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Silicon Valley slides back into 'bro' culture

From Mark Zuckerberg to Elon Musk and Mark Andreesen, tech's most powerful elite seem to be embracing a new tone lately. It is more openly defiant, combative and a turnaround from just a few years ago, when the industry was put on its heels by exposés about its "bro" culture

By Erin Griffith
Published: Sep 26, 2022

Silicon Valley slides back into 'bro' cultureWomen still get just 2% of venture capital funding and Black founders get 1%.  The largest tech companies have made negligible progress on diversifying their staff, and harassment and discrimination remain common. Image: Cari Vander Yacht/The New York Times

Last month, Mark Zuckerberg spent hours touting his love of jiujitsu, wrestling and the UFC on Joe Rogan’s podcast, which is known for its hypermasculinity. Watching TV was not active enough, Zuckerberg said. Compared with social media, TV was “beta.”

Elon Musk, who signed a deal to buy Twitter seemingly on a whim and is now headed to court because he wants to back out of the purchase, has lobbed “debate me, bro” taunts at Twitter’s CEO in between doling out advice about intermittent fasting and worrying about population collapse.

And Marc Andreessen, a high-profile tech investor, recently opposed a plan to build multifamily housing in the Silicon Valley town where he lives and then announced his largest deal: a residential real estate startup led by Adam Neumann, the entrepreneur who notoriously incinerated billions of dollars in value at WeWork.

Their actions seemed devised for maximum outrage. Zuck likes to wrestle with his buddies? Elon thinks he’s above the law? Andreessen trusted that entrepreneur with how much money?

Tech’s most powerful elite seem to be embracing a new tone lately. It is more openly defiant, combative and a turnaround from just a few years ago, when the industry was put on its heels by exposés about its “bro” culture.

Starting in 2017, a series of reports revealed Silicon Valley’s rampant harassment, discrimination and culture of silence and settlements. Powerful investors and executives were accused during the early days of the #MeToo movement. A book titled “Brotopia” by journalist Emily Chang methodically outlined the tech industry’s deeply entrenched sexism, connecting history lessons with today’s dismal diversity reports.

Industry leaders at least tried to look as if they were making an effort to dismantle the systems that had concentrated power in the hands of a few white men. Given how entrenched tech companies and their products were in people’s lives, it felt urgent to address the disparities and problems among those creating them. So they made pledges, promoted some women and donated money.

There were some advances, including more women writing checks at venture capital firms and leading billion-dollar startups. All Raise, an advocacy group for women in tech, appeared on the cover of Forbes in 2018.

“We made a bit of progress, but I feel like that was almost a smoke screen,” said Christie Pitts, an investor at Backstage Capital, a venture capital firm. Now “there’s definitely a feeling of backsliding.”

Two parallel Silicon Valleys have emerged. There’s the ThunderDome of Twitter, where tech thought leaders collect likes by posting edgy memes and spouting flip political takes — then invoke cancel culture when they are criticized. They troll their way into impulsive $44 billion acquisitions, then back out. They promote an entirely online existence inside the so-called metaverse.

Then there’s the day-to-day reality, where women still get just 2% of venture capital funding and Black founders get 1%, where the largest tech companies have made negligible progress on diversifying their staff, and where harassment and discrimination remain common.

Last month, Estelle McGechie, the former CEO of Atomos, sued the electronics company for gender discrimination and retaliation. She said she had been fired after she alerted the company’s board to fraud. This month, a Vox report about sexual assault and victim silencing at Launch House, a hacker house backed by Andreessen’s firm, went largely unremarked-upon by the tech industry’s most prominent voices.

Then Verkada, a security startup that has faced accusations of harassment of female employees and lax internal controls over access to its surveillance tools, raised $205 million from top venture firms. And Shervin Pishevar, a venture capitalist who was accused of sexual misconduct by five women in 2017, resurfaced as an executive at Kanye West’s company, Yeezy.

It is enough to make some question whether the industry can change.

“As far as I can tell, there’s never going to be consequences for men,” Pitts said. “It’s disheartening.”

Launch House’s CEO responded to the Vox article with a blog post this month, apologizing for the company’s past safety issues. Verkada said it had learned from previous incidents and had “clear protocols, trainings and people focused on addressing issues related to sexism and harassment.” Atomos said in a statement that McGechie’s claims were without merit. Pishevar did not respond to a request for comment.

Musk’s blockbuster deal for Twitter underlines how the tech industry still operates like an old boys’ club. The billionaire is part of the “PayPal mafia,” a group of founders and early employees at the digital payments company, many of whom have gone on to even bigger successes in tech.

Their successes are often interconnected. Those in the group invest in or join each other’s companies and firms, keeping things, as the mafia says, in the family. An infamous Fortune photo of the men in 2007 dressed as mob gangsters does not position the tech industry as welcoming to outsiders.

“All of this is about self-selecting for people just like you,” Max Levchin, a PayPal mafia member, told Fortune at the time. The 2007 article contained one mention of a woman; Levchin said he had hired her even though she was bad at Ping-Pong, which showed a lack of competitiveness. She quit months later.

A spokesperson for Levchin pointed to instances when he had supported diversity, including leading an industry push for anti-discrimination laws.

When Musk recruited investors to help with his Twitter deal, he contacted many of those friends or their firms. Sequoia Capital, where his fellow PayPal mafia member Roelof Botha is a leader, put up $800 million. DFJ Growth, a firm that has invested in Musk’s companies, like Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity, added $100 million.

Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle who sits on Tesla’s board and has said he is “very close friends” with Musk, also contributed $1 billion. Andreessen’s firm, Andreessen Horowitz, threw in $400 million.

“Women do not have these kinds of deep, decades-durable networks that these men have had,” said Taryn Langer, a founder of Moxie Communications Group, which does public relations work with founders and venture firms. “There’s definitely the boys’ club that still exists.”

Other members of the PayPal mafia, including David Sacks and Joe Lonsdale, got subpoenas for their text messages with Musk about his Twitter deal, which is now tied up in court. They were quick to express their displeasure about it, sharing memes on Twitter and calling the subpoenas “harassment” on TV. Musk has also fought the exposure of his private communications through his lawyers.

At the same time, women working at SpaceX, Musk’s space company, have lodged multiple complaints of harassment and retaliation over the last year.

In May, Insider reported that Musk paid a settlement to a flight attendant who had accused him of sexual misconduct, an act he denied. After the report said Musk had offered to buy the attendant a horse in exchange for an erotic massage, Chad Hurley, a founder of YouTube and member of the PayPal mafia, wrote on Twitter that Musk should “stop horsing around and close this Twitter deal” because “we all want a happy ending.”

Musk responded, “Fine, if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse.” He has also asked his followers if Twitter should “delete the w” in its name and suggested starting a university called “Texas Institute of Technology & Science” for its “epic merch” that would presumably feature the institution’s acronym.

A lawyer for Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

Andreessen’s firm has $35 billion under management. He has tweeted about blocking people whose opinions he does not like, directed diss memes at the likes of the Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and railed against those who support “the current thing,” or popular causes. In addition to a board seat at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, Andreessen will be joining the board of Flow, Neumann’s real estate startup.

When the Flow deal was announced last month, it elicited skepticism from those who doubted Neumann’s business acumen after WeWork’s disastrous crash. But it also stirred outrage among women and people of color who saw a man getting a plush second chance when they have had to fight for scraps to get a first chance.

A spokesperson for Andreessen Horowitz declined to comment. Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

The $350 million that Andreessen Horowitz invested — the firm’s largest individual check — valued the yet-to-launch Flow at $1 billion.

Diana Lee, co-founder of the ad-tech firm Constellation, said she had needed to fight for a fair valuation for her company by showing investors annual growth of 80%, hundreds of customers and consistent profits. With Neumann’s fundraising, she said, “the execution hasn’t even happened yet. He comes out and it’s $1 billion.”

The tech industry’s lack of consequences has even inspired Billy McFarland, the convicted fraudster behind the Fyre Festival, the luxury music festival that famously flopped in 2017. McFarland recently emerged from jail with plans to mount a comeback in tech. He said he was confident he would find support.

“The way I failed is totally wrong,” he said. “But in a certain sense, failure is OK in entrepreneurship.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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