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Neumann’s kibbutz identity was part of his personal brand to such an extent that when puzzled onlookers spotted him walking barefoot on a Manhattan street, raising questions about his mental health, one of his publicists explained, “He is a kibbutznik.”
By Capital Thinking • Issue #877 • View online
One of the memorable details in Billion Dollar Loser, a new account of the rise and fall of the office-sharing company WeWork and its founder Adam Neumann, is a list of accoutrements Neumann’s family required for a company campout in 2018.
The list includes three air conditioners, two fridges, a signature Range Rover and a Mercedes V-Class, three dinosaur-themed buggies, edamame packets, “4 Aesop Gardenia Shampoo,” and two bartenders.
The document is so astonishing in its extravagance that any commentary would detract, and author Reeves Wiedeman simply prints it on four whole pages of his book.
The last part of the list is devoted to alcohol. The family was to be provided with two bottles of Highland Park whisky (thirty years old, at about $1,000 each), among other spirits, and also wine, twenty-four bottles of red and twenty-four of white—all of which, a reader of Jewish sensibilities might be mortified to learn, had to be kosher.
The story of WeWork’s crash, with its delectable details and doses of schadenfreude, has exited the business pages and entered mainstream culture via several podcasts and a Hulu documentary, but the fast-paced and entertaining Billion Dollar Loser is the most thorough treatment so far.
Wiedeman, who first came to the subject when he wrote a skeptical profile of Neumann for New York Magazine, has an eye for the tawdry detail and a keen sense of the gap between the ditzy, do-good rhetoric of WeWork and the voracious practices that fueled the company into the start-up stratosphere and then, a heady decade later, sent it hurtling to earth.
Judaism isn’t the focus of the book, but it’s an unavoidable presence throughout, the kosher wine being only one example. The WeWork story is a capitalist story, a moral story, and just a great story. But it is also, unfortunately, a Jewish story.
WeWork began in 2009 when Neumann, who’d come to New York from Israel after military service in the navy and knocked around for a while, opened a communal workspace in SoHo with a friend, Miguel McKelvey, an American from Oregon. Neumann’s wife, Rebekah Paltrow, a cousin of Gwyneth’s from Bedford, New York, was also in on the ground floor.
With a hip aesthetic designed to appeal to the millennial workforce and with the remarkable ambition and charisma of Neumann as CEO, the company expanded across the world at warp speed, reaching a gargantuan valuation of nearly $50 billion before the balloon popped in 2019 with a spectacularly botched initial public offering.
If WeWork had been merely a rapacious business that failed, the story wouldn’t be much fun.
The narrative electricity here comes from the loopy culture of the tech world, which requires its capitalists to speak a language of ideals—you are not out to make money, God forbid, but to connect people or save the planet or, as Neumann liked to say, “elevate consciousness.” (On the podcast WeCrashed, one of Neumann’s detractors had a good name for this: “yoga-babble.”)
My own introduction to the phenomenon, around the same time WeWork was gaining steam, came when I was reporting on a press conference for the launch of an electric car made by an Israeli start-up that was going to change transportation forever and make the world green, or something.
A reporter sitting next to me asked the CEO an innocuous question about how investors planned to make money. The CEO looked down from the stage as if he’d been asked about a recent case of syphilis and informed us, “I work for your children.”
WeWork wasn’t really a tech company, but it played one in the market.
Photo credit: Charles Etoroma on Unsplash