some of us are brave

The Logic of ‘Dumb’ Investments in Curly Hair

My friends over at Racialicious tweeted a link to an interesting story from New York Magazine:

In the article author Kevin Roose takes aim at the unrestrained enthusiasm among venture capitalists for “dumb” internet investments.

Kevin’s ideal form of this stupidity can be summed up, apparently, in one site in particular:

But Silicon Valley, like any other industry, has its share of truly dumb ideas. For every start-up that changes the world and makes its founders rich, a thousand die quick, anonymous deaths.

Some of tech’s clunkers never get off the ground, but others manage to get big, high-profile investments despite having no redeeming qualities whatsoever. (For example, what kind of genius decided to throw $1.2 million at NaturallyCurly, the “leading social network and community for people with wavy, curly and kinky hair?”)

As Latoya Peterson over at Racialicious points out:

Roose provides no actual evidence as to why NaturallyCurly is a bad investment. He doesn’t cite a thing – not their traffic numbers, no advertising sales, and no discussion of the exponential growth in the market they offer. But why should he? NaturallyCurly doesn’t fit the pattern – and Roose’s causal dismal underscores exactly why minorities, women of color in particular, have such a hard time breaking into the consciousness of the tech world.

I’ve talked here before about the ways in which unexamined bias manifests through stress fractures in organizations undergoing change. While Roose is no Schaefer Riley or CHE, I still think this an excellent example of the ways the veneer of “neutral” behaviors, when embedded in institutional practices, reproduce inequalities.

What happened here is that Roose thought the name and tagline of NaturallyCurly was so obviously ridiculous that it needed no context or engagement. In the essay, Roose goes on to detail three of the “dumbest” VC investments of late. In each he details the ownership, form, and function of the business in question. Only for NaturallyCurly does Roose think no details are necessary. It’s ridiculousness is so obvious, according to Roose, that all readers will “get” it. That the ultimate form of his entire line of argument — the quintessential stupid idea — is the only one that does not warrant some discussion is odd, if not telling.

Telling of what, I’m not sure. And there I will be as fair as I know to be. I don’t know if the gendered nature of the website that, from it’s font to its images, decidedly feminine is the reason Roose thought it so ridiculous. Or, if the site’s self-professed focus on things like “kinky hair” is what’s so hilariously stupid. I don’t know mainly because Roose thought it went without saying. The readers would get his joke.

Only I was a reader and I didn’t get it. And I’m not the only one.

The supposedly neutral assumption about his audience left Roose and his claims of stupid ideas open to interpretation. In similar ways the assumptions we make about who is American or, today, Anglo-Saxon and who is not go without saying far too often.

To his credit Roose responded to my critiques on Twitter. And I don’t say that lightly. I really do want to give him credit for engaging. I think it says a great deal more about his conscious intent than perhaps his original article. It’s no small act of respect or courage to engage criticism, especially publicly.

Roose says his point was about the niche nature of NaturallyCurly:

My point is that he never said that…or, anything else.

But even if I take Roose at his word — which, I do and will — how niche can this site be? Was it not just two months ago that all of white media went insane at the idea of a “non white, majority minority” demographic shift? Don’t more ethnic people likely mean more ethnic, kinky, and curly hair? Wouldn’t an investment in a potential advertising vehicle that provides the $150 billion dollar hair care industry entree into a new, fast growing market be — I dunno — the opposite of stupid?

Not to mention the already existing black hair care industry which, by its very nature engages curly and kinky hair, is a $9 billion dollar industry with valuable market segment expertise could benefit from investment in something like NaturallyCurly?

Which brings me back to the question I continued to ask Roose: what’s so stupid about this idea, exactly?

It’s the one question Roose didn’t seem prepared to answer.

But, it should be noted, it was a question he was prepared to to answer for the three entries on his list of stupid, albeit slightly less stupid than NaturallyCurly, ideas.

As he said there is a different between calling someone a lazy hack and calling someone a biased lazy hack:

I’m just not sure Roose has provided evidence of being more one than the other in this piece.

Here’s hoping to dialogue that elucidates and moves us forward, however. Because, as Latoya pointed out, minority owned and women owned businesses fight a difficult enough fight for VC investment as it is. More contributions to the cultural narrative about the “stupid” nature of businesses that serve women and POC doesn’t really help anyone.


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This entry was posted on July 25, 2012 by in Essays, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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