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Silicon Valley Accused of Ageism

An article published in New Republic has labelled Silicon Valley as a hotbed of ageism. Does the tech industry really believe that only young people can innovate?

We’ve all heard about the quest to improve female participation in the tech industry. Voices from within and outside Silicon Valley have called for more positive role models and action to encourage women to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. But reports have emerged of a different form of discrimination that has taken hold of the tech sector. According to a recent exposé in New Republic, Silicon Valley’s brutally ageist.

 

Noam Scheiber’s article draws on interviews and anecdotes, including entrepreneur Nick Stamos (an engineer in his forties from Boston who had already worked at two successful startups), to paint a portrait of the tech industry that is far from flattering. He argues that investors are rarely interested in offering funding to middle-aged entrepreneurs since they have come to believe that only younger people, such as Mark Zuckerberg, are capable of coming up with innovative ideas.

But within existing companies, the article also claims that hiring practices such as having interviewees to meet potential colleagues or staff at a lower level to themselves is often used as a way of warning off those who are seen as being “too old” for the company. Meanwhile, companies with cultures that involve “a college mentality” leave older workers feeling isolated and lacking acceptance.

Accusations of ageism are not new in Silicon Valley – in fact similar suggestions were made at least as early as 2012. In November 2011, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said that “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas”. It is also true that many of the most successful tech firms of the past ten years were set up and run by people under the age of 35. So, is Silicon Valley really ageist as a whole?

Writing for Slate, Jon Nathanson argues that the article’s sample size is too small to draw any definitive conclusion. Hundreds of startups are funded every year and very few reach the levels of Facebook, regardless of whether their founders fit the same profile as Mr Zuckerberg. He also cites research which shows that the average age of male company founders in the US was 40, while women tended to receive funding around the age of 41.

 

What’s more, other commentators have pointed out that WhatsApp, Twitter and Cisco were founded by slightly older entrepreneurs. In fact, Adam Lashinsky says on CNN Fortune that some of those quoted in New Republic’s article, such as Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, have also recently invested in people like the “middle-aged” founders of WhatsApp. Instead, Mr Lashinsky thinks the article demonstrates another type of bias.

“[Stamos] is from Boston,” he writes. “Had Scheiber set out to prove Silicon Valley’s discrimination against out-of-town entrepreneurs, he would have had a slam dunk on his hands. Because there’s no doubt the VCs of the Valley are prejudiced against Bostonians.”

It does seem that some experienced employees and entrepreneurs have struggled to gain acceptance in the tech heart of the US, where many firms founded by young innovators have tended to attract similar employees. However, it still seems difficult to tell whether there is indeed a strong bias across the California tech scene against older workers. It may be clear how difficult it has been for some workers, but it seems there are still opportunities out there for those who have experience to learn from.


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