point of a startup is if not to transform existing money into more money. Or what you think investors do with regard to those startups.

A startup is about using other people's money as a leverage for your idea/work. An investment is about being on the other side.

A rich guy who wants to make more money in the tech field will be better off doing angel investing, literally getting on the other side of the counter with startup founders.

After all, capital isn't hard to come by these days. Even outside of the Valley. I have raised (and sadly, burned uselessly) money and it was no way hard. So the factor of having money doesn't mean much. Apart from that, a rich guy will have some advantages (self-confidence, ability to take risks, good initial network) and some disadvantages. Among these are poor understanding of audience for most kinds of ideas, pressure from high status relatives ('startups are hipster toys, you have to go to business school'), high opportunity costs. If we look at successful startup founders, very few come from rich families. Also, having to raise outside money provides a reality check, something which a rich kid will code using his own money has a higher chance to become just a toy - facing investors provides validation and feedback you can't ignore. Raising money is something people think is hard, and it's no way fun to do, so they avoid it whenever they can, so someone who doesn't need it will probably not do it. Which leaves him all alone with his vision...

It's called the Law of Averages. It's a type of magical thinking.

But of course your experiences and hardships shaped who you are as a person too.

This sounds very familiar.

When I was in University I didn't understand why some people didn't care about grades and partied so much. When we left school and got into the real world I understood why: they had rich parents with contacts that could get them good jobs or seed capital for their own businesses.

I had lots of ideas and worked in a lot of startups for more than 10 years but now the following phrase from the article describes my situation very well:

"Most of the time, potential founders who share my background tend to work at lucrative jobs in finance or tech until they can take care of everyone in their families before they even dream about taking more risks — if they ever get there."

The other possibility is that going to the parties is a good use of time, and that is where many students develop their networks. In addition to that, signalling theory would indicate that what classes you take and how well you do are much less important than the university you attend and the faculty you graduate from.

Interesting observation. Anything that creates an emotional bond & takes down walls is going to build long lasting relationships among people. So partying is one of them. Especially if you are at a top school where most of your peers will end up at important places. You want those strong relationships since we all know business is people.

Building a network that's reliable is far more than someone you met at a meetup and added them to your LinkedIn. It starts either at school or through some social functions where one can connect on a deeper level than just a title.

Maybe this is why it's so much harder to form meaningful bonds later in life.

Also makes a good case for formal education and a school that has good signaling ;-)

> The other possibility is that going to the parties is a good use of time, and that is where many students develop their networks.

This was kind of my experience. I went to university two states away from where I grew up, knowing a grand total of one person there. I had the academic end more or less handled, but my first semester at university was the loneliest I've ever been in my life. I made good grades, but otherwise I was miserable, depressed and lonely.

It's easy to meet people in high school. Most high schools are small compared to major universities, and you have classes with those in your grade. Many of them you've been around for years. But now you're thrown into a new setting, with thousands of people. It's hard to make that transition from high school friendships to college friendships.

I spent my freshman fall pretty much just going to class and straight back to my dorm. On the weekends I would go to the football game, but that was it. The rest of the time I watched TV or played on the Internet. It was probably the loneliest I've ever been in my life and, as Christmas came that year I was seriously questioning whether or not I wanted to continue at my university. I had moved two states and five hours away, just to sit around and be lonely.

I told myself going back from Christmas if Spring semester wasn't any better I was going to transfer back home. Well, spring rolls around and one of the guys I'd sat next to in the intro to engineering class invited me to rush his fraternity.

Whut? I had been pretty vehemently anti-Greek; I was a nerdy computer science guy who liked roleplaying games and science fiction movies - not really what I assumed "frat" material was. So my first inclination was to say no thank you.

But I then I stopped myself. "What's the worst that could happen?" I asked myself. "The worst that happens is I don't like it, and I've wasted a few hours. No matter what, it beats sitting in my dorm room, in the dark, mindlessly surfing the web."

So I did it. And it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made.

I met so many amazing, awesome people it blew my mind. The guy that ended up being my big brother (for non-fraternity folks, think of a big brother as a mentor) could have been my twin separated at birth - we shared so many arcane interests (including roleplaying games and science fiction movies - we had a chapter D&D campaign running by the end of the semester).

I was eventually initiated, and throughout the remainder of college, the fraternity was a big part of my social life. It was instrumental in breaking me out of my shell and grounded me in the university community. I ended up graduating, having never again considered transferring. And I learned so many valuable social and leadership skills thanks to being involved in the fraternity.

Fast forward 15 years, and the people I met in the fraternity are still some of my best and closest friends. I still do a couple of concerts a year with group of brothers, and have ever since we were in college together. My big brother was the best man in my wedding a few years back and I was the best man in his wedding last year. Several other brothers were groomsmen as well. Several brothers drove up for my daughter's baptism a couple years, and we still go to gatherings once a year or so.

About eight years ago one of the brothers had his house burn down. We all pulled together and filled up a pickup truck worth of supplies to get them him and family through the tough time until insurance kicked in.

A group of four of us have a long running iMessage group that sees thousands of messages a year, especially involving our sports programs. When I'm watching football, I'm usually doing it with one window on the game and another on the chat window as we follow along. It's like being with your friends at the pub.

And it goes without saying that brothers end up getting jobs from other brothers. I think I know people in every conceivable industry at this point thanks to having met them at university.

Pretty much every major event of my life since I pledged, fraternity brothers have been a part of. All because I took a risk on something I thought I might not like but decided to try anyway. I'm glad I was wrong.

So yes, those raucous parties and silly rituals do serve a purpose. We're social creatures by nature and it's a way of building up your social life, and blowing off the stress of school. Universities are institutions of learning, yes, but we're not there just to learn 24/7, just like I'm not at my job now 24/7. These things are fun, and they build up your social network.

>I spent my freshman fall pretty much just going to class and straight back to my dorm. [...] one of the guys I'd sat next to in the intro to engineering class invited me to rush his fraternity. [...] I met so many amazing, awesome people it blew my mind.

So I find this slightly confusing, because in my experience of university, the fact I was living in dorms already offered me the opportunities to meet people that you're talking about. Pretty much from the day I arrived, people were sat talking in the corridors, and everyone else was as anxious to meet new people as I was, so I don't know how I could have avoided making friends.

That said, I do know that despite my social anxieties, I tend to be pretty comfortable talking to people I don't know that well (if anything, more so than people I do), so that might have made it easier than I realised.

One thing that does occur to me though, is in the UK alcohol is readily available to students. I realise US colleges are hardly dry, but I'd imagine it's not quite the same as the UK, where almost every student will have their own stock of preferred drinks ready for any social occasion.

> That said, I do know that despite my social anxieties, I tend to be pretty comfortable talking to people I don't know that well (if anything, more so than people I do), so that might have made it easier than I realised.

In retrospect, some of it is probably social anxiety.

But I think the bigger part is simply feeling a lack of connection with other people in the dorm. Other than living together we were all leading entirely separate lives. Different majors, different friend groups, etc. We'd see each other in the evenings but that was pretty much it.

The size of the school (~30k students) also didn't help me - the chances of me sharing a class with someone in my dorm were pretty low. Even big classes like Composition, there's probably 40 different composition classes being taught at any semester. I did have one or two people from my History class in my dorm, but that class had 400 people in the auditorium, so not really conducive to discussions. I was just one fish in a really, really big sea.

It was compounded by being an out-of-state student from a long way away from home. Many of the people in the dorm with me were in-state students, many from the same large high schools in the major cities. They came with a built-in networks of friends, many of whom were in the same or adjacent dorms. I knew one other person from my city at all, and he lived on the other side of campus.

So in my particular case, I had a lot working against me. I have no problems believing many people had a great time socializing in dorm life, but I just couldn't develop a connection with anyone there because of the sheer magnitude of the issues.

Which was kinda why it was so weird my friend invited me to rush. We'd sat next together in Intro to Engineering and chatted a few times, maybe sat together once in the cafeteria and studied for class, but not exactly what I would have called a deep connection. It was really surprising when I was offered that invitation.

In a fraternity, though, you are forced to build that connection. It's pretty much the entire point of the organization. If you want to be a part of the organization, you have to be a part of the brotherhood. You have to develop a connection with those in your pledge class (those who join the fraternity the same time you do), or you drop out or get dropped out.

I started with a smaller number of people that I could get to know (there were 11 people in my pledge class, a much smaller number for me to work with). And because we had tasks to work towards together, both as a pledge class and as an organization, we learned to work together with each other. I can't speak for every fraternity, but mine was super, super big on requiring us to work together. There was only one thing we were ever asked to do as individuals. Every single other thing we were expected to do as a class or as an entire organization. With requirements like that, I couldn't help but get to know people.

I'm not saying this type of thing is for everyone, but it really did work out well for me and for everyone else in my pledge class.

> One thing that does occur to me though, is in the UK alcohol is readily available to students. I realise US colleges are hardly dry, but I'd imagine it's not quite the same as the UK, where almost every student will have their own stock of preferred drinks ready for any social occasion.

My school, a large state university, was actually completely dry (officially, at least). Part of it is the drinking age in the US is 21, so only upperclassmen are even above that level at all. But even if you were over 21, alcohol was prohibited on campus. All the dorms, buildings and grounds were dry.

But this was pretty widely ignored, even by the administration. Generally speaking, as long as you weren't making an ass out of yourself or driving, you were okay. Sophomore year I traded beers with my RA (the person in charge of the dorm) on a pretty regular basis.

Would you say that going to parties outweigh directly networking?

Networking might be a benefit, but I'm sure that people go to parties with a different goal in mind, and that the time cost of partying can be better utilized in other ways.

In the undergrad university scene that is being discussed I'm having a hard time visualising what "direct networking" would look like.

However, I can confidently say there's a big difference in the bond formed between two people chugging beer bongs together vs asking someone in a lecture if they'd like to have lunch.

I also think the party scene would be difficult to replicate in terms of the sheer size of your potential network (I make no assertation about the objective quality of that network, but the article suggests it's not what be predisposed to think).

Anecdotally, I've got lifelong friends from both camps; but the people I lean on now in my professional development are the people I partied (hard) with at university.

I can confirm, I'd place much more value (including monitary- and career- value) on the connections made with people sharing the experience of being an irresponsible young person than I would the connections made during study/projects/"networking" etc. This isn't to say that A) these groups didn't overlap significantly or B) I wish I'd gotten blackout drunk more often; but the social aspect of being forced into close quarters living your life for a few years with peers in your age group is as least of equal value to the "education" part.

I've tried to say it in many different ways, but I'll try again: being "graded" constantly and basing huge path-driving decisions on those grades are a huge detriment to people and to society. I and many others would have had a much better, more rewarding, and more valuable experience if the point of Univerity wasn't gathering a dozen metrics a week for several years in a row in order to get a piece of paper.

I think the most important part of networking is to do it authentically. If you are naturally a partier, go to parties. If you are naturally studious, study with other people. I made a lot more useful connections with the folks I worked on projects with (or even moreso, folks I met on the Internet) than those I partied with, but that's because I always felt very out-of-place at the blackout-drunk party scene.

I tend to grow my network through researching security vulnerabilities in open source projects, even though that's not my goal. :\

(I'm agreeing with your post.)

Bases on years of experience I would estimate that the "good" jobs, often regardless of the field, are landed as follows:

Networking (60% of my "gigs":) Nepotism (10%, maybe more, much less in my case) Proven Ability to Deliver (20%) Good Luck (10%)

Conversely, I didn't party much at all in college, and I don't really have a professional network from that period of time. I developed all of that later, post-college, when I started partying (I'm a late bloomer, I guess). I hate "networking" events, and have never managed to get much out of them when I've forced myself to go, but love meeting people organically through regular social outings. Some of those people turn into friends, some turn into professional contacts, and some turn into both.

I guess drinking laws mean this can't happen in the USA, but plenty of parties I went to would start with a meal and a couple of drinks in a restaurant before moving on to a bar then a nightclub.

That's not much different to what happens at conferences I've attended, except it ends before the nightclub, usually.

yes, and also I am not sure it's really that hard to be a reasonably decent student and attend parties. I mean you could study 8 am to 8pm on a Saturday, go to a party, be in bed by 1 am and study 9 am to midnight the next day

Signalling theory absolutely does not indicate that.

> When I was in University I didn't understand why some people didn't care about grades and partied so much. When we left school and got into the real world I understood why: they had rich parents with contacts that could get them good jobs or seed capital for their own businesses.

I'm not from the US, so I obviously can't tell if the same is true there (and I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't, given the sheer cost of tuition): here, there's a strong push for most people to go to university straight out of high school because that's what's done if you're at least averagely smart as you need to to get a well-paid job (or so the story goes, regardless of its truthfulness).

At the same time, many people don't really know what they want to do (and degrees here lack the breadth of those in the US), so they end up dicking around a lot, going out partying, because they have no real focus. They don't care about their grades—they don't even care about university—it's purely a means to an end (i.e., getting a decently paid job), and when that end is more than a couple of years away while you simultaneously get your first taste of freedom as an adult, it's hard to care about effects that are years away.

> I didn't understand why some people didn't care about grades and partied so much. When we left school and got into the real world I understood why: they had rich parents with contacts that could get them good jobs or seed capital for their own businesses.

I think thats overly generalized. When I went to college I was (by design) mixed into a group of students whose parents were migrant workers; they were at college with the first year of tuition covered on a special program for migrant workers. I noticed among them the same thing I noticed among some of the more affluent people at school: some worked hard and did well, others did nothing but party. I wouldn't be surprised if it was more common among people with affluent parents, but I think the stronger reason is college (in the US) is a bunch of 18 year olds on their own for their first time; some are ready for the responsibility, many aren't.

And even those who party all the time might be able to finish with the best possible grades.

"Most of the time, potential founders who share my background tend to work at lucrative jobs in finance or tech until they can take care of everyone in their families before they even dream about taking more risks — if they ever get there."

This is so absolutely on point.

I've been through life, until now, with exactly that feeling, expecting but not knowing that others feel the same way.

I've been in a bit of a rut recently, and this gives me some ammunition to get myself back together... so thank you for quoting, and thank you, author.

Rich people network and want their kids to be successful, what a shocking revelation, so different from us poor people.

Chances are if they're slacking off in university then they're going to slack off at work too, which means whatever they're not doing will need someone to be hired to do it anyway.

Maybe this is because the OP was of an Asian background where taking care for extended family is taken for granted. In reality, most poor families are quite atomized, even when they live under the same roof, so that shouldn't be a big deal.

This really resonates with me, I was the first person in my family to go to university, and my grandparents had to work multiple jobs when they migrated from Europe in order to survive. My dad did slightly better, but both my parents only had high school education and worked blue collar jobs.

It does make it really hard to change your mindset when you come from this sort of background, when you've achieved more than anyone in your family and therefore can't really talk to them about your ambitions or career objectives.

It sounds awful, but sometimes I wish I had been born into a different family, with highly educated parents I could have amazing conversations with, who would encourage me to achieve and grow even more.

I find I constantly have a mindset of "I'm not good enough" and it's paralysing. I want to interview for the top tech jobs out there, like Google or Facebook, but my brain keeps telling me I'm not good enough, it's awful.

> with highly educated parents I could have amazing conversations with, who would encourage me to achieve and grow even more.... I find I constantly have a mindset of "I'm not good enough" and it's paralysing.

I went to Medical school and for a period of time was surrounded by people who, for the most part, came from affluent or otherwise successful families. My experience was the opposite of what you might have expected: I met many people who felt like they weren't good enough, whose parents weren't encouraging to them, and in several cases had no relationship with them whatsoever. Which I guess is only to say, if you want to be "Good enough" you just have to accept yourself for who you are and continuously try to be better. If you want to apply for the top tech jobs, you should. And if you fail, you should ask how you can improve, do so, and try again. Ultimately, you can only ever be good enough if you try. Failure isn't a disastrous outcome; its absolutely a part of the process of getting better.

> highly educated parents I could have amazing conversations with, who would encourage me to achieve and grow even more.

I realize you may not be implying this, but I just wanted to point out that highly-educated parents don't always have amazing conversations with their children, or encourage them to achieve and grow even more, or even accept or approve of the accomplishments their children have achieved.

Everyone would like better relationships :)

If you feel like you are not good enough - maybe you aren't. Maybe it will take another few years to work on something you are proud of and then you'll feel ready.

You sound relatively young - there is no rush to join google/facebook this year or the next. If you look at the bigger picture - you'll likely be working until you're in your 60s.

That's a long time. So I'd say don't sweat the goals you set for this year or the next so much, once you have the bigger picture, things will fall into place much more naturally.


Why in the world are you _hostile_ to the kind of accomplishments he's describing? Are you from pre-colonization India? 13th-century Europe? Christopher Columbus called, we don't despise upward social mobility anymore!

I'm a she, btw.

Off-topic, but I wanted to say that I really appreciate this comment/clarification - the matter-of-fact tone makes the point without getting anyone's back up, which (IMHO) is exactly the right way to reach hearts and minds.

I'm pretty bad about defaulting to masculine pronouns myself, and this simple exchange has done a lot to motivate me to break that habit (I would have also assumed your gender to be male, and would not have really thought about that assumption if not for this comment). Conversely, I think that would have just glazed over an angry/offended response, since I think it's clear that the person you're replying to meant no offense. So, thanks!

More on-topic (in response to your GP comment): I have a pretty similar family background, and have also experienced a lot of self-doubt. I think a lot of us (people in tech) suffer from impostor syndrome at times; the approach that helped me to overcome it is "fake it 'til you make it", especially in your internal dialogue. Try your best to project confidence in your abilities, and (more importantly) squash that little voice in your head that says you're not good enough whenever you hear it - even if you're inclined to agree with it.

I know this is easier said than done, but I think that it really helps improve the situation. For example, say you disagree with something said in a meeting:

<self-doubting inner voice>: "Keep your mouth shut, you're just going to look stupid!"

<self-affirming inner voice>: "No! I may not know everything about this subject, but I know a lot, and they haven't considered X!"

<out-loud>: "I'm not an expert on this topic, but it seems to me that we might be overlooking X...<make your argument>...Does that make sense, or am I missing something?"

As long as you're careful not to come off as hostile (note that the "out-loud" part has a deliberately humble tone and invites further discussion if others disagree), the worst-case scenario is you get some free education from someone more experienced than you; best-case, you get some immediate, external validation that you do know what you're doing. In either case, you're working towards breaking the habit of self doubt.

Anecdotally, I helped a friend get his first job in tech a couple of years back (he was previously a trash hauler), working as my assistant (I'm a DevOp) because I knew he'd be great at it if given the chance. His impostor syndrome caused him to totally choke in the final interview (upper management actively didn't want to hire him, but I managed to convince them that he'd be worth the low salary he was willing to take). It took him over a year to begin to believe that he wasn't an impostor, rather just new to the field. He worked hard, and followed my advice above, and his confidence gradually improved. Today, he's the Senior DevOps Engineer at that company (my old job), leading a team of 6, and making twice as much money as when he started. If he decides he wants to move to a "top" company at this point, he should have no problem.

I guess my point is that impostor syndrome really sucks, but if you actively work at it, it gets better.

Also, based on your comments on this thread, you seem pretty cool to me. If you're interested, shoot me an email (in my profile), and I'll gladly help you get an interview at my current company (Cloudera).

Thank you for this comment. I suffer severely from low self esteem and impostor syndrome. Coworkers from several previous jobs have even gone so far as to tell me they thought I was a genius, and it made me feel immensely guilty every time.

I'm going to try putting some of your suggestions into practice. I'm at a crossroads in my career, having recently been separated from my job due to budget cuts. Even though my job loss wasn't an indictment of my worth as a person or the craftsmanship of my work, my confidence still took a significant blow.

Staying motivated while looking, applying, and interviewing for jobs you believe you don't deserve to get is challenging, to say the least.

I've been there :). If there's anything I can do to help, feel free to reach out!

I totally understand if people are just downvoting me for being off-topic (I tried to keep the majority of my comment on-topic, but might not have done a very good job), but if the down-voting is due to the content of the post, I'm genuinely interested in understanding why. Thanks! (And apologies for the wall of text, it's just that this topic has stirred up a lot of feelings for me.)

My mistake... Sorry!

We've banned this account for trolling.

I found myself nodding along the whole article.

First, let me say that I am happy where I ended up. I'm successful, enjoy my work, and when I compare my personal income with our family income when I was growing up, it is an absurd multiple.

We were a very poor family in a poor part of the South. I went to a top-10 small private university on a full ride, felt completely alienated and never quite figured out how to function in that environment. I dropped out and moved to San Francisco at what turned out to be a very good time (early 90's), and once Netscape dropped, discovered nobody else knew what they were doing with this web thing either, and more or less faked it until I made it.

At the same time, I have had and do have ideas that others have executed on, that I know I could have made a go at, if only…

The if only list is long, and most of it comes back to self-imposed limitations that I can trace back to how I grew up. Frequently it relates to economic security, but there are other habits of thought that stop me from even getting to worrying about that.

One big one is that I never learned to think about entrepreneurship. A big lesson hammered into me growing up was the importance of "finding a good job", not figuring out how to make my own.

I did start a company in my mid-30s, and we did OK, until we didn't. And that failure (I think) had nothing to do with the habits of thought of a poor kid. But failing in a similar way in my 20s would have left me in a position to learn from that and try again, something I'm unlikely to make a go at 10 years later. I do little things for side income, but those are hobbies.

So it ends up being this thing that doesn't really bother me at this point, but does leave me to wonder what would have happened if I had picked parents from a very different walk of life.

And I am quietly amused when people tell me how they built everything themselves "after a seed from Dad", or "with a great connection I made through a family friend" or similar. Those are impossible blockers for a lot of people, even if they get over some of the habits of mind better than I did.

I've known deca-millionaire trust fund kids who ended up broke (or dead).

I've known immigrants who started with nothing and ended up fantastically independently wealthy.

And the vast, vast majority of people who settle somewhere near the middle.

What nobody teaches you is: it's all about luck.

Below that, the fine print: the harder you work and the more you sacrifice, the luckier you will get.

''If only'' works both ways. If only - then I would have been successful in some way. If only - then I wouldn't have met the partner who I fell in love with. It works both ways but people tend to overweight the negative (regret) and underweight the positive (gratitude). All you can do (young, old, or in between) is get up every day, be realistic about where you are and where you want to be, and keep moving forward.

I agree it's a lot about luck and work, but I think you are missing an essential key to success: relationships.

    it's all about luck
Bullshit. Luck sure goes a long way, but so do working very, very hard and smart and making course corrections and constantly doing things people say will fail.

99% of the time, when you do something that lots of smart people say will fail, you fail. People look at that 1% and conclude that if you just keep whacking your head against a brick wall, it will eventually turn into gold, completely ignoring the combination of smarts, habits, and the sheer dumb luck that are actually behind success. But the gutters are full of ambitious failures.

Ambition != working hard and smart

Spoken like a critic. Not a producer. I know lots and lots of smart people who know how to criticize but not to create.

Yeah, that's a standard rhetorical catch-22. Virtuous people always succeed, so anyone who doesn't succeed is by definition not virtuous--the system works! It's the same kind of thinking as "If God doesn't answer your prayers, it's your fault for not praying hard enough," or "Communism cannot fail, it can only be failed."

Nothing to do with virtue. I have seen bad people succeed with the same techniques. Please read more carefully before you make irrelevant remarks. This does not serve you well.

"Virtuous" was obviously shorthand for "working very, very hard and smart and" etc.

luck is a big factor but being in the right place at the right time maximizes the probability of getting lucky

"Being in the right place at the right time" is a vast majority of what luck brings you.

no, I don't think of it that way. As an example, if you moved to Silicon Valley in 1999 and made it a point to try to get a job at a cool startup, you might have at least had a chance to end up at Google as an early employee. But you had no such opportunity if you moved to Wichita, Kansas because you thought it was cheaper, or whatever the reason.

Fortune favors the bold


Author here. I'm inspired by your story. The responses I've been getting so far has been overwhelming. People from around the WORLD are telling me that the story resembles theirs and that they face very similar mindset challenges. I know my experience at Stanford was transformative and I feel extremely lucky, but that's part of the reason why I wrote it. I may be in a better position to talk about than most. Thank you for sharing your story.

Yes, and we can find someone who had it even worse than you did, and still made good.

Envy is something I've struggled with myself, so don't think I'm talking down to you when I tell you that you have to let it go. Your life is good now and can still get much better.

And even those who seem to have had a lot more privileges than you may have also had difficulties you don't know about. Rich parents too can be alcoholics.

Can't say much other than thank you for sharing. What a powerful story. Heart goes out to you. My contact info is in my profile. Please use it.


I was moved by your comments in this thread as well, and would be happy to exchange some thoughts if you're ever interested. (Email the address in my profile and I'll send you my personal one.)

There's a strong thread of meritocracy in the tech community, but there is no such thing. When you choose the clearly better developer over the other, you're often choosing the one who had better resources growing up, not just natural ability. The poorer developer may have had a natural advantage over the other one, but didn't have the money to develop it as much. So you're really just selecting for wealth all over again.

This is what's behind the achievement gap anxiety: Wise rich people don't want to perpetuate a world where only money selects success. It's wasteful and ultimately unsustainable.

>There's a strong thread of meritocracy in the tech community, but there is no such thing. When you choose the clearly better developer over the other, you're often choosing the one who had better resources growing up, not just natural ability.

You're using an overly restrictive definition of "merit". When you hire the best person for the job you're hiring based on merit. How they got there isn't really that important from your perspective as an employer. That's a meritocracy.

So could we then say based upon your comment and the parent that a meritocracy is antagonistic to diversity. Not trying to be argumentative, just more of a thought exercise. If a meritocracy chooses the best, and the wealthiest tend to have the resources and opportunity to make themselves better, then always choosing based upon merit means favoring less diverse backgrounds. Additionally, we tend to always view ourselves as ‘having merit.’ So we will also be predisposed to choose people like ourselves further hindering diversity. I personally have always favored the idea of being meritocratic, but am also leaning more toward purely favoring diversity, not diversity of superficial attributes, but the diversity of peoples background. I feel it helps to expand the breadth of knowledge of the team and avoid blindspots.

>So could we then say based upon your comment and the parent that a meritocracy is antagonistic to diversity.

Yes, I would say that's the bias. It's human nature to allocate your resources to give your children the best possible start in life. In poor societies that may be as simple as feeding them when you yourself go hungry. In our society it means scheming to get them into the best college or giving them seed money to start a business.

I would note that making alterations to promote diversity don't change that, either. They just distort the system such that people with resources game the system in unproductive ways. A good example is all those "women and minority owned" businesses that get preferential treatment in government contracting. From what I can tell nearly all of them are headed (wink wink) by the wife of a white guy with a relatively upper class upbringing.

i've also had the thought of hiring purely for diversity, but I'm not and likely will not be in a position to hire someone.

What I said is if you define merit as merely "the best person for the job" you are only really selecting for wealth in the end. Let me direct you to a little cartoon that explains it very succinctly.


No, I don't think so. Wealth is part of it, sure. But so is intelligence. So is looks. So is ambition. You're focusing on wealth because it's the easiest thing to measure, but wealth, especially wealth alone, isn't destiny.

Everybody knows people who grew up poor and "made it", and also people who had all the advantages but can't seem to make anything of themselves.

I never meant to convey a polemic about wealth alone. What I'm saying is wealth is the strongest correlation to a "meritocracy", not the only one. There are always examples of outliers in both rich and poor camps.

The thing is "merit" an be any number of things. You can say the student most in debt merits the job the most, or the person with the most experience, or the person exhibiting most ability, or the person who had to overcome obstacle.

But when people invoke merit they typically mean they're avoiding favoritism, nepotism, and are looking for someone who given what they know or learn about the person would best fit into the job to execute it.

The trouble is we can only really recognize "fit" to structures we are familiar with. We simply cannot see talent unless it is a kind of talent we've seen up close before. Because of this we end up only being able to approximate "the best candidate in my social group". And we neglect better candidates in foreign social groups.

But that's a different problem altogether. That goes beyond what people mean by "merit".

Yes, people only hiring people for whom they feel affinity is somewhat of an issue. I say somewhat, because it can be problematic working with people who understand things differently --say working with people who have a union attitude vs people who have a work at will attitude.

So, I understand the "I'd have beer with them" kind of thing even though it does bother me. I don't drink beer and I'm not into peer dynamics. But I understand why people might be into that.

That said, merit typically means not hiring someone just because they're friends, family, owed a favor, seniority, strict ethnic affinity (which happened and happens in lots of immigrant communities, of old and new), belong to some specific group, etc.

Hiring someone because they remind you of your friends/family/ethnic group is exactly what I'm talking about.

There has been no society in history that has ever truly had an answer for people born into privilege, except ours. We're in the information age, and its possible for people to learn highly technical skills through a bunch of free internet content, and apply it with very little to no starting capital. Sometimes its luck, other times its just a really good idea.

A good way to partially mitigate this is to stop with specific code interviews, where you ask someone how do implement X in Y language.

Instead, ask them about problems they've encountered and how they solved them. Doesn't even need to be programming problems. Get an idea for their problem solving process and ability. That's what you should be hiring people for.

genetics != merit

> When you choose the clearly better developer over the other, you're often choosing the one who had better resources growing up, not just natural ability.

Ahh, but natural ability is just as much of a privilege as having a fortunate upbringing! Both are essentially unchosen, born-with things; you can't choose your inborn talents, and you can't choose your parent's resources.

Really, what you're scoffing at is learned skill and saying that born-with skill is better, for whatever reason.

But meritocracy[1] just means "only results matter". It doesn't matter if you worked your ass off for 30 years in acquiring skills that bring results, against all odds (whether genetic or externally imposed). Or if you were just born with it and hardly had to put in any effort.

[1] Whether that is a reality or not; doesn't matter for the sake of the argument.

Not really. Learned skill and natural ability are not mutually exclusive. Being a great developer still means you have to learn a lot of things. Consider someone with a mere 1% better "natural" ability to write code but never had the chance to develop it into a viable "learned" ability versus someone who was merely "average" but had the wealth to develop the skill, the latter will get the job in a "meritocracy". So you're selecting for wealth mostly.

I believe this man is confusing lots of things.

I had lived in China for more than 5 years, Boston, Japan or Korea for more than 9 months each.

In my opinion, minimizing conflict has nothing to do with being poor, and a lot with being Chinese educated.

On the contrary, I volunteer helping poor kids like Spanish gypsies or Subsaharan African and they(and their parents) are ultra confident, and spontaneous. Being open is the default thing for them.

I managed Chinese people in China and there was a world of difference between natives and those Chinese educated overseas.

When living on the US, I was shocked to see parents cheering their kids for the most stupid thing, when in Europe as a kid you are forced to do 4x more effort without rewards at all(like learning multiple languages). It is just what it is expected from you.

In Asia, this pressure over kids is even higher than in Europe.

Family is very important for Chinese almost a religion. This has advantages and disadvantages. For innovation, it is a big disadvantage. Innovation means taking risks, being close to your family means having to convince lots of people those risk are worth it. Most people won't understand you and it is very hard.

In the US, everybody is on their own, basically, nobody gives a dam, which is great for changing the world.

Minimizing conflict is just one minor tangential point in his essay. The main thing, which I think you might have missed, is the insane pressure of being poor and having no fallback and constantly worrying about money. I do think that since he hasn't been not poor growing up, he doesn't realize that the opposite state in many ways can have its own detrimental effects on motivation

Nailed it. Source: have successful self-made career and Asian family.

One of my closest friends is Chinese, and what you are saying confirms my observations and what he has anecdotally told me.

After finishing college here in the US, he got a very lucrative job at a consulting firm and was doing very well. Yet his parents (especially mother) kept pressuring him to go back to Hong Kong because, according to him, that's the rightful place of a family's only son. Keep in mind that such a move would mean upending his life and also taking a big pay cut (he compared salaries).

He also told me that Chonese schools reward conformity above all else and strongly discourage (sometimes with physical violence) sticking out or taking initiative.

That's not to say the author's observations and opinions are wrong. In fact what he shared is very valuable - people who come from middle class or above families tend to take their privilege for granted, and in fact can't even imagine what it is like to be poor. I myself only learned it by volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. It's very heartbreaking that the world's richest and most powerful country has so many struggling people, but it can also be instructive in terms of what one can do to help fix it. So I commend the author for writing this piece.

Re: conformity, the cliche here in Japan is to point out that where the west says "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", Japanese say "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down".

Ricky mentions the guilt at not cashing out on his Stanford degree immediately and providing for his family.

Day-to-day, how do founders in similar positions coming from cultures with tight-knit families address this? Especially as parents age?

Has anyone done a survey of the family socio-economic status of startup founders and early employees? I'd be curious to see how many founders/early employees are from low-income families, whether their parents graduated college, etc. If not, I'd love to create one.

"More than 90 percent of the entrepreneurs came from middle-class or upper-lower-class backgrounds"

I'd like to offer a potential explanation of this: Middle and upper-lower-class individuals have the most to gain by doing things on their own.

* An upper-lower-class or middle class child will not have the same burdens and problems as a lower-class individual as describes in this post. They likely have just enough of a support system to be able to make it on their own.

* An upper-lower-class or middle class child will NOT be able to get into a great college with scholarships. They will likely choose a safer route, like a cheaper state school. This makes them less desirable to employers, so the "safe" route doesn't exist.

Yep this is exactly it I believe. I come from a very middle class background. My dad is mechanic and my mom is a teacher. If I wanted to move up in the world this is the best route. I had neither the business connections nor the ability to afford an Ivy League school. That being said, I was lucky enough to go to a state school and for my parents to support me for about 6 months while I got my company making revenue. So your 2 conditions seem to hold true.

My mom works in education and my parents are divorced, so I bought a degree from a lower-tier state school with loans. I still had to list both parents on my FAFSA and couldn't qualify for any need-based anything.

Basically I ended up paying more for a less valuable piece of paper. Because my chosen school sucked it was really hard to find a job. I'm only where I'm at because I'm lucky, and I don't think many people in my situation would have had similar success.

Thanks-- that's useful: "More than 90 percent of the entrepreneurs came from middle-class or upper-lower-class backgrounds and were well-educated."

I'm curious about the socio-economic background of the parents as well.

My understanding is that there is a very strong correlation between a person's educational and socio-economic attainment and those of their parents. The number that sticks in my head is that parental status accounts for 80%+.

This is an article I read on the topic.

If you are born to parents in the lowest quartile you have ~10% chance of making it into the highest by age 26. For people born in the highest the probability is ~30%.

(and if it was random it would, obviously, be 1/4 = 25%)


But that's moving from the bottom to the top. How about from the bottom to the middle? What percentage never leave their quartile?

On its own, leaving a quartile doesn't say anything about the magnitude of the change, so it's not a very useful measure of anything.

Another problem is that because the distribution is so heavily skewed toward the top (for both income and wealth, but more heavily for wealth), dividing the population into equal groups creates a somewhat misleading picture of mobility. A nonlinear breakdown of classes is more reflective of the distribution. In that case we might ask something like how many people move from the bottom 40% to the top 5%.

This is a very good point, I totally agree!

Although for some questions, e.g. "Can you escape poverty in the US today?" (which could be specified as moving from 1st -> 3rd quartile) this data works.

But, for other types of questions, e.g. "Is extreme wealth mostly hereditary?" you'd need a non-linear breakdown of classes.

be careful because "entrepreneurs" can be people that have to work contractor, part-time work, or the same trade "my father" was in kind of work.

That's always the problem with surveys like these. I started the form, then realized it'd be very difficult for me to group everyone into multi-choice categories for job, background, etc.

This is unfortunately very outdated. (07/08/09)

I would wager that a lot has changed in the last 7 years.

I doubt it. Has access to capital changed? If anything, the trend is towards more concentration.

Cronyism is just a given when it comes to finance and business dealings.

I'd like that survey. The lower class is completely unrepresented in tech. It's been one of the weirdest and hardest things for me to handle personally.

You know what's weird and uncomfortable sometimes? Going to lunch with your co-workers and listening to them talk about the awful problems of their lives, like how they wish their maids could come twice a week instead of every two weeks, and how difficult it is that they have to pay [my salary * 0.5] for their kid's private school. How worried they are about things like the stock market and how high the property taxes on their million dollar homes are. Total culture shock, not coming from money.

My dad returned from combat in WW2 where 80% of his group were casualties and he expected to die in combat. He said he was amused at the triviality of everyday concerns. "What's your problem, you're not going to die tomorrow!"

And really, if you're able-bodied and able-minded and nobody is trying to kill/maim/imprison you, then life is good. I went to retrieve the mail this morning, and was greeted with a bright blue sky, and an eagle sitting on top of a nearby doug fir tree giving me the eye. Pretty damn awesome to be alive.

There are a lot of us out there with similar backgrounds, yet when you tell people that any day that you aren't being shot at, or blown up or starving is a good day, they look at you like you are crazy.

I had to learn to just not share things about my life with coworkers. It's very alienating though.

This is actually a bond that I find I have with many people I know who grew up here in New York and work with mostly transplants (I'm not bashing transplants...).

I know a lot of people across a wide class divide. I've done some interesting stuff and I've also been in scary/dangerous situations that seem normal to me. The times I've mentioned them I've seen people go wide-eyed and get very uncomfortable.

I really hate the fact that I feel like I'm walking on egg shells whenever I'm not talking exclusively about work with them.

I try (not always successfully) the philosophy that any day you can wake up, put yo feets on the ground and get up, is a good day.

My biggest shock was during my first internship during college making $30 / hour at an enterprise software company. For background: I went the community college / go-get-a-degree-in-your-late-20s-route in life, living off nearly minimum wage for many years before going to CC.

The first paycheck comes after two weeks, $1800 after taxes and withholding. I am in awe of how much money I suddenly have in my bank account. My fellow students who were interning instantly started complaining about the tax rate and how they wouldn't be able to afford SF rent and the lease payment on a sports car.

they have to pay [my salary 0.5]*

Learn to do whatever it is they do, then ask for a raise to match. I say this because one of the bad habits I got from my own upbringing was constantly undervaluing myself, and doing exactly this has made a huge difference.

Absolutely, it causes feelings of shame to bubble up from childhood that I didn't expect to feel again as an adult.

I think low-income people who go into tech do not go into start ups. It's a risk. If you fail (very likely), you are back to being poor.

I'm a student and notice that a lot of the other low income students and underrepresented groups (of which I am a part of) in my CS program go straight to "safe" jobs, usually enterprise stuff.

Actually now that I think about it: I work in my university's IT department, helping out with the website. The place is straight out of Office Space, very traditional Java/CMS stuff. It's also incredibly diverse. Blacks and Latinos make up a good portion of the working force and even the higher up/managers. There's a good portion of women as well.

But when I interview at start ups or more "modern" companies it's all white or Asian.

As a hispanic person, I always hate it when people see me as some poker chip that should be used to fulfill some arbitrary quota. We have preferences for where we want to work like everybody else, and our backgrounds/cultures definitely have an influence in that. Is it possible that maybe, perhaps these clean-cut trendy startups just aren't appealing to us?

Personally, I can't see myself working at most of these startups, but it has nothing to do with their constituency (I get along great with those 'white and asian' people!), it's just that usually their vision/direction or products are simply uninteresting to me, and I definitely prefer working at startups to big companies. For example, I would much rather work at a food-oriented startup, than another boring code/SaaS type startup, and I certainly wouldn't touch any fashion startups with a 20ft pole, just purely because of what I'm interested in, having grown up in a latino community. Unfortunately, the types of startups that I am interested in, aren't usually the ones that get all the buzz on techcrunch.

Either way, having 'equal opportunity' shouldn't force those of us with different cultural preferences to meet some arbitrary ideals for 'equal outcomes'.

I was "lucky" in that my parents were so terrible with money that every year around tax time assuming we weren't homeless they'd head into Rent-A-Center and rent a computer for the house. If it weren't for that I never would have been exposed to start ups and programming. I didn't go to a real school, opting instead for some community college because the fear of debt and failure were too real, but the years of hustling, jail breaking peoples iPhones, designing sites for other local hustlers, and reading /. and digg meant I'd been exposed enough to the web that I had good js experience. Lucky twice because JS wasn't nearly as enterprise-y when I started wanting to work at start ups.

I think there is a flipside to this too though. If you're not wealthy, you're less worried about living on start-up income. I think you particularly see this among immigrants who realize how incredibly wealthy even the poor in America are by internatiomal standards. People with this perspective are much more willing to drive an old beat up car and share a room relative to someone who feels pressure to keep up with their wealthy friends and family in the suburbs.

Edit: few people work in start-ups as well, so it is probably easy to run into confirmation bias looking at the people you know in your life

Haha. I knew this was coming. You're putting white and asian in one group and blacks and latinos in another group. What should these groups be called, so we don't have to spell it out each time this distinction is made?

Hey, I didn't mean anything wrong by it, and probably should just have had said something like "there's no diversity". Reason I said that is because many people say SV is diverse because of the Asian population, but IMO even though it is a minority population-wise, I would say they aren't in tech.

I know a number of people from truly lower class backgrounds in tech including some that have built substantial startups. It isn't as though they wear a "lower class" badge so that they are easily identifiable. Nor do they generally talk their lower class background -- when has it ever been socially cool to literally be rural "trailer trash" in America? No one likes to identify as a low status member of society.

A lower class person can hide in plain sight in tech because everyone assumes that if you are in tech you are not lower class, and no one checks your papers at the door. One of the motivations for someone from the lower class going into tech is so that they aren't perceived as lower class. They sure as hell aren't going to draw attention to that fact.

> ...when has it ever been socially cool to literally be rural "trailer trash" in America?

You're the one calling it trailer trash. Even educated poor people often speak in a more genuine and direct way than elite people do. It may sound funny to a fancy person but that doesn't make it trash.

> ...no one checks your papers at the door.

Yes, they do. Every job, startup accelerator, and VC checks your background. Elite VCs fund elite founders. Elite founders hire elite managers. Elite managers hire poor people to do the actual work. The order is maintained.

> Every job, startup accelerator, and VC checks your background.

They check your education, not your family background. Nobody has a clue whether your parents were middle class or lower income.

That may be somewhat true if education was completely or even somewhat disconnected from familial background... are you completely ignoring all the discussion going on here? One major point is that without that background, your resume isn't ever even going to be on the hiring person's desk, much less under their attention.

I'm not saying that education is complete disconnected from familial background. But the latter isn't solely a determinant of the former.

Ricky, for example, has a Stanford degree. No hiring manager will know about his low family income. Pretending that VCs/managers somehow have an invisible ball to peer into an applicant's entire life is completely disingenuous.

Does that surprise you? As far as I know, they are underrepresented in medicine, finance, and law as well.

There is more mobility than most people realize, but it's not like employment approaches anything near a random distribution. Given the potential advantages of being born into a wealthier class (both hereditary and non-hereditary), I would expect to see underrepresentation.

It doesn't surprise me at all. Being in tech usually means starting earlier than medicine, finance or law and if you're poor you likely had less opportunities to own or use computers. Access might be provided through school or libraries but you won't generally have access to installing programming languages or anything.

While it didn't surprise me I'd still like more surveys and insight to exactly how hard it is for the lower class to join the tech and start up booms.

Hey-- feel free to reach out if you need someone to talk to-- david@crowdbooster.com and ricky@crowdbooster.com

That's awesome, thank you!

I'd also be interested in the mappings between this and the universities they came from .

I'm sure there were kids in OP's position that got a 1400 instead of a 1600 and went to SJSU instead, for instance.

This is a great idea!

What was that axiom that Red Auerbach was attributed with? "You can't teach height." Ricky demonstrated he was hungry to learn and succeed at a very early age, a quality that will always bring some level of success through life: "I had to bring my dad to the office the next day and told him to pretend to say some words in Mandarin while I just demanded that I get put in an honors-level English class."

How do you identify those who are underprivileged, but carry that quality too? It can be very difficult to identify.

I grew up other side of the world, amazing by what I heard in the news - that there existed a world beyond mine where smart people with smart ideas built great companies overnight. I am smart. I have merit. I dropped out at 19, taught my self how to code, and built a 6-figure business with my projects online. I want to learn more.

I got turned down by 15+ companies and startups in the past few weeks because they couldn't sponsor my work visa. This is Canada.

The USA? Being a dropout makes me ineligible for any US work visa.

So much for merit.

Have you looked into remote jobs? Honestly, moving to the US is overrated. I'm staying in a developing country myself. Get 50% of a US salary, live on the other aide of the world, live a laid back and cheap life.

I want more than a laid-back life. I already make more than an SF-salary. The opportunities to grow and learn are very little in a developing country. I've learnt more from 2 months spent in SF than I did 5 years in my country.

Excellent post. But I feel that we need to go beyond talking about what we can personally do to improve our situation. Either the vast majority of people are ill-adapted for success, or something else is going on. I think we should go beyond the classic argument "If we just all recycle, the world will..." Or "If we all buy electric cars, global warm....".

This post had some of that individualistic attitude to a much broader and obviously systemic problem.

As someone who grew up in the exceptionally poor, rural South I'm not sure what to take away. I don't know anyone who was able to go to Stanford despite bad grades in high school. That's an enviable luxury.

Great read.

I've become allergic to words like "privilege" as they usually are seen in the company of ill-thought-out and grandiose/insulting/wrong proclamations about How Things Should Be Done,

..but this is none of that - it's an honest look and deep analysis of someone's experience.

And knowing how important upbringing is, and the sheer (almost superhuman) tenacity the author had to go through to even partially overcome the (poisonous? non-optimum?) mindset that was completely a result of things out of their control...

what the heck is everyone else supposed to do? How does society do right by people like this? Overall, we're pretty horrible at dealing with things that are as subtle as mindset.

To be honest, one thing you can do is retrain yourself to be un-allergic to words like "privilege", and see their use as the consequence of a lot of people's suffering systemic unfairness and injustice.

When I see that word, "privilege," especially tied to attacks on white/male/hetero/whatever, my response isn't "oh jeez, not that again".....it's "yeah, that is a problem, and I really wish the other white male hetero folks in the room could see it and not just roll their eyes".

It sounds like you want to be an ally, and that's great. I think the hardest part is probably recognizing that when people talk about privilege, it's really not personal, it really isn't about you, even though you're a beneficiary of it every day. Knowing about systemic injustice and doing nothing/remaining silent, though, that's pretty callous, and knowing about systemic injustice and perpetuating it, well, then it would be about you.

It is not ok to look at someone's gender, age & race and make assumptions about there life, full stop.

Applying a term like 'privileged' to an entire group of people based on a single characteristic is stereotyping at it's worst. This isn't to say that trends don't exist, but it is not ok to assume something about an individual simply because it's true, as a general rule for the group they belong to. Like it or not, that's the trap that many people fall into when talking about privilege.

But that's really the whole point of privilege - belonging to the group is enough to grant you the advantages of it. Period. It doesn't mean your life is great, it doesn't mean you don't have problems, but the members of a privileged class absolutely possess those privileges - that's how it works.

The problem with that definition is that it's nearly impossible to apply that to an individual without bias.

It predisposes us to assume that the privileges possessed by an individual are one of the primary drivers of the experiences they have had in their life. Privilege isn't uniformly distributed across all members of a group.

Let's say that group Y enjoys a much higher college acceptance rate. Due to their privilege, 80% of applicants from group Y are accepted to college. Do the 20% of applicants from group Y who were denied also posses the privilege of greater rates of college acceptance? Is it right for me to assume that since an individual belongs to group Y, they have personally benefited from this particular privilege?

Let me be clear: I think that taking a hard look at inequalities between groups and seeking to ameliorate them is the right thing to do, and something we should all be doing. What I find problematic is using broad statistics to make assumptions about individual people.

It's not 'nearly' impossible; it is impossible. It's impossible to make any decisions without bias. The important thing is knowing what your biases are and knowing what decisions you're actually making and the effects they actually have.

People like to imagine that they don't actually make policy decisions, then they have no influence on the world. That's really not the case, and the best course of action is to be aware of the influence you have, and make sure your biases aren't influencing things in a negative way.

Did you not read all the comments here from people from poor, rural families for whom the post resonated? Many, if not most of them are likely white (some even explicitly stated it).

What exact privilege does growing up desperately poor in rural West Virginia bring you? A person from a middle class black family in NYC would have much more opportunity.

Yes, each person would face their own set of challenges (ie, the black person vis-a-vis the police, although believe me that unjustified police brutality happens to white people too). But it's wrong to judge one as being "privileged" based solely on their skin color, without knowing anything about them.

Sadly, I noticed that most of the people shouting "privilege" at others themselves come from very privileged backgrounds, and have learned this attitude at some expensive private liberal arts college. I'm not sure what is driving their crusades (guilt?), but again, I was raised that it's not right to judge people based solely on their skin color, regardless of the rational behind it. And fail as I may sometimes, I will continue to strive toward that goal.

Finally, what about those of us coming from a mixed-race background, with a grandparent or great-grandparent from a "non-privileged" group? If you look hard at some of us, you can see evidence of that group. Are we partially privileged? Or is being privileged a discrete state?

Yes, but people don't belong to one group.

I would argue that height, intelligence, general health, economic class, propensity for addictive behaviors, wealth of your parents, children rearing skills of your parents, closeness of extended family, social network of your family, family religion, access to nutrition, country of birth, access to healthcare (I could go on and on) all help/hurt your potential in life.

Saying that "you're [white, male, rich] so you're privileged" is ridiculous when it only one of probably thousands of different factors that can impact your success in life. It's lazy thinking.

I get it, but I don't buy it. Rather, I don't buy that it's so cut and dried as to be accepted with "period". When you're part of the largest demographic, you're basically invisible: Generic 30s Middle Class White Guy #87473674282.

The term just isn't nuanced enough.

Well, that's part of the point, the invisibility.

Like, for example, there are those studies that show how people with names that sound traditionally black don't get called for job interviews nearly as often. Take the name off the resume and they get called with parity to traditionally white-sounding names.

Or, for another example, it used to be that orchestral auditions were conducted where you could see the player as they played. Orchestras of the period were heavily male-dominated. After they switched to blind auditions--that is, the player plays behind a partition, so you can't see whether they're male or female--suddenly a lot more women started getting hired for orchestral musician positions. The gender balance has begun approaching parity, when the listeners can't see who's playing.

You're right that generic white guy is "invisible," but another way to look at it is, we're the standard. We fit the type everyone wants already. We don't stand out, because we're basically the accepted definition of an acceptable person. We are who you hire, put in your tv shows, give housing loans to, etc.

Or maybe it's just human nature to identify with those who possess similar qualities. This isn't "systemic racism/sexism", it's perfectly natural. Minorities often favor other minorities in their own circles, women definitely favor other women, but because they're in the minority the behavior somehow becomes ok. If people are upset about broken job interview processes, then maybe we should fix the fucking broken job interview process rather than scream "racism" or "sexism" and force people to hire for quotas.

Just like you mention, blind auditions boiled the interview down to the only thing that matters - the music. And if they were truly better at playing than the others, the orchestra was hurting itself by not hiring them in the first place. Other competing orchestras could implement the blind-audition approach and play much better music and get more audience members as a result.

The last thing you want, however, is to swing the other direction and give people jobs based primarily on their minority status. That's as bad as nepotism/cronyism and it rots organizations in the same way.

Thanks for not denying that privilege exists, and for pointing out that some of it is likely due to the unconscious bias we can politely dub "human nature"! E.g. we hire people who look like us, even if they're not the best people for the job...

You know, in situations like this I'm often reminded of that Upton Sinclair quote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

I think a lot of the pushback against awareness and understanding of privilege comes from that idea.

Being told that you're getting some lucky break because you're a hetero white dude, whether it's preferential treatment in job interview callbacks or orchestra hiring or any of the million other things that have been so insanely thoroughly documented.. well, kinda draws attention to the possibility that, if we were living in a meritocratic world, suddenly all us lucky white dudes would have to compete with a much wider group of people. A man's salary and all that.

As far as swinging the other way and preferring people for their minority status, quite frankly, I'm totally ok with doing so for a generation or two, since I would at least be trying to compensate for hundreds of years of systemic bias against those beleaguered groups of people. Forever? Naw. For now? Sure, even if it means I personally would lose out on contracts or whatever.

But our disagreement here is something to work out in the political arena, not something I think it makes sense to try and bridge from first principles or anything; I at least used to feel the way you do, and came to change my mind about it only through a lot of life experience that told me it made sense to change my mind.

I'd like to see some of those insanely documented things and look at them critically. For example, the job callback thing pertains to people with black-sounding names, not whether the the applicant is actually black. Perhaps that speaks to cultural privilege instead of racial.

Consider scholarships: if you're a white male, you have to be exceptional vs your cohort in some other way (academics, athletics, etc) to find a scholarship. If you're a minority, you have to... be a minority. That's a disadvantage of being Generic White Male #434242.

To be clear, I fully recognize that real, actual race-based discrimination on a systemic scale happened fairly recently in the US, and to an extent still happens today. 100% no argument there.

The problem with "privilege" as a label is that it describes a population, yet is applied consistently - sometimes weaponized - to individuals.

Frankly speaking, It kinda sounds like you're so invested in the idea of privilege being fictional that my guess is nothing anyone says to you via the internet would ever change your mind.

Which, funnily enough, is one of the benefits of it, you can ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist, because the bias it implies wouldn't effect you anyway.

I don't try to convince climate change deniers either, because I learned long ago that you can't logic someone out of a position they didn't logic themselves into.

That's weird, because I said nothing of the sort. In fact my GP comment pretty strongly implies my belief that some privilege does exist.

My argument is fairly constrained in scope and can logically be broken down like this: privilege can be used to describe a group but not applied to an individual. This should be axiomatic; incorrectly applying group properties to an individual is known as an ecological or division fallacy. Whenever you hear (or invoke) an admonition to "check your privilige", consider whether this error is being made.

The thing is, people know this. I know they know this because any example of "anti-privilige" is summarily dismissed as a unique case representing the elastic nature of privilige.

The other thing that makes privilige hard to discuss is that when you question assumptions or ask for specifics, you are instantly dismissed as an enemy of the cause. Your reply here is a great example. Above you mention "a million other things" that have been "insanely thoroughly documented", I said I'd like to see them to look at them critically, and that trigged Red Alert. At that point you lumped me in with climate change deniers and considered me irrational, because asking questions makes me the Enemy. This is a pattern that occurs frequently; the CoC discussion on php-internals took a similar path. It's such a bizarre thing to me, because as engineers we all follow a rubric that's roughly: 1. identify and describe the problem 2. consider solutions 3. implement the best solution. But in the social justice arena, trying to participate in #1 gets you cast out as oblivious, ignorant, irrational, or worse -- unless you belong to a certain in-group.

In the quest for inclusion, it seems like there's a lot of exclusion happening.

"hetero white dude,"

So just curious: what's with referring to men as "dudes" when you're trying to make points about inclusive behavior and language and such? I'm seeing this a lot, and this weird language tic really detracts from whatever point the person is making. You don't refer to women as "chicks," do you?

> you're basically invisible.

That's the point - being invisible is a privileged state. Black people are not invisible the US, where some people (not all) will inevitably treat them with suspicion (or worse).

> That's the point - being invisible is a privileged state.

So compared to a rich, white expat in some African or Asian country, the typical resident of said country is privileged? Because in that country, compared to the expat, the resident is essentially invisible, and the white expat is decidedly not invisible.

And many people will treat the expat with suspicion, or worse. Are all of those people "privileged", and the expat "not privileged"?

> expat in some African or Asian country

There may have been some confusion as I apparently left out a word ("/in/ the US"). I'm only discussing privilege in the US.

I have no idea how these things work in Africa or Asia. Presumably there are similar situations in other countries, though that is a guess. Your scenario sounds reasonable - yes, the natives would have the privilege of starting with the "default" level of suspicion while the (white) foreigner has to overcome an extra scrutiny.

Privilege can be overcome. You specified a rich expat, and money can be a very effective way to make problems go away. However, a similarly rich native will probably have to spend somewhat less money in similar situations because of their privilege.

People with high IQ's are privileged. Tall people are privileged. People with happy demeanors are privileged. People who are beautiful are privileged. Yet I don't hear many people telling tall, beautiful, intelligent, or happy people to "acknowledge their privilege" and do something about those who don't possess it. I'd rather be black than be short, be female than be stupid, be beautiful than be rich, and be homosexual than be clinically depressed. And I don't hold it against those who possess those desirable qualities or expect them to make up for my lack thereof.

"I think the hardest part is probably recognizing that when people talk about privilege, it's really not personal,"

Most times I've seen people talk about privilege, it got personal (as in, filled with obscenities, personal attacks, and thinly veiled threats) very quickly when others did not immediately agree with them. So your statement does not comport with my experience, at least.

Or you could stop using the fact that someone is white, male, or straight as some kind of attack, insult, or excuse.

There are certainly issues in society, real problems but I'm tired of hearing it. Somehow all of my hardships in life are reduced to nothing, because I'm "privileged".

"...if you think having privilege means that you’re a bad person, or that you haven’t had struggles, or that you haven’t worked hard for what you have – then I can totally feel why you might be frustrated. If that were the case, then yes, it’d be completely unfair of me to claim that all white people or straight people or men or people of any other dominant group are living easy off their unearned privileges.

But having privilege doesn’t mean any of those things."

Maisha Z. Johnson, http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-privilege-really-me...

That's the formal definition, used when being scrutinized. The angrier one is far more common in real life debate.


Does it being said in anger make it any less applicable?

It's usually used to quash disagreements. As in "check your privilege." It's often used as a way to categorically exclude people from a discussion, and this sense is the "angry" sense. So yes, it's less applicable because it's used as a shortcut to avoid forming a real understanding with someone else.

The definition used in someone's essay means ass all to me. It's he definiton uaee by the common man, if you'll excuse my microaggression.

Then perhaps Ms. Johnson should take that up with 90% of the people who use the word "privilege" in arguments nowadays, because they're not using it the way she thinks they're using it.

I don't think it's solely Ms. Johnson's job to tell people that they're using the word wrong. Now that you know the meaning, you can help us spread the knowledge (like I did by sharing that link).

This sounds like linguistic prescriptivism. For most human communication, the most commonly used definition is the "correct" one.

Cf. "Literally", "I could care less", "Dapper"

Came across this a little while ago:

> “Even if you do not feel yourself to be guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}, you are guilty because you have a privileged position in the {sinful,racist,sexist,homophobic,oppressive,…} system.”

> For [that argument] to work, the subject must be prevented from noticing that the demand to self-condemn is not based on the subject’s own actions or choices or feelings, but rather on an in-group identification ascribed by the operator of the kafkatrap. [...]

> The subject must be prevented from asserting his or her individuality and individual agency; better, the subject must be convinced that asserting individuality is yet another demonstration of denial and guilt. Need it be pointed out how ironic this is, given that kafkatrappers (other than old-fashioned religious authoritarians) generally claim to be against group stereotyping?


If people are invalidating your hardships because of your privilege, they are wrong. But that doesn't mean the term isn't useful.

"Having Privilege Refers to Systematic Benefits for Your Identity (But the Same Identity Trait May Still Attract Incidents of Prejudice)"


I don't have a problem with that specific definition. The problem that arises is that we sort of assume as a society that certain privileges trump everything else and are the primary drivers in terms of the experience an individual will, or has had in their life.

There's one problem here:

..(my response is) "yeah, that is a problem"

Well, no, not always. There are two huge problems with the whole "you are privileged therefore.." argument, so much so that I question the value of even using it:

- They extrapolate the general to the individual, which is unfair for the same reason that all prejudice is unfair.

- It's used disgustingly often as a throwaway attack to silence people. (In essence: You're privileged, shaddap) - The same people would use this to attack the author of this article, based on what's immediately visible about him (white male), without knowing a damn thing about his struggle.

For a very good recent example of this, look at what happened at Missouri U in the news.

I think the hardest part is probably recognizing that when people talk about privilege, it's really not personal...

If only I could believe that. My experience on the greater internet in the last few years is that, perhaps nine times out of ten, anyone using the word intends it as an attack on a group (their intentions, however noble, are irrelevant), and the other time, it gets the serious, thoughtful treatment we see here.

The reason I'm allergic to "privilege" is that 9 out 10 times, "you are privileged" is followed by "and here is how we are going to fuck you over to fix that"

I wonder what the value is for various types of "privilege"? As in, if you could pay so much and reap the benefits, how much should someone be willing to pay? $1,000? $10,000? $100,000? $1,000,000?

It's relatively easy to quantify pay discrimination against various groups. Emotional pain and civil rights deprivation are harder to quantify, though.

It's relatively easy to quantify pay discrimination against various groups

Is it?

Would you then argue that since Asians in the US have a higher median income than whites, the difference is due to discrimination? If not, then what is the cause?

It's not the word that is the problem. The problem is that the word is used with intent to insult people for the sin of being white and male. No matter what word you choose to use for that insult, it will be met with an eye-roll.

mentoring. poor students.

Couldn't hurt, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't really solve the problem.

The author was poor, but appeared to have a positive, if difficult home life. Mentoring would have helped the knowledge problem, but his problem was lack of resource above everything else.

Lack of resource leads to instability, and it taints literally everything you do, even mentally.

I know, I know, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It's not me you have to convince.

The mental training poor people, middle class people, and rich people get is completely different.

If you grow up poor there's a huge amount you need to learn - about law, politics, business ethics, finance, negotiation, social signalling, confidence and assertiveness, and how to find and deal with influencers - that the rich seem to be taught effortlessly.

Having more money doesn't change the basic life training, because the life training is itself a form of positional social signalling.

If you're middle class you're half in and half out. You have some idea how the world really works, but your ability to act on that learning is limited because you won't naturally have the right contacts - unless you cultivate them deliberately.

Most of the poor have no idea that any of this matters. They're caged inside a media-managed world view, and it takes exceptional ability to break out of that.

Mentoring can help some, but nothing helps as much as confidence and contacts.

interesting take. I'd like to hear what PG and others think. Coming from a middle class background, I can relate a bit and see-observationally-the other components to what Ricky's calling "mindset inequality". It's almost like "new money" vs folks that have bigger dollars to spend growing up. I know a lot of friends that have deeply entrenched psychological elements they need to overcome before reaching that "next level" that were engrained because of their upbringing. And, to Ricky's post, it's sometimes more of a challenge than the monetary differentials.

My parents started out very poor and climbed into the middle class by the time I got to high school. The extended family is still poor, so I'm still exposed to how they think about money. I think the mindsets can break down into three levels, but not cleanly.

Poor: You may have to make decisions about which bills to pay or which needs to meet, and being able to pay all your bills and eat is considered a moral virtue. Money is naturally transient, because your obligations have similar weight to your income, and having excess money in your bank account is weird, unnatural to the point that your instinct is to spend it before it goes away. If you use a budget, line-items are on the size of a grocery trip. You're more likely to budget small purchases than large purchases. If you are trying to build savings, putting money into a savings account is another bill.

Middle class: Your bank account is the intermediary between your bills and income, with a mean and a natural trajectory. If your account's trajectory is positive, your natural instinct is to spend it, either on better lifestyle or a large purchase, very occasionally savings. If you have a budget, components are like "monthly food" and you deal with going over-budget by cutting a few more corners next month. Savings are still another bill. Putting the right amount into your savings account to retire in 40 years is a moral obligation.

Capital class: Interest on your earnings is your primary source of income. Your rate of spending must be lower than the rate you earn interest; to do otherwise is dipping into capital, which is morally wrong. Any interest you don't plan to spend is folded back into your capital, giving you a small, permanent raise. I don't understand this class too well because I'm still working on entering it.

I am planning a transition from middle class to capital class, which will take 10-20 years and require investing in real estate.

Real estate is a great investment (at least in Australia) because it allows you to get access to larger amounts of credit to purchase assets which will generally go up in value over time because of the policies of central banks to target inflation. In addition buying in the right location will insure that on top of location future scarcity will add more value to the investments.

It is also super transparent compared to stocks, where you don't really know what is going on inside a company, land is land and all the data you need to assess the investment is available. And you can control the asset (think renovations, rebuilds, subdivisions etc.) so there is more you can do compared to the stock (buy, and perhaps short the similar stocks)

The downside to real estate is you have to be a little bit patient. Did I mention 20 years? :-)

I've heard that being too keen on real estate is a common pitfall for middle class investors. Between that and personal bias, I'm avoiding it (at least directly).

My portfolio is primarily stocks, which I find surprisingly easy to work with. You just pick well-run companies in fields you understand, ignore financial news, and wait. I should be capable of living off interest in four years.

I've heard that being too keen on real estate is a common pitfall for middle class investors.

I'm in US but I agree. I'm not old enough yet (I hope) but most of friends' parents lost all they had later in their life and from what I heard they were heavily into real estate. Some owned few houses and others worked as realtor.

For those that owned houses, they were extended too thinly and couldn't sell fast enough to cover mounting interest and cost when economy tanked, resulting in bankruptcy.

I am not sure about the reasoning for real estate being a pitfall. Can you elaborate?

This is good description of how different classes of people think. "If your account's trajectory is positive, your natural instinct is to spend it" - that pretty much explains why most of middle class people do not move up into capital class.

Great insights

"but building and sustaining a company that is “designed to grow fast” is especially hard if you grew up desperately poor"

Most people don't have the money or resources to build a company like this, which is why we have VC. They know you are in a desperate situation and exchange the money that you need for a % of the company.

The better thing to do is choose a solid business idea that can be built slowly and at a certain point, put money you make from this venture into an idea that needs more capital to succeed.

Made me cry. Much of it rang true. Story has similarities except about 1/5th as traumatic and am a white dude who grew up here. Have done well financially but have a compromised home situation traceable to some of the same causes.

An old friend and I were talking a few weeks ago and I smiled when he said "We were so poor growing up we didn't even realize we were poor." And we didn't, we were so poor we couldn't even pay attention. It's was good tho. It's still easy for me to live in a tiny apartment and exist on a steady diet of eggs'n'oatmeal, apples, and frozen chicken bought in bulk.

There might be many more success stories if children growing up closer to the poverty line were able to do so in more nourishing environments. However, discouragement, lack of confidence, anxiety are things not restricted to any racial or economic background. Not having a silver spoon is in many ways a better environment in which to be raised.

The OP does not say that his parents didn't show him any love, which is more important for the development of a person than any economic status. Many of the other struggles might be used as fuel for building positive character traits, unless one doesn't let it.

Having read through the post, it doesn't appear that he's actually arrived at a valid point, and is just trying to brand himself as being underprivileged through the telling of his life story, which has turned out to be successful by most standards. He uses the argument that "mindset inequality" gave him a chip on his shoulder so he was able to succeed, and therefore others fail because of it, which seems contradictory.

I was soft in my earlier comment, but fine taking a rep hit.

This is not the only post recently where the topic is "oh golly gee, look at the hardship I went through to get through college and the found something."

It's a millennial post, and there have been many of them.

Going through college is a challenge ... Having to work or be responsible during such sucks (I interned at Borland as well as worked for an astronomical research company).

Post college, more than a few have to deal with life obligations that come up.

Our profession certainly offers a bit of a cushion and flexibility, but we have to manage that and our obligations.

I don't see someone here whining about having to support their parents due to the last downturn or the many other personal decisions made.

The blog would have been better written as challenges met and overcome and left out the for lack of tact whiny bits...

Yes, coming from poverty has challenges, and friends in such stretched into their late 20s to complete a degree...but perspective and awareness of the wider world is needed... Not another post about personal insecurities..

He conspicuously missed the part where time spent working a job, studying and generally acting like a responsible adult is time not spent networking.

The "poor" kids also tend to find each other at college and over the first few semesters form separate networks from the rich kids. People tend to want to hang out with people who are similar to them. One group goes out partying together, the other sits in a dorm room listening to music and drinking a $15 handle. Their friend groups don't overlap over much.

The poor kids tend to build networks where the members personal skills and resources they bring to the table in the present are important (or that was my observation). I guess when you can't throw money at a problem knowing who's the IT guy and the car guy becomes more important.

Excellent post. We like to think sometimes the underdog wins but sadly, success is typically given to those that were born with it. The unfortunate part to me is the credit they were given as if they were amazing, not born lucky.

My favorite line:

> Compare that level of confidence to a kid with successful parents who’d say something along the lines of “If you can believe it, you can achieve it!” Now imagine walking into a VC office having to compete with that kid. He’s so convinced that he’s going to change the world, and that’s going to show in his pitch.

I enjoyed this article a lot but clearly this guy also made some of his own hardships. Going on ski trips just to fit in and then running out of money is incompatible with the image of a frugal poor kid.

Coming from a similar background like the original poster, I agree with him.

And no I didn't run out of money while in college because I went on ski trips. I lived on student loan and credit card just to pay for food and not much else. My parents couldn't send me much money. And yes I worked to earn money while in college, which doesn't help with improving grade. And of course the peers with no money worry can pick and choose non-paying internships or go do something that adds to their resume.

Growing up poor (I mean poor) damages one's psyche that others just don't understand. The degree of severity may vary but combine teen years + seeing parent(s) struggle with money everyday, you have a recipe for a hurt in your heart that lasts your life time that others just don't understand. And this 'hurt' is more noticeable when you know your peers around you are not suffering same issue.

And no I don't advocate for a national program to eradicate poverty.

> We think this is the reason why poor founders tend not to be successful.

The essay by PG actually meant that there are no poor founders at all. It would be interesting to have statistics on whether poor founders fail more, or don't even get a chance to try at all. I have reasons to believe that the rare poor person is more motivated and determined than the average groomed-to-be middle class entrepreneur, and there are plenty of cases of dirt-poor persons becoming millionaires.

It is a good thing that privilege is becoming a topic in these circles. It's fascinating to see how many people still try to present it as looking for excuses. Perhaps because they just don't understand what it really is. Or they need to validate their success by convincing everyone that it is only their hard work that matters and nothing else. Also, beware of survival bias. We don't exactly get to hear about the stories without a happy end here.

Im sorry, but if you graduate from Stanford you start near the top of the opportunity heap. Maybe people arent satisified with what they have and want more.

That seems uncharitable. Going to a prominent school is a big boost—would anyone deny that?—but it doesn't cancel years of personal or family trauma, or economic or social adversity like the poverty the article is talking about. Indeed the article is all about how those things persist and continue to affect one at depth. If you'd read it with empathy, I think you'd agree, or at least phrase your criticism differently.

There are a lot of advantages growing up poor, though, too. Learning how to work hard early on, etc.. My parents do not understand how to manage money very well, and they constantly struggled when I was growing up, and continue to do so. But this forced me to learn a better way and helped me in my life.

Also growing up poor gives you an advantage in terms of risk, because you know the worst that will happen is that you will just be poor like you were when you grew up. Once you've been poor, it isn't as scary. I think many rich friends have a nightmarish fear about it and are risk-averse because of this.

There is a lot of guilt, though. I care about my family and want to help them, but giving them money doesn't work - it is wasted. So they remain forever poor and I have money, and I feel bad about it.

Paul Graham is my one of my biggest programming heroes. He single-handedly changed the way I think about and do programming about a decade back, and I am eternally grateful for it. One of the biggest lessons I got from him is "succinctness is power". That essay was a game changer both in terms of the math work and the programming work I do.

Here is one instance where that powerful way of thinking runs head on into a stone wall. He said "few successful founders grew up desperately poor" and moved on. Succinct. yes, but not powerful. This piece took a couple thousand words to say the same one succinct thing that PG said, and nails it in terms of the empathy it generates and the power with which it communicates. While PGs writing in this issue comes out as aspie. This is the lesson he needs to take from that latest article and the Internet's reaction, and not that “Life is short” and totally miss the point.

Narrativity and Authenticity and Poetry and Verbosity is power! (when dealing with humans).

This story really made me reflect on my own similar past. Growing up poor in US as son of immigrant family and somehow getting into a nationally well known college (public though), I was shocked to see things that I had never known about.

The shock came from seeing how I lacked culture/experience/skills/confidence others had. And these others had grown up in more stable environments with either some or quite a bit of money.

I didn't know how to play any instrument. I wouldn't say everyone I knew in college played an instrument since I wasn't at Standford :) but still it was obvious to me I LACKED the soft skills my peers had.

I had not done many things as a teenager that are possible only when you grow up in a family with some means. And this weakened already not so robust confidence in myself, resulting in a mostly downward spiral as far as confidence in myself.

You see growing up with money buys you a lot of soft skill that helps you later.

I'm not bitter though. It is what it is. I try to be thankful for what I've had so far.

As an Indian immigrant when I see people complaining about Privilege and Inequality in SV (and in America) I feel like laughing.

I lived in a society where everyone was almost the same, similar economic status, similar privilege etc. etc. Life sucked. I decided to move out to be among the top 10% instead of one of the 100%. I eventually ended up in SV.

This place is awesome and the very reason I am here is because I can be in the top 10%. I dont want to be equal but I seek privileged, extra-ordinary wealth and stuff that most others can not afford. I think it is an amazing thing that places like SV exist. If you somehow take out that incentive I think I will move somewhere else. Of course I would be moving out of California sooner or later given the taxes.

Seriously? What caste did your family belong to?

I'm allowed to ask these questions; the Indian side of my family are Brahmins, and boy does it show! Most of us walked straight from the lawyer/doctor/accountant/businessperson class in India into the lawyer/doctor/accountant/businessperson class in the USA and Canada.

Sure things were difficult, but most of us had huge advantages.

I am a brahmin and my father was a poor farmer in India. The kind of poor you read in newspapers. I completed my education mostly on borrowed money from friends and relatives and through community scholarships. Now that I am in USA I realize half of my struggles in India were result of government control and government attempts to make things "equal" for everyone rather than just letting best people succeed. USA on the other hand is much better.

I'm curious, why would your caste matter in the US?

Because classism is a thing. So is legacy of privilege. Literally all of my Indian co workers have been Brahmin.

Agree I know one of the MPs in the UK who help get caste discrimination added to the discrimination laws.

We have petitioned President Obama to Expel Brahmin from USA https://wh.gov/iyhMK

This is mostly a Christian missionary driven attempts to marginalize Hindus even further by painting them as evil. From the sense I get it wont go anywhere.

Err what re you smoking? it was Asian MP's that piloted the bill through parliament.

Yup they are the agents of missionaries in their countries. Look at Bobby Jindal he is asian per say but in reality a hard core christian.

Not sure about the above comment but here are my 2c. I belong to Brahmin caste. I always thought caste did not matter in USA until I recently attended a seminar by a self proclaimed India expert Christian priest. The Christian missionaries are trying to convince various governments across the world to recognize "caste" as serious discrimination probably to malign Hinduism to further their conversion business in India. I brushed it off thinking it must be some fringe group. After few days a lady showed up at my place asking my wife to narrate the horrors she had to face back in India because of her lower caste (my wife happens to have a lastname generally associated to lowest of low castes in India). It took us a while to understand what was happening.

This is getting downvoted because it is a shallow and selfish outlook on life, but this is not uncommon. Psychological research shows that humans care far more about their relative status than "objective" wealth.

Unfortunately, happiness quickly loses its correlation with wealth. Unsolicited advice to the parent: seek out a strong community. Being "better than everyone" is a great path to dying alone.

>> This is getting downvoted because it is a shallow and selfish outlook on life

Another way to read it is: coming to America for opportunity and upward mobility..

I don't find the 'I seek wealth' shallow or selfish, rather the true feelings of most Americans. We worship money and status in this country too often.

Outrage at this - is encouraging, but not from the SV crowd - they seem quite interested chasing massive wealth themselves.

> As an Indian immigrant ...I lived in a society where everyone was almost the same, similar economic status, similar privilege etc. etc. Life sucked.

That is certainly not a truth universally acknowledged (http://idsn.org/caste-discrimination/ http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/varanasi/Dalit-tonsu...)

Political propaganda must be taken with a boatload of salt. A Dalit organization's claims is something like KKK's claim. People of all castes and religion get lynched and burned and maimed all the time in the lawless parts of India for all reasons.

However if we look at impartial research such as by James Tooley who was studying history of Education system in India, he points out that literacy and education levels in even the tribals and so called "low castes" in India was reasonably close to "so called higher castes" and most certainly higher than the peasants in United Kingdom. It is a fascinating book in itself and borrows heavily from another book of same title written by Gandhiji's disciple Dharampaal.

Beside the third book is a comprehensive survey of all caste related laws, judgements and British Census reports in India and shows pretty big holes in "discrimination" and "privilege" arguments.

Here is the essay by Dharampal who notes the British Census in one of the provinces (Madras). It compares schools, school going people in England and Madras which were of comparable size. Turns out that enrollment in Madras is actually higher than that of England and lower castes dominated the students.


[1] http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ELPRLC0/ref=dp-kindle-re... [2] http://www.amazon.com/The-beautiful-tree-indigenous-eighteen... [3] http://www.amazon.com/Falling-Over-Backwards-Arun-Shourie/dp...

Wow, such contempt for the people of the country you've moved to and the State that has made you such money is truly breathtaking!

Just ignore those down votes and be sure to post your story everywhere you can. Actually, I think you should campaign to be the poster child of Silicon Valley!

BTW, Mississippi has lower taxes than California, you should move there.

This is a great article. I'm more of a reader than a co tributor through these articles. I just had to comment on a great, positive post. It makes me want to provide more positive feedback to others to hopefully keep them going.

What an excellent post. Respect.

One thing striking me was how as s child the author had the "common" responsibility of dealing with landlords bills etc for the family.

It may not be something a startup can solve but "administrivia as a service" - some means of connecting families who need with someone able to actually advise and not be taken advantage of

In the uk we have a volunteer service called citizens advice bureau - I am thinking something like this on tap might be beneficial in ways hard to quantify


tldr; In spite of motivation, talent and hard work; financial situation and immigration (in my case) play a big role in your entrepreneurship journey.

Excellent article by the writer. Apologies for the long post, however hope it is helpful for someone in similar situation. I can relate to many things that he has faced and feel incredibly lucky to not have faced some things that he had to.

I grew up in a small town in a poor family in India as eldest of four siblings. Our monthly budget was 20 dollars and things were really tight. However my dad worked really hard 16 hours every day and made sure that my studies do not get hindered. He told me every single day that with hard work I can achieve anything that I can dream of.

I got into IIT Bombay (one of the most prestigious colleges in India). However it was obvious to me, that I need to get a decent paying job right after school to support siblings and my dad who couldn't do 16 hours any more.

It took my the next 8 years working for others, to save enough to pay for the studies and marriage of me and my siblings and to help my dad retire.

During these 8 years, I built and ran the biggest social network to come of of India. Apart from this also built something which is now the Twilio of India. I was also the part of the team which built the current mobile offering at LinkedIn.

If I had financial stability, I would have started working on mine own ventures 3 years into my career. But it took 5 more years. As soon as I had financial stability, I quit LinkedIn (with 2.5 years of stock unvested) to start a company.

I started a company, where we had incredible opportunities. We built something like Slack for consumers around the same time as Slack. However, being on H1 visa, I was a minority stake holder in the company. And it is a bad situation to be in, if your traction is not already proven. It made sense to exit the company, so we sold it to Dropbox in an acqui-hire.

Dropbox treated me really well. I met some of the smartest people I have ever met over there and it can be a great place to work for many people. However, I soon realized that it wasn't a good fit for me. Such companies are very top driven, there is little creative freedom, and most of the work is cleaning up the tangled code developed over 7-8 years. So I quit Dropbox after an year.

Now I am in a job that gives me more creative freedom and I am pretty happy on that front. Meanwhile, I have been sole advisor for a few companies over the past 2-3 years and they are all profitable and didn't need to raise any money. The entrepreneur in me, keeps me raring to go and start another company. However, because I am on H1 visa, I do not want build another company with minority stake at formation (USCIS rules). To fix this, I would need to get a Green Card. However if you are from India, it will take you 8-10 years to get a Green Card in EB-2.

So the next steps are either move from US, or find a way to get a Green Card on EB-1. If anyone knows any good immigration lawyers, please help introduce.

However, related to the original post. In spite of motivation, talent and hard work; financial situation and immigration (in my case) play a big role in your entrepreneurship journey.

Ricky's co-founder here. Loved reading about your story-- found it by ctrl-f-ing your name after seeing your comment above :)

Props for writing this. Often times I want to tell my (different but similar) story, but never do. I don't know why. It probably has to do with a number of the points you make in the article, so you are a couple steps ahead of me.

Forgive me for being a bit sappy here, but this post, and the discussions that it inspired here are absolute gold!

It's certainly not the first time I've thought about this topic, but for whatever reason, the OP and much of the discussion is resonating very deeply for me (and apparently for a lot of folks). IMHO, this is some of the most productive discussion about privilege and opportunity that's ever appeared on the internet; for the most part, this discussion has avoided the sort of aggravated competition (i.e. pissing contests) and judgements that generally arise out of internet discussions of privilege. In place of those nastier (albeit very human) responses, this thread is full of empathy, support, and offers of help.

I'm very proud of our little community here today.

I'm planning on writing a more detailed post in a few days after collecting my thoughts a bit more, but I'd like to share some half-formed ideas which this post has inspired (comments and criticisms are very welcome!):

1) Part of what's awesome about this discussion is that it seems to have enabled a bit of ad-hoc group therapy. I think it's very helpful for folks who are facing these hurdles to realize they are not alone; while everyone's situation is unique, it's great that people have been acknowledging similarities in their stories, rather than arguing about the differences. We should try to do more of this (with other contentious topics as well)!

2) As several people have suggested, I believe that collecting these stories could potentially help a lot of people. I'm totally down to build and host a site towards that end - would anyone be interested in sharing their stories in that sort of venue?

3) While the specific issues that people have had to deal with are different, there seems to be some common 'flavors' that many have experienced: a) Socio-economic disparity causing an aversion to risk later in life b) Lack of confidence in oneself which adds an additional handicap compared to more self-confident people, likely resulting in missed opportunities (you can't win if you don't play vs you can't lose if you don't play); impostor syndrome. c) Lack of connections, again likely resulting in missed opportunities and increased difficulty in building new things/finding a job/etc. d) Disparity in access to knowledge that greatly improves chances of success (e.g. importance of SAT scores to college admissions; efficient resource management; interview skills)

Improving the situation in (a) seems to be what the world at large is most interested in. Unfortunately, it's a difficult, heavily politicized, and therefore divisive issue. By contrast (b), (c), and (d) seem like problems that we could really improve, at least within our own community.

For example, someone might have a harder time getting the type of (tech) job that they want due to a lack of personal connections (it can be really hard to get your foot in the door), however, it's likely that the personal connections they need are actually visiting this site every day. While we obviously can't just start providing references for total strangers, how much effort would it be to spend a few hours corresponding with someone and vetting their skills to see if you feel comfortable in recommending them? (I'll put my money where my mouth is on this one - if anyone feels like they'd be a good fit at Cloudera, let's talk! EDIT: just to be clear, I don't really have any hiring authority, but I'm happy to talk to anyone, and potentially help with a recommendation)

Likewise, it seems that (b) could be improved for a lot of people with simple communication - impostor syndrome is very common in tech, so I assume that a lot of people here have advice on the subject, or just an empathetic/sympathetic ear.

Regarding (d), this type of information is all likely available already on the internet, but perhaps it could be more usefully compiled for this particular case, minimizing the number of unknown unknowns? What about a thread (like "Who's Hiring") listing offers for mentorship ("Who Needs a Mentor?") ?

I dunno, am I just being overly optimistic here? It seems to me there's a lot of low-hanging fruit here, if some of us are willing to dedicate a bit of time to it.

More ideas? Criticisms?

This article was very real, and I can’t help but identify with Ricky, and other stories I’ve read on here, but it’s not just in SV, it’s entrepreneurship in general, I thought I’d share my story as well:

I was born in Albania, a small, poor, European country with a GDP comparable to Zimbabwe, Namibia, or Sudan. That same year marked the fall of it's isolated strain of communism, and Albania's borders were opened for the first time since WW2. In the late 90s, after the collapse of its economy and ponzi schemes, social unrest reached its height following the violent murder of peaceful protesters by the government and police. This sparked an uprising and the government was toppled. The police and national guard deserted, leaving armories open, then looted by militia, and criminal gangs, with factions fighting in the streets to take control. My parents moved our beds to the hallway of our small apartment as there were no windows, and my little sister and I had to stay quiet so no one would hear we were there. After a UN operation, the government was restored, and the situation was relatively calm. Sometime that following summer, my dad found out about a US green card lottery, filled out an application form, and because he was in a hurry, handed it to a random stranger waiting in line to submit it for him. He then forgot about it, until a year later, when we got a letter telling us that we had won. My parent's weren't terribly off in Albania, they were comfortable, their friends, families were there, they had great jobs, and the future looked promising. But having just gone through that rebellion, then the Yugoslav Wars to the north trickling across the border, and the allure of the American Dream, they decided it would be best for my sister and I.

We moved to Philadelphia in 2000, in a working class neighborhood, with a few suitcases and not one word of English. My parents took on multiple jobs, their Albanian communist degrees were obviously not recognized in the US, so my dad, once a doctor, is still working maintenance, and shoveling snow in the East Coast, as I write this. Like Ricky said, and like all immigrant kids, my family depended on me to learn english and deal with translation, and everything in between. 5 years later when we became citizens, and received our passports, my parents knew more about American History than was taught in my inner-city high school.

My parents are incredibly supportive, but they moved to the US in their 40s, they weren’t familiar with the language, culture, and even more importantly capitalism. Apart from the classic model of education, they weren’t familiar with the tools required to be successful in such a strange place like this. But with their meager wages they were happy to support my hobbies, buy me lots of books, and a computer with internet access which taught me much more than my inner city schools.

Eventually I got a college degree, then went on to do a dual-masters in design and engineering at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College in London. I even got to go to Tokyo and work for Sony, while studying there. I graduated this past summer, and then launched my final group project as a startup in London with my friends, two English, Oxford educated engineers, and a Spanish designer/engineer who’s father is the president of one of the largest companies in the world.

Then reality sank in, I had to leave, I can’t be an entrepreneur just yet, and I moved to SV to find a high paying job in tech for the next 5-10 years, so that I can: a. afford to pay rent b. pay off my educational loans c. pay off my parent’s home d. help my sister pay for her education e. send some money home because my dad is getting too old to shovel snow

I looked through your past posts, and you are legit!

I liked to that you went to a community college. I too screwed up in high school. I didn't even know why people were taking another test--the SAT. That said, I cleaned up my act in my senior year, but it was too late.

Everything, and a lot more, that I missed in high school, I made up for in two semesters at community college.

If anyone in high school is reading this, and thinking, "I wish I could do it over?". You can! I had a great time at my community college. I saved a lot of money, and met some really wonderful people. The teachers really seemed to care. I didn't find that at the four year school, or even my professional school.

Just make sure to transfer, and get that four year degree. So many people don't transfer to a four year university, or even get the associate degree. Yes, so much of college is absolute bull shit, but degrees are still valued in a lot of professions. It's changing though, and I couldn't be happier. British companies are taking the lead. I know at Penguin books; HR isn't even allowed to know if you went to college, or not. You are hired on your experience, and maybe a test? The way it should be.

We detached this comment from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10956322 and marked it off-topic.

I'm just a random reader of HN, but I'm curious here: was that comment edited after it was moved? As it reads now it doesn't seem far outside the tone of the rest of the thread. As always when I ask such things, I ask because I want to know what I'm missing, so I can see it in the future and/or avoid making similar mistakes myself.

Finally someone who talks about the consequences of economic inequality. PG seemed to think all that mattered is the causes.

It's frustrating, not a single critique I've seen of PG's essay (including this one) seem to understand what he is actually saying.

This essay supports PG's point, it doesn't contradict it. PG's essay calls out "kids with no chance of reaching their potential" as "very bad" aspect of inequality in the fourth paragraph!

What essay did you read?

It's frustrating, not a single critique I've seen of PG's essay (including this one) seem to understand what he is actually saying.

It's time to start considering that either PG made his point poorly, or that maybe you're the one that didn't understand it. I don't know what other reasonable options there are.

If by "PG made his point poorly" you mean "PG didn't communicate in a way that was misunderstanding-proof", I can agree with you. Inequality is an emotionally-charged subject that is prone to misunderstanding. I think PG underestimated how thoroughly the intellectual basis of his argument would be missed once he uttered the words "I've been helping to increase economic inequality."

Most of the critiques of PG accuse him of not caring about poor people. And yet his essay specifically attacks poverty and lack of social mobility:

> Let's attack poverty, and if necessary damage wealth in the process. That's much more likely to work than attacking wealth in the hope that you will thereby fix poverty.

I think PG underestimated how thoroughly the intellectual basis of his argument would be missed once he uttered the words "I've been helping to increase economic inequality." Most of the critiques of PG accuse him of not caring about poor people. And yet his essay specifically attacks poverty and lack of social mobility:

I have to agree with you. I am actually surprised PG tried to even write a second essay to explain the first one and some people still didn't understand it and it led me to this conclusion and points me to Dale Carnegie's " You can't win an argument"..

Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right.

You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph. And -

"A man convinced against his will

"Is of the same opinion still."

Agreed. People are downvoting my other comments in this thread too -- on a visceral level, people seem to really want to believe that PG doesn't care about poor people.

the problem with PGs essay was that it is full of strawmen and non sequiturs made up by him. For example, the sentence you just described. Let's attack poverty - what does that mean in practice? in practice, that means spending money on solutions to poverty, ala Sweden. Where does that money come from? from taxes. So, the conversation about raising taxes on the wealthy ( or "attacking wealth" as he says ), outside of a very small fringe, is just really a conversation about raising funds to attack poverty. And PG made it sound as if the conversation is about attacking wealth for its own sake, which nobody but the fringe is having

> PG made it sound as if the conversation is about attacking wealth for its own sake, which nobody but the fringe is having

Let us test this claim.

I Googled "inequality in the us" and clicked the first several results. If your claim is true, these will only discuss attacking poverty, and not attacking wealth. (I am assuming that top Google hits do not constitute "the fringe").

The first result is: "20 Facts About U.S. Inequality that Everyone Should Know from The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality." (http://web.stanford.edu/group/scspi/cgi-bin/facts.php). The first two "facts" concern wage inequality and CEO pay, neither of which say anything a priori about poverty. Many of the other "facts" on the page do address poverty more directly.

The Wikipedia page on Income Inequality is next (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_inequality_in_the_Unite...). It primarily discusses actual inequality, mentioning poverty only in one specific section. One of the policy proposals it describes is one of a maximum wage, which has nothing to do with decreasing poverty.

The third result is a Salon.com piece, "35 soul-crushing facts about American income inequality" (http://www.salon.com/2015/07/15/35_soul_crushing_facts_about...). Many of them are again facts that do not say anything about poverty, like "The poorest half of the Earth’s population owns 1% of the Earth’s wealth. The richest 1% of the Earth’s population owns 46% of the Earth’s wealth." Facts like these are directly pitting the poor against the rich, without saying anything about whether the lower earners actually have their needs met and/or have social mobility.

So I disagree that this is a "strawman." I think a core part of the conversation about inequality is that is it horrifying how much the rich have compared with everyone else. That is the attitude that PG is arguing against.

I am talking about not a few articles here and there that can be googled, but rather an actual political agenda that will result in actionable laws, regulations etc. The agenda on the table specifically, is, as an example, Obamacare, which is a program that raises taxes on the rich and transfers that money to provide healthcare for the poor. take the most left wing candidate in the presidential race today, Bernie Sanders. Is his agenda to attack wealth for its own sake? No, his agenda is to tax the rich in order to transfer that money to programs that will fight poverty. I am not a Bernie Sanders supporter, but the fact that even he doesn't attack wealth for its own sake, tells you that PG's essay is a giant strawman.

The other possibility is people see what they want to see.

...And down that road lies helplessness and cynicism.

I completely agree with this frustration - the bulk of my review of the responses revealed that people reacted to what they felt like PG said (or what others felt like he said), not what he actually said.

My other frustration was that some of what PG actually did saw was indeed flawed, and there's only one response [1] that I could find that spoke to it.

Regardless, writing about political domains riles the most base, tribal instincts in all of us. I expect him to be more careful about how he frames his arguments so that they're not overcome by readers' emotion, but can actually have a positive impact.

[1] https://medium.com/@sethbannon/how-paul-graham-gets-it-wrong...

I just read the PG essay and have to agree with the parent post. From what I can see, his argument boils down to this: increasing wealth concentration is caused by many things. Some of these things are 'bad' (e.g. rent-seeking, bribing politicians) in and of themselves, and should be addressed. Some of these things are 'good' (e.g. economic productivity varies from person to person, all other things equal), and it would be ill-advised to do away with these things by blindly optimising towards 'less wealth inequality' (as it would make everyone worse off, in an absolute sense).

Obviously an oversimplification, as the essay also hints at a 'undetermined' category. On this, the essay touches on two issues I've been thinking about for the past 5 years:

1) As capital (i.e. the means of production) becomes increasingly digital, it becomes cheaper to acquire and production can occur at a marginal cost of near 0 (e.g. it costs facebook virtually nothing when a person makes a new account). Cheaper to acquire means fewer people needed to pool money to attain capital. And marginal cost near 0 means more 'winner-takes-all' markets (e.g. natural monopolies, network monopolies etc.). All this will result in more wealth concentrated in fewer hands.

2) Digital capital is highly mobile. AWS instances can be moved to another country almost instantaneously and without cost. This makes it hard for governments to tax returns to digital capital, barring some global tax agreement. So governments have very little scope for redistributing this increasingly concentrated wealth.

We badly need to have a public (and probably global) conversation along similar lines as PG's essay: do we consider these good or bad things? are we ok with the resulting society? what should we do (if anything) about this?

Instead the conversation seems to be dominated by people who are fixated on remedying the symptoms, rather than the underlying disease(s). Supremely frustrating, and will eventually result in more extreme policy outcomes (i.e. expropriation vs. free-for-all).

Glad I'm not the only person who felt this frustration..

I don't think PG had to face any of this, is aware or even cares about it. That article he wrote was pretty indicative of his mentality.

Exactly. What people need to understand here is that pg isn't an actual prophet. He is insightful in many ways sure, particularly about entrepreneurship and SV culture but that's about it.

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