Part-time Power

Background: Y Combinator (YC) is an influential seed accelerator and VC firm founded by Paul Graham and run by Sam Altman. Sam may remember me from the time I counted how many women he follows on Twitter. One of YC’s part-time partners is Peter Thiel, who spoke at the Republican National Convention. He also donated $1.25 million to Trump’s presidential campaign in mid-October after more than a dozen women accused the candidate of sexual assault and Trump once again repeated his calls for imprisonment of five innocent black men. For more details, see Project Include’s post on the topic, or Erica Baker, Nicole Sanchez, and Maciej Cegłowski’s numerous and wise tweets around it.

One of the things I teach in the Ally Skills workshop is a concept in moral philosophy called the Paradox of Tolerance – in short, the one thing a tolerant society must be intolerant of is intolerance. It’s really helped me frame how I’ve been thinking about this situation – to consider whether or not Thiel’s support of Trump puts him into the “intolerable intolerance” camp or not. It wasn’t a particularly tough call for me – were I in Altman’s shoes, I’d ask for Thiel’s resignation. But there’s part of the situation that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere.

When you bring someone into your organization as an advisor/mentor/office-hour-holder (which is what Thiel’s role at YC seems to consist of), you are doing three things:

  • Giving them power over the people in your organization that they are tasked with advising
  • Endorsing their advice as being something that people in your organization should follow
  • Sharing your social capital with them

Now, obviously, Thiel has those first two powers in droves in his various other capacities, but in keeping him on as a “part-time partner”, YC is both saying that they value the advice he can give their founders as well as implicitly giving him a position of power over them – the power of making introductions or not, writing letters of recommendation or not, and so on – the power of a sanctioned mentoring role.

They are also saying that they trust him to not discriminate against the people they are giving him power over – the founders in their program – in ways that are not aligned with YC’s values. Thiel has made it clear through decades of public writing and actions what his values are. He wrote a book called “The Diversity Myth”, for starters. Thiel also considers women having the vote to have “rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ an oxymoron“. This hits me particularly hard as I can’t vote right now – I am in the US on a visa, not yet a citizen, and as a non-resident can no longer vote in Canada.

One last thing: I stressed for two days about writing this post, knowing that Thiel is willing to fund multi-million dollar lawsuits against his critics. I have no connection to him and he has no other power over me. Imagine how it would feel should any of his mentees need to criticize him.

We all get to make a choice as to what constitutes “intolerable intolerance”. YC has made it clear that Thiel’s actions and words are tolerable enough to them to continue to give him power over people in their organization, and I find this unconscionable.

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