Startup founders like Tesla chief executive Elon Musk are often held up as a paragon of the tech scene, with founders hanging off his every word and striving to emulate his every move. But recent actions by the founder has raised a difficult question for many entrepreneurs: is this really who you want to look up to?
In the last six months, Musk has levelled baseless claims of pedophila and child rape at a member of the Thai cave boys rescue mission, twice. He has declared via Twitter plans to take Telsa private at a share price of $US420, sending stocks soaring, before days later admitting he had not secured funding for such a deal.
He then became a target of a US Securities and Exchanges Commission investigation over the tweets, which has reportedly subpoenaed Musk over potential breaches of securities law.
And as an almost farcical cherry on top, Musk recently appeared on the popular Joe Rogan podcast, where he proceeded to light up a joint and take a few puffs. Perfectly legal in the state of California, but wildly unreasonable for the currently-under-investigation chief executive of a listed US company. Two senior Tesla members even quit the day after the episode aired.
And this is before we even touch on Musk’s staunch opposition to Tesla workers unionising, his constant attacks on the media, especially female journalists, and the constant onslaught of abuse Musk’s diehard followers direct at anyone who they believe to have wronged him.
It’s getting to the point where the question must be asked: when will Musk’s problematic actions as an individual outweigh his achievements as an entrepreneur?
Time to stop the idolising
“Quite frankly, I think we should stop with the tech gods.”
That’s the view of Mina Radhakrishnan, co-founder of Australian startup :Different and former head of product at Uber, who told StartupSmart she believes the views held of startup leaders like Musk by founders in the ecosystem lack nuance and should be done away with entirely.
Though Radhakrishnan thinks founders have much to be inspired by in Musk due to his undeniable vision and work ethic, to hold any one startup founder as the be-all and end-all is “foolish”, she says.
“Does anyone really deserve to be put on a pedestal? I think we pretty much know what happens when we do that to anyone,” she says.
“It doesn’t help that the only tech gods anointed are a very specific type of white male who have inherent privilege and bias, which then goes on to show itself in their actions.”
This is similar to the view of Kunal Kalro, a former resident of Silicon Valley and now the founder of local healthtech startup Eugene. Speaking to StartupSmart, the founder agrees with Radhakrishnan on Musk’s undeniable skill as a startup founder and entrepreneur, but he doesn’t buy into the “blind faith” associated with such figures.
“[Musk] can be pretty inspirational in the way he takes on massive challenges in a way a lot of people wouldn’t, breaking them down into something achievable. That’s something I think is awesome,” Kalro says.
“But that’s not to say as a human I would agree with everything that he does.”
Kunal says he doesn’t believe anyone should be followed blindly like Musk, saying it’s key for inspired founders to look critically at every decision people make.
“Like I agree with his goal to make fossil fuels a thing of the past, but I don’t agree with some of the decisions or things he’s said in the meantime, that’s the dichotomy,” he says.
“I think there’s too much blind faith with Musk. You just need to look on Twitter and see who’s responded to anything Musk says — there’s a legion of fanboys who live off his every word, and that’s dangerous.”
“At the end of the day he’s human and I don’t think it’s in his best interest to be blindly followed. I can’t imagine what that might do to someone’s ego.”
White male leaders stymie diversity
It’s not hard to argue that Silicon Valley and the wider startup ecosystem seems to have a penchant for putting white men with problematic views and actions on a pedestal. This goes beyond poster child Musk to investing heavyweights, such as famous conservative and Trump supporter Peter Thiel, and even Uber founder Travis Kalanick, who stepped down from the company in disgrace after a string of scandals and allegations of toxic culture within the company.
But controversial startup leaders aren’t all male either, with Kunal pointing out Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was also a highly regarded figure in the Valley until her $12 billion blood testing company crumbled after her and the company’s president were charged with defrauding investors.
Bloomberg technology journalist Emily Chang set out to highlight the issue in her 2017 book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, which caught attention due to its uncovering of the Valley’s famous drug-fuelled “sex parties”, which Musk himself labelled “salacious nonsense”.
In the book, Chang breaks down piece by piece the extensive ways in which women and minorities are discriminated against in tech and startup world, from the fallout from ex-Uber employee Susan Fowler’s well-known blog post to the inherent sexism present in almost all of the Valley’s venture capital firms.
In an interview with TechCrunch ahead of the book’s release, Chang painted a bleak picture of the future of diversity in tech:
“When women have an equal number of seats at the table and they are VCs and engineers and CEOs and movie directors and running the country as president, and we’re no longer talking about these things as “successes” but it’s completely normal, that’s when I think we’ll really have achieved success,” Chang said.
This success will continue to be difficult to achieve as long as cults of personality continue to form around male startup leaders. Heroes such as Musk et al are also stunting diversity and equality movements in startup communities, with Kunal saying it’s “obvious” that glorified figures like Musk and Thiel aren’t doing much for the non-white, non-male subsection of startup founders.
“The current nature of startup entrepreneurship is heavily biased towards white men, so there really aren’t that many people to look up to for everyone else,” he says.
“The kind of challenges people take on are heavily driven by their personal experience and background, so if we only hold up one particular type of standard and experience, only people who’ve had similar challenges will be inspired by them.
“Having more diverse people to look up to is really important. We need to help people of colour, women, and other minorities and inspire them to take on challenges that are relevant to them.”
Are Musk’s erraticisms a symptom of burnout?
The apparent meltdown of Musk can be fairly easily tracked over the past 12 or so months; prior to that, the founder had a fairly low profile (and tweeted a hell of a lot less). The recent ramp-up in presence and notoriety also aligns with an increase in scrutiny of Tesla’s practices and production schedule, leading some to associate the founder’s outbursts with the actions of a burnt-out man.
Shelli Trung, investment fund manager at QUT Creative Enterprise Australia, tells StartupSmart the mental health issues plaguing high-profile entrepreneurs can often be overlooked, and she believes this could be a factor at play in this case.
Though Musk’s doubling down on claims of pedophilia and child rape is “appalling” and “inappropriate” in Trung’s eyes, she thinks his recent actions could be a symptom of the founder not taking care of himself, and calls on founders to consider their mental health at all times.
“He’s burnt out and behaving in all sorts of weird ways, and he might not even be recognising it himself,” Trung says.
“I’ve seen very responsible managers and founders step down when they become aware of mental health issues, and that’s the right thing to do. You need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
“I think we tend to follow someone’s brand, and in reality, that person might not actually match up to the public brand we see in terms of who they really are as an entrepreneur.”
Tall poppy syndrome “alive and well” in Australia
Closer to home, the Australian startup scene is still in its relative infancy, and so too is our selection of remarkable founders and entrepreneurs to look up to — although it could be argued even our small selection fare miles better than the likes of Musk.
Kunal expects more figureheads to pop up in time, but for now, the founder says tall poppy syndrome is still “alive and well” Down Under, a stark difference to the environment in the States.
“People who are more boastful seem to get taken down a notch, and that’s not great. We need to forge a new path for us and our founders which is different to other country’s,” he says.
“We have to elevate the stories of people who are finding or are on the verge of finding success, and let them tell us just how difficult it is.
“It’s easy to be crushing it and killing it all the time if we never talk about how hard it is to get there in the first place.”