Maureen Farrell is a business reporter with the New York Times and co-author of the book The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion, which documents one of the most bizarre stories in 21st century capitalism: the staggering rise (and subsequent collapse) of WeWork, an office space rental company that presented itself as a game-changing "technology company" that was going to revolutionize the world and change the way humans interacted with each other. Led by a strangely charismatic founder, Adam Neumann, who had sought his fortune in the baby clothes industry before pivoting to real estate, the company ascended to stunning heights, attracting investment from some of the most sophisticated capitalists in the world. Neumann successfully convinced legions of followers that WeWork was offering more than just co-working spaces, and developed what Farrell and co-author Eliot Brown call "the cult of We," infusing the company's culture with quasi-religious belief in a destiny to change the world and earn a trillion dollars.
But it was a house of cards, and it eventually came tumbling down. When WeWork attempted to go public, it came under heavy scrutiny and Neumann's grandiose claims and messianic vision were widely mocked. And yet: Neumann himself came out of the situation rather well, showing that in the 21st century U.S. economy, failure can be incredibly lucrative.
In this lively conversation about a fascinating story, Farrell and Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson discuss:
- How Neumann, despite being manifestly full of shit, managed to charm seemingly everyone who met him (and got them to ignore such personal idiosyncrasies as his habit of being drunk at work)
- How WeWork successfully branded itself as a "technology company" when it was, in fact, quite obviously a real estate company
- How the company evaded scrutiny and managed to hoodwink so many supposedly smart investors for so long
- Why Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos is going to prison while Adam Neumann, who in many ways was similarly misleading, is still a multi-millionaire who is now going back into the very industry he failed in
- How the WeWork story illuminates broader trends in contemporary capitalism, namely the ability to pass off grandiose and delusional visions as viable companies
- How the stories of Adam Neumann and Donald Trump both show that there is no justice in the world
For more on WeWork, check out Current Affairs editor-at-large Yasmin Nair's article on it.