The Culture of Pitching

This paper concentrates on a case of intercultural communication, i.e the patterns of interaction between people from different cultures as they engage in mutual meaning making, in the setting of highly competitive and very international entrepreneurial scene in Silicon Valley, California, USA. People from all around the world with entrepreneurial aspirations flock here to find investors, mentors and good teams to build “the next big thing”, the next Google, Apple or Facebook to change the world (and make a lot of money while doing so).

In order to start impressing anyone, they need to start with a good “pitch”, a short but compelling story that would impress both the potential investors, customers and a team. While this may seem like an easy thing to do for many American startup entrepreneurs, since the American school system supports public speaking skills and being vocally efficient, many foreigners find it extremely difficult to obtain since they come from a completely different background and culture where proactively speaking out and loudly introducing your (business) ideas is usually frowned upon and seen as something of tasteless self-promotion.

As several people claimed to me, these skills can be trained and be also learnt later in life, although it takes a lot of effort and coming out of the comfort zone. But eventually “speaking the same language” is what it takes to become successful in this environment in order to build an internationally acclaimed company.

Introduction and Background

Having lived in Palo Alto, California, USA, for the past three years, I also conducted my fieldwork there among the Estonians living in the San Francisco Bay Area, locally known as just the Bay Area but internationally more acclaimed for a smaller part of it – the self-renowned “tech mecca” of the world, Silicon Valley.

In my MA thesis I will look into the migratory and self-defining aspects of three different groups of Estonians who have moved to the Bay Area over the span of past half a century. The first wave arrived as war migrants of the Second World War from European Displaced People’s (DP) camps in early 1950s. According to International Tracing Service (ITS) there were around 2,500 DP camps in West Germany, Berlin and Austria that provided shelter for eight to nine million refugees at the end of the war. Various relief organizations were able to repatriate between six and seven million people and helped about 1,5 million people to emigrate to other countries. The largest numbers of displaced people went to the United States (329,301), Australia (182,159) and Canada (123,479); Israel financed and organized the settlement of 132,000 Jews (Kay, 1995).

The second wave came as political refugees of the Soviet system or economic migrants of the early re-established Republic at the end of 1980s or in the 1990s, many of whom stayed in the US illegally.

I will mostly be concentrating on the very last wave of “immigrants” who came to the Bay Area during the past 10-15 years: higly educated people earning their degrees from world class universities like Stanford or Berkeley, working for international companies mostly in technology or building their own startups. They usually refer to themselves as Estonian Mafia, known for the  insiders simply by the hashtag #estonianmafia, a term coined by Dave McClure, the founder of 500Startups, a startup accelerator based in Mountain View, California. Due to the essence of their work, they could live and work any place in the world that could provide them with internet connection and a network of likeminded people but as Silicon Valley is despite its rocketing real-estate prices and overall high cost of living “the happening place” right now, they are here.

Although within both the second and the third group there is a distinct pattern of “herd effect” (Epstein, 2008) – a stream of migrants from a source country undergoing economic development to a destination country with higher wages, migration is not necessarily driven by geographical differences in income, employment and/or only socio-economic opportunities and restrictions.

According to “The Age of Migration”, “the volume and complexity of migration often increases with development. This is because improved access to education and information, social capital and financial resources increase people’s aspirations and capabilities to migrate, while improved transport and communication also facilitate movement.” (Castels et al, 2014: 25).

And while 13 percent – the largest percentage among the developed nations – of the total population has been born outside of the US, the 2000 census indicated that 47 percent of scientists and engineers in America with PhDs were foreign born (Samovar et al, 2012: 5). In California “non-resident aliens” comprised 38 percent of master’s degrees and 37 percent of doctorate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in 2009 (American Immigration Council, 2015) to add to those who have been born outside of the country but became citizens later on.

For three years I lived in this environment of a constant rotation of people from all around the world, operating as an effective melting pot of different cultures and backgrounds into one big happy tech scene. On the backdrop of it, having taken part of the activities of the local Estonian Society, I found myself asking myself and the others the same question all over and over again: why do these people, some of whom have lived here for more than half a century, some being born in the United States, still define themselves as Estonians and what does being Estonian mean to them.

Working as a volunteer editor for a local website called Eesti by the Bay, I started conducting interviews that turned into a full scale fieldwork. Since ethnographic fieldwork involves first-hand, naturalistic, sustained observation and participation in a particular cultural setting with the  aim of developing a deeper understanding of how individuals, or members of a cultural group, perceive their social and cultural worlds and interact with each other (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995), I already had an ethnography at hand.

Ethnography refers to the study of people in naturally occurring settings or “fields” by methods of data collection which capture their ordinary activities, involving the researcher participating directly in the setting, if not also the activities, in order to collect data in a systematic manner  but without meaning being imposed on them externally (Brewer, 2000: 189).

While already doing my fieldwork in the Bay Area, I took part in a short two-part film documentary project in early 2014 to look into the matters of how difficult it is for people from different cultural backgrounds to merge into the highly competitive entrepreneurial environment of Silicon Valley in order to become globally successful. The short documentaries were uploaded to an educational platform called Telepurk (“TV-Jar”) which is administered by Archimedes, a subsection of Estonian Ministry of Education and Science, in order to provide students some fodder of thought for their future studies and provoke the idea of lifelong learning.

In the first episode called “Inside and Outside” we discussed the importance of academic education versus “learning by doing” or lifelong learning, in a very international and competitive environment in Silicon Valley seen from the perspective of current and future Estonian entrepreneurs as well as venture capitalists (known for the abbrevation “VCs” in local parlance). The second episode called “Pitch” concentrated on a distinct cultural phenomenon of “pitching” – being able to sell your product to potential customers or investors in a very limited span of time.

In this paper I would like to broaden the argument made in the second episode of the documentary. How the people from very different backgrounds relentlessly train themselves to speak the “common language” – not just mastering the English language but also learn how to present their ideas in a compelling and catchy way to an international audience, remaining authentic and trustworthy at the same time. If the essence of communication is the management of messages with the objective of creating meaning (Griffin, 2005), and if communication is considered to be purposeful – to persuade, inform, or entertain – then the objective is achieved only by interacting with someone (Samovar et al, 2012:9), the intent of this paper is to find out how it works in an international entrepreneurial setting, crossing all cultural diversities.

Pitching culture 

There are several startup conferences held in Silicon Valley throughout the year and each one of them promotes themselves as “the one and only place where anyone who’s someone in Silicon Valley meet up and exchange the latest ideas and create buzz”. Our filming crew, consisting of director Terje Henk and myself, signed up for The Startup Conference and managed to negotiate to be able to capture the whole event and use any material as long as we send them the documenatry later (which we did).

There were several highly acclaimed speakers from big tech companies like Google and Facebook, the keynote speaker being the world-renowned marketing evangelism guru Guy Kawasaki known from the early days of Apple, but the definite highlight of the event was the pitching contest. Ten pre-filtered startups get a chance to come on the stage and present their idea and business model in 2 minutes after which there is a short Questions & Answers session with a judge panel and at the end both the audience and the judges pick the best team who wins a substantial amount of money to start building or bettering their product.

Although it was obvious everyone had practiced a lot, just hearing the first sentences of their pitches, one could instantly identify which teams are “local”, i.e have been built in the Valley, and which come from someplace else, like China or Europe, with their own distinct accents and presence on stage. My absolute personal favourite was Polina Marchenko, CEO and cofounder of a company called Kptn Cook. I didn’t actually care too much nor understand what her product was about but I really liked her slightly shy and nervous presence on the stage as I could instantly identify myself with her because of her gender (overall, the tech scene tends to be very masculine) and Eastern European accent.

As she later confessed in the interview, she has practiced a lot but still feels nervous on the stage:

“For me it’s a double challenge because I originally come from Ukraine and then I went to Germany and started pitching in German. And people feel you are not a native speaker. And then I come here and being already used to pitch in German I have to start pitching in English. There are so many high quality people who are natives here so I need to keep up to their standard, I have to be really strong. Of course, I’m still not perfect but I’m trying to work on my pronounciation, my body language. My advisor said: “If you can pitch, you can get anything!”.” (“Pitch”, 3:02 – 3:44).

Another startup entrepreneur, a chemical engineer by training, Bril Wang from China, who started his company Emergin in Silicon Valley, developing a technology that would enable to extract oil from plastic waste, and went through incubation process (a process in which highly acclaimed mentors with a relevant background teach the startups how to raise money, develop their product and market it internationally) in a startup incubator called CleanTech Open, also admits to his humble beginnings later in the video:

“I was very insecure, very nervous. I was not able to say: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!”… But later on, it has been good. It’s something that you can develop, not something that comes naturally. Some people are more shy, some more brave, but if you spend time and try to develop your speaking skills, it’s not that hard. And sometimes people even believe or trust more the person who is technically a bit more nervous. If someone speaks too confidently, it’s sometimes not too trustworthy.” (“Pitch”, 11:04 – 11:50).

One could argue that Bril, who still obviously does not feel too confident to stand in front of a camera (in fact he failed to pitch his company in 30 seconds when asked), is contradicting himself in saying that one can develop his/her speaking skills since they do not come naturally but at the same time says that being too confident is sometimes a turnoff , but he backs the discussion for the need of a “common language”.

It would be very easy to say that Europeans nor Chinese could ever become as successful as “native” Americans – to borrow a highly controversial term from Polina’s interview, guessing she meant “native speakers” – in pitching since they do not master the nuances of the language nor have the outgoing temperament one needs in order to appear confident in front of an audience. But it is probably true that since most of the venture capitalists (i.e investors) and mentors they need to impress are (native born) Americans or fully americanized, they need to be a good match for their cultural generalizations in order to overcome stereotypification. It is not uncommon to hear that most Americans find, while stressing the fact of being the most hard-working people in the world, that Europeans are idle and lazy (Robert Kagan’s highly acclaimed book “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order” exemplifies this notion) and Chinese merely active copycats, willing to copy any product or service but never having a single original idea of their own. Therefore, in order to bust those stereotypes, they need to take on the “double challenge” as Polina called it and work twice as hard.

Dr Burton H. Lee, who teaches European Entrepreneurship class in the Engineering School at Stanford University, and has obviously seen many European entrepreneurs trying to strike their luck in the US, also talks about the same stereotypes in the video:

“There is a strong culture of modesty in many European countries, that you shouldn’t put yourself too much out there. Standing up in front of everyone else – many people think that’s implying that you’re better than everyone else, putting yourself above everyone else. That holds them back. Unfortunately, if you’re talking to investors, you have to put yourself out there, you have to present your idea in a clear, visionary, compelling way which is exciting for everyone else. You have to tell a story, you have to motivate your team. That is difficult to do for many European students, entrepreneurs to be, who never received this training in their universities.” (“Pitch”, 6:06 – 6:44)

As Tusting et al point out in their article about research in cultural generalization among foreign students, the expression of “stereotypes” about a country is generally seen as demonstrating judgemental or negative attitudes. “Encouraging students to develop a sensitive awareness of “cultural difference” presupposes some form of generalization about what these significant differences are between cultures. The danger comes when we essentialize these differences, assuming that they apply universally to any member of the culture.”

The authors of the text also point to a former research that pinpoints the fact that stereotypes arise when we act as if all members of a culture or group share the same characteristics. They are problematic in intercultural communication for several obvious reasons. One is that they may give us a false sense of  understanding our communication partners. Additionally, stereotypes may become self-fulfilling prophecies, where we observe others in selective ways that confirm our prejudice (2002: 652).

Both Bril and Polina are saying that they would work hard to “play by the rules”, i.e learn what the specific cultural pattern expects of them. One of the most praised cultural anthropologists of the 20th century, Clifford Geertz has defined culture as “a  historically transmitted pattern of meaning embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (1973: 89).

Samovar et al put it in more simple terms in their texbook: “Culture is the rules for living and functioning in society. In other words, culture provides the rules for playing the game of life. Because the rules differ from culture to culture, in order to function and be effective in a particular culture, you need to know how to “play by the rules”.” (2012: 11).

The rules of intercultural communication do not only imply to what you say but sometimes even more importantly, how you say it. As Samovar et al point out, another critical factor in intercultural communication is nonverbal behavior, which includes gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and gaze, posture and movement, touch, dress, silence, the use of space and time, objects and artifacts, and paralanguage. These nonverbal behaviors, which are inextricably intertwined with verbal behaviors, often communicate as much or more meaning than spoken words. Like language, culture also directly influences the use of, and meanings assigned to, nonverbal behavior. In intercultural communication, inappropriate or misused nonverbal behaviors can easily lead to misunderstandings and sometimes result in insults (2012:15).

Dr Lee from Stanford also stresses the importance of body language in the video and gives some useful tips how to be more fluid in body movement and become more confident in speaking up in front of an audience (of international backgrounds):

“We’ve had numerous Estonian speakers, some of them have been really good at telling stories, others are quite stiff. So you have to think about how you become more fluid. How you become more fluid in your body motion and the story you are telling. Some people have a natural gift of doing this but everyone can learn the skill about fluid presentation – taking theatre classes, taking classes where you do body movements, so dance, especially for guys that can help loosen things up. But also just apprecialting and learning how to tell stories which attract listeners and get people’s attention. Here, at Stanford, and in many secondary schools in the US we have teachers who train students in speaking skills, so something I would encourage Estonian schools and universities to do is to establish a teaching position of a speaking coach who would work with students, maybe part time, who whould come in maybe a few times a week.” (“Pitch”, 7:10 – 8:20).

Conclusion and suggestions for further research

Pointing to demographic data from the US and Western Europe, the authors of “Intercultural Communication” see a high likelihood of cultural conflicts arising from growing immigrant populations (Samovar et al, 2012: 6-7). It is obvious that in the neverending age of migration people will move around much faster and the nation states will need to adapt their laws to facilitate that movement. But on a personal level, people moving around will need to adapt to local rules and cultural patterns.

In case of the entrepreneurs-to-be who are moving to Silicon Valley in order to make a global impact, they will first need to learn to pitch their ideas in a flawless and enchanting manner as this is a corner stone of their future success. Eventually it all boils down to what Dr Burton Lee tells:

“Ultimately, if you have a company, your story needs to attract serious people, meaning your team, engineers, cofounders, salespeople, but also eventually investors. You cannot do just copycats, copycats can be fine for a while but you really have to understand what the global trends are, what’s happening intrenationally. You have to travel. I’m encouraged to see more and more Estonians coming to the US, to Silicon Valley and Boston, also going to other parts of Europe. You have to get out of your country, your own culture, your own language to really understand what’s happeing internationally to come up with original ideas that you can market and sell globally.” (“Pitch”, 8:30 – 9:16)

To continue with my own research I have interviewed several entrepreneurs of Estonian origin who are working on their startups in Silicon Valley and I’m keen to find out patterns how their distinct cultural background – having been born in Soviet Union, grown up during the times of turmoil and transition period from soviet system to the newly re-established Estonian Republic, a capitalist state that is tiny in global terms but due to its small size is also very flexible and prone to innovation – helps them to build their own “brand”, sometimes referred to as Estonian Mafia, and become successful first in Silicon Valley and then on a global scale.


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