Last summer, my friend Priya died suddenly. It’s probably a stretch calling her my friend. We spent a lot of time together for about a year ten years ago and then met up at a conference or talked on the phone maybe once a year after that. We always had a great time catching up, but she probably had a thousand people in her life more important than me, so it feels a little presumptuous skipping ahead of those thousand people and pretending I “knew” her. All the same, she had an outsized impact on my life, and I think about her a lot, especially now that she’s gone. You probably have someone in your life like this.
Priya was successful at a lot of things. She had a lot of the same qualities I see in other successful entrepreneurs. She was smart. She was an incredibly hard worker. She had a lot of confidence in her opinions. She was sometimes terrifyingly focused. But in more ways, she was completely unlike the standard Jobsian/Zuckerbergian archetype. She made other people feel like they were smart, often at her expense. She hugged people . . . a lot. She made fun of herself . . . a lot. She uptalked like a 17 year old valley girl. She talked about clothes and make-up more than someone who is trying to be taken seriously should probably talk. The last conversation I had with her, in a room full of relatively high powered investors, was about how hard it was for someone with her dark complexion to find base make up on vacation. If I remember correctly, there was also a rant about her “busted ass flip flops.”
And here’s the thing: it worked. The people I met who worked for her would walk through walls for her. They were inspired by her. They felt valued by her. They were also pretty clearly scared of disappointing her. People did their best work for Priya, and it was, as far as I can tell, because of, not despite, her leadership and communication style.
We all agree that entrepreneurship has a male asshole problem. We mostly agree that capitalism has a male asshole problem. People like Sheryl Sandberg have joined in the fight, and more power to them. Only, at the risk of slight oversimplification, it seems like their answer is that women should have the right to be assholes just like men. I don’t disagree with this. If you have not met Mrs. Maloney, take it from me that she is not someone you would like to meet in a dark conference room. I guess the Maloney family benefits if Ms. Sandberg et al succeed in getting society to even better reward my wife’s “I’m going to explain this to you once and if you don’t understand why I am right just fucking get in line behind me because you and I both know I am right” school of leadership. The world needs more people like my wife in positions of authority. But I can’t help but feel like we’re skipping over the asshole part of the male asshole problem.
Investors are a pattern-matchy bunch. Pretty early they find one type of person who makes them a lot of money and after that they have a strong bias toward people who match that archetype. Paul Graham joked about this a few months back, but I think there is truth in the idea that we back what we have seen work. We have met a lot of successful assholes, so we expect that being an asshole is a critical element to being a success. (By the way, I'm not calling Mr. Zuckerberg an asshole. He's probably a lovely person. It's just there are a ton of assholes in the valley right now emulating him, so he is a convenient scape goat.)
I was lucky enough to meet Priya before I imprinted on assholes. I will owe her for the rest of my life for this gift she didn’t even know she was giving me. Ever since, I’ve been drawn to people - women and men, but mostly women - who lead differently, who maybe don’t immediately knock you over with their world-shattering awesomeness. But if you pay attention, you see people around them doing their best work. You see people who are 100% loyal to them, 100% bought in to what they’re doing. (Side note: Another way to spot these people is that you see top level talent around them working for crappy, crappy salaries.)
To the extent that I have any part to play in this, I’d like it to be celebrating these people. I want more people to see what they do and how they do it. That there are a many different ways to lead, and part of solving the male asshole problem has to be celebrating people who don’t fit the previously mentioned Jobsian archetype. My initial idea for this blog post was that I was going to call a few of these people out as my “Priya Haji All Stars”, people I supported in the past ten years because they reminded me of her. I wrote a couple of profiles and realized that I would embarrass these people to death if I hit “Publish.” I may do it anyway if I can get one or two of them to actually endorse the idea, but don’t hold your breath.
So, instead, I’ll do what I did last summer when I heard about Priya. I’ll call them each up and tell them how much I appreciate them. I’ll ask them what I can do to help them. I’ll do it because I want to see more people like them in the world, and I want more people to see them succeed. Because that’s the world I want to live in.
I invite you to identify your own Priya Haji All Stars and do the same. If they'll let you, write something about why they are awesome and send me a link. Let me know how I can help. I want to know more people like Priya.
I haven’t written anything in over a month. I had a nice long Christmas break, and then we got a new puppy (pictured) who has been taking me on long walks during the down-time that I would have otherwise been blogging. I promise to all four of you to get back to writing something at least once a week. In honor of Arlo, the new dog, today I am writing about the single most important thing I ever learned at the dog park: the perils of sofa bed thinking.
18 years ago I was a young man in San Francisco just starting out in life. I had a new job, a new apartment and a 6 month old puppy I took to the park every day. One weekend morning, a dog park friend asked me what I was up to that day, and I said, “I’m going to go look at some sofa beds for my new apartment.”
This dog park friend of mine was a little older than me, a little wiser and, if I remember correctly, an interior decorator. She said, “Don’t get a sofa bed. It’s not a good sofa. It’s not a good bed. Do you need a sofa, or do you need a bed? Get that.” And I instantly knew she was right. The scales fell from my eyes and I started to see sofa beds in all aspects of life, by which I mean, things which are supposed to solve two problems at once but in reality don’t do a good job solving either.
There is a lot of sofa bed thinking in philanthropy. It’s not entirely our fault. Most philanthropic decisions - by families, foundations or companies - are made by boards, not by individuals. Different board members care about different things. A smart program officer who has one board member who cares about underprivileged children and another board member who cares about water access can’t believe his luck when he finds a group that is building play equipment that also pumps water. A group that has been working on job creation in inner cities for decades finds they can fundraise a lot easier if those jobs involve installing solar panels. Based on the way most philanthropic (and government) entities make decisions by board consensus, there is a natural bias toward projects and organizations that can present themselves as solving two (or three or four) different problems at once. Because we know we have a structural bias toward these sofa bed solutions, I think we should be extremely skeptical when we see them.
I’m not saying you don’t come across projects that create benefits beyond one primary purpose, but if you ask anyone who has ever accomplished something really hard, they will almost always tell you it was because they had maniacal focus on one thing - one definition of success - and made all their decisions in service of maximizing their odds of achieving that goal. Put a different way for my nerd friends: trying to optimize an algorithm simultaneously for two uncorrelated outputs is a fool’s errand.
If I look at some of the confusion and recent frustration around microfinance among US funders, I see people who see it as a tool for economic development, for women’s empowerment, for dissemination of public health, for a million other things AND potentially as a way to make a return on their investment. I’ve met more than one program officer whose foundation is in microfinance not because it is the best way to accomplish any single goal, but because it allowed them to have a different positive story to tell each of their board members about what ever issue they are most interested in.
This is a terrible way to allocate capital, and I think it is important for all of us in philanthropy to be extra critical when we encounter these kinds of opportunities.
One other reason this is on my mind lately: I look across the impact investing landscape today, and I see a lot of sofa beds.
Patrick Maloney lives in Portland, OR where he helps nice people working on cool stuff. He tries to limit his blogging to things about which he knows something.