New York Times’ Article on Stanford ’94 is Off-Key

Scott Francis
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I read this amazing article in the NYTimes by Jodi Kantor.  … but something about the whole piece just rang false to me.   It was hard for me to put down, because of my self interest in the subject. But unfortunately a really imperfect take on my graduating class (class of ’94).  I feel sure that one of my more journalistically-minded classmates could do better.

Not that she got facts wrong. But just as looking at a few still pictures can give a false impression of events and context, this article has facts that give a different impression than probably most people in the class of 1994 would get.

First, there is the claim that it is hard to top the timing of the class of 1994 coming out of Stanford. There’s some truth to that. But she didn’t back it up with facts. Last time I checked (it has been a while) there were more billionaires in the class of 93 and class of 95 than in the class of 94. So perhaps 94 wasn’t the luckiest class by the numbers, if you care to keep score by such materialistic metrics. But certainly the timing was fortuitous. So how was the tone off?

At a football game, the alumni brandished “Fear the Nerds” signs and gossiped about a classmate who had recently sold the messaging service WhatsApp for over $20 billion

Brian Acton’s story is a fantastic succeeding after so-called “failure” story.  There’s nothing to gossip about, only to celebrate.  Congrats, Brian.

Also, the piece seemed to work hard to frame the idea that the diversity push that Stanford University embarked on over years, had only appeared out of thin air around ’94. Further, that the diversity push failed in the one area that mattered for the future: high tech!

“The university, already the most powerful incubator in Silicon Valley, embarked back then on a bold diversity experiment, trying to dismantle old gender and racial barriers.”

It isn’t like this experiment started in dramatic fashion with our class. A change in a few required classes frosh year was about all I recall.  Most of us embraced that mission, and diversity.  And if the “Internet was born” the same year we graduated-  well it wasn’t as if the University planned it that way and hoped its diversity initiatives would impact the Internet’s early pioneers accordingly.  In fact, the University, and everyone else, were quite blind to the coming sea change.  How could they be anything else? Only a few people thought they saw the tide coming in.

While women had traditionally lagged in business and finance, these students were present for the creation of an entirely new field of human endeavor, one intended to topple old conventions, embrace novel ways of doing things and promote entrepreneurship.

And this is when it sunk in. The article’s narrative, is that somehow Women and minorities (but most notably women) were left out of the Internet revolution, as seen through the prism of Stanford’s 1994 graduating class.  It’s a compelling story, but it is as much fiction as non-fiction, innuendo as fact.

If the argument is that the diversity push failed in the one area that mattered (the Internet), we can re-frame the discussion. The diversity push succeeded in every area that counted circa 1990, and only failed in the one area that no one knew about until after we graduated-  the Internet.

“The Internet was the Wild West,” said Arielle Miller Levitan, who enrolled in medical school. “You could do anything there, but it was such an unpaved path.”

Actually, it was worse than that.  The Internet wasn’t just unpaved and the wild west – it wasn’t even a business – no one was making real money on the Internet in 1994- not Yahoo, not Netscape – no one.  That all changed quickly – but at the moment we graduated, your best bet in software was to have a job, or a software startup – but “Internet” was not part of the lexicon for startups or careers in 1994.  Tech wasn’t even generally considered a good thing- IBM and SUN weren’t hiring software engineers or CS majors in 1994.  Electrical Engineers weren’t needed because of dramatic improvements in the software for chip design – and so many of them sought jobs in software instead.  The author might have forgotten that the early 90’s were not quite a recession, but they weren’t a friendly job environment for graduates – until about ’94 in the software business.  Perhaps that was part of the lure of medicine and law school – a more certain future?  And of course, you declared a major long before you graduated…

The article relies on anecdote rather than statistical treatments when it compares the successes of male and female graduates.

Yet instead of narrowing gender gaps, the technology industry created vast new ones, according to interviews with dozens of members of the class and a broad array of Silicon Valley and Stanford figures. “We were sitting on an oil boom, and the fact is that the women played a support role instead of walking away with billion-dollar businesses,” said Kamy Wicoff, who founded a website for female writers.

I guess I missed the part where billion-dollar businesses were a statistically significant event for the class of ’94.  Or even the valid measuring stick for businesses that were created by class of ’94.  Lest we forget, more than half of all businesses are started by women in the US – is it really a bad thing that they aren’t playing by the script of Silicon Valley – that they don’t care (on the whole) about the yardsticks of the investors in the Valley or the New York Times’ author?  Is it a bad thing that they’re running successful businesses in the areas that they care about?

It was largely the men of the class who became the true creators, founding companies that changed behavior around the world and using the proceeds to fund new projects that extended their influence.

Are only the billionaires the “true creators”?  Is not the creator of a product or service or business a creator?  This is such a narrow definition of success.  I think many people at BP3 would be surprised to find we’re not “true creators” by this definition.  It seems absurd on the face of it.  But it continues the narrative.

“The only woman to ascend through the ranks of venture capital was shunted aside by her firm.”

We’re sure she was the only one? I met no less than 5 women at the reunion who were self-described “investors”…

Dozens of women stayed in safe jobs, in or out of technology, while they watched their spouses or former lab partners take on ambitious quests.

Did the Author miss the Tech Bust and the Great Recession? There were no safe jobs in the 1990’s, 2000’s, or 2010’s… All the jobs have been at risk during our professional careers. The era of “safe job” is over.

When Jessica DiLullo Herrin, a cheerleader-turned-economics whiz, arrived at the tailgate party, her classmates quietly stared: She had founded two successful start-ups, a living exception to the rule.

I promise this (“classmates quietly stared”) didn’t happen.  Stanford classmates don’t “quietly stare” at someone because they’re successful. Or famous.  This is the same school that had Fred Savage, Summer Sanders, Chelsea Clinton, and many other famous children.  We’re used to being among successful people – even at Jessica’s level of success.  We’re proud of her, and others like her.  I’ve known Jessica since our days at Trilogy, and like a lot of the rest of us that made the trek to Austin, part of it was that Trilogy promised to be all the fun and mental challenge of starting your own company without all of the financial risk.  We all felt we could learn a ton at Trilogy and then go on to start successful businesses with a little money in our pockets.  And many of us eventually did.

Moreover the author is missing the extra bit of context that one of Trilogy’s co-founders was Christy Jones, whom Jessica worked with or for at Trilogy.  I don’t know that there’s a causal link but these data points add up and connect disparate events.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the women who work with Jessica now starting their own businesses in the future.

The author also describes the campus as fertile ground for social politics – but the mid-nineties was more an era wishing it had a cause as interesting as previous generations.  The whole section devoted to the Stanford Review feels like it belonged in a different article with a different narrative.  But maybe quoting Thiel and Sacks sells page views.

If this was a work of music, it was off-key all the way through.

Am I alone in my reaction?  Hardly.  Take a few excerpts from letters to the editor of the NYT from my fellow classmates:

“As a recipient of one of the 804 undergraduate degrees conferred to women by Stanford University in 1994, I was dismayed by your article about my cohort there. […] At our class’s recent 20th reunion, I was awe-struck hearing the range and depth of my female classmates’ current endeavors — writing books, shaping policy, being entrepreneurial. Come 2019, I hope that The Times will rejoin us for our 25th reunion. Perhaps we can “retool” your perspective on the “true creators” of Stanford’s class of 1994. ” – Christina Milano

Yes.

“[…] The reference to “safe jobs” is a slap in the face to any woman or man with real-life demands, or a desire to perform the task deemed “safe.” The photo caption “Left programming to become a math teacher, then to raise her children” drips with judgment. The woman pictured is absent from the article’s text; we are left with no concept of what desires and constraints were at play.

How disappointing to see a complex, timely topic become a lengthy judgment on what a handful of women from the Stanford class of 1994 decided to do with their lives.”

– Susan Reslewic Keatley

Yes, yes, yes.

One final thought.  The class of ’94 are now roughly 42 years old (give or take).  Many of the most successful companies are started by people in their 40’s.  I expect that the last chapter of success in high tech and on the Internet hasn’t been written yet by my classmates in the years ahead and behind us.  Stanford was a special place and the people are what make it so.

 

 

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  • A few additional thoughts, driven from twitter conversations…
    1. there’s a great article to write about the impact of Stanford ’94 on the world… this wasn’t the article.
    2. there’s a great article to write about the impact of Stanford ’94 on the “internet” businesses since, but this wasn’t it.
    3. there’s a great article to write about the impact of diversity and multiculturalism at Stanford, via the lens of the Class of ’94… but this wasn’t it… (for example, did the class generally achieve a great deal of parity across gender lines in a great deal of industries and businesses? )
    4. there’s a great article to write about the PayPal Mafia, and their interconnections at Stanford… but maybe this wasn’t it.
    5. there’s a great article to write to really examine the reasons behind disparity in participation or outcomes by gender in tech or in internet businesses specifically, but this isn’t it… probably that great article would not be dripping with judgment and blame for women who took “safe jobs” as if there were any, or who took time out for children. Probably that article would take time to define what the success metrics are, and objectively qualify against those metrics using statistics rather than individual anecdotes (except to add color to the statistics). Probably that article would not use a sole metric “exits north of $1B” as the metric for success. Probably that article would note that lots of women (and men) graduates of ’94 have started their own businesses, or will be fore they retire, whether they be law firms, medical practices, schools, consultancies, farms, vineyards, software companies, engineering firms, surfing lessons, racing event companies, or hotels. Probably.