when in doubt, do right

Over the past couple of weeks a number of major venture capitalists have written mea culpa articles apologizing for the ways that the contributed to a misogynistic culture in Silicon Valley.  The first was a bit vague and general but seemed to focus upon inaction in the face of adversity.  This individual recognized that he was silent as others created an environment of fear and hostility among his female peers.  The second VC acknowledged that he was a “creep” (because creep sounds better than serial predator) and had a hard time expanding his dating pool beyond his coworkers and subordinates.

Each of these folks garnered a lot of feedback following their admissions.  Some of it was negative as many people boiled the message down to “talk is cheap”.  While others praised the authors as “brave” for opening a dialog about current injustices and taking accountability for their actions.

I felt that both were weak, somewhat public relation stunts borne of white privilege.  It seems that each character entered into this foray under his own volition and control. They were able to craft their own message and own the sentiment.  One of the authors resigned his post at a VC but coincidentally, the other guy retired only a month prior…dubious timing.

The thing that bothered me most about the apology tour is simple.  It should have never been necessary in the first place.  We all make mistakes in life so no stones are being thrown in that glass house.  However, when you participate in a pattern of systemic and prevalent culture of hatred and dehumanization of half of your co-workers, a simple apology essay doesn’t cut it.

I can tell you first hand about this because I lived it and I did the right thing and it was one of the times in my life that I look back upon as a watershed moment.  It solidified who I am as a person and gave me the moral high ground to expect more from people around me.  It also provided the experience to teach my future children that being kind and just is simply not that hard.

I was in a fraternity at college and during rush season we held a number of parties and open houses to meet potential members before offering them bids to pledge.  Of course looking back, fraternities were the dumbest and juvenile organizations at my college but I digress.

One individual came to all of your events.  I’ll call him NP.  He was interested in the culture of our fraternity which had no prevailing identity.  We weren’t jocks but we had athletes.  We weren’t service oriented, but we volunteered.  We weren’t an academic fraternity but we had future doctors.  We were just a group of regular guys who liked to hang out and drink beer.

NP met all of the current brothers.  He was Indian and had a stutter at times and went out of his way to put himself out there.  I liked him but we weren’t friends yet.

At the end of rush season the fraternity meets to decide whom to invite into the group. Names are read and discussed and votes are taken.  Sadly it is very similar to the scene in “Animal House” as each pledge is reviewed on a projector screen.

When NP name came up, there was limited conversation and he was to be skipped for invitation.  It was at that moment I became the man I am today.  I stood up and said something to the effect….

“I am disappointed to hear about the direction that this vote is going.  NP has been to all of our events.  He has made efforts to meet every one of you, although you have not done the same.  He looks different than you.  He sounds different than you.  If you want to still vote no, that’s fine by me, just be honest that its because you’re racists and that it doesn’t have anything to do with the effort NP has shown getting to know you all. ”

And then I sat down.

The vote flipped and NP was a new inductee.

Eventually word got back to NP about the meeting and thankfully he focused more on the fact that I had his back over the dismissal he was about to face without it.

I think that the meeting had just as big as an impact on him as it did for me.  As he learned that I stood up for him against odds and put my reputation on the line to do the right thing made a lasting impression on him.

Now if you have read this far you may be asking yourself…how does this compare to the VC problems with misogyny?  How dare I compare a simple fraternity membership issue to something as big as wide scale discrimination?  The answer is simple to me.  Culture is derived by the actions that are praised and punished within an organization.  Little interactions turn into medium interactions that turn in to larger interactions.  When micro agressions are tolerated, it builds the foundation for more absurd activity.  When people can comfortably treat others as inferior without repercussions a snowball effect can take place.

Alternately, when people do the right thing in small ways such as hold doors open and keep elevators open for rushing staff a culture of respect can follow in meeting rooms.

Good begets good and bad begets bad.  I think it is really that simple.

So to the VC on their apology tours, its good that you recognize your roles in creating this mess.  But talk is cheap and I look forward to hearing from those who you now help to right your wrongs.



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