The Disruptive CEO—Why Do Silicon Valley Founders Behave So Badly?

The San Francisco Bay Area has been taken over by the cult of “Radical Disruption.” Everywhere I turn I see a new elite college drop-out founding the latest, greatest tech startup that will totally disrupt life as we know it, and make someone a shitload of money, with a workforce of only rock star, ninja programmers and slick, hip PR guys and gals who will remake the world, while also completely fudging the numbers and harassing every employee that comes through their doors. I imagine we can blame it on Steve Jobs, but the leaders of the cult of “Radical Disruption” around here are startup CEOs, worshipped like gurus for their guts, their genius and their ability to both be super cool and create radical new workplaces while totally DISRUPTING some commercial space AND attending Burning Man and Coachella Music Fest each year.

I don’t mean to sound snarky. Both of my teen-aged sons inform me on a regular basis that I’m not funny and thus snark is way out of my element. However, as I watch the world of technology from my seat in the sleepy Santa Cruz Mountains to the south of Silicon Valley, all I can do is wonder, “Who the hell are these people?”

I get it, I’m old. But not that old. I mean, I didn’t have to program using punch cards. I actually learned to write code using an actual keyboard. To give some perspective, I’m only five years older than Uber Founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, so I’m not sure we’re of dramatically different generations. Yet I’m astounded by the allegations that show up in my newsfeed everyday about him, and many others, that live and work just over the hill from me. They have come to power and what do they do with it? Use it to disrupt EVERYTHING, and I don’t mean the actual commercial space they occupy, but the lives of the employees and investors that prop up the very dream they seem to think is their divine calling.

Let’s begin with Travis Kalanick, the Uber CEO, who has been accused of spying on former employees who have dared to sue him,  tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased — a fraud detection maneuver that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines, creating a workplace rife with sexual harassment where female employees weren’t given the same black leather jacket reward because there weren’t enough women in the department to get a group discount. And my favorite? Alphabet’s Waymo lawsuit against Otto (purchased by Uber) for allegedly stealing the design of a key self-driving system.

Wow. You get to be CEO of a company about to IPO while all this shit is hitting the fan? Travis Kalanick, you are sooooo lucky to be a rock star CEO in 2017. Seriously, because if you’d been the CEO of a company in the 1990’s, you’d be finished.

It appears that sexism exists all over Silicon Valley, but certainly not in a company founded by women, right? One would think that at Thinx, a company that makes period-proof underwear, things would be downright utopian for the ladies. Not so, and this story really breaks my heart. Meet Miki Agrawal, one of the cutest Valley CEOs and the founder of a company I completely adore. I use the Thinx period panties and while they’re a bit pricey, they’re a great technological feat. I wanted her company, and the brand she was selling, namely herself, to succeed. But that was not to be, and just a month ago sexual harassment charges were brought against a “SHE-E-O”!!!! Allegedly, Ms. Agrawal touched employee’s breasts, and demanded that one employee to let her look at the empolyee’s new nipple piercings in front of the male co-worker in her office. Ms. Agrawal also often changed into other clothes and period-proof undies in front of everyone in the office. In her post on Medium, Agrawal writes that her lawyers have found no evidence for these claims, however, the case is still open and awaiting trial, and she’s stepped down from her post of CEO. Of course, in another post on Medium, she details her adventures in the Orgy Dome at Burning Man while promoting her products, so, I guess that's okay for a CEO to reveal in public as well?

Now, for those reading this that live in the Midwest, Deep South, or even the East Coast, this is happening in California, the land of the free in more ways than you can think of. Nudity is common, I see it when I walk down the main street of my town, polyamory is in, and many women flirt and make-out with one another all the time. It’s cool, for some, you know? But in the workplace? No. It isn’t cool, even in Silicon Valley.

Sexual harassment, stealing trade secrets and spying, I imagine that’s what you have to do to be a successful CEO in the cult of “Radical Disruption” because that’s what venture capitalists are looking for.  But how about completely lying to investors about key metrics? Take Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, the blood-testing start-up that she started as a 19-year-oldStanford dropout, which was valued at some $9 billion. That was before the Wall Street Journal reported in October of 2016 her company was basically a sham and that Theranos used competitor’s products to do all of its testing because its own technology didn’t actually work.

Oh my. Holmes was a female self-made millionaire in a world of male dominance, and a shining light here in the Valley. She even wears nothing but black turtle necks, just like Steve Jobs. Theranos was going to disrupt the health care industry by providing lab work at a fraction of the cost. Yet when Ms. Holmes’ technology failed, rather than report it, she purchased competitor equipment and lied to her investors.

But Ms. Holmes, you’re not alone. Let me introduce you to Evan Spiegel, your male twin when it comes to hiding data from investors, and Snapchat’s founder and CEO, who not only said, according to a former employee, “This app is only for rich people. I don’t want to expand into poor countries like India and Spain,” his company also exaggerates Snapchat’s user data to keep top executives completely misinformed about key metrics. Now if you are an actual investor in Snapchat, Evan wants to assure you that these metrics are really no big deal, honestly, they're not, because in the end lying to your investors is also part of the cult of “Radical Disruption.”

All of this troubles me. I wonder, what will happen to our technology and our future when these types of people are considered glamorous and fit to found and run the companies that will define the future? Do business schools assign case studies on these innovators as a means to encourage their students to follow in their enlightened footsteps? Each one of these founders set out to create something new—a new way to hail rides, a new way to manage your period each month, a new way to administer blood tests, a new way to communicate with your friends. Yet each and every one has created a workplace of harassment, poor benefits, or lied to their investors and the public. Where did they learn how to do business? Who were their role models?

If companies are now being founded on the cult of “Radical Disruption” is it any wonder that everything—from workplace security to honesty in reporting data—is being disregarded? To disrupt means, “drastically alter or destroy the structure of (something).”

What do we lose when we encourage this next generation of leaders to destroy in the name of success, brilliance and destiny?

Personally, I expected more from my generation. Corruption is corruption, even if you attend Burning Man.

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