Culture is never neutral

As you know, I’m a big advocate of working on the culture of your startup.  The instant you start your company, you’re starting to build the culture, and the decisions you make in the garage days are likely to reverberate for years to come, even if your company grows by orders of magnitude.

But far too many people try to evade the responsibility for the culture of their company.  Perhaps they don’t want to feel like they’re being too overbearing (I felt this way when I was a 24-year-old founder).  Perhaps they’re just not happy about how their startup’s culture developed (I felt this way when I was a 24-year-old founder).  But this is a responsibility you must take on as a founder.

Here’s a great example I ran across when I read VentureBeat’s excellent guest editorial on women in Silicon Valley:

“The problem isn’t just too few female engineering grads — it’s that
junior-level programmers are leaving the industry in their droves.

The NSF conducted deeper research
that revealed that workplace culture is a big problem. In a survey of
almost 4,000 female engineers, a third of respondents said they left the
industry due to a bad boss or negative working environment.

One quote from the NSF report is
particularly troubling, especially as it reflects the experience of
many women: “At my last engineering job, women were fed up with the
culture: arrogant, inflexible, completely money-driven, sometimes
unethical, intolerant of differences in values and priorities. I felt
alienated in spite of spending my whole career trying to act like a

Think about it.  We spend decades educating bright young women, training them in the engineering skills we need so desperately, then we drive 1/3 of them out of the industry by adopting bad company cultures.  The cost to our society and economy are staggering.

Sadly, many young men are unaware of what they’re doing.  They say things like, “We have an open and honest environment,” or “We don’t make a bid deal about culture.”  What they don’t realize is that culture is never neutral.  We build a startup’s culture with every choice we make–and that includes choosing not to speak up or raise a fuss about small things like the jokes people make or the topics people talk about.

Nor is this limited to gender.  In fact, this can lead to some really interesting situations.  One guy I know is both a born-again Christian and a Republican–two major no-nos in Silicon Valley.  I’ve heard people mock both his faith and his politics, at least behind his back.  On the other hand, he’s the kind of guy I’ve also had to repeatedly nudge regarding his tendency to say things like, “Let’s not get our panties in a bunch,” or “Just because I don’t have a vagina…”

The point is, allowing your culture to drive away people who can build value for your company is a major mistake.  As a founder, you need to take responsibility for culture and make sure this doesn’t happen.

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