Vivek Wadhwa On Race, Gender, and Meritocracy in Silicon Valley

When Vivek Wadhwa founded a tech company, he was advised by fellow Indian Americans to have a white “front man” to pitch company to venture capitalists. Moving to academia in an attempt to slow down from the hectic tech business world,  one of his studies found that in 2005, 52.4% of Silicon Valley startups were founded by immigrants from all over the world. Is Silicon Valley a place of pure meritocracy, where people from anywhere can make it big? Before moving there, he thought so, but after attending some local events he changed his mind. When he pointed out issues with race and gender in Silicon Valley, he was shocked at the backlash.

What did Wadhwa say about race and gender in Silicon Valley that provided a backlash? Some of his observations: If Silicon Valley had so many successful immigrant entrepreneurs, many of them Asian, then why at a tech award ceremony equivalent of the Oscars were there only two women with most of the awardees young white men? One of his best students, an African American woman with technical degrees, high GPA, and outstanding drive, received employment references and contacts from him. In his tech days, he would have hired her instantly, but despite introductions, she couldn’t get a job in Silicon Valley. He relates the experience of Vinita Gupta raising funds for a company while pregnant. Venture Capitalists (VCs) kept asking her how she would handle the business when the baby arrived.    In this Business Week article, Gupta asks about this experience:

“How many men, three weeks after their wife reports that she is pregnant, can tell you how much time they will spend with the baby so business is not adversely impacted?”

She got the funding after she assured them she would get a nanny.

The backlash was harsh. In response writing about gender disparities, he was told by VC friends that their peers wonder if he was “trying to get laid” or had some “other agenda.” Some prominent VCs tweeted that all of his posts were “garbage.” “Worst Analysis of Entrepreneurship and VCs EVER!” said John Backus, a partner at New Atlantic Ventures in a popular post on Wadhwa admits the criticism does sting.

So how are immigrants making it in Silicon Valley given some of the previous observations? In this blog post, Wadhwa points out how Indian Entrepreneurs succeed. They form their own networks like TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs), and through those networks, experienced entrepreneurs mentor younger ones and provide access to funding, services, and customers. The suggestion given to Wadhwa from fellow Indian Americans advising using a white man to do their pitches to VCs is an example of both how networks work and how their advice can be extremely useful.

Have lived and worked in Silicon Valley for more than two decades, I have heard many stories over the years about how VCs prefer CEOs and marketing people to be white. Many years ago, an HR person at my company said that one of their biggest problems was retaining Asian American engineers because they felt that they couldn’t be promoted and then left to start their own companies.  Many of my former Asian American coworkers did exactly that and became very wealthy that way. Occasionally, I regret not doing the same.

I find it refreshing that there is someone talking so openly about these subjects, but I am saddened that one solution to being shut out of networks mentioned is to set up your own segregated networks. Wadhwa says that Silicon Valley can be the meritocracy that people say it is, but first, Silicon Valley has to admit that there is a problem. Some Valley companies resist giving out numbers on diversity.

You can catch Vivek Wadhwa’s commentaries on his web site at, and the Mercury News has a write up on him here.

[Flickr Photo Credit:  BAIA]


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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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