Austin Tech Bros From #BeSomebody Are Losing the Fight They Picked Against Local High School Students
The Austin tech start-up #BeSomebody—stylized like that, with the hashtag in the name—is built around an idea that makes a certain amount of sense. The company makes an app (with the same name as the company) that, when you cut through a bit of gibberish about “passionaries” and “finding your passion” and stuff, offers an attractive interface for connecting people who are interested in learning something with people who can teach them that thing. It’s like a prettier Craigslist for things like tuba lessons.
Is that a million-dollar idea? Well, considering that someone literally gave them a million dollars to pursue it last year, we would be forced to say yes. However, just because the company was able to secure seven figures in seed funding doesn’t mean that the message and worldview presented by its leadership is going to resonate universally.
That’s something that #BeSomebody founder Kash Shaikh—and, eventually, the rest of his team—learned firsthand recently. The entire affair was well-documented by KUT education reporter Kate McGee on the Austin radio station’s website on Tuesday, and it’s worth revisiting, if only for the laughs: essentially, Shaikh spoke at Austin High School in January, delivering a variation on his TED Talk about “going all-in on your passion,” and encountered resistance scattered in among the polite applause from the students and teachers who heard him speak.
Shaikh is a successful man, to be certain. The Austin native and University of Texas alum spent nine years working in marketing at Procter & Gamble, serving in a role that had him traveling the world and spreading the gospel of the company’s consumer products; from there, he stepped into a role as director of global communications and social media for camera maker and adventure brand GoPro in 2012—a position he left roughly a year later in order to focus all of his time and energy on #BeSomebody.
In his talk at Austin High, Shaikh discussed that decision. As KUT explains:
In his speech, Shaikh talks about the importance of struggling to reach your passion. He cited his own struggle when he left his luxury apartment and “75 percent of his stock and equity” at GoPro and moved to Central Texas, where he launched his idea.
“I spent $250,000 of my own money,” Shaikh said. “And when I raised money, I was moving back in with my parents at 35 years old. I had a BMW. I sold that. Now, I drive a 2004 Ford with 270,000 miles on it that doesn’t start in the cold weather. There’s a lot of people in a lot worse situations than me.”
Shaikh says he rented an apartment in Pflugerville where he lived without any furniture except for a whiteboard that he and his brother built by hand because it was cheaper.
Shaikh’s story, when viewed through a certain lens, could come off as inspiring. Here’s a successful guy who decided to risk some of the fruits of his success to chase his own dream, rather than work to help other people pursue their own dreams. But looking at it that way—as a call to action for everybody to pursue their own passions, which is how Shaikh frames it—requires one to ignore the privileges that Shaikh possessed.
To recap those privileges: He had $250,000 to invest to begin with; he had parents who were willing to put him up at 35 years old; he had connections and experience that allowed him to raise money; he had a BMW that he could sell; he had firsthand experience of what it’s like to live in a luxury apartment and drive a friggin’ Beamer and travel the world on somebody else’s dime, so he knew enough about himself to know that he’d get tired of that; and, of course, he had the ability to rest secure knowing that, if he failed, there’d probably be another company that needed a director of global communications with a resume like his own. So the risk he was taking by going “all-in” was one in which he knew that the dealer would let him buy another set of chips if he went bust.
And that, it appears, is why the message of Shaikh’s talk failed to resonate at Austin High. And boy howdy did it fail to resonate: Shaikh quickly became an object of ridicule at 1715 W. Cesar Chavez, a #Lookadouche for Central Texas teens. Students in the school’s media program, KAHS, made a parody video mocking Shaikh’s message and the “passionary” language his company is built around (it’s pretty funny); Sean Saldana, a student at the school’s Maroon News, penned an op-ed laying into Shaikh’s presentation, his company, and his argument:
The average high school student isn’t in the same boat as him. For every Kash Shaikh, there are hundreds and hundreds of minimum wage retail workers who couldn’t find a sustainable way to practice their passions.
“Don’t have a plan B, only have a plan A” is not a flawless message, certainly not one that should be delivered to impressionable high school students.
Also, sure #BeSomebody has a feel-good message meant to inspire the youth, but at its heart, #BeSomebody is a company. Companies have a mission to make money, as much money as possible. And there’s just something inherently wrong about a company coming to a public school, wasting government resources (time that could be spent in class and money that’s paying a staff that isn’t working), to half advertise to people who have no choice about whether or not they want to hear.
All of Shaikh’s talk was fairly typical #TechBro self-mythologizing and TED Talk inspirational crap, but his platitudes define the company he’s built. Without the “spread your wings and fly” / “don’t be afraid to be a champion” rhetoric, #BeSomebody doesn’t really exist—the company’s branding is literally all that it offers. Well, besides a map built around user GPS data to locate fellow “passionaries” (a feature presumably built by dudes, because it’s hard to imagine women thinking, “If some strange dude followed me to HEB because he saw that I liked karate too, that would be awesome”).
And the fact that all they have to offer is branding might explain why the #BeSomebody team reacted so unprofessionally to being mocked by Austin High students. In February Shaikh posted a hilariously defensive post on the #BeSomebody blog called “You Have No Idea What PASSION Means,” in which he spends seventeen paragraphs digging in on his attempt to talk down to the Austin High students and teachers who criticized his presentation and ridiculed his message. (McGee, in her post at KUT, screen-grabbed a pair of all-time great defensive tweets from Shaikh in response to an Austin High student; in another tweet, #BeSomebody content director Alex Dorner called an Austin High teacher a “dork” for “talkin’ shit.”)
Of course it can’t feel good to have your hard work satirized. But if the Austin High students who made the parody videos and penned the op-eds are somewhat less than mature, well, they’re teenagers. What are Shaikh’s and Dorner’s excuses for acting like children—for name-calling, writing defensive blog posts declaring teens who didn’t buy into the message “uninspired,” seizing on typos and misspellings as a way to feel superior, and so on?
Whatever fever Shaikh and friends caught seems to have passed now: after KUT’s story embarrassed the company, Shaikh tweeted “much love to everyone at Austin High,” bragging about the “PASSIONATE dialogue” his company started. Which is certainly one way to describe one side passionately making fun of #BeSomebody and the other side passionately pointing out typos and resorting to name-calling.
The end result is that if tweeting out messages tagged with #BeSomebody might have felt empowering a few months ago, it definitely feels dopier now. Shaikh, who seems to capitalize the word “passion” every time he types it like he’s got it trademarked, doesn’t actually own the word. When a kid who dreams of being the next Kendrick Lamar decides to rap in her dorm room at night after studying engineering rather than dropping out to find an open mike seven nights a week, only a jerk would call her “uninspired” or claim that she has “no idea what PASSION means”—and a jerk who might be too out of touch to deliver the product he claims to be building.
But ultimately, Shaikh didn’t get that million bucks because he inspired some venture capitalists to try to spread a message of hope and determination—he got it because, if he puts #BeSomebody together properly, the cut he takes of the acting classes and scuba lessons that people sell through his app will make them all a bunch of money. There’s nothing wrong with that, but can you really blame a bunch of high school students if they recognize #BeSomebody’s real motives?
Meanwhile, if Austin High School students are interested in being inspired by people who’ve followed their passions, there are closer-to-home role models. At SXSW, during the Austin Music Awards, Austin High alumni Gary Clark Jr., Shakey Graves, Suzanna Choffel, Phranchyze, and more will be playing together as part of an unofficial class reunion. Between Clark’s Grammy, Graves’s current sold-out overseas tour with Shovels & Rope, and the rising careers of Choffel and Phranchyze, hopefully Austin High students can find a way to be somebody without an app that implores them to do so.