Startups, Politics, and “Cancel Culture”

I wrote The Weaponization of Diversity a little over a year ago. It was a combination of both my personal story growing up as a low-income latino raised by a single mom and eventually making it into the elite strata of the legal profession, combined with a more philosophical expression of how I see a lot of the rhetoric around diversity initiatives in high-stakes fields (law, startups, tech) leading to counter-productive consequences. It is an extremely complex, sensitive, and nuanced issue that doesn’t lend itself to easy summarizing, but nevertheless a quick break-down of my viewpoint is:

A. Growing up in a low-income Texas neighborhood filled with American latinos, but excelling in advanced coursework from an early age, I was criticized regularly by latino peers for my discipline in academics; referred to often as a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside).

B. History and geography have led to various selection mechanisms that have made cultural values, including about early academic effort in childhood, significantly varied across ethnic groups in America. That variance correlates dramatically with relative performance and representation in high-performance careers, most of which are reliant on compounding education and skills; and in the case of the highest risk careers (like entrepreneurship), generational building of wealth and resilience.

C. With respect to American latinos specifically, the strata of latin american populations that place a high emphasis on advanced education are far more likely to stay in their home countries, with lower-income and working class latin americans far more likely to emigrate to the United States. The exact opposite dynamic has been the case for the most successful ethnic groups in America, such as Indian or Taiwanese Americans, who on average place extreme emphasis on childhood education. Nevertheless, pockets of very successful sub-cultures within under-represented broader groups in America  – like Nigerian and Cuban-Americans – reveal how ascribing low representation to racism in high-performance industries is too simplistic, and how family culture is a significantly under-discussed variable.

D. Our unwillingness to allow honest people to bring issues like this up in diversity discourse, and instead weaponize accusations of racism against anyone who won’t toe the dominant line, has caused the entire discussion to stagnate around more politically correct, but far less impactful policies; like “trying harder” to find qualified candidates.

E. Large organizations with dominant market positions are privileged in this whole dynamic relative to smaller orgs facing extreme competition (like startups), because a substantial buffer of resources allows them to absorb the negative consequences of non-meritocratic recruiting (while enjoying the PR benefits) without substantially threatening their companies.

F. Very elite orgs with attractive compensation packages (including equity) are also privileged in that they can attract the more limited number of high-performing URMs in the market, even when “inclusiveness” has nothing to do with why URMs join those companies. Thus the logic that “greater diversity (in the sense of more under-represented minorities) leads to higher performance” often gets the causality backwards, in that the (already) best companies can use their weight to recruit away high-performing URMs from lower-performing companies.

G. There is also often a sleight-of-hand with the term “diversity” because much of the data on high-performing diverse teams is not speaking specifically about URMs, but about a broader definition of “diverse.”

H. While the high-performance startup world is extremely diverse in the broad sense of the term “diversity” – including all nationalities, ethnic groups, gender and international diversity – it also reflects the under-representation of specific groups (including American latinos) that we see in other fields like law and medicine.

I. But unfortunately the fierce competitiveness of early-stage business competition, and the lack of buffer resources that large organizations have, make startups unable to play the politically correct politics of larger and more elite orgs. They simply cannot afford to hire – especially among their executive teams – for anything other than merit, and yet they can’t compete on compensation for the high-merit URMs who are taken up by A-level companies. This makes the more nuanced aspects of the diversity discussion unavoidable when discussing startups.

J. Just as in other areas of the economy, overly aggressive “diversity” initiatives – like diversity startup accelerators – have unfortunately in many cases backfired, with highly visible under-performance of the teams/people actually reinforcing negative stereotypes. Failing to address the real (even if uncomfortable) issues thus hurts, instead of helps, many under-represented groups.

K. Politicized warmongering over diversity, instead of balanced and fair discussion, is thus not only damaging to under-represented minorities like American latinos, but it’s particularly damaging to highly competitive early-stage startups in ways that it’s not for larger businesses.

The point of this post is to tie the above perspective into another issue that has been coming up lately; “cancel culture” and political disagreement within an employee roster. Some very large tech companies, like Apple and Google, are known for having pockets of employees who are extremely politically vocal during their employment hours, and in some cases have even gotten other employees fired not because of any behavior by the terminated employees on the job, but because of what amounts to disapproval of political values or other issues. Thus one segment of the employee roster “cancels” the hiring of someone that they don’t want to work with.

In response to this issue of hyper-politicized employees, companies like Coinbase and Basecamp have come out with clear policies that attempt to shut down this dynamic, by emphasizing that work is for work, and that political discourse should be left out of it. This has understandably led to – and they knew it would – some loss of talent as employees who would prefer the ability to vocalize their political views more openly move to more accommodating companies. Nevertheless, the executives at those companies felt the upfront pain was worth avoiding more long-term misery of low productivity and chaos within the employee ranks.

I think an important point to make to all who follow this issue is that, at some fundamental level, “cancelling” certain people for behavior that many others, but certainly not everyone, find abhorrent is unavoidable at any meaningfully-sized company. If you fire someone for wearing a swastika on their shirt, or for catcalling women, or telling a gay employee that they’re a sinner, a million protestations about how this may be “cancel culture” doesn’t change the fact that it’s the decent, right – and in many cases legally required – thing to do.

In reality, “cancelling” is not the problem. Ambiguity is. Ambiguity that gets filled by certain people on the employee roster who really should not be authorized to perform that role. The reason countries have things like unambiguous constitutions and laws, and hardened hierarchies to enforce them, is that the alternative is unpredictable and chaotic mob rule (even if democratic mob rule) that destroys value and makes it impossible to build the kind of stability that promotes society. The tragedy of what many people call “cancel culture” isn’t so much that certain behavior can get you canceled (it most certainly can), but the vacuum of leadership within organizations that allows termination decisions to be so surprising, erratic, and seemingly driven by unaccountable mobs.

Why is it that the most democratic countries in the world never have militaries run as internal democracies? Because democracies have all kinds of benefits, but meritocratic promotion and speed of execution – which are essential when losing means you are “game over” dead – are not among them. In a hyper-competitive environment, you do what has to get done to win and survive, and that’s often not the “popular” or “fair” (in the judgment of the masses) choice. In competitive business, as in war, hierarchy beats democracy. Every single time.

That being said, remember that not every company has to compete in the same way. Very large dominant companies with fat balance sheets and margins can afford to be a little more political than hierarchical, for PR reasons. Just as companies like Apple, Google, etc. can afford to promote various initiatives that may put democratic popularity above hard meritocracy, they can also afford a little more politicized chaos and employee mob rule “cancel culture” in their companies. If 5% of their employees devote substantial time to politicized initiatives, or even getting certain unpopular new hires fired, it’s not going to change the overall performance of a trillion-dollar company.

But for an early-stage startup, completely different story. Ambiguity in the values and culture of the company, and resulting chaos from certain lower-level employees taking it upon themselves to decide who should be hired or promoted, can quickly sink a young startup with limited resources facing stiff competition in the marketplace. Freedom of association and at-will employment mean your employees can simply choose to leave if they disagree strongly with a decision you made about hiring or promoting someone. There’s no getting around that. The only sustainable defensive measure is ensuring everyone understands on Day 1 what your company’s values and policies are, so this kind of reckoning day hopefully never materializes.

This is not a left/liberal or right/conservative politics issue. It’s a general business issue. Young startups need well-understood and enforced (hierarchically) values, and (as they grow) in many cases written-out policies, as to what merits an offer letter, a promotion, or cancellation (termination) in their company. This leaves plenty of room for pluralism, as different companies can sort themselves out as to what they find acceptable in their business environment, including the level of political discussion that’s acceptable. There’s no single answer, but not having any answer definitely won’t work.

I don’t believe more liberal, conservative, libertarian, or highly apolitical startups will have a universal competitive advantage in the market. But I do believe that those who don’t put much thought into this aspect of their culture at all, and don’t enforce (or defend) their chosen culture with a clear hierarchy, will lose (as a result of internal disagreement and chaos) to companies with a more cohesive identity and power structure.

Whether you want to be more like Google, like Coinbase, or something in-between in building your company’s culture is up to you and the rest of your founders. Just be clear and unambiguous about it, so that the employees who choose to join you know what they signed up for. The greater long-term alignment will allow your team to focus more on executing the mission, instead of executing fellow colleagues.