Amid the odds and sods that drift through my Twitter feed every day, I occasionally find myself drawing connections among seemingly random articles and websites. This week, a distinct theme emerged: the state of the tech industry's vanity. A growing obsession with youthfulness and physical perfection among founders and their charges may undermine the sustainability of their companies--and it risks turning the industry into a punch line. 

First came a story Peter Holley wrote for The Washington Post about older workers in Silicon Valley getting Botox, and in some cases cosmetic surgery, to conform to the tech industry's cult of youth. According to one San Francisco-based plastic surgeon quoted in the piece, "In Silicon Valley, it's commonly believed that if you're over the age of 35, you're seen as over the hill." Hey, at least it's 35. Back in 2013, Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham told The New York Times Magazine's Nathaniel Rich, "The cutoff in investors' heads is 32 ... After 32, they start to be a little skeptical."

You could argue that this trend is nothing new. Back In 2014, The New Republic ran a cover featuring a model with tousled salt-and-pepper hair alongside the headline "Silicon Valley Is Bigoted Against This Man: The Brutal Ageism of Tech." Wired's Lauren Murrow followed up on the same theme in 2018, memorably referring to a Brotox Boom. That the fixation on physical appearance and youthfulness of workers is a far greater problem for women than men is pretty much a given, but you can't blame these publications for trying to stake out a counterintuitive (if well-trod) take. 

With the Post story in the back of my mind, I spent a little time clicking through the Unofficial Apple Archive, which came my way via Inc.com columnist Don Reisinger. What struck me about some of the material was how unpolished and not-ready-for-primetime early Apple employees were in the days before tech founders appeared on the cover of fashion magazines, as Snap CEO Evan Spiegel did for L'Uomo Vogue in 2015.

Curious what's changed in the tech industry since the early days of Apple? Look no further than this promo video from 1983. All those rumpled shirts! And those haircuts! (Or lack of same.) These guys--and, yes, they were mostly guys back then--didn't see themselves as influencers: They were engineers. They were busy building personal computers, not personal brands. Sure, Steve Jobs might get his beard trimmed and don his best corduroy blazer for the occasional magazine cover, but no one labored under the delusion that tech was a glamorous industry. In most pictures I've seen of him as a young man, Bill Gates didn't even appear to clean his glasses, as if he were too busy hunched over lines of code to bother.

Today, tech founders are expected to be more than avatars for their industry. They must also be physical embodiments of the promise of technology's perfection. You see this everywhere from Jeff Bezos's physique to Elon Musk's coiffure. You also see it in the legions of would-be founders emulating Jack Dorsey's dietary habits in a quest to attain the Twitter and Square CEO's entrepreneurial equipoise. With each meal they skip, they announce (but humbly) that they seek to possess both brains and six-pack abs. 

Tech's obsession with physical appearance--and here, some of the blame falls to the press, which runs those cover photos and dutifully promotes those founder-approved fad diets, as well as clickbait lists like the Sexiest Startup CEOs Alive--isn't just a superficial pursuit of the newly (or soon-to-be, or wannabe) wealthy. It's a culture-wide weakness easily exploited for profit. Here's how Will Pavia described his first impressions of WeWork and its co-founder Adam Neumann in London's The Times Magazine in July 2018: "If there was a Valhalla for millennials, a grand hall for macrobiotic feasting and merriment, I suppose it would look like this. Neumann would be Odin, striding around with his retinue. He does look rather like a Viking. His fair maiden, Rebekah--the mother of his five children and a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow--is tall and elfin, and works in an airy glass cubicle next to Neumann's. Miguel McKelvey, the co-founder of WeWork, looks a Norse god too. He's 6 feet 8 inches, bearded and muscular." 

Pavia may have been having a little fun, but his emphasis on the WeWork team's attractiveness was of a piece with other coverage of the company, and may have been one of the ways Neumann et al. dazzled investors before the company's downfall. As journalist Matthew Zeitlin tweeted in November: "if adam neumann were 6'2", the valuation peaks at $20bn; if he were 6'0", $12bn; if he were below 5'10", there's no WeWork." It's funny, because it's true: Without Neumann's imposing height, chiseled cheekbones, and shiny locks, much of the magical "charisma" attributed to him and the high gloss of his company would have been diminished. 

Maybe it's time to get past some of tech's vanity and look for founders who are more than just pretty faces.

Published on: Jan 21, 2020