A Case Against Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneur: a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.

We are a nation whose very existence is a direct result of entrepreneurship. Settlers sacrificed old beliefs and rules in pursuit of new possibilities, at great personal risk, and instilled in the DNA of our country a uniquely American entrepreneurial spirit that inspired Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs to change the world with the power of their ideas.  

The concept of entrepreneurship has been diluted from the time of the first settlers, however, to describe anyone who single-mindedly pursues an idea for capital gain. We live in a time when memes like “Do what you love, and money will follow” and "Change the world" become mantras upon which global brands are built. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing: the self-motivated, idea-powered Silicon Valley model bypasses the bloated and highly regulated processes in place in the public and corporate sectors, allowing a good and profitable idea to be available to the masses in its purest form in a relatively short amount of time, and now we can push a button when we're almost out of toilet paper and a new case will be delivered to our doorstep in an hour. Companies that have succeeded in this way are often inextricably linked with their creators — Google, Amazon, Tesla, and Facebook are obvious examples — who, with equal parts ingenuity and charisma, have reached in a matter of a few years a nearly unimaginable and certainly unprecedented level of personal and financial success. 

Entrepreneurialism permeates every stage of our lives: we encourage our children to turn hobbies into small businesses, students learn how to write business plans before research papers, innovators shroud their ideas in secrecy and legal protection instead of collaborating. This comes at a societal cost: valuing the success of one over the benefit of many often results in the poisoning of noble causes with hubris.   

In 2003, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found Theranos, a medical laboratory that streamlines and standardizes blood tests using proprietary technology. She assembled an impressive but strikingly non-scientific advisory board that included Henry Kissinger, and by 2014 the estimated value of the company was over $9 billion.  By 2015, however, the opacity of Theranos’s practices started to draw attention, and the JAMA noted that though Theranos had been featured prominently in the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Business Insider, and Fortune, information about its technologies had not appeared in a single peer-reviewed biomedical publication. Upon further scrutiny by the FDA, Theranos failed several lab inspections, the certification for its California lab was revoked, and Holmes’s net worth plummeted overnight to $0. 

While we have no way of knowing if this story would have ended differently if Holmes had been more transparent and collaborative about Theranos’s procedures, the possibility exists that if she had shared early test results with peer-reviewed journals and relied on sound science rather than her own celebrity to build her company, the world could have seen a revolution in diagnostic testing, improving the lives of millions of people. How did so many respected journalists miss the fact that the technology Theranos used was unproven and all but unknown to the scientific community? Because they were distracted by the spectacular entrepreneurial success story of its founder. But even before Holmes became a media sensation, what was critically absent from her company wasn’t more regulation, or transparency, or sound science. It was empathy. Holmes's vision of inexpensive, painless diagnostic testing wasn't intended, at core, to solve a health crisis. If it was, Theranos would have populated its board with experts in science, healthcare,  and public policy. Instead, it simply aimed to bypass decades of research and disrupt for the sake of disruption. 

If to be an entrepreneur is to take on great personal risk in order to succeed, to be a leader is to take on great personal risk in providing opportunities for others to succeed. This takes time, understanding, compromise, and humility, none of which make compelling news stories. Entrepreneurship is meteoric; leadership is incremental. If serving the greater good were as enticing a prospect as a ten-figure IPO, city council meetings would be exhilarating. Aspirations of launching billion dollar tech startups would instead be dreams of advancing humanity through collective understanding. The increasing popularity of design thinking programs in schools across the country has the potential to inject humility and empathy into the way we think about innovation, if the term design thinking can get out of its own way and keep from becoming the kind of overhyped, short-lived trend it exists to prevent. 

In his 2016 commencement address to Howard University, Barack Obama described the fight against segregation as a long and difficult process that took 20 years of lawsuits and many, many people working together toward a common goal. But even by the time Thurgood Marshall finally brought Brown vs. the Board of Education to the Supreme Court, he knew the fight was just beginning, that it was slow and incremental, and would continue long after he was gone. That's because it was never about him. It was about collectively changing the rules for the benefit of everyone.

 "Better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position."
—Barack Obama

The qualities of an entrepreneur—ingenuity, fearlessness, charisma—are rare and admirable. But imagine if entrepreneurs were defined also as having empathy, patience, and humility. This would change how we define innovation, and push future entrepreneurs to develop solutions to problems that actually exist.

Making Sense of 2016

Over the last few days I’ve embarked on a completely non-scientific fact-finding mission—or rather, an opinion-finding mission—as both a participant and an observer, online and in person, with family, friends, acquaintances, and total strangers. Here’s what I learned:

1. The profession of journalism exploited social media and failed us, all of us, first by making it virtually impossible for Republican voters to learn about the policy proposals of any of Trump’s sixteen opponents, resulting in a nominee many voters found distasteful at best, viscerally revolting at worst; then, by suddenly taking an activist stance at the last possible second and demonizing and condescending to the very people they presented with this as their only option, resulting in what ultimately became a mass protest vote;

2. My small circle of black friends are generally staying out of the fray on this one, since neither group represented their best interests and they’ve been living with this reality for generations, plus they know that historically the only time they have a voice at the table is when white people say it’s ok;

3. The most threatening, toxic conversations I’ve had are the ones with people who voted for the same candidate I did, leading me to believe that many well-meaning Facebook groups and blog posts touting inclusion and acceptance are in fact practicing the opposite (moderators, take note);

4. Immigrant and refugee families are facing some real threats, because the perception exists that if there is even the slightest chance that a person with dangerous motivations somehow breaks through the immigration or refugee vetting process and does something horrible, it’s not worth it. Journalists should have done a better job of revealing the flaws in this logic—now we need to do everything we can to include these families and keep them safe;

5. We’re lumping people who simply disagree with us together with those who are actively and consciously spreading hate speech and encouraging and condoning violence. Failing to make the distinction is what got us here in the first place, and now Steve Bannon is in the White House. For those of you who don’t know, he’s in the second category.

So if I’ve ever condescended to you and made you feel like your opinion was less valuable than mine, I’m sorry. If I’ve taken on your cause as my own without fully understanding it or putting myself at any real risk, I’m sorry. If I was silent when I should have spoken up, or if I talked while I should have listened, I’m sorry. 

Please call me out on these things if you ever see me doing them (I’ll be visiting Pennsylvania in December, in case you want to do it in person). My goal for 2017 is to not be an asshole.

Thanks for listening.

UX for the Unemployed, by the Unemployed

I recently found myself without a full-time job. The immediate effect of unemployment was like suddenly breaking free of a bad relationship: I still had the best years of my life ahead of me, and I was emboldened by having in fact been made stronger by an experience that didn’t kill me. Get ready, world, I warned. Here I come.

Then I filed for unemployment. What I assumed would be a series of straightforward questions about my current job status turned out to be an experience that can only be described as harrowing.

It was a Friday, and I had received a printout from the HR office that included information on how to file, so I scanned it quickly for a phone number or website. There was no mention on the printout of filing online, but the back panel was titled “Obtaining UI services by telephone.” “It’s Easy,” the headline announced. But there was no phone number listed anywhere in the six paragraphs of dense text, which described in detail the four steps one would need to take after dialing the number. Another section of the printout was titled “You have a choice. There are two ways to file your claim for Unemployment Insurance benefits.” One option was to file in person, the other was to call the TeleClaim Center. Again, no number. I finally found the number buried in another dense section of text on the back of the printout unrelated to the first two sections. I called, and a pre-recorded message informed me that the office was closed.

“It’s easy!” they said. Note: only the fact that the pamphlet contains important information has been translated to nine languages; past this, we’re each on our own to channel the spirit of the pioneers and blindly forge ahead. 

“It’s easy!” they said. Note: only the fact that the pamphlet contains important information has been translated to nine languages; past this, we’re each on our own to channel the spirit of the pioneers and blindly forge ahead. 

“You have a choice!” they said. Note: The telephone number can be found on the middle panel, but even then is couched in the most opaque language possible. I imagine a note scrawled in the margin on the 17th round of layout edits: “Tel# needs to pop. Put a box around it.”

“You have a choice!” they said. Note: The telephone number can be found on the middle panel, but even then is couched in the most opaque language possible. I imagine a note scrawled in the margin on the 17th round of layout edits: “Tel# needs to pop. Put a box around it.”

Hoping to get this out of the way before the weekend, and running out of phone battery, I decided to visit the site. Not knowing exactly where to start, I googled “Massachusetts unemployment.” The top hit was part of the mass.gov site, so I figured that must be it. The link took me to a page titled “UI Online for Claimants,” but there was no indication of how to apply for benefits or set up an account. My first reaction when I visit an unfamiliar site and experience confusion is usually to assume user error. I admit to having occasional noobish feelings of online insecurity that can keep me from noticing obvious calls to action, and there was probably a big button right in front of me that said something like “Click here to begin” that my nervousness was preventing me from seeing. I parsed the page title. UI must stand for Unemployment Insurance. Check. I’m a person attempting to file a claim, so that must make me a claimant. Check. I’m in the right place. Newly confident, I looked again for the button that had eluded me. But there was no such button.

The landing page gives every indication that applying for unemployment is possible, but no indication of how.

The landing page gives every indication that applying for unemployment is possible, but no indication of how.

I scrutinized the site. What could I be missing? The top navigation applied to all of mass.gov; there was no option to explore the unemployment section separately. Below the page title and description were a few links that appeared to be informational and unrelated to filing a claim. I went back out to my google search results and scrolled down. All the links went to pages within the area of the site I’d just left, and there was not a single mention of a phone number or email address. I went back to the original page. At the top was a link titled “Skip to main content.” Clicking the link simply skipped the search function and took me five lines down to the page title. I started to panic and began scrolling. Below the first list of links was a series of videos, one of which was titled, “How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits.Could this be real? I hadn’t come this far to not find out. The answer, after agreeing to leave the site and open the video in the YouTube app, was not only yes, it was real, but that it was over eight minutes long, featured music, special effects, an actress, and a narrator, and only mentioned a url at the 7:55 mark, which turned out to be the same url I’d just come from. I started to imagine I had uncovered a massive state government conspiracy: tax dollars on yet-to-be-received unemployment income had somehow paid to produce an eight-minute video that described in excruciating detail how to navigate a site that seemed to not exist.

By this time it was nearing 8pm, and with no other option, I heeded the wise advice of Dory: “Just keep swimming.” Weary, I scrolled further down, wondering if I’d ever hit rock bottom, and just below the online hours (online hours??? Isn’t the Internet on all the time?), and before the standard IE10 disclaimer, I saw two buttons:

Please let me do both of these things.

Please let me do both of these things.

For a moment I didn’t move. I was afraid that this was some popup designed to trick me into believing I could actually create an account, and that clicking it might lead me to an online gambling site. But after a few seconds it was still there, and I tapped “Apply for benefits.” From here, it was smooth sailing. I just needed my social security number and I could finally set up my account and submit my claim. I waited for my confirmation email, clicked through, re-entered my social, and was brought to the password prompt, which struck me as vaguely threatening. I hadn’t even had a chance to attempt to commit insurance fraud, and it was practically yelling at me, in oversized red type, that I only had four chances to remember the password I worked so hard to get before my account would be locked. 

“We’re sorry you just lost your job, but if you blow this, don’t come crying to us. The Division of Unemployment Assistance has better things to do than to assist you. Instructional videos don’t produce themselves.”

“We’re sorry you just lost your job, but if you blow this, don’t come crying to us. The Division of Unemployment Assistance has better things to do than to assist you. Instructional videos don’t produce themselves.”

But I didn’t forget. I carefully tapped in my eight-digit password, correctly identifying upper- and lowercase characters, selected “Login,” and waited to take the first step in getting on with my new life, with time to spare before midnight. Instead, I was informed that the site was unavailable, presumably because everyone had gone home for the day and turned off the lights. Except that this is not how the Internet is supposed to work. 

The Department of Unemployment Assistance is currently and permanently unavailable to anyone with young children.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance is currently and permanently unavailable to anyone with young children.

At this point, there was nothing more to do. I went to bed and after a fitful, restless sleep I awoke the next morning to find an ominous message in my inbox, alerting me to a “time sensitive correspondence” awaiting me in my UI Inbox, to which failure to respond could result in denial of my unemployment benefits. Again, I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt that I had somehow sabotaged my amazing new life, before I even had the chance to apply for said benefits. It could all be over before it even began. I clicked on the link without wasting any time to make coffee or even go to the bathroom; I couldn’t risk it. I tapped the link; nothing happened. User error. I tapped again. Still nothing. Finally I copied the link, pasted it into my browser, and the result literally took my breath away.

Someone’s job was to set up an automated email that did one thing. One fucking thing.

Someone’s job was to set up an automated email that did one thing. One fucking thing.

As Albus Dumbledore once said, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” People who depend on public programs to feed their families, find work, and afford housing, choose to do so despite a system so poorly considered that it practically guarantees failure. They choose to follow the rules despite official language that clearly communicates suspicion of guilt. They choose to seek out answers when their questions and concerns are repeatedly ignored. Can we blame people for being angry and for looking for other ways to survive, even it if it means not playing by the rules? Not I, not after this. I spent a mere 24 hours fighting through a single page of a sprawling government website that itself only represents a tiny fraction of the whole system. Imagine being confronted with this level of inefficiency and confusion in order to go to the grocery store, look for a job, fight a parking ticket, visit the doctor, send your child to school, or apply for public housing assistance. On top of that, public programs are often so tainted with negative press that the rest of the world seems to think you’re probably guilty of something anyway.

Navigating the unemployment process has taught me something no amount of higher education ever could: choices matter. And the fewer our options, the more difficult it is to make good choices. So go back up to that instructional video link, and instead of watching it, spend those eight minutes, eighteen seconds in the service of another. Tell someone they’re doing a good job. Ask someone if they need help. Call your mother. You’ll never get that time back, so make it count for something.

A Seat at the Table

During my time at the architecture firm, I sat in many meetings. Many, many meetings. I usually was tasked with running the PowerPoint I'd designed for the occasion, and rarely had reason to speak or even make eye contact with anyone at the table; I just needed to pay attention to my cues. 

On one occasion, this was put to the test.

My creative director had asked me to design a deck for a proposal he planned to present to a large real estate developer in the city. The plan was to turn a struggling neighborhood into retail and mixed-use space, and it was a big deal for the firm. I put the deck together and sat in the meeting, which looked and sounded like a scene from House of Cards. As I clicked through the deck, I'd be asked to stop the presentation here and there to make time for discussion. I was addressed as "honey" and "sweetheart," and one man asked smugly if this was my first day at my job.

Throughout the meeting, I was disgusted by the vaguely sinister racist and misogynist language that was casually sprinkled into the conversation. My CD was silent when he wasn't presenting, and looked annoyed but resigned, as it would have been a huge coup to land this contract. At 23, I assumed that people in positions of power and influence possessed some sort of wisdom that verged on mystical, and were uniquely qualified to draw on their vast knowledge and use it for the greater good. I realized after this meeting that this was simply not the case. There is no moral test one must take before taking on heavy responsibility; often an important last name is all someone needs to be in a position to make far-reaching decisions that would affect generations of people and communities.

My brief foray into the world of DC real estate development hardened me and made me somewhat cynical, but I learned from it one thing: I liked having a seat at that table.

Getting started

My first job was at a large international architecture firm based in downtown Washington DC. I had been a bartender working my way through design school, and one day was in the right place at the right time and landed an interview with the marketing department. I got the job—a summer internship at first—and jumped in with both feet.

The work environment was intense, but I thrived. I quickly became part of a team that was working to submit a design for a major new museum in the city, which meant we were working around the clock, filling whiteboards with notes and sketches, designing and redesigning, and ordering endless cartons of Chinese takeout. I was in charge of laying out the final presentation as large posters with scale renderings of the building design, floor plans, and elevations. I absorbed the terminology like a sponge, and though I wasn't an architect myself I became an integral part of the team. We spent so much time together we became family—a family of tenacious young designers and architects with nothing to lose and ready to take on the world.

When the competition was over (we lost to a firm in Houston), I was exhausted but ready for the next challenge. I realized that, though I'd always been a quiet, reserved person who preferred to do things on my own terms, this new way of collaborating was exhilarating and brought out the best in me. I was trusted to do work that would reach a large audience and have an impact on communities, such as the Museums and Memorials Master Plan for the National Capital Planning Commission. Just a few months earlier I was a bartender with no degree, and now I was sitting in meetings with people who were deciding the future of the city. 

It was then that I knew I was a strategist at heart, and this realization changed me for life.