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.

Why I love Facebook’s seamless sharing

Recently a number of articles have decried recent Facebook changes allowing seamless sharing of information. Using Open Graph, several news sites such as the Washington Post and the Guardian have released “social reader” Facebook apps. These apps, once enabled, allow Facebook friends to see the articles you have read in much the same way that Spotify shows friends songs you have listened to.

Molly Wood at CNET released a scathing article entitled “How Facebook is ruining sharing.” Molly insists that sharing and recommendation shouldn’t be passive, and this sort of passive sharing will “overwhelm our interest and deaden us to the possibility of organic discovery.” I would argue that the exact opposite is true, that seamless sharing improves organic discovery.

Seamless sharing improves organic discovery

How many times have you been sitting in a car with a friend and heard them play a song you liked? Prior to the advent of the smartphone, you would have to remember the name of the song, then at a much later point in time, download it… if you could remember the name. Spotify now allows you to see what your friends are listen to and quickly try the song or artist yourself. Spotify for me has quickly become an easy way to explore new music that I never would have heard of without this service. While initially there was a chorus of boos from people complaining about the lack of privacy this spread, this chorus quickly faded as those who demanded more privacy found the option to stop sharing.

How was news promulgated prior to seamless sharing? You might receive an e-mail from a friend with “Fwd: FWD: Fwd: FWD” appended to the front of the title. Often you’d find that some people never shared anything of value. This might be an elderly relative who only sent fake inspirational stories or urban legends. In the end, many drew the same conclusion that I did. These forwarded e-mails were generally marked as unread and never opened.

The new social reader is one of the first things that allows people to catch glimpses outside of the filter bubble described by Eli Pariser in his TED talk. Very quickly, I found myself catching headlines that I normally wouldn’t have read if not for the fact that another friend had checked out the link beforehand. Of course social readers might introduce some level of junk into your feed as certain friends read low-value articles about say Kim Kardashian’s recent divorce. However, just as in the past, these sources will be mentally filtered as you realize that specific friends might not have the most important contributions to your media digest.

The important thing here is that you are seeing things outside of your curated digest. I posit that when people are overly conscious of what they are sharing, in the end you miss out on information. Some of this information may or may not be useful, but with seamless sharing you get to make that decision. With curated sharing and without seamless sharing, people you follow make a decision for you.

Facebook privacy decisions

It is true that the default privacy settings in Facebook have become looser since its inception. As I have argued above, I believe that this creates more organic discovery opportunities. Nonetheless, Facebook has allowed for close management of privacy settings, allowing for users to manage their information in a relatively easy manner.

It seems many Facebook users do not understand the model under which they are using Facebook. As a Facebook user, you are allowed access to a powerful medium that allows you to connect to your social network in a way that has never been possible in history before now. Although you don’t pay any money to use its services, Facebook is not free. The cost is privacy. This is information is sold by Facebook to 3rd parties for cash. You control how much privacy you are willing to give up to use Facebook, and in exchange you get some degree of connectivity to the world.

As a frequent traveler, I am more than willing to give up more of my privacy in order to be more connected to my friends around the world. I love being able to see what my friends are reading and listening to on Facebook, because otherwise I would be totally disconnected from them for months at a time.

Facebook’s seamless sharing is another way for me to remotely participate in the water cooler discussions about recent news, which I would normally not be privy to being overseas. It allows me to be anchored in my life at home within my group of friends while working on the other side of the globe. It allows me to see the introduction of new members of my family when I am unable to be at the hospital for the delivery.

Others choose to severely limit or completely disable their Facebook accounts, as the benefit they gain is not enough to overcome the value of the privacy they give up. If you have never consciously evaluated the value of the Facebook product and how much privacy you are willing to give up to use it, you should. However, I think I and many others will agree that the benefit is significantly greater than the cost.