Eat, Drink & Do Good
deepening relationships with ourselves & our community

From our founder, Jenny Dorsey:

We ended 2021 with an ode to the power of relationships, so it's only fitting that we are starting off 2022 in that same vein. This year, our biggest goal is to expand and deepen our relationships: through partnerships with value-aligned organizations; through regular community events like our film screening today; through a dedicated Discord channel (coming soon!); and most importantly, through one-on-one and small group conversations. In a world filled with social platforms that often feel increasingly distant and performative, we maintain that face-to-face interactions (virtual or physical) is still the "magic sauce" to creating the empathy, connection, and energy to change and grow together. 

For our very first Eat, Drink, and Do Good of the year, we kick off with a piece that challenges the idea of a single visionary entrepreneur, leading the charge toward success. This is a narrative we see often, and actively resist. Despite being the founder of this little organization, the Studio is not about me, would literally not exist without our team (current and former), and would have no meaning without all of you. We will always be better, stronger, and more effective when we embrace the challenge of working together, and we hope you'll join us as we do so in 2022.

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The Toxic "Cult of the Entrepreneur"
By Yash Sharma

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes | Listen to this issue

On January 13th this year, Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of the medical tech startup Theranos, was found guilty on multiple fraud charges by a California jury. The trial was the culmination of a spectacular fall from grace for Holmes, who in 2015 received the title of the world’s youngest “self-made” female billionaire and was universally likened to Steve Jobs (a comparison invited in part by her choice of black turtlenecks). For me, the coverage of Holmes is symptomatic of the growing “cult of the entrepreneur” that has engulfed tech industry leadership in the last decade and more. 

The single, visionary entrepreneur — embodied through figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Holmes herself — has attained a mythologized status in popular culture that erases instances of failures or, worse, the kind of criminal behavior Holmes has been found guilty of. Its narrative reinforces the individualist logic of neoliberalism — where each person is responsible for their own socioeconomic mobility, because the state is depicted as a declining institution incapable of innovation or transformational change. This then condones a capitalist system that rewards such entrepreneurs with outsized profits. This entrepreneurial cult is grounded in two interrelated ideas:

The myth of self-invention: A foundational myth about the personality of the entrepreneur is that they are self-invented. These individuals’ life stories are presented as overcoming adversity through a singular drive to succeed, exemplified by an innate gift for enterprise. This includes the strangely similar narratives of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg as college dropouts who spent a long time living in their parents’ garage and surviving on cold pizza. 

Not only does this narrative fit neatly with the ‘American Dream’ rhetoric, it builds upon the mantra of self-reliance that pushes individuals to hustle and maximize their productivity as welfare structures around them collapse. Kylie Jenner’s celebration as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, for example, is a lie that grossly overlooks the enormous family wealth and privilege she inherited.

A natural consequence of the self-innovation myth is that only the meritorious are rewarded with entrepreneurial success. This ignores the reality facing marginalized groups such as women, who often have to bear the burden of ‘care labor’ or the institutional sexism and racism that exists to deny members of these communities equal and meaningful opportunities towards funding through venture capitals and lending institutions. 

Individualizing success, socializing failure: The success of entrepreneurial endeavors is conflated with the singular ability of the entrepreneur. People like Musk or Zuckerberg are presented both internally within their organization, and through mainstream media, as individually responsible for the conception, consolidation, and execution of a groundbreaking idea or company. Such accounts ignore the labor of other collaborators and workers, and repeatedly gloss over the substantial institutional and state support afforded to these ventures. 

For example, Elon Musk’s Tesla was given a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy in 2009, fueling its initial rise and ability to invest in Research and Development. However, the idea that state support is imperative for the growth and profit-making of these private companies is antithetical to their efforts at self-glorification. Therefore, the capitalist class actively promotes their disdain of the state* and its welfare activities*; this may explain why Elon Musk bothered to reply to a tweet from over three years ago that attributed the success of Tesla and SpaceX to government contracts and support. 

Notably, the only instance where this myth of personal success is inverted is when major ventures fail, or are embroiled in scandals. In those scenarios, the entrepreneur utilizes insolvency laws and legal loopholes to escape personal responsibility and gain impunity. In the case of Holmes, it is particularly important to note that she was found guilty of fraud against her shareholders (that is, members of the same privileged capitalist class as her), but was acquitted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the actual patients who used Theranos machines. 

 

There are also wider cultural consequences to this visionary leader narrative. In India, where I come from, entrepreneurship is encouraged by the state as a form of self-reliance–in part because the state is both unable and unwilling to provide meaningful employment opportunities to the youth, which has consequently led to massive protests across the country. The popularization of ideas like “disruptive innovation,” which invoke a language of disorder and transformational change, hide the narrative that the state is a slow, corrupt and backward institution and the only path to change is through entrepreneurial disruption. 

Such narratives ignore the value of social activism geared towards making the state and its services more responsive towards the needs of the marginalized; far more people would benefit from the state investing in affordable, safe, and efficient public transportation, than the state letting private corporations construct endless highways with self-driving cars. Despite capitalist backlash, the state remains critical in incentivizing innovation.

Thus, we need to be far more attentive when personal accounts and the media use labels like “self-made”; when workers are airbrushed out of stories of successful enterprise; and when entrepreneurship is portrayed as being governed by meritocracy. We need to ask why, when over 90% of billionaires are men, only 1% of them are Black? Why is there an increase in less secure jobs that offer less wages and no benefits, when those same companies are minting millionaires? Why are workers being forced to undergo greater stress and ill-health, just to survive in the growing gig economy? All of this points to the fact that the celebration of entrepreneurship as a fully inclusive phenomenon is misguided. We need to be far more critical of the faces that emerge from the entrepreneurial class, and carefully assess if the outcomes of innovation are sustainable and affordable for the majority.

*Editor's Note: These sources point to commentary from conservative think tanks Cato Institute and The Heritage Foundation to illustrate the author's point on capitalists' critique of the state. We have reservations about both organizations and will not link to their work without a clear reason.

Additional Reading

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Yash Sharma is a graduate student in Political Science at the University of Cincinnati from India. His PhD research looks at ethno-religious nationalism in India as it relates to political mobilization and social communication. He is a huge Manchester United fan and is working to further his cooking skills in his free time. He has volunteered extensively with public schools in socio-economically marginalized neighborhoods in India, teaching students public speaking and critical thinking.

"If I could have dinner with anyone, it would have to be Anthony Bourdain. We would probably eat spicy street food in some corner of Delhi and talk about how small but honest acts of reaching out to each other with respect and love can make all the difference."

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What’s Next?

If you're interested in reading more about socioeconomic structures like capitalism, check out our latest Understanding... piece Socialism in the U.S. for a more thorough examination of socialism and capitalism as economic systems, including major critiques of capitalism. We'll also be hosting a variety of community events in the new year to collectively unpack these complex topics.​

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