The irony of a white male in his late 50s delivering a talk about diversity and bro culture on the opening day of South by Southwest wasn’t lost on Dan Lyons.
“I never expected at my age to become some sort of diversity advocate,” Lyons joked when he first arrived at the podium. “I fell into this by accident.”
That “accident” is Lyon’s New York Times-bestselling book “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble,” which details his experiences working at tech startup HubSpot.
Lyons spent most of his career as a tech journalist. But after being laid off from Newsweek, he decided to work for the type of company he had spent his life writing about: a tech startup.
The book wasn’t exactly a love letter to HubSpot. The popular book depicts the company as ageist, cruel to employees, and more focused on marketing itself then making money or even building a good product.
But some of his sharpest barbs in the book were focused on the lack of diversity at HubSpot. The workforce was overwhelmingly young and white. Lyons stood out as one of only a handful 50-somethings.
Lyons, who also wrote for the TV show “Silicon Valley,” kicked off his talk by touching on the recent PR disasters that ride-hailing company Uber is facing.
A former engineer for the company, Susan Fowler, wrote a blog post that detailed her experiences working there, which included claims of sexual harassment and sexism that wasn’t taken seriously by Human Resources.
Uber launched an investigation into this incident, but Lyons said he found the Uber story hopeful.
“The era of people who are putting up with abuse at work and just shutting up about it, I think that’s over,” Lyons said, “This may be the beginning of the end of bro culture.”
Lyons said he felt equipped to criticize bro culture because he realized at HubSpot that he wasn’t a “bro.”
“I was a grandpa,” he said. “It’s pretty humiliating when you’re the old guy and they treat you like an idiot.”
There were many moments of laughter during, such as when Lyons projected on the screen official definitions of “bro culture” and “bro CEOs,” or when he regaled the audience with tales about HubSpot’s culture, which he described as a mix between a fraternity and a kindergarten classroom.
But the best parts of his talk were the sobering moments, when he connected the dots between a lack of diversity and “bro culture,” to the emphasis on growth-at-all-costs at tech companies.
Lyons said the boom in venture capitalist-backed startups that began in the 1990s has led to an emphasis on growth and marketing, instead of becoming profitable or building the best products.
The VC-backed business model tech companies follow now is “grow fast, lose money, go public, cash out,” Lyons said, to the detriment of employees and regular shareholders. And he said it’s fair to blame the people in charge - mostly white men - for many of the problems tech companies are facing.
“The VC industry has become less diverse and more influential,” Lyons said. “The VC industry is bunch of bros and they invest in bros.”
He urged a simple ethos that startups should follow: “Create good jobs. Treat employees well. Pay taxes. Be part of the community. Hire with diversity. Start early.”
But Lyons is an at heart an optimist. And he ended his talk with this thought: It might be too late to change the Googles and Facebooks and Ubers of the world. But it might not be too late for the next big tech startup, whose founder could be at SXSW this year.
“The only way for us to survive is to look out for each other,” Lyons said. “We have to create companies that we want to work for.”
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