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Jeff Spirer, 61, poses for a portrait in San Francisco, Calif. A tech marketing and strategy veteran, he's rejected suggestions that he undergo cosmetic surgery. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)
Jeff Spirer, 61, poses for a portrait in San Francisco, Calif. A tech marketing and strategy veteran, he's rejected suggestions that he undergo cosmetic surgery. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

Silicon Valley’s dirty secret – age bias Add to ...

The interview never got rescheduled, and a younger candidate eventually got the job. Mr. Spirer cannot say for sure, but he thinks the CEO was taken aback to see somebody with wrinkles. “What other conclusion can I draw?” asks Mr. Spirer.

Age discrimination is notoriously difficult to prove. Lawyers say they typically do not have smoking guns such as e-mails saying the candidate or employee is too old, and need to be able to show through other methods such as statistics that the company is making employment decisions based on age.

In some cases, there are reasons other than bias for preferring younger workers in a start-up setting. People with young children can be strapped for time and less able to work long, late hours. Younger workers are more likely to be expert in the newest software programming protocols. Young entrepreneurs, like many others, often move instinctively in hiring from the cohort of those they know.

Yet there are some indications that age bias is now part of the culture in Silicon Valley – especially visible in what Mr. Adams of Socialdial calls the “cachet of the young entrepreneur.”

When young executives like Mr. Zuckerberg are successful, their age often gets a lot of attention. Successful older entrepreneurs, on the other hand, take pride in every aspect of their accomplishments – except their age.

When the software company Workday went public last month and raised $637-million (U.S.), little attention was paid to the fact that co-founder and co-CEO David Duffield is 72.

Sandy Kurtzig founded Ask Computer Systems and its manufacturing software program, Manman, and saw the company through a stock-market listing in 1981. Now, she has raised $10.5-million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and others for her new software company, Kenandy. She says she is in her 60s and leaves it at that, explaining, “I don’t want to advertise it.”

Investors, in contrast to employers, are not subject to discrimination laws when deciding whom to fund. And they are among the most outspoken in declaring their age preferences.

“I am just an incredibly enthusiastic fan of very talented 20-somethings starting companies,” Sequoia Capital’s Mike Moritz, 58 years old and a top VC, once said at a conference, echoing similar comments he has made over the years. “They have great passion. They don’t have distractions like families and children and other things that get in the way of business.” He was 49 at the time.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the quote you have selected is very representative of what I think,” Mr. Moritz said in an e-mail. He declined to elaborate.

Khosla Ventures’ Vinod Khosla, 57, told conference goers last year that “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”

Mr. Khosla says the line came in the context of a talk where he was discussing the fear many older people have of failure, contrasted with many younger people’s experimental bent. “I was encouraging people to try new things that go against conventional wisdom,” he says.

Khosla Ventures invests in several companies with over-45 leaders, including Nu-Tek Salt LLC and its CEO, Tom Manuel.

Some venture capitalists extend their appreciation of youth to their own partnerships. In June, Benchmark Capital’s Peter Fenton, 40, told a group of journalists that Benchmark strives to keep the average age of its most-active partners under 40 to better relate to young entrepreneurs.

Mr. Fenton says he is not ageist, arguing that there is a well-documented relationship between youth and creativity. As for partners such as himself who hit 40, “we have a discipline to try and stay young,” he says. “Young at mind.”

Mark Zuckerberg himself once told a class at startup-funding firm Y Combinator that hiring only young people with technical expertise was the best way to found a successful company. “Young people are just smarter,” he said. Mr. Zuckerberg was 22 at the time. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to comment.

Yet there is little evidence to support the idea that young people are intrinsically more likely to thrive as entrepreneurs.

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