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From Stars To Star Dust: Media’s Startup Obsession

Culture

For the past decade or so, women with big ideas (and big funding) have quickly become the new big thing. They are special guests at galas, they moderate A-list panels, they win visionary awards, and they grace the covers of glossy magazines replete with headlines that all but endorse their plans to “revolutionize" the way something is done.


This frenzied media ecosystem which grooms these women as idols of boy band proportions is also one quick to tear them down the minute there are whisperings of a dishy scandal. The media mentors and press mongers of yesterday quickly delete mentions of these founders from their websites, removing them from their “Top 10" lists and printing terse retractions. They follow up on their adulatory stories with pieces that dig deeply into “What Went Wrong," and how these companies “Went From Billions to Zero." It's a crazed cycle of audience-seeking journalism and it seems to begin and end with entrepreneurship in the competitive world of mainstream media.

“There as so few women CEOs, that everything they do is under a microscope," says Jeffery Tobias Halter, a corporate gender strategist with numerous Fortune 500 clients, and President of YWomen. “Basically 450 men in the Fortune 500 can perform badly but few get noticed. I think the same is true in start-ups and with high-flying entrepreneurs."

Of course the first example that comes to mind is Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of not-as-revolutionary-as-we-thought healthcare company, Theranos, who is in serious hot water after a much publicized fall from grace. The well-spoken blonde executive, who famously dropped out of Stanford to see through her childhood dream of changing the world, has been slammed by the magazines that used to worship her. In fact, the now pulverized company's first unraveling thread was pulled by The Wall Street Journal, the very publication that had built her up previously in pieces that celebrated her visionary business promising customers the ability to run costly blood tests though a pin prick's worth of blood at (and at a fraction of the cost). Kudos to stealthy reporter John Carreyrou for exposing the fact that the promise was undeliverable, and more than that, may have lead to misdiagnosed prescriptions and even potential deaths, but the question must be asked: Why did it take 13 years, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and millions of blood tests being administered before a journalist went beyond lazily re-publishing the inspiring startup story (which was being told to anyone who would listen) to look deeper into the company's Utopian claims?

The publishing industry uses these female founders and their compelling stories as clickbait, then relishes in their downfall, as it offers a dramatic new angle and opportunity to sell content.

“Magazine editors do not have the bandwidth to investigate the business of every entrepreneur and look at the balance sheets," says a media professional who specializes in the publishing industry. “The problem is there is a narrative created by a company's public relations teams that are toting these unreal valuations and many editors take the claims at face value to get a good story out of it. Magazines are trying to sell themselves in a difficult climate for traditional publications."

T New York Times's style magazine was another publication that built up Elizabeth Holmes as one of its greats. The publication listed Holmes as one of the "Five Visionary Tech Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World," writing that she "may be starting a movement to change the health care paradigm as we know it." Once the investigation into the business went underway, the magazine updated its website with a disclaimer that read there were "recent developments" involving Theranos, linking to a new investigative piece by the Times. According to one media professional familiar with the case, the retraction was something of a stain for T and for its editor Deborah Needleman. In addition to being featured on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, Glamour Magazine went so far as to name Holmes one of its “Woman Of The Year" in 2015.

Courtesy of Glamour

According to the female-focused magazine's story about Holmes: “By now the tech-world unicorn story is well-known: Bright mind ditches school, launches company from garage, changes the world, makes millions. This version of the tale, though, has a welcome twist: The wunderkind dropout is a woman."

Clearly, the magazine was hungry for an inspiring young girl boss in health tech, and there was Holmes, ripe for the picking. “I believe women (and many men) are actually hoping they do succeed and shatter the existing paradigms of leadership that we have in this country," says Halter, underscoring the point that publications can't help but jump on the inspiring startup stories, even if they turn out to be too good to be true. Of course, both male and female leaders are sometimes unsuccessful in their bids to launch world-changing businesses. So, again, why does media continue overpromising?

While the intense media scrutiny may have been justified in the case of Holmes, it cannot be denied that journalists are also quick to jump on stories that are less so. Take the case of beauty box subscription maven, Katia Beauchamp, a celebrated innovator who found her name dragged through the media mud when her company was re-strategizing, and making layoffs in June, 2016. Article headlines like “Struggling Online Makeup Retailer Birchbox Cuts More Staff" emerged, written by reporters who didn't have a complete understanding of what was happening behind closed doors. Despite the growing pains, the Birchbox business has bounced back, enjoying 1 million subscribers, 800 brand partners and operates in six countries.

“Every year magazines look for the top women with lists like '30 Under 30' and that's part of the problem," says one media expert. “Media is turning them into celebrities and so they're being watched very closely. It's the same with television. You see the same faces gracing all the morning shows, one after the other."

The lack of creativity in reporting cannot be overlooked as a reason for the copycat cover girls we see time and time again. It takes much more time and resources to investigate a story and report on your findings then it does to re-write a company-approved press release.

“There is a lack of original ideas, and the result is the same stories appearing over and over across publications," says the media expert. “Without thinking creatively, reporters are beholden to the PR machine."

When journalists take their story ideas from public relations firms, the result is articles that give founders a soapbox for their sensational claims to revolutionize entire industries. While these promises may work in the boardroom to woo investors, they are not necessarily reflective of what a startup is actually capable of. In many ways, by building up these female founders as unicorns, the media is setting them up to fail, as even minor setbacks are seen as a “fall from grace."

Thinx founder Miki Argrawal, is the newest female founder to find herself under media fire with claims that she acted inappropriately in the workplace, making suggestive remarks to employees among other allegations. Of course, if these claims are true, it is certainly condemnable, but what about due process? Shouldn't founders be given the benefit of the doubt until a crime is actually proven? Without a doubt, the idea of a female boss being part of a sexual harassment case makes an entertaining storyline for editors.

“In the example of Thinx you have former CEO Miki Agrawal who is not only a self-proclaimed feminist, selling products to women, but she is being accused of actually groping women in the workplace," says Halter. “Regarding press and public reaction I think many people expect women to just behave better. You rarely see a scandal involving women. Literally everyday there is another sexual harassment lawsuit or gender inequity issue caused by some male leader. Sadly, men behaving badly is rarely new news."

This double-edged sword is without a doubt one of the reasons women face much more scrutiny in the media. In certain ways, men acting badly is expected, but when it happens to women, it's headline news.

“The double bind dilemma is like a Goldilocks effect; women who are too soft are considered wimps and women who are too tough are considered witches," says Halter. “There is a small sweet spot of being 'just right'. Male leaders can be bullies and belligerent but they are called hard-nosed and demanding. Quiet male leaders are seen as thoughtful and introspective. There is a huge double standard that men do not face. This is heightened by the media. How many stories do you read about women that either references their appearance or clothing somewhere in the article? You never read 'John was particularly dapper in his blue suit.' Finally, the media typically also raises issues of women around their families. I have seen many executive women being asked 'as you become CEO who will take care of your children?' I've never seen a male leader asked that question."

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What I Learned From Dating Younger Men - It's Refreshing and More Authentic!

"There are no good men out there," yet another woman my age declared. At 50, I was freshly divorced after two decades of marriage and motherhood. My unhappy marriage had shattered my faith in men and romantic relationships. Based on my ex-husband's opinion of my sexual appeal, I was afraid my naked body would cause future lovers to run screaming from the room. Rather gleefully, I announced to my girlfriends that I was done with men, and sex, forever.


For the first year, I got tangled in my sheets alone every night, overjoyed to have the bed and my body to myself. I felt liberated by divorce—free to be me, skip showering, and make dinner for one. But it bothered me when women decried the scarcity of men, because I'd known so many good ones—college boyfriends, my brother, my best friend from business school, etc. The first of many naked truths gradually crept up on me: I was not going to find my juju again through self-help and yoga. The feminist in me didn't want to admit it, but going for too long without men was akin to starvation.

I didn't want another husband. But I needed men, a lot of them.

The universe signaled its approval by sending Mr. Blue Eyes to me at an airport. He was 29 and perhaps the sexiest man I'd ever kissed. Being with him convinced me, pretty decisively, that men were going to heal me, even though men had destroyed me many times before. I became the female incarnation of a divorced, clichéd older man: I bought a sports car, revamped my wardrobe, and took younger lovers. "I want five boyfriends," I told my best friend KC after that first tryst ended. "Sweet, cute, smart, nice. Enough that I won't get too attached to one." My message from the frontlines of divorce at 50 is that to restore your confidence as a woman, especially in the wake of a crushing breakup, try dating outside your comfort zone, expanding your dating pool to include partners you might never have considered before. It may not be the recipe for a lasting union, but in terms of rebuilding your self-esteem, it can work wonders.

The first thing I noticed—and liked—about dating younger men is that they didn't want to marry me or make babies with me. And I didn't want that either. Frankly, I didn't even want them to spend the night. Since I'd been 11, I'd been taught to seek out and value men who wanted commitment. To my surprise, I found it refreshing, even more authentic, to be valued not for my potential as a mate, but instead for my body, intelligence, life-experience and sexuality.

And the sex! I quickly realized that—warning, blanket stereotype coming—men under 40 are more straightforward and adventurous than older men, maybe since they were raised with the Internet. You hear so often about the scourge of crude, sexist online pornography; and I agree that the depersonalization of women as sexual playthings is deeply destructive to all genders. However, from sexting to foreplay, I found younger men uniquely enthusiastic about getting naked and enjoying sex. Every younger man found my most erotic zones faster than any man my age ever had, with a lack of hesitation men over 50 seemed unable to fathom.

Also, about my big fear of getting naked in front of a younger man? Completely unfounded. I started to shake when Airport Boy took off my sundress in our hotel room. Had he ever seen a woman my age nude? How could I stand to be skin-to-skin with a body far more perfect than mine? I had given birth to eight-pound, full-fucking-term babies. I'd nursed them, too, and at times by breasts looked (from my view at least) like wet paper towels. "You have a spectacular body," he told me instead, running his hand over the cellulite on my stomach that I despised. That night I learned that younger men who seek older women accept our physical flaws—they don't expect perfection in someone 20 years their senior. These men taught me to see my body through a positive, decidedly male lens, to focus on the pretty parts (and we all have them) rather than the flaws that we all have too, whether you're 19, 29 or 59.

I even found the pillow talk lighter, easier and more intellectually stimulating, because a younger man's world view differs so vastly from the pressures of my 20-something kids, annual colonoscopies, 401K balance and mortgage payments. They have simple financial problems, like "Can I borrow a few quarters for the parking meter outside?" or "Do you have any advice on consolidating my student loans?"

Everything feels simpler with younger men. Men under 40 seem less threatened by assertive women; they grew up with them. They like cheap beer instead of expensive wine. They don't snore (as much). Leftovers a 55-year-old would scoff at look good to them. Their erections NEVER last more than four hours. Their hard-ons end the old-fashioned way and 45 minutes later they are ready for more.

But what I enjoy most about younger men is not the sex, or the cliché that they make me feel young again—because they don't. Younger men make me feel old, and to my delight, I like that. I feel valuable around younger men, precisely because I am wiser and more experienced in life, love and between the sheets.

I know I'll never end up with one for good. The naked truth is we don't have enough in common to last. One recently put it exactly right when he told me, "I love this, but there's always gonna be a glass ceiling between us." That lack of permanence, the improbability of commitment and "forever," doesn't mean I can't pick up a tip or two about self-esteem, and enjoy the magic of human connection with younger men. And vice versa. The experience can enrich us both, making us better partners for people our own ages down the road.

*My viewpoint is from the perspective of a heterosexual woman, because I am one. But change the gender identification and/or sexual orientation to whatever works for you and let me know if the same advice holds true. Thank you.