The good side of privilege

Extreme dualities fill our modern discourse. People within the same geography either feel capitalism is either great or terrible. In the same country, people feel democracy is either flourishing or destroying society. Social media is either awesome or awful. People are either privileged or not.

Treating privilege as black and white lead to one of two outcomes. Either, the privileged feel bad about their privilege. Or, the privileged abuse their privilege. Neither position helps. We could instead ask ourselves, how can I use my privilege to help others. We gain privilege because of our gender, race, caste, language, location, family. Privilege does exist in society. Let's figure out how to use it instead of denying it. Privileged folks don't use their voices enough to speak up for others. The key to using your privilege is courage. It's a tough internal battle to see your privilege. It's even tougher to help someone else gain the same privilege as you. It often takes years if not centuries for social structures to change.

The Harvard Business Review has a great article on using our privilege. Using our privilege is not only applicable in our professional lives. If we want to leave the world in a better place than we found it we need the courage to use our privilege for helping others. We often think that money brings privilege, so we should donate our money to lend our privilege.

Is donating money enough to lend your privilege? Imagine after being born your parents give you a monthly allowance of $1000. They leave to figure everything out. Do you think you will survive beyond a few months or years? Lending our privilege is a lot more than making a financial contribution. Money as a resource is useful, but often not enough. Why do we struggle to understand our privilege and use it for the better?

Each one of us has our own struggles. They include financial, health, relationships, understanding our purpose in life. We each struggle on some level with each of these at different points in our lives.  I’ve struggled over the years to maintain an exercise routine and a healthy weight. I struggled a little during my first job search but since then I’ve been lucky to find good jobs. Over time your privileges multiply and you attribute it to luck and hard work.

A lot of privileges contributed to my life. Ability to read, write and speak English. Being male. Having access to a computer and internet early in life. Access to food and clean drinking water. The list is endless. It’s easy to take a lot of these things for granted, but they should not be. There were a lot of human beings who made a conscious decision to lend their privilege to me. My parents, my teachers, my peers, and a lot many amazing people. Paying your privilege forward requires you to be aware of it and then lend it to others.

There was one incident that had a disproportionate impact on me.  It led me to think about my privilege and bias. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to interview a wide variety of people in my career. I once interviewed a woman for an engineering internship. Due to the circumstances, our interview loop didn’t have any women on the panel. During the debrief my team’s instant reaction was that this person was a ‘no hire’. We started looking at the written notes and noticed something unusual. We found that the candidate had given detailed answers on topics they were confident about. For topics, they had lesser certainty they didn’t take a leap of faith or guess. As a team, we asked each other 'Are we biased?' 

I self-reflected and decided to talk to my wife about it. She shared her experience interviewing men and interviewing women. It sounded too familiar to our experience with the interview my team did. I could have ignored that single incident and let go of it. I spoke to many women in the next few years at the workplace. Experiences of men sounding more confident than other genders was all too common. The consequences are often seen in promotions and project opportunities. I started using my position of privilege to speak up on behalf of the women, not in the room. Ask specifics to the men making assumptions about non-men. I attempted to speak the truth and ask specific questions. Specific questions are the enemy of biased people. It makes them break down.

One of my favorite examples of using privilege comes from the Buddha. It's called the parable of the poisonous arrow.

One day, a new follower of the Buddha asked him a series of metaphysical questions. The Buddha replied in the form of a parable about a man who had been shot by a poisonous arrow. Although the man's friends and relatives tried to get a surgeon to heal him, he refused to have the arrow pulled out until he knew who had shot it, his caste, name, height, where he came from, what kind of bow had been used, what it was made of, who feathered the arrow and with what kind of feather. Before all these answers could be found, the man had died. The Buddha employed this parable to demonstrate the meaninglessness of being obsessed with abstract speculation.

The Buddha teaches through this parable the importance of using situational privilege. When a healthy person sees a person shot by a poisonous arrow, they better take action and remove the arrow. Overthinking will kill the person. We can take action using our privilege.

My privilege has let me take more risks and help break through the biases of others. I don't succeed often. If you have any kind of privilege, use it to help someone else. It makes our world better that way. The only thing stopping you is yourself. Here are 3 steps you can take towards lending your privilege

1. Identify a privilege you have

2. Identify someone who doesn’t have that privilege. Talk to them about it. Ask them how to identify it in your daily life.

3. Be on the lookout and use your privilege when appropriate. 

Human history has long awaited the time when the energy of hope and creativity will arise from among the most downtrodden and oppressed. When people who have experienced such abuses become empowered and take their place at the heart of international society, and their welfare becomes the focus of new ideas and new thinking, our world will be immeasurably enriched―both in a material and a spiritual sense. - Daisaku Ikeda

Lending our privilege can help empower our fellow human beings and create a better world. A world that we are proud to inhabit.

Starting things with others

Do you have a tough time starting new things? Do you fear failure? Starting new things is hard. Starting new things while working with other humans, even tougher. Starting new things well is a superpower worth cultivating.

 Starting things you consider hard can be overwhelming. Starting a company is one of them. If we are able to start things with a group, we can achieve things that we will never be able to achieve by ourselves. This is rewarding.  Do it well and teach it to others. It buys you lifelong access to people with who you can start new projects.

 Over the past fifteen years, I’ve studied in two universities and worked at five companies. The number of existing employees, when I've joined, have ranged from 0 to 2 million. I’ve had to start things with a variety of people and a range of prior art at an organization. I've been fortunate to do work spanning roles, technologies, people and cultures. I started a new job last week and was reflecting on how I’ve evolved my process of starting.

 Early in my career, if someone asked me to make an app, I would make an app. Write a Python script to do something, I’ll do it. I worked assuming my manager knew the priority of everything. I repeated this process for a couple of months. I started wanting a greater return on investment of my time. How do I get more impact with lesser input? Isn't that the whole point of technology and productivity? I started asking leaders and peers about my work. Why are we writing this app? What is the purpose of the script for the customer? How much is the customer paying for this? Every question led to a useful lesson. It taught me how to think about the situation from a different lens. Do things well first then ask questions.

 In my next job, I started getting things done. I learned that the focus of the company was to enable sales. This meant I started helping sales teams understand the technology. This helped us get new deals and made our existing customers happier. The size of the organization (~1500) meant that I had to stick to my technical focus and teach others about it. Learning the business context and teaching the technology put me on a growing path.

 I jumped into starting Explorer.ai (Shout out to my partner Rohini Vaze who supported me through it). I wanted to control my own destiny. A self-driving startup meant competing with multi-billion dollar investments. Problems of fund-raising, product and hiring blew up in my face. I lacked experience in every area. I had no clue how to make decisions. Things turned out okay. We made hard decisions based on our shared values. In retrospect our implicit shared values made things work out. We got acquired. It taught us that no one understands reality completely. We all need to do our best to make a difference. People put in their best based on the stories they tell each other. Stories emerge from the values we hold as a group. Shared values, though implicit, kept us together.

 My next job was at the acquiring company. Joining a new company after an exit is tough because of the difference in values. I found a lot of early success. This was due to my understanding of business reality.  I ran into a roadblock where many people in the company saw the reality with a different lens. As time progressed, it became harder to achieve a shared understanding of reality. I realized that my values will never align completely with that of my employer. Understanding values exhibited by a group takes some time. It takes time to understand the dynamics of a group. You need quite a few data points to understand the extent of disparity in values. Lack of collective action made me unhappy. It was a result of different values.

 "When we care for others our own strength to live increases. When we help people expand their state of life, our lives also expand. Actions to benefit others are not separate from actions to benefit oneself. Our lives and the lives of others are ultimately inseparable." - Daisaku Ikeda

I started a new job last week. A big part of my decision was the alignment of values between the people during the interview. I am spending time understanding the values of the team. It will help me drive action based on a shared understanding of reality.  I care about creating value with others. I resonate with Daisaku Ikeda's view of helping others. He shares, "When we care for others our own strength to live increases. When we help people expand their state of life, our lives also expand. Actions to benefit others are not separate from actions to benefit oneself. Our lives and the lives of others are ultimately inseparable."

 If you are part of an amazing team, appreciate them. If not, keep searching for that team and do great things. Life is too short to not do amazing things with other humans.

Transparency in startups

Have you ever wondered why your manager hides certain information from you?

My experiments with transparency span being a founder and early-stage startup team member. The phrase I am tired of hearing during my working life is that information is “need to know basis”. This statement undermines the person asking you questions. I've documented the intersection of my values with an adaptation of my real life.

Imagine you are a founder of an early-stage startup. You run into a situation where you don't have enough cash to run payroll next month. As a leader, you can either share this information with your team members, not share till they ask or do nothing. Your team members put a lot on the line to join you and don’t share much of a financial upside if things do go well. You owe the transparency to them. Doing nothing is taking the path of least emotional resistance. It erodes trust in the leadership. I've met startup employees who would never work for a founder they worked with in the past. These are the consequences of being a bad leader.

Telling your team you don't have money to continue paying them can feel scary. To be able to share this with your team is hard, but a win-win proposition. It helps your team build confidence in leadership that shares hard truths. The emotional process you undergo will make sharing hard truths easier for you. A side effect of this is that your team will reshuffle. If someone believes in your company's mission, they will double down on your company. If they have doubts, they will leave. This helps cement the culture of openness and transparency in your founding team.

Let's say you decide to not share anything about the poor financial situation. You get lucky and you find that paying customer for closing your next round of funding. Everyone on your team is happy. Your team size doubles. In a few months, the same customer is unhappy with your product. What do you do? There were no consequences of not sharing important information last time. You don't share anything again, this time with double the team size. You have now cemented a culture of not sharing hard truths with the team. Looking up to you, your leadership team does the same thing with their teams. Over time no one in your organization is sharing hard truths with each other. Those who do, look like outsiders in your organization. The growing information gap about hard truths will lead to an ineffective organization. Everyone will be second-guessing their leadership, peers and managers.

You can’t develop genuine character and ability by sidestepping adversity and struggle." - Daisaku Ikeda

Transparency is about treating people right. Leadership is about decision-making under ambiguity. Values guide your thinking in ambiguous situations. The value of transparency helps people share their true opinions. Leading with transparency is not easy in a large number of organizations. Let's challenge ourselves to building organizations of greater transparency. Here's a quote that has served me well in my challenges with transparency. "Rise to the challenges that life presents you. You can’t develop genuine character and ability by sidestepping adversity and struggle." - Daisaku Ikeda. A culture of transparency is hard to build. Anyone can start creating a culture of transparency. A good starting point is to start writing down the decisions you make and how you made them. People will notice how you take the messy glue of human emotions and transform it into a great culture.