Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Income Inequality


Why it’s so hard to succeed in Silicon Valley when you grew up poor

I’ve been collaborating with my college classmate David Tran on our start-up since 2010.
In some ways, our story is typical for a startup: We went through the mentorship at Y Combinator and StartX, raised seed funding, and then launched.
We introduced Crowdbooster to help thousands of organizations around the world use data to improve their Facebook and Twitter performance. Our newest product is, where we’re building software that delivers PR services on demand.

But our story is unique in one crucial way: David and I both grew up in poverty.

We can call ourselves “battle-tested” when it comes to both life and startups. So when the talk in the Valley turned to income inequality recently, our ears perked up. For a moment, our two worlds were colliding.

Building and sustaining a company that is “designed to grow fast” is especially hard if you grew up desperately poor

Here’s a quote from Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham that got our attention.

“Closely related to poverty is lack of social mobility,” he wrote. “I’ve seen this myself: you don’t have to grow up rich or even upper middle class to get rich as a startup founder, but few successful founders grew up desperately poor.”

Graham was right, and it’s a truth David and I are intimately aware of as startup founders.

Not only are the cards stacked against us to even have the opportunity to found a startup, but building and sustaining a company that is “designed to grow fast” is especially hard if you grew up desperately poor.

We have been fighting this very idea since starting our company in 2010, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. The main problem is what David and I call mindset inequality.

To really understand it, I need to put you in my shoes. Let me take you on a personal journey.

How I got here

When I was 11, I moved to the United States with my dad, to Granada Hills in Los Angeles. We were broke in Taiwan. I picked up the English language; my dad did not. He also didn’t work, so I started working when I was 14 by doing all kinds of odd jobs.

On top of that, I did all the things immigrant kids are familiar with, like translating or simply handling all the business with landlords, bills, government services, insurance, etc.

I was smart, but I wasn’t very good at school, and not knowing the language definitely didn’t help.

My standardized test scores were bad enough that when I decided to take school more seriously in high school, my counselor actively discouraged me from taking even just one honors-level course.

I had to bring my dad to the office the next day and told him to pretend to say some words in Mandarin while I just demanded that I get put in an honors-level English class. I got a B in that class, and that was enough to start taking some AP courses the next year.

High school was no joke for me. I was so underprepared and didn’t know how to learn that I basically committed to sleeping only three hours a night and reread the same chapters in the textbook three times to force myself to memorize the material.

I came to school every day with bloodshot eyes. One time I got a stress-induced bald spot that was pretty embarrassing, so I learned to develop a sense of humor.

I found out about the SATs in 10th grade. I took a mock test and scored around a 900 (out of 1600), and panicked because I knew college was my way out.

I took the money I made at my odd jobs, and instead of helping to pay the bills I paid for a few SAT classes at Elite Education Prep in my neighborhood.

When it came time to renew, I told them I couldn’t pay anymore, but the amazing folks at Elite decided to just let me take classes for free and supplied me with all the study materials. I ultimately scored high enough that they put my picture up on the window to market to more students.

You can imagine how lucky I felt when I got into Stanford on basically a full ride (Go Card!). I spent my first year perpetually awestruck. All these amazing individuals to talk to. All these great resources to access.

Stanford successfully created this physical and financial bubble around me that meant that for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to think too much about money.

That was extremely empowering. I felt like I was just like my peers and that I could do anything. I can’t emphasize this enough, so I’m just going to say it again. During my first year at Stanford, I felt so empowered I believed I could do anything.

Of course, that was an illusion.

Reality quickly set in. I took an “elective” course about contemporary African politics my first quarter and I received a C+ despite grade inflation.

I didn’t know how to talk in a small, discussion-based class of 12 students. I was scared. I was quiet. I didn’t know how to read or skim the volume of reading we were given, so I was stupidly trying to read week 1 materials word for word during week 4. I didn’t know how to think critically about what I was reading.

At one point, Professor Weinstein sat me down during office hours to ask me what was wrong and how he could help. I didn’t even know what to tell him.

In the dorm, where I was constantly inspired by my peers, I noticed that everyone I talked to played an instrument, which made me feel out of place. Instead of moving on, I surveyed the rest of my dorm to see who else played an instrument, only to learn that I was the odd one out. Just a poor kid out of place. Not good enough.

Being poor makes you suck at using money as a resource. My time was always cheaper growing up, so I’d rather spend time than spend money.

Sophomore year was when it all fell apart. Like many of my peers, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so like them, I decided to do everything. I joined a bunch of clubs while the classes got harder. Soon enough, I fell into a slump.

When you’re in a slump, you start to look around and find even more ways to show yourself that you’re not good enough.

I’d go to the same classes with friends and dormmates, but then I’d notice how fast they were learning the concepts while I was struggling. I asked one of them to tutor me, and even then I wasn’t keeping up. On top of that, the extracurricular commitments I picked up totally overwhelmed me, so I shirked many of my club duties.

I also noticed that in order to keep up socially, I had to spend money to participate in a lot of activities, like going out to movies or on dorm ski trips  —  and that was on top of having to buy my own books. I remember having to borrow a few hundred bucks from one of my best friends while I applied for another loan to cover the expenses.

I remember running to the student loan office crying because I felt so bad. I told the loan officer I needed the money as soon as possible because I didn’t want the lack of money to ruin friendships the way it had ruined so many other things before.

I spent the next 48 hours basically stressed as fuck until the loan money showed up in my account and I paid him back. He’s still one of my best friends to this day.

The money problem was hanging over me the entire time in school.

I’d get calls from home about money, but there wasn’t much I could do other than picking up a side tutoring gig. I remember lashing out at my dad on the phone because I didn’t want to carry him around as baggage while I was trying to get through Stanford like a “normal” student.

I didn’t want to have a lesser, second-rate experience. I so desperately wanted to maintain the illusion that I was on equal footing. I wanted to believe that there wasn’t anything holding me back from achieving, that I’d get through this.

I did.

I went on a trip led by Kimber Lockhart and Andi Kleissner to visit social enterprises in the Bay Area. I learned about entrepreneurship through companies like Kiva and World of Good. The two of them suggested that I join BASES, the Stanford student group for entrepreneurial minds. Then I fell in love.

I attended Y Combinator’s Startup School the same year Jeff Bezos announced Amazon Web Services.

I ended up finding my niche at Stanford as the co-president for both BASES and AKPsi, a coed pre-business fraternity. I worked as a young VC at Alsop Louie Partners, where Stewart Alsop gave me my first Apple product (his old MacBook), and then I interned at Eventbrite, where Kevin Hartz saw something in me that I wasn’t even aware of myself.

I became “that guy” on campus who was the most gung-ho about entrepreneurship. I learned how to execute, and then I learned how to lead. My side project with David became a startup that got funded by Y Combinator. We raised money, built Crowdbooster to profitability, and now are building PRX, which is an even bigger idea to offer PR services on demand. It’s well on its way.

What is mindset inequality?

With that story in mind, now let me explain mindset inequality and why “very few successful founders grew up desperately poor.”

I was lucky that I found something I loved in entrepreneurship, which helped me focus my energies away from academic classes. I was lucky I found out that I was good with people and loved organizing and leading teams to achieve great things. I was lucky there were no other traumatic events that knocked me further into the deep end.

I could’ve easily given in to the realities, dropped out, or just given up the illusion that I was the same as my peers and adjusted my goals  —  except I chose to start a company. Starting a company for me was the ultimate declaration that I wanted to hold on to the illusion and continued to believe that I could do anything.

But because I fought hard to maintain this illusion for myself all through Stanford and while building the startup, I’m extremely aware of the disconnect to reality.

The world is clearly not a level playing field. Just with myself and my experience, I can see a lot of buggy code in my mind’s operating system that isn’t conducive to building a successful startup. Here are some of the issues with my default mindset that I’ve had to fix over time.

One example of a poor mindset is to minimize conflict, because fucking up is costly and opportunities are hard to come by, so I have trouble putting my ideas out there and defending them.

I often hear about people having intelligent conversations at home with their parents. I never ate at the dinner table, because we didn’t have one in the one-bedroom apartment I shared with my dad. You can imagine how this translates to pitching your startup. The idea of putting my grand idea out there and vigorously defending it to investors trying to tear it apart was new and counterintuitive.

Related to that, a poor founder tends to be less confident.

My mom, who didn’t go to college, used to say this to me, and it bothered me a lot: “We’re not meant to be successful, so what you’ve achieved is good enough!” Compare that level of confidence to a kid with successful parents who’d say something along the lines of, “If you can believe it, you can achieve it!”

Now imagine walking into a VC office having to compete with that kid. He’s so convinced that he’s going to change the world, and that’s going to show in his pitch. You can’t just muster up that confidence on the spot.

I don’t have “friends and family” money to get going. In fact, I’m sending money to my dad every month from the measly income I take out from my startup.

Then there’s knowing how to manage resources. Being poor makes you suck at using money as a resource.

My time was always cheaper growing up, so I’d rather spend time than spend money. I had to fix this when we raised our first seed round, but it took quite some time.

A simple decision to hire, for example, took a very long time because we weren’t comfortable spending money on hiring talented people to help us move faster.

Then there are also human resources, networks of people who can help you. Again, growing up poor meant that there weren’t successful aunts and uncles who could show me the ways of the world or even give me a little nudge in the right direction.

I’ve had to learn to work the room, to talk to and talk like a successful person, and to know how to ask for help.

I’ve also noticed the huge difference having some built-in resources can make. I don’t have “friends and family” money to get going. In fact, I’m sending money to my dad every month from the measly income I take out from my startup. Knowing that you have “friends and family” money to get going or even some family money to help you when you fail makes it that much easier to be more risk-seeking and build the appetite for hyper-growth startups.

Most of the time, potential founders who share my background tend to work at lucrative jobs in finance or tech until they can take care of everyone in their families before they even dream about taking more risks  —  if they ever get there.

Finally, there’s the constant guilt. If you have a Stanford degree and share my background, you’re likely the only one they can count on at home. You most likely would have the opportunity to work in safer and more lucrative careers that would be of more immediate help to your family.

It’s very irresponsible to pursue the startup path, and even if you do succeed in upgrading your mind software to get rid of all the bugs I mentioned above, you start to sound and act differently from the people you grew up with.

You might even get accused of losing your identity. This is why successful rappers are told they’re turning their backs on their communities all the time.

All of this contributes to the mindset inequality that founders like David and I have to overcome. We think this is the reason why poor founders tend not to be successful. Fortunately for us, we consider this the biggest chip on our shoulders, a known bug in our mind software. We’ve overcome so many of these issues, and we’ll keep chipping away at it until we win.

But for others, I think it’s important to note this: Tangible inequalities  —  that which can be seen and measured, like money or access  —  get the majority of the attention, and deservedly so.

But inequalities that live in your mind can keep the deck stacked against you long after you’ve made it out of the one-room apartment you shared with your dad. This is insidious, difficult to discuss, and takes a long essay to explain.

David and I are living proof that if we can upgrade and improve the way we think, and overcome our mindset inequality, then maybe we can help others do the same. For me, that starts with sharing my story so far. Stay tuned.

Ricky Yean is co-founder and CEO of, a Y Combinator–backed startup offering PR on demand. Previously, he started Crowdbooster, a social media optimization service. Yean graduated from Stanford in 2010 with a BA in science, technology, and society and serves on the board of BASES, a student entrepreneurship organization. He is a former entrepreneur-in-residence at the Stanford-StartX startup accelerator.

Note: This is the story of my life. It is good to have lived in a country with plenty of opportunities and a mobile life-style.

Rich Treasury Secretaries Laugh It Up Over Income Inequality

Three of the world’s richest and most powerful people (and Timothy Geithner) had a good laugh over income inequality earlier this year.

Timothy Geithner, Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson 

Andrew Bossone shared this link

Such nice guys

Three of the world’s richest and most powerful people (and Timothy Geithner) had a good laugh over income inequality earlier this year.

Former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin, Henry Paulson and Geithner were asked about the issue by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg during a conference in Beverly Hills.

When Paulson responded that he’d been working on income inequality since his days at Goldman Sachs, Geithner quipped, “In which direction?” 

“You were increasing it!” cracked Rubin, as everyone on stage roared with laughter.

Watch the exchange:

The April conference was hosted by former junk-bond kingpin Michael Milken, who served prison time in the 1990s for securities and tax scams.

Milken has since attempted to rehabilitate his image through philanthropy. (With whose money?)

After serving as Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, Rubin made over $120 million working at Citigroup, which he left shortly before the faltering megabank was bailed out by taxpayers.

Rubin spent 26 years at Goldman Sachs, and ran the firm for his final two before joining the Treasury.

Paulson made about $500 million working at Goldman before serving as Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush.

Geithner had to settle for making $411,200 a year when he served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Geithner and Paulson coordinated the bailouts that saved Citi and other banks in 2008. Geithner succeeded Paulson as Treasury secretary under President Barack Obama and took a high-paying job at the private equity firm Warburg Pincus in 2013.

Sandberg, whose question prompted the moment of levity, is worth almost $1.2 billion. She worked for Treasury Secretary Larry Summers during the Clinton years and has been a staunch advocate for women’s equality in the workplace.

While in office, all three men advocated Wall Street-friendly policies that helped bolster pay for top bankers.

Overall worker wages have been stagnant for decades and falling for most workers since 2007.



About time to rethink Capitalism?

This is a story about capitalism. It’s a system I love because of the successes and opportunities it’s afforded me and millions of others. (How about the more millions that were denied these opportunities?)

I started in my 20s trading commodities, cotton in particular, in the pits, and if there was ever a free market free-for-all, this was it, where men wearing ties but acting like gladiators fought literally and physically for a profit.

0:40Fortunately, I was good enough that by the time I was 30, I was able to move into the upstairs world of money management, where I spent the next three decades as a global macro trader.

And over that time, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in the markets, and I’ve traded a lot of crazy manias.

And unfortunately, I’m sad to report that right now we might be in the grips of one of the most disastrous, certainly of my career, and one consistent takeaway is manias never end well.

Over the past 50 years, our society have come to view our companies and corporations in a very narrow, almost monomaniacal fashion with regard to how we value them, and we have put so much emphasis on profits, on short-term quarterly earnings and share prices, at the exclusion of all else.

It’s like we’ve ripped the humanity out of our companies.

Now, we don’t do that — conveniently reduce something to a set of numbers that you can play with like Lego toys — we don’t do that in our individual life.

We don’t treat somebody or value them based on their monthly income or their credit score, but we have this double standard when it comes to the way that we value our businesses, and you know what? It’s threatening the very underpinnings of our society. And here’s how you’ll see.

2:10This chart is corporate profit margins going back 40 years as a percentage of revenues, and you can see that we’re at a 40-year high of 12.5 percent.

Now, hooray if you’re a shareholder, but if you’re the other side of that, and you’re the average American worker, then you can see it’s not such a good thing. [“U.S. Share of Income Going to Labor vs. CEO-to-Worker Compensation Ratio”]

Higher profit margins do not increase societal wealth.

What they actually do is they exacerbate income inequality, and that’s not a good thing.

But intuitively, that makes sense, right? Because if the top 10 percent of American families own 90 percent of the stocks, as they take a greater share of corporate profits, then there’s less wealth left for the rest of society.

3:02Again, income inequality is not a good thing.

This next chart, made by The Equality Trust, shows 21 countries from Austria to Japan to New Zealand. On the horizontal axis is income inequality. The further to the right you go, the greater the income inequality. On the vertical axis are nine social and health metrics. The more you go up that, the worse the problems are, and those metrics include life expectancy, teenage pregnancy, literacy, social mobility, just to name a few.

Now, those of you in the audience who are Americans may wonder, well, where does the United States rank? Where does it lie on that chart? And guess what?

We’re literally off the chart. Yes, that’s us, with the greatest income inequality and the greatest social problems, according to those metrics.

Here’s a macro forecast that’s easy to make,  that gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, it will get closed.

History always does it. It typically happens in one of 3 ways: either through revolution, higher taxes, or wars. None of those are on my bucket list. (Laughter)

4:15Now, there’s another way to do it, and that’s by increasing justness in corporate behavior, but the way that we’re operating right now, that would require a tremendous change in behavior, and like an addict trying to kick a habit, the first step is to acknowledge that you have a problem.

And let me just say, this profits mania that we’re on is so deeply entrenched that we don’t even realize how we’re harming society.

Here’s a small but startling example of exactly how we’re doing that: this chart shows corporate giving as a percentage of profits, not revenues, over the last 30 years. Juxtapose that to the earlier chart of corporate profit margins, and I ask you, does that feel right?

5:07 In all fairness, when I started writing this, I thought, “Oh wow, what does my company, what does Tudor do?”

And I realized we give 1% of corporate profits to charity every year. And I’m supposed to be a philanthropist.

When I realized that, I literally wanted to throw up. But the point is, this mania is so deeply entrenched that well-intentioned people like myself don’t even realize that we’re part of it.

5:38Now, we’re not going to change corporate behavior by simply increasing corporate philanthropy or charitable contributions.

And oh, by the way, we’ve since quadrupled that, but — (Applause) —

But we can do it by driving more just behavior. And one way to do it is actually trusting the system that got us here in the first place, and that’s the free market system.

About a year ago, some friends of mine and I started a not-for-profit called Just Capital.

Its mission is very simple: to help companies and corporations learn how to operate in a more just fashion by using the public’s input to define exactly what the criteria are for just corporate behavior.

Now, right now, there’s no widely accepted standard that a company or corporation can follow, and that’s where Just Capital comes in, because beginning this year and every year we’ll be conducting a nationwide survey of a representative sample of 20,000 Americans to find out exactly what they think are the criteria for justness in corporate behavior.

Now, this is a model that’s going to start in the United States but can be expanded anywhere around the globe, and maybe we’ll find out that the most important thing for the public is that we create living wage jobs, or make healthy products, or help, not harm, the environment.

At Just Capital, we don’t know, and it’s not for us to decide. We’re but messengers, but we have 100 percent confidence and faith in the American publicto get it right.

So we’ll release the findings this September for the first time, and then next year, we’ll poll again, and we’ll take the additive step this time of ranking the 1,000 largest U.S. companies to number one to number 1,000 and everything in between.

We’re calling it the Just Index, and remember, we’re an independent not-for-profit with no bias, and we will be giving the American public a voice.

And maybe over time, we’ll find out that as people come to know which companies are the most just, human and economic resources will be driven towards them, and they’ll become the most prosperous and help our country be the most prosperous.

Capitalism has been responsible for every major innovation that’s made this world a more inspiring and wonderful place to live in.

Capitalism has to be based on justice. It has to be, and now more than ever, with economic divisions growing wider every day.

It’s estimated that 47% of American workers can be displaced in the next 20 years.

I’m not against progress. I want the driverless car and the jet pack just like everyone else. But I’m pleading for recognition that with increased wealth and profits has to come greater corporate social responsibility.

8:48“If justice is removed,” said Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, “the great, the immense fabric of human society must in a moment crumble into atoms.”

9:04Now, when I was young, and there was a problem, my mama used to always sigh and shake her head and say, “Have mercy, have mercy.”

Now’s not the time for us, for the rest of us to show them mercy. The time is now for us to show them fairness, and we can do that, you and I, by starting where we work, in the businesses that we operate in.

And when we put justness on par with profits, we’ll get the most wonderful thing in all the world. We’ll take back our humanity.

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
Paul Tudor Jones II loves capitalism. It’s a system that has done him very well over the last few decades.
Nonetheless, the hedge fund manager and philanthropist is concerned that a laser focus on profits is, as he puts it, “threatening the very…


How Technology Could Help Fight Income Inequality

Technologies didn’t reduce the working time of people and indeed increased the physical aches and pain and created and spread many kinds of mental troubles and anxiety.

Rising income inequality has set off fierce political and economic debates, but one important angle hasn’t been explored adequately. We need to ask whether market forces themselves might limit or reverse the trend.

(Market forces? They are behind mankind calamities for inequalities)

Technology has contributed to the rise in inequality, but there are also some significant ways in which technology could reduce it.

For example, while computers have improved our lives in many ways, they haven’t yet done much to make health care and education cheaper. Over the next few decades, however, that may well change: We can easily imagine medical diagnosis by online artificial intelligence, greater use of online competitive procurement for health care services, more transparency in pricing and thus more competition, and much cheaper online education for many students, to cite just a few possibilities.

In such a world, many wage gains would come from new and cheaper services, rather than from being able to cut a better deal with the boss at work.

It is a bit harder to see how information technology can lower housing costs, but perhaps the sharing economy can make it easier to live in much smaller spaces and rent needed items, rather than store them in a house or apartment. That would enable lower-income people to live closer to higher-paying urban jobs and at lower cost.

Another set of future gains, especially for lesser-skilled workers, may come as computers become easier to handle for people with rudimentary skill. Not everyone can work fruitfully with computers now.

There is a generation gap when it comes to manipulating electronic devices, and many relevant tasks require knowledge of programming or, more ambitiously, the entrepreneurial skill of creating a start-up. That, in a nutshell, is how our dynamic sector has concentrated its gains among a relatively small number of employees, thus leading to more income inequality.

This particular type of inequality may very well change. As the previous generation retires from the work force, many more people will have grown up with intimate knowledge of computers. And over time, it may become easier to work with computers just by talking to them. As computer-human interfaces become simpler and easier to manage, that may raise the relative return to less-skilled labor.

The future may also extend a growing category of employment, namely workers who team up with smart robots that require human assistance. Perhaps a smart robot will perform some of the current functions of a factory worker, while the human companion will do what the robot cannot, such as deal with a system breakdown or call a supervisor.

Such jobs would require versatility and flexible reasoning, a bit like some of the old manufacturing jobs, but not necessarily a lot of high-powered technical training, again because of the greater ease of the human-computer interface. That too could raise the returns to many relatively unskilled workers.

A more universal expertise with information technology also might reverse some of the income inequalities that stem from finance. For instance, the returns from high-frequency trading were higher a few years ago, in part because few firms used it; now many firms can trade at very high speeds.

It remains to be seen whether similar developments will lower hedge fund returns, but again it is possible to imagine a future in which many of the best investment and trading techniques are very widely copied and thus cease to be especially profitable.

A final set of forces to reverse growing inequality stem from the emerging economies, most of all China. Perhaps we are living in a temporary intermediate period when America and many other developed nations bear a lot of the costs of Chinese economic development without yet getting many of the potential benefits.

For instance, China and other emerging nations are already rich enough to bid up commodity prices and large enough to drive down the wages of a lot of American middle-class workers, especially in manufacturing. Yet while these emerging economies are keeping down the costs of manufactured goods for American consumers, they are not yet innovative enough to send us many fantastic new products, the way that the United States sends a stream of new products to British or French consumers, to their benefit.

That state of affairs will probably end. Over the next few decades, we can expect China, India and other emerging nations to supply more innovations to the global economy, including to the United States. This shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. It will lead to many good things.

Since the emerging economies are relatively poor, many of these innovations may benefit relatively low-income Americans.

India has already pioneered techniques for cheap, high-quality heart surgery and other medical procedures, and over time such techniques may achieve a foothold in the United States. Imagine a future China producing cheaper and safer cars, a cure for some kinds of cancer, and workable battery storage for solar energy. Ordinary Americans could be much better off, and without having to work for those gains.

To be clear, these are speculations and should not be taken as reasons to avoid improving our economy right now; furthermore, other trends may push in less positive directions. Still, these possibilities reframe the inequality problem.

In the popular model developed by the economist Thomas Piketty, inequality is fundamentally about capital versus labor. In his view, capital has opened up an ever-widening lead because of the relatively high rates of return on savings and investment. The natural response to reverse this trend, according to Mr. Piketty, would be a direct attack on the return to capital, such as through a global wealth tax.

In the scenarios outlined here, though, growing inequality is highly contingent on particular technologies and the global conditions of the moment. Movements toward greater inequality often set countervailing forces in motion, even if those forces take a long time to come to fruition.

From this perspective, rather than seeking to beat down capital, our attention should be directed to leaving open the future possibilities for innovation, change and dynamism. Even if income inequality continues to increase in the short run, as I believe is likely, there exists a plausible and more distant future in which we are mostly much better off and more equal.

The history of technology suggests that new opportunities for better living and higher wages are being created, just not as quickly as we might like.




June 2023

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