Toxic waste
Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

When a CEO turns toxic

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Good morning, and happy Sunday! Here’s your weekly roundup of what’s been happening this week.

How toxic is too toxic?

The latest charges against Elon Musk — an in-flight massage, an indecent proposal involving a horse and a reported $250,000 settlement — are as lurid as they are predictable. Musk has denied the accusation that he sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant, but to be frank, given the Tesla chief’s reputation for allowing sexism to run rampant at his companies, it’s not entirely surprising.

Then there’s the fact that he once proposed an academic institution called TITS U. If Musk doesn’t want people to think of him as a sexist creep, he’s not exactly helping his case.

Yet Musk’s toxicity doesn’t seem to be exacting a business cost. The only thing holding back Tesla from selling more cars is the global chip shortage and other supply constraints.

  • Tesla still rules the American electric vehicle business, which doubled from the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022. Tesla had 75% market share in the first three months of the year, according to Kelley Blue Book.
  • Tesla buyers are largely white and male, though not as Democratic-leaning as you might think. Perhaps, if anything, Musk’s macho Twitter persona is helping broaden the electric-vehicle customer base into red states, like Tesla’s new home of Texas.
  • SpaceX, which depends heavily on government contracts, also doesn’t seem to be suffering much from Musk’s antics. After Musk smoked pot on-air during an interview with Joe Rogan — a breach of rules for government security clearance holders — taxpayers picked up the bill for a safety review.

The truth is that Silicon Valley loves toxic leaders. The cult of personality that has built up around Elon has played out many times in the industry.

  • Steve Jobs was a screamer during his first run at Apple. He fired marketer Andy Cunningham five times. But Apple brought him back to scream some more. A few trillion dollars later, shareholders aren’t complaining.
  • Uber’s Travis Kalanick is the rare example of a combative founder who was successfully forced out. Even the #DeleteUber customer revolt wasn’t enough; it took a whistle-blowing essay by engineer Susan Fowler, and an already restive board, to unseat him.
  • It’s not just founders: Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s relationship antics, which at times bled over into the business, reportedly bothered even Larry Page and Sergey Brin. But the company was minting money, and no one seemed to want to do anything about the situation.

Will Twitter change Musk, or will Musk change Twitter? If the deal happens, that is: The $44 billion purchase seems to be hanging by a thread, with Musk appearing to want to wriggle out of it and Twitter’s board holding fast.

  • Last month, Musk criticized top Twitter lawyer Vijaya Gadde, who then became the target of racist and sexist attacks by his followers.
  • Twitter employees are understandably worried about what will happen to the company’s culture if Musk does take it over.
  • Some Twitter users, too, worry that the service will be overrun with harassing trolls if Musk carries through his plans to lighten up on content moderation.

But there just don’t seem to be consequences that carry any weight with Musk. A $250,000 sexual harassment settlement, if SpaceX paid it, is meaningless to a man of his wealth. He has no shortage of defenders and cheerleaders on Twitter ready to counter any critics. It’s not clear he even wants the Twitter deal to go through, so no loss there if it falls apart. Perhaps what would really hurt is people buying electric cars that aren’t made by Tesla. But it’s unclear if any auto companies plan to leverage Musk’s bad PR to hype their own EVs — and whether that would even work.


At the same time that the pandemic demonstrated all that is possible in an interconnected world, we saw in new and increasingly stark ways how certain communities continue to be marginalized and harmed by a persistent digital divide and how effectively that divide exacerbates our society’s other inequities.

Learn more

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What people don't understand about being CEO — Kevin McAllister

“Someone recently asked me what my favorite saying was about being a leader,” wrote Will Hayes, CEO at Lucidworks and a member of our Braintrust, when asked what people don’t understand about the travails of being a CEO. “Sumus semper in excretum sed alta variat,” he went on: “You’re always in the shit; it’s the depth that varies.” Not all the responses here were as comical, but this is worth reading whether you’re a leader and want to feel heard, or a worker and want to know how your boss might actually feel.

The great onshoring: Inside the transcontinental chip race — Hirsh Chitkara

The second annual Trade and Technology Council concluded in France earlier this week. And one thing it emphasized was the centrality of semiconductor onshoring to U.S.-EU military objectives. Hirsh took a close look at what the race to onshore chip manufacturing means for the industry.

Why Google Cloud is providing security for AWS and Azure users too — Kyle Alspach

Does Google want to offer the most secure cloud platform in order to inspire more businesses to run on it — or build a major enterprise cybersecurity products and services business, in whatever environment it’s chosen? To hear Google’s side of it, it’s not an either/or. “To just focus on Google Cloud, we wouldn't be serving our customers. Our customers' reality is a hybrid, multicloud environment,” Phil Venables, Google Cloud’s chief information security officer, told Kyle. “But as part of serving them there, and working with them, they inevitably move more things to Google Cloud for all of the advantages that we have.” This interview got into the detail of that.

Is it legal to fire someone while they’re on parental leave? — Michelle Ma

After Twitter fired its head of Consumer, Kayvon Beykpour, while he was on parental leave, a lot of questions bubbled up around the ethics — and legality — of letting someone go like that. Michelle spoke to experts to work out whether you can do it — and, perhaps more to the point, whether you ever should.

For people with disabilities, AI can only go so far to make the web more accessible — Kate Kaye

AI and automated software that promises to make the web more accessible abounds, but people with disabilities and those who regularly test for digital accessibility problems say it can only go so far. Kate went deep on how these technologies can help people, and where their limitations lie.

All of your crypto crash questions answered (except 'Wen Lambo?') — Fintech team

If we’ve learned anything from the last couple of weeks, it’s that crypto winter is no longer coming; it’s here. Our crypto team laid out what you need to know this time. Oh, and should you buy the dip? Well, we have an answer for you.

Elon is mad about ESG ratings. He has a point. — Brian Kahn

Elon took a break from buying Twitter and ranting about bots on Wednesday to get mad about something else. The S&P decided to boot Tesla from its S&P 500 ESG list, and Elon characteristically tweeted through it, calling ESG ratings an “outrageous scam.” The thing is, he’s … kind of right. Briann explained the limitations of these sorts of ESG listings, which is well worth reading about if you haven’t explored it before.


At the same time that the pandemic demonstrated all that is possible in an interconnected world, we saw in new and increasingly stark ways how certain communities continue to be marginalized and harmed by a persistent digital divide and how effectively that divide exacerbates our society’s other inequities.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to our tips line, Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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