I’ll be honest; I really like The New York Times. It does get a bad rap for being liberal, and I’ll admit, I often end up temporarily switching to The Wall Street Journal every time I make the decision to read a Maureen Dowd column – but on the whole, it’s high-caliber.
However, Nathaniel Rich recently contributed a feature about “Y Combinator” – essentially Silicon Valley’s larger model of Stanford StartX. And I have to say, it was one of the most smug, self-satisfied exposés I’ve read, even as a Bay Area hermit who could locate the nearest solar start-up more quickly than an In-n-Out.
Rich begins his article by introducing a couple of entrepreneurs who each made significant gambles by giving up their livelihoods in order to pursue their start-up ideas in Mountain View, assisted by the Y Combinator, which Rich describes as a “sleep-away camp for start-ups.” The humility of these first few paragraphs is, alas, abandoned when Rich turns his attention to the investors and members of YC, who exchange the “m”s in “millions” for “b”s so casually that it was hard not to raise an eyebrow or two.
Rich proceeds in this vein by fondly introducing the founder and director of YC, Paul Graham. This is a man who analyzed investors’ rate of refusal (failing to give start-ups any initial funding), and unapologetically concluded that these Palo Alto/Mountain view dwelling investors were largely biased against any investors who had a foreign accent or were above age 32. As for his own biases, Graham reportedly admitted (somewhat humorously), “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: ‘How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!’”
I was pretty put off and surprised at this blatant, uncensored and unapologetic display of discrimination. But Rich? He fondly described Graham as “an infectiously giddy and hyperarticulate programmer, investing magnate and essayist.” The end of the article is even more unsettlingly sweet; indeed, Rich all but writes a soliloquy about the YP founder’s sudden and inspirational interest in hang-gliding. It was one of the most irrelevant conclusions to an even more irrelevant article.
I understand that much of the distaste that this article evokes is due to the detached, even cold, attitudes that the ultra-wealthy in Silicon Valley seem to have about forking over millions of dollars like bushels of hay to someone who invented what I like to call “Divorce-In-A-Box” (the real name might be worse – “Wevorce”; it’s like they’re just asking for it). But when Rich chooses to include an infuriatingly brief conversation that goes along the lines of “$360 million makes me lose interest… ” “It should have a ‘B’ in front of it…” without at least mentioning how ludicrous that sounds in today’s economy, I question his fidelity to journalistic significance. Leave it to Reddit to post the strange and unexpected. I’d like my news, however, to be a little more nuanced.
Now, this wouldn’t bother me as much if the New Yorker would stop gleefully drawing parallels between Stanford and Silicon Valley; I’m guessing mostly because it’s fun and exciting to have a word like “Clinkle” in a serious article. You must understand my chagrin: first, the New Yorker finds every possible way to refer to Stanford as anything but a university. I vividly remember the phrases, “giant tech incubator with a football team” and my favorite, “Star Fond.”
Juvenile writing aside, I couldn’t help but think about the point that the article had made, however poorly: that Stanford was beginning to resemble less of an academic institution and more of a start-up accelerator. Indeed, after counting the number of times I saw “Dropbox” tees while biking to class, my gut told me that the article may have a point at least worth considering.
I’m proud of Stanford’s entrepreneurial spirit – don’t get me wrong. After I took CS106A, I felt ready to enter the domain of mobile apps and social networking. But then I realized I had no idea where Karel had gone, so I settled down to become a columnist instead. And as all columnists who hope for a second of fame on someone’s Facebook or Twitter, I love controversial articles – even the poorly written ones – because they spark some valuable discussion. And even though I took personal offense at the New Yorker’s portrayal of my university, its overarching message stuck in my head. So when Rich’s article came along, I was still musing about whether the entrepreneurial presence at Stanford was helping or hurting students.
Regardless of whether Rich had a last-minute deadline and couldn’t afford to further expand on the YC, he paints a particularly disturbing image of today’s seemingly-progressive-but-tacitly-discriminatory Silicon Valley. Indeed, Rich reports that there is now a higher per-capita concentration of ultra-high network individuals in the Bay Area than anywhere in the country. I’d like to be dazzled by this kind of statistic, but, upon further introspection, it really just seems like there’s a immensely dense concentration of wealthy people around the Bay who have great fun simply rearranging their wealth within a 50-mile radius. It reminds me of that famous Grey Poupon ad where two men eating lunch (or perhaps it was brunch) in their respective Rolls Royces exchange a single bottle of Dijon mustard over and over again for four minutes.
I don’t want Stanford students simply “passing the Grey Poupon.” I want the reach of these brilliant Stanford entrepreneurs to extend much further than the 94305 – heck, maybe out of the Bay Area completely. I never want students to acquire the kind of complacency and lack of animation associated with great ideas and even greater amounts of money. Most of all, I want our incredible diversity to define Stanford, not individual resemblances to Mark Zuckerberg.
Thankfully, these are wishes that I think we all share as bright and ambitious students. And with that, the New Yorker and NYTimes can write whatever they want. Star Fond is here to stay.
You can reach Uttara at firstname.lastname@example.org.