I guess I can't understand how this could even be argued. Of course being difficult for your main audience to understand is going to make it more difficult for you to be successful. It just is.
I'm going to give PG a pass on the 'foreign accents' bit because he'd probably as soon say a strong southern accent would be just as detrimental as a strong russian accent (I hope).
I look at it this way. I ran a dev team 8 or so years ago. Half the team was in the US and the other half in India. The half in India, while speaking English, couldn't understand the team in the US (including myself) when we spoke. And vise versa.
We were both speaking English but we couldn't understand each other. As the manager at the time I had to make sure I was understood to both teams all the time. It was a great effort on my part. I wrote quite a bit more in the beginning and spent a LOT of time on the phone with the team in India. Did I mention that it took a LONG time? It did.
This is compounded when you are a founder. A founder needs to be understood all the way around as precisely as possible. I completely understand what PG was saying, or maybe, trying to say.
Now, all that said, if he stands by 'foreign accents' rather than 'accents' or, even better 'being understood', well then, I'll take back my defense of PG and mostly just say how important it is to be understood by your audience.
It can be argued because some people got offended, and it's much more socially acceptable to argue than to say "I am offended!"
This holds true regardless of the merit of the argument itself. People can argue anything, and often do.
We like to pretend that languages are these very simple things, but they aren't. We bring our expectations to interactions and these are cultural expectations. Keep in mind I am married to someone from another culture, so while I have a lot of experience but I can't call it scientific.
For example, power relationships affect communication differently among Chinese than Americans. Americans will communicate differently when questioning a boss's decisions and this leads to Chinese assuming their authority is challenged when this isn't intended for example. Similarly on the other side, Americans may miss the subtly of the communications that the Chinese expect and this can cause problems too.
So with this in mind, I think that the question is how well are people able to communicate effectively, and accents are, I think, at best a proxy for a lot of other thins going on.
If I were to make one recommendation, it is "recognize that everyone is ethnocentric and if you are working with people from other cultures, expect misunderstandings, and work with them."
Is this parody?
Now that there has been a shitstorm pg can no longer delve into specifics anymore without inflaming hurt feelings, but I imagine he is talking about people who have incredibly extreme accents and are extraordinarily hard to understand. I have worked with a number of people like this, they were ultimately unable to live up to their potential, and I would characterize them as "clueless" in this regard since I would be genuinely shocked if they were at the very least aware nevermind actively trying to correct the problem. It defies belief to think that these folks could not have dramatically improved their accent had they identified it as a problem and spent a few hours each week of dedicated effort to improve it.
This point is of course lost on people who are eager to be offended. If you have a ridiculously strong accent then it's hard to argue that it is unreasonably difficult to go from there to simply being intelligible. People are instead focused on the difficulty of losing an accent altogether which is of course very hard and completely irrelevant.
I'm sure he'd agree it would be foolishness for him to launch a startup in China, pitching to Chinese investors and customers.
The "half a brain" comment could have been better phrased, but that wasn't part of the essay -- it was off-the-cuff in a spoken interview, so he didn't have the opportunity to have 5 people read it and tidy it up before it was published (as he does with the essays).
About role models -- they're all like that. Anyone you may take as a role model is going to have flaws, going to make mistakes, going to sometimes say the wrong thing or make the wrong decision. Sometimes they'll regret it themselves (privately, or publicly) and sometimes not; sometimes they won't even notice they've screwed up.
If you don't see the flaws yet, it's because you don't know them well enough yet.
Don't lose your inspiration, though. Take your role models off their pedestals, and keep looking for new admirable behavior.
/parody in case it's not obvious
In this case, 'foreign' is not synonymous with overseas.
A foreign accent is any accent that is foreign to your brain - and obviously there is a multi-dimensional spectrum of 'foreign-ness'.
The author has erred in his judgement, however I can see now why other non-native-English speakers would easily make the same mistake.
The irony of misunderstanding a topic about the importance of communication!
Back in Australia there are many distinguishable accents - many I detest; yet just because I find them foreign in no way make me racist.
There is a fine, but definite, line to cross for a comment to be racist, and pg did not cross that line.
"In the debate that surrounded a 1993 article about Estuary English, a London businessman claimed that Received Pronunciation was perceived as unfriendly, so Estuary English was now preferred for commercial purposes."
David Crystal, "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language", p.327
The smartest founder of all should be able to precisely adjust his accent for maximum karma.
I just hope we all learn something from this instead of just getting all defensive.
Mr.Graham natively speaks english, but "American" is not his native accent. He's from England.
"I'm sorry. Listening to everyone made me realize I was wrong. People with strong foreign accents make terrific CEOs."
Nothing PG could say would stop this:
"...anyone with half a brain would realize..."
"...pretty offensive to people who had lobotomies..."
These are people that have turned "being offended" into a sport. Being pleased with any sort of apology, clarification, or rebuttal would be admitting defeat. Winning entails remaining offended at all costs.
(And for anyone trying to puzzle out how the author of the article could be so daft, I am fairly certain they meant "hemispherectomy", not "lobotomy". It would be pretty damn foolish to say that victims of lobotomies typically live normal lives following the 'procedure'. Hemispherectomies are rare though, the author was probably actually thinking of corpus callosotomies, though those result in split-brains, not half-brains.)
He was quoting this line from pg: "anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so [the entrepreneurs] must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent"
Now first of all, that line while technically innocuous could have been spoken 100 other ways to convey the same meaning in a less offensive manner. But more importantly, it also belies an ignorance about how language works and makes me suspect pg has never learned a second language. Conflating "idiomatic English" with "strong accent" is not something that someone with knowledge of language learning would do. pg is a strong essayist and thinker, but that's not a substitute for actual domain knowledge, and his off-the-cuff theorizing works best when its about things which he has deep experience. Listening to the accents of a bunch of founders and then judging their prospects based on how they performed and how their accent came across to him is just not going to provide any level of insight approaching that of his other essays. It's sort of like Alchemy vs Chemistry. You can make all sorts of prognostications from surface observations, but if you don't understand the inner workings at all then you're just pissing in the wind.
Sometimes, to fuel my orneriness, I read the comments at WSJ.com. I usually end up in despair, but today I was rewarded with this unexpectedly germane nugget, posted in response to a feature article about the lives of middle managers in America:
> My VP at Charles Schwab, a white man named Chris Nichols, told me that none of my top direct reports in my IT group (all Asian-Americans) could be promoted because of their "foreign accents". Thus ended my career as a middle-level manager. And I couldn't be happier. <
HN seems to be getting swept up in useless stone throwers that waste your time and theirs on grammar and other petty shit...
I come to HN for signal, not duels at 10 paces.
"The defect that hinders communication betwixt them and us, why may it not be on our part as well as theirs?" - French philosopher Montaigne
Now Montaigne was talking about non-human animals, but it works the same for people: is it the fault of the person with the accent that you can't understand them, or your own? Why must that person work to get up to "your level," when it's as much their fault that they have an accent as it is your fault that you have trouble understanding their English?
You can say those other people should improve their communication skills, but that is just how you think the situation should be improved. The situation, in actuality, is one in which strong accents can add friction to the communications between a CEO and the people they need to talk to in SV.
Bottom line is that most Americans apparently aren't used to wildly different accents, and are easily stumped by different speech patterns. They already seem to have a hard time understanding native English speakers who speak perfect English with non-American accents, which, not being a native English speaker myself, always surprises me.