Coming Out as an Ally

This weekend, I’m heading down to New Orleans for the Reaching Out MBA conference (ROMBA). When I tell people this, the response is often confusion as I do not identify myself as LGBT. I’m writing this post to explain why I am interested in LGBT issues, why I’m coming out as an ally, and why I’m attending ROMBA.

Growing up in the South, it was common to hear sexual slurs used casually at an early age. Often these were used with some negative connotation, not necessarily directly attacking people. As a result, I became accustomed to overlooking casual discrimination, whether it was regarding sexual orientation, or race, or any other way that people cast judgment upon wide swathes of human beings. As time went on and people matured, slurs were used less as people learned to be politically correct. While it was certainly nice that these slurs were being used less, the fact that people were still holding on to these prejudices was not great. On top of that, the political correctness prevented dialogue, and these issues were things that I never really considered before.

Fast forward a few years to 2010, I was in Hong Kong for work for a couple days, and was able to meet up with my cousin Whitney, who had relocated from New Zealand to Hong Kong after graduating college. I was asking about our other cousin Carla, as I knew they were close and I hadn’t really kept in touch. Whitney responded: “Yeah, Carla is great, Harry and Julia are doing well too!” I had no idea who Harry and Julia were. “Is Harry Carla’s boyfriend or something?” I inquired.

Over the next few minutes, I found out that Julia is Carla’s partner, and they have a son, Harry. I had no idea about any of this. Many aspects of Chinese culture are very conservative, and views on sexual orientation are no exception. My aunt and uncle had kept this a secret from much of our extended family for nearly five years. Discussions with Carla and ultimately meeting Harry and Julia really pushed me to think more about LGBT issues and helped me come to the realization that these issues touch on very basic human rights which should be inherent to everyone.

Over the course of the last few months, I’ve realized that although my thinking has become more supportive of LGBT issues, I have allowed my experience growing up in an anti-LGBT setting prevent me from actively discussing these issues and growing. Not only that, my inability to discuss these issues restricts my ability to help others within my class to grow as well.

Coming out as an ally is an important step for me to continue to grow as a person and to avoid the complacency of passive “open-mindedness.” Being passive makes it too easy to err on the side of heteronormative thinking, i.e. assuming everyone is heterosexual. By coming out as an ally, I hope to correct my own thinking, and become a stronger resource for those who identify themselves as LGBT, as well as those who are also interested in becoming more active in supporting others.

Why Diversity and Inclusion are Important to Me

Last week, I was honored to be elected as Section D’s international and diversity student advisory group representative. What this means is that I will be meeting with the International Student Advisory Group (ISAG) and the Diversity Student Advisory Group (DSAG) to facilitate conversations about diversity and inclusion at Darden, advocate on behalf of international students, and promote understanding and awareness to build a stronger Darden community. To be elected, I submitted a statement to explain why diversity and inclusion are important to me. I want to share this piece to provide my perspective.

I am passionate about connecting people of different ethnicity, religion, sexual orientations, or any other label people use to put people into buckets. No matter what your background, each one of us is the same. We’re all human beings with hopes and dreams, successes and failures, triumphant wins and heart-crushing defeats. I’d like to tell you a personal story of one of my heart-crushing defeats that I hope will show why I’m so passionate about connecting people of different backgrounds.

On July 4th, 2011, I was celebrated Independence Day by driving 190 miles to Austin to meet up with some high school friends from Dallas. Over the next several hours we reminisced about the past, caught up on each other’s lives, and had a blast watching fireworks. After I’d had enough, I took my leave and started walking back to my hotel.

Suddenly, a car screeched by. A man leaning out the window yelled at me, “GO BACK TO CHINA!”

Go back to China? I’ve lived here all my life. Am I Chinese? I thought this was home. I thought I belonged here. Am I American? Who am I?

Am I Chinese? Over the last four years, I have spent a substantial amount of time working abroad in China. Even though I speak Mandarin fluently, my Taiwanese/American accent was obvious and Chinese people could always tell that I was not Chinese. They could tell even before I even opened my mouth by the way I dressed. I am not Chinese.

Am I Taiwanese? Although, I have relatives in Taiwan, I cannot even communicate with my grandparents because I cannot speak the local dialect, Taiwanese. While I’ve visited Taiwan many times during my childhood, it’s never felt right to me. The very environment seems to reject me. Too hot. Too humid. Too many mosquitoes. It’s as if the entire climate of Taiwan is trying to make me recognize that I don’t belong there. I am not Taiwanese.

Am I American? I worked at a chemical plant with mostly blue-collar workers. Here I am even more different. Not only am I a different ethnicity, I am the ethnicity that is stealing jobs from them. They associate me with the Chinese sweatshops that are taking food off of their tables. I tell them I’m in the same boat. I’m fighting to keep a job in America as many engineering jobs are getting outsourced to China. They can’t see past my skin color. I am not American.

After the incident, I posted a status update about it onto Facebook. I was instantly flooded with sympathetic Facebook messages and texts. In times of crises, none of these labels matter. I am not Chinese or American, Christian or Buddhist, Republican or Democrat. I am a human being with friends and family that love and support me through thick and thin. I am passionate about diversity and inclusion because they are essential to the development of strong bonds that will last beyond the time we are here at Darden and endure across cultural, religious, and political borders.

Startup School 2012 Themes

After having some time to decompress and re-digest my notes from Startup School 2012, I’ve collected my primary takeaways in the form of themes echoed by multiple speakers. There were many interesting anecdotes and nuggets of advice that I have not attempted to list. Note that these are my subjective views and it’s likely different people gained different insights from the speakers.

1.   There are still many opportunities for startups to leverage the Internet

Ron Conway believes that the Internet is still in its infancy. When asked about whether he felt Facebook could have been founded earlier, Mark Zuckerberg pointed to university e-mail addresses as necessary to its early success. Zuckerberg speculated that there is some social-networking equivalent of Moore’s Law that dictates the long-term, exponential growth of sharing. Mark pointed to Wikipedia as an example. In his eyes, Wikipedia was able to achieve success earlier than Facebook because it needed less sharing to sustain itself. Thus, as more sharing occurs in the future, there will be new opportunities for startups that did not exist before.

2.   Big growth opportunities in eCommerce

A few speakers pointed at eCommerce as an example of a space now reaching the sustainable sharing threshold necessary for success. Hiroshi Mikitani cited Rakuten’s rapidly growing mobile revenue, currently growing 300 to 400 percent year-over-year. This point should certainly be taken with a grain of salt, as several of the speakers addressing this topic have vested interests in this industry that could affect their objectivity. Both Mikitani and Ron Conway have made substantial investments in Pinterest, whose success is certainly tied to the success of eCommerce. On the other hand, the fact that Mikitani and Conway have made a number of substantial investments in eCommerce shows that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to eCommerce.

3.   Technology as an extension of fundamental human wants and needs

To Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook is a natural extension of the fundamental human need to connect with other people, noting that humans are highly geared toward social interaction. To that end, Facebook extends the number of meaningful social relationships humans can maintain beyond the Dunbar number of 150. In the same vein, Ben Silbermann stated that Pinterest is not just about eCommerce; Pinterest is about helping people find others that have similar interests and helping them find their passion. Ben Horowitz noted that the line between wants and needs is not real. Many people have made statements to the effect that technology development was at its end as people’s needs had been fully met. Ben pointed out that over time “wants become needs.”

4.   Startups are difficult

Many speakers described long, arduous journeys to success. Ben Silbermann challenged the commonly used maxim that startups are like running a marathon, stating that there was much more uncertainty in a startup than a marathon. Speakers identified several common difficulties:

i.  Gaining traction. David Rusenko related how weebly did not really gain traction until 48 months after the first line of code was written, in spite of early publicity from TechCrunch, Newsweek, and Time. Patrick Collison of Stripe recounted long hours spent coding and an alert system that guaranteed someone would be available to provide customer support at all hours. Ben Silbermann stressed how important it was for startups to “be great one thing,” and to ship when they have their “one thing.” He also related how long finding that “one thing” can take.

ii.  Funding. Many speakers including Ben Silbermann and David Rusenko related personal stories of investor rejection.  Jessica Livingston of YCombinator and others described a common “herd mentality” problem whereby investors refused to fund “ugly duckling” startups due to other investors not having funded them already. Ron Conway acknowledged this challenge and cited several successful startups he had failed to fund when given the opportunity including salesforce.com, Pandora, Palantir, and Kickstarter. Amusingly, even Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s early growth was limited by the number of $85 servers they could afford.

iii.  Unique problems. Several founders described non-technical problems that were crucial to the success of their startups. Travis Kalanick of Uber discussed process management and operations problems that required logistics expertise not typically necessary for most startups. In addition, he touched on the regulatory issues facing Uber, stating that all truly disruptive startups would face resistance from entrenched, outdated industries, and the governments supporting them. Ben Silbermann described how Pinterest focused on marketing campaigns like “Pin it Forward” and user meetups to tackle non-engineering problems necessary for Pinterest’s success. Patrick Collison said he feels empathy for business people attempting to break into tech because he felt similarly out of his element working with the financial industry to build Stripe.

5.   People are important to a startup’s success

Ron Conway described how he funds people and not startups. His practice of following founders regardless of whether or not their last startup succeeded allowed him to get in on the ground floor of Twitter after following Evan Williams from Odeo. Unfortunately for most, Ron also said that within 10 minutes of meeting someone, he has already decided whether he would invest in them. Tom Preston-Werner described how a company’s people, product, and philosophy were all interconnected and necessary for success. Jessica Livingston stated that incompatible co-founders was a common reason for startups to fail. Ben Horowitz said he looks for “Founders with courage and skill to build.”

6.    There’s more than one path to success

While founders described common themes, their startups addressed very different needs and markets. Joel Spolsky related two very different personal success stories in Stack Exchange and Fog Creek Software. He described a dichotomy of startup growth options:

i.  Get Big Fast. These are startups like Facebook and Stack Exchange, which rely on network effects and lock-in to be successful. Because success is market dependent, it is important to grow rapidly. As a result, problems are solved with money from venture capitalists. Quantitatively, expected value could be viewed as a 1% chance of a 10 billion dollar valuation.

ii.  Organic Growth. These are startups like Ben & Jerry’s and Fog Creek software, which develop products that are valuable to even just one customer. These companies must focus on being frugal because mistakes can kill you. For these startups, it’s important to bootstrap and break even quickly, rather than taking outside funding. Joel expressed the expected value of an organic growth company as a 90% chance of a 10 million valuation.

While the media focuses on the success of “Get Big Fast” companies, millions of companies go the route of “Organic Growth.” Ultimately, Joel said said that failure to choose one of the two methods of growth kills startups.