Glass ceilings everywhere
A couple of years ago I was talking to someone from the Silicon Valley VC world. He was a young associate focused on research rather than a top-flight investor, but he knew that was the career path he wanted to follow.
I told him that VC appealed to me as a potential path when the time was right, and his reaction was one of pity and contempt. He reeked of the kind of over-confidence that Ivy League privilege provides as he told me there was no way someone could go from a media background into VC. It simply wasn’t possible, he asserted. His tone was essentially, ‘this is my world, back off.’
Let’s leave aside those such as Michael Moritz and MG Siegler as examples of people who have done just that; if there’s a widespread perception it’s impossible, the gate will be harder to open if I ever try.
Now, most VCs I’ve met are nothing like that one guy, but he left an impression on me with my state school beginnings, North of England accent and Russell Group university education. I felt sure that if I had a posh accent, had gone to Oxford, and worked for the Times, he’d have taken me a lot more seriously.
Last week, the BBC put out a really good documentary about social privilege called ’How to Break into the Elite
.’ Presenter Amol Rajan summed up the problem thus — “It’s the most deeply-rooted superstition in Britain today that if you sound posh, you must be clever.”
And the US may have a more egalitarian spirit, but it’s clear that even there, being born into a world of connections and 'fitting in’ affords you more opportunities than most others will ever manage to see.
“Forget rags-to-riches stories and tales of university dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg. Read the bio of the average British startup founder, and a few names keep popping up: Cambridge, Oxford and management company McKinsey. Coming from money makes it easier to make money, but a lack of financial diversity among founders could be holding back British tech. Put less carefully, are British startups too posh?”
Someone from the poorest of backgrounds can get anywhere they like with exceptional effort, but those who fit in can just sidle through the door, talk the right way and fit right in without really trying. It’s not so much that it’s unfair, but that the best people for a job might be losing out.
That’s no secret, but the less discussed problem is once you’re through the door, all those people who 'fit in’ better can make those who don’t fit in feel like they’re not part of the club — it’s enough to drive them back to a less privileged environment where they feel more welcome but may have fewer opportunities in the future.
Tackling these problems isn’t just about more diverse hiring, it’s about developing a culture that doesn’t celebrate and reward inherent privilege. If you’re a leader who comes from such a background, this can be difficult, but do you really want to perpetuate a workplace with such a limited gene pool?