An old acquaintance of mine M messaged me on LinkedIn over Labour Day weekend, asking my advice on how to jump from the academic world to professional communications work.
I thought for a while over what I’d say, and I finally decided to lay it all out there. I've done alright so far, but I've also hit some roadblocks. My first contract was frankly disastrous. Handling member communications for an American company that was a networking hub for hundreds of business owners.
But I received no training and was often left adrift, or disciplined for not being constantly in my home office and on call at a moments notice. Even though I was only being paid for hours spent on work done, going to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment was being unacceptably far from my desk for too long. It was a ridiculously stressful six weeks during which I earned almost no money.
I left without even being given an opportunity to sign the company’s non-disclosure agreement, which is why I can talk about it on this blog and in conversations at all.
That company, along with many other young startup execs and communications pros in Toronto, all shared a common language – hype. All the buzzwords of the marketing industry had genuine meaning for them, even when the least amount of critical thought revealed an empty core.
My communications professors told me my greatest strength was my ability to see through bullshit. It’s part of what I trained in for years when I was writing philosophy full-time. When I’d network with long-experienced communications professionals – women and men at the top of the career pyramids – online or in person, I’d hear the same thing.
But I feel as though, when it comes to simply finding a foothold in the industry, that’s actually a detriment. The long-experienced high-performing communicators see uncommon insight for someone at the start of their career.
The mid-level or just-above-entry-level see someone who’s smarter than them and who can threaten their superiority. The frustration is that informal networking events connect me with people who understand me, while actual gatekeeping for hiring connects me with people who understand me all too well.
While thinking about that cruel context, I read this feature article about the fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. I hadn’t read much about this company myself because its industry was never really on my professional radar. But looking into the history of the company revealed in such clear light so much of what I find distasteful about the modern startup scene.
Toronto's startup culture is very much inspired by Silicon Valley. The tech sector especially aspires to be a Silicon Valley of the North. The problem is that they absorb all the Valley’s hype uncritically, never asking whether it’s worth having sound business principles or well-researched products and services.
All that matters instead is that you have a solid pitch to potential investors that combines utopian ideals and the appearance of business acumen in the right ratio, and a perfect PR spiel for a TED Talk. If you think I’m speaking in stereotypes or I'm ill-informed, just look at the story of Theranos and tell me there isn't a serious problem with the Valley's culture.
Holmes seems to have built a $7-billion company based entirely on a scientifically impossible pipe dream and lies. She took an idea she had when she was 19, and used her family’s connections in the business world and America’s state institutions to lend herself credibility to start a massive medical technology company.
She kept Theranos going for more than a decade based on lies, strict secrecy, ruthless cover-ups, and her perfect recitation of the Silicon Valley song. Is there any wonder why I can’t trust the Silicon Valley business model? Or even take it seriously?
Are we over Silicon Valley already? I’ve been over it for a while. I’m increasingly over it to the point where I’m surprised when anything of value emerges from its society. There’s basically Elon Musk’s companies, and that’s it. Anything else, I consider barely worth paying attention, let alone falling for their stale salesmanship.
Yet so many businesses in Toronto run on the same hype machine, and successfully convince government officials of how productive and efficient their business model and culture is. But I don’t have any reason to trust the startup culture. So I feel more than a little lost in this world.