If ‘tech mafias’ are outdated, how should local startup networks evolve? – Technical.ly

When you think of mafias, what comes to mind?

Perhaps you think of fedoras, three-piece suits and Tommy guns converging in Prohibition-era street violence over moonshine trafficking routes. Maybe it’s a little more modern: track suits, RICO prosecutions, narcotics flushed down toilets and crippling insecurity over lost glamour. So, basically a spectrum between “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos.”

Certainly, none of these images make sense when we think about tech mafias (especially not the clothes). That term, for the uninitiated, refers to the groups of entrepreneurs whose success at one company yields success with their own ventures. Most clearly linked to the myriad PayPal alumni like Peter Thiel and the suddenly ubiquitous Elon Musk, whose careers manifest like seeds from the same plant that eventually germinated a whole field of tech sector vitality, the term connotes a sense of both accessibility and prestige. It underscored a prior era of startup sector optimism, in which the promise of transcendent innovation among a group of similarly ambitious and circumstantially connected entrepreneurs could prop up a whole economic revolution. Moreover, it suggested that with the right mix of opportunity and timing, any brilliant technologist could be part of their own tech mafias and find comparable success.

But in retrospect, the tech mafias shared several crucial and disheartening qualities with the actual Mafia. Perhaps the most troubling similarity is that they both remain largely the domain of well-connected, well-to-do white men. And nearly 20 years after the PayPal Mafia began capturing tech media and funders’ attention, the model must contend with an industry where inclusion and equality of opportunity — especially for women, people of color and other marginalized communities that never truly benefited from tech’s promise of economic revolution — has never had more market importance. Going forth, do these tech mafias matter as much to startup ecosystems as they once did? Does the term even really apply anymore? What models should replace them, if any, to make sure that networks promote ecosystem growth that benefits all?


These and other questions are at the heart of Tech Mafias Month, the May theme of Technical.ly’s 2022 editorial calendar. Throughout this month, our reporters will be focusing on how the tech scenes in their respective markets have evolved. They’ll pay particular attention to where growth has been entwined with these ecosystems’ forebears, how companies have nurtured connections among employees and alumni, and similar themes while complicating the whole foundation on which they lay.

Expect articles about how local technologists and founders have been pushed by prior employers, how serial entrepreneurs fit into their markets, what companies nurture entrepreneurship, and how failures have pushed people to succeed — among others that speak to how much who you know matters when you want to pursue a startup career. Look for explanatory articles and guest commentary throughout the next few weeks.

In addition, this month will mark the return of our RealLIST Connectors series, in which reporters highlight the community members who have raised the tide to lift multiple ships in their localities.

Are you part of a tech mafia, or a similar network that has promoted success among its members? Do you have thoughts on tech mafias that you wish to share with us? Are you an expert we should talk to, or do you know of one? Is there a report we need to read to better explain this topic? Want to write a first-person guest post about your relevant experience, or to share some applicable resources? Let us know:

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