Picking sides in the pandemic: the Rich or the Rest
I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed into the upper-echelons of the elite “meritocracy.” McKinsey & Company. Georgetown. Uber. Stanford. They all let me slip through the pearly gates.
But I’m the daughter of a self-employed real estate appraiser and a unionized public school teacher. NYSUT, a federation of New York State teacher unions, funds my parents’ retirements and sister’s health insurance. My household income growing up was $50,000, just at or below the nation’s median.
It is sometimes easy to forget your truest self when you’re told you’re special. When you’re flying first-class at 21 years-old. When you’re told that you’ve started a company worth $8 million, when in reality it is just a slide deck. When you know what the hell a slide deck is.
The pandemic reminded me.
When times are good, the “do good while doing well” narrative stands. In crisis, it crumbles. When the pandemic struck, I was pursuing my MBA at Stanford. The shelter in place decree was the dog whistle to close ranks. People had to choose — The Rich or The Rest.
The Rich within our class started to leave for families’ second homes. Cabins in Colorado. Beach houses in Georgia. Nooks in North Carolina. The Rest fretted about our families. Parents who were jazz musicians, convenience store managers, teachers, nurses, and Uber drivers.
My dad worked as a real estate appraiser for two decades. He is obese with asthma. As a misclassified independent contractor, he never had workers compensation (the type of insurance that pays your medical bills or funeral costs if you get sick or die on the job). His job required he go into three to four strangers’ homes daily. I thanked God every single day for my mom’s pension that allowed him to retire the year before the pandemic.
Organizations faced the same test of class allegiance. Those that chose the Rich protected market capitalization and endowments over people. At Stanford, this meant cafeteria workers were furloughed with no instructions on how to apply for unemployment. Janitors were forced to clean dorms housing COVID patients with no hazard pay or workers’ compensation.
The pandemic showed that inequality is not some sterile phenomena. It is not even about who makes money and who doesn’t. It is about who lives and who dies.
Within the broader Silicon Valley community, I saw individuals and funds choose profits over people. I saw the personification of the wisdom in Matthew 6:24:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
God (I get it! Loaded concept!) in this passage represents love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Even if you do not believe in the divine, it represents the humane.
It became clear that regardless of the “mission” of the startup, the priority was money. You could, as an entrepreneur, address mental health or childcare or education or housing or any of the thorny topics that prick at humanity. But there was still going to be one master, money, that prevailed. The idea of sacrifice, especially financial sacrifice, was sacrilege even among alleged impact investors and entrepreneurs.
I love hustling to build businesses. But I want to be conscious of who is getting rich off of my time and talents, even if that requires sacrifice. I’ve found worker-owned businesses to be a way to get that same high of building something from nothing, of earning that dollar, while making clear where my class allegiance lies.