WeWork didn't want employees to protest. It wanted them to change the world via real estate

A new book recounts WeWork CEO Adam Neumann's epic rise and fall

Welcome to The.Ink, my newsletter about money and power, politics and culture. If you’re joining us for the first time, hello! Click the orange button below to get this in your inbox, free. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber to support this work.

Happy Wednesday, Inklings!

With President Trump in the White House, corruption is now the governing philosophy of the United States. But as singular and attention-getting a focal point as Trump is, it’s important to remember that he is the head of a snake. He is an outgrowth of an age of corruption — and of tax cheating and excess and power grabbing and plutocratic pretensions to solve problems one was still busily causing.

That’s why I’m thrilled to be giving you this exclusive first preview of a forthcoming book by Reeves Wiedeman, “The Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork.”

WeWork was on a tear. It seemed destined to become a company with a $100 billion valuation. Its walls were decorated with inspiring slogans about changing the world. There was a lot of sex involved, plus tequila, a barefoot CEO, and a tiger. And then, after nearly a decade of gravity-defying rising, the WeWork party was raided by the cops, so to speak — with the New York State attorney general investigating Neumann for self-dealing.

Reeves’ deeply reported new book chronicles WeWork’s rapid expansion, its last-resort attempts for funding to stay afloat, and Neumann’s eventual exit.

“President of the world, then!”

An excerpt from “Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork

By Reeves Wiedeman

In January of 2017, WeWork’s employees arrived in Los Angeles for the company’s third annual Summit — its first outside New York — to find that a brief period of frugality was over. WeWork had just agreed in principle to a more than $4 billion investment from SoftBank, and felt flush enough to rent out Universal Studios Hollywood for a night and pay the Chainsmokers to perform. During their set, Adam Neumann leaped onstage, sweating heavily, and pumped his fist in the air while one of the Chainsmokers yelled, “Everybody fucking jump!” 

The weekend was a blast for most WeWork employees during an otherwise disorienting time. Donald Trump was set to be inaugurated as president of the United States in a few days, and given that many WeWork employees had been attracted to the company’s public rhetoric of Obama-era inclusivity and togetherness, Trump’s election had been a gut punch. Many of them found solace in believing that their company was building a better world. At Summit, WeWork was collecting bone marrow swabs to help build a registry, after an attempt to find a match for an employee who needed a transplant. Miguel McKelvey, Neumann’s co-founder, gave a speech encouraging WeWork employees to always make decisions from a place of love. 

In addition to Trump’s inauguration, WeWork’s Summit overlapped with the Women’s March, the worldwide protest that had a stated goal of harnessing “the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change.” This was a version of the way Neumann described WeWork’s mission, and on Saturday morning, a hundred or so WeWork employees skipped several Summit events to join 750,000 Angelenos gathering downtown. That afternoon, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stopped by Summit to give a speech, having just come from the Women’s March himself. He thanked the WeWork employees who had done the same. 

A few days later, Jen Berrent, the company’s lawyer, got up to speak at a town hall back in New York. Berrent said that WeWork had noticed an increase in absences on Saturday morning. “You think I didn’t want to be at the Women’s March?” Berrent said during the town hall. She was the only female executive on WeWork’s leadership team besides Neumann’s wife, Rebekah, who had been installed as chief brand officer, so employees were surprised when Berrent accused those who joined the Women’s March of being selfish, implying that any community building needed to take place within WeWork’s walls. “That,” Berrent said, “was a ‘Me Over We’ decision.”

Neumann believed that WeWork was uniquely capable of doing good in the world, and subscribed to the prevailing ethos among American startups that they were best suited for coming up with new models to solve old problems. “I want to have the biggest valuation I can, because when countries are shooting at each other, I want them to come to me,” Neumann said during a conversation about the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and how WeWork might help solve it. 

Neumann’s and McKelvey’s unorthodox backgrounds, along with their incredible financial success, seemed to incline them toward what one WeWork executive described as “a general disbelief in and distaste for how society works on problems.” WeWork’s employees often felt that Neumann lacked a willingness to engage in the complexity of the issues he hoped the company might solve. When an employee came up with an idea to hire refugees, WeWork’s public affairs team proposed making a reasonable commitment to hiring a few hundred over the next five years. Neumann said they should hire 1,500 — never mind that the company had only recently passed the 1,500-employee mark in total. During one meeting to discuss the topic, Neumann told two employees from his public affairs team that he believed WeWork was going to have more of an impact on this and many other issues than any government could.

“Who knows?” Neumann said. “Maybe I can be president of the United States one day.” 

One of the employees pointed out that, of the three people in the room, only two of them could legally become president, given that Neumann was born in Israel. “President of the world, then!” Neumann tossed out cheerfully.

From “Billion Dollar Loser” by Reeves Wiedeman, copyright © 2020 by Reeves Wiedeman. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in New York. All rights reserved.

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images