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Dr. Bronner’s in the age of wellness and wokeness

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Bobbi Brown’s cosmetics brand sells more than a billion dollars’ worth of products every year, including a tiny glass tub of moisturizer for $100 and a 1-ounce jar of “face oil” for $70. But Brown’s own go-to body-care product is Dr. Bronner’s all-natural liquid Castile soap, which costs $18 for 32 ounces so concentrated that a thimbleful will have you smothered in suds.

The peppermint Dr. Bronner’s, specifically, is her favorite. One time, on Oprah, Brown said that every bathroom in her house was stocked with a bottle of the tingly stuff. During another Oprah appearance, she called Dr. Bronner’s “probably the finest soap in the universe,” adding, “I’m obsessed with it! I cannot get enough of it!”

Brown is far from the only celebrity to be a die-hard Dr. Bronner’s fan. Olivia Wilde and Jason Mraz have called it, respectively, “the greatest” and “the best soap ever.” Zoë Kravitz uses the almond soap in the shower, Sandra Bullock in her DIY window-cleaner recipe. Drake includes the peppermint soap on his tour rider (along with more rapper-standard items like Hennessy and rolling papers). Hollywood queens (Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig, Kate Hudson) and literal royalty (Meghan Markle) alike are devotees of the lavender soap. When Terry Richardson photographed a post-cupping-session Lady Gaga, she was bathing in Dr. Bronner’s, the uncapped and nearly empty bottle perched on the corner of her tub.

For all of this high-profile endorsement, Dr. Bronner’s has paid zero dollars and zero cents. “We’re proud to say we’ve never paid for a celebrity endorsement or solicitation,” president Michael Bronner tells me. The brand has spent the same non-amount on billboards, TV spots, magazine spreads, subway posters, and every other form of traditional advertising in the United States.


David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, surrounded by police officers after locking himself in a cage full of hemp plants as a protest on June, 11, 2012, in Washington, DC.
Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

You would be forgiven for thinking that such business strategies were ill advised. But since its founding in 1948, nothing about Dr. Bronner’s has been conventional. Its CEO, David Bronner, a ponytailed vegan surfer who wears tie-dyed shirts and drives a rainbow-colored Mercedes-Benz, has planted hemp seeds on the DEA’s lawn and was once arrested for locking himself in a cage outside the White House.

The company’s president, Michael Bronner, David’s more buttoned-up brother, says that social media, where so many beauty-and-wellness brands have built virtual empires, is “essentially amoral.” Dr. Bronner’s calls itself the “fighting soap company” because so much of its revenue goes toward activism. Most revealingly, perhaps, the brand claims that the first ingredient in all its products, from soap to coconut oil to household cleaner, is “love!” — exclamation point and all.

Ours are wokeness- and wellness-obsessed times. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which once advised women to put $66 polished rocks in their vaginas to treat health problems, is worth $250 million. Gillette’s ads are taking on toxic masculinity. In this climate, the quirky, family-run Dr. Bronner’s has achieved mainstream relevance. It’s a staple in the bathrooms of A-listers and Instagrammers alike, a product now sold everywhere from Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters to Walmart and PacSun — a true cultural touchstone. Dr. Bronner’s has become this not by pandering to consumers or following fads, but by being the only thing it’s ever been: its unapologetically off-kilter self.


Dr. Bronner’s was founded in 1948 by Emanuel Bronner, a German-Jewish third-generation soapmaker. Emanuel wasn’t a businessman (or a doctor, for that matter). He was an activist who, in the wake of his parents’ deaths in the Holocaust, began using his soap’s label as a, well, soapbox for proselytizing his “All-One!” thoughts and ideas. His philosophy, which he eventually named the “Moral ABC,” comprised a grab-bag of religion, spirituality, environmentalism, and self-help, and its peculiarity was matched only by its ambition: peace and harmony on “Spaceship Earth.”

People embraced Dr. Bronner’s with cultish fervor. In 1945, when Emanuel was still a roving preacher with a sudsy side business, a Chicago man crucified himself in the name of Emanuel’s “Peace Plan.” (He was injured, but survived.) Two decades later, the soap that Emanuel used to sell from his Southern California garage was a bohemian cultural icon.

For long-haired hippies who embraced all things “green,” who saw “peace and love” not as utopian abstractions but as a way of life, the all-natural, anti-corporate, and transparently pacifist Dr. Bronner’s was their soap. Emanuel became a minor celebrity in environmentalist and countercultural circles. He spoke widely at peace rallies; befriended Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther Party; and, in 1971, appeared in the trippy hippie documentary Rainbow Bridge alongside Hawaii-based eccentrics and Jimi Hendrix.

By the mid-1980s, Dr. Bronner’s wasn’t the only all-natural personal-care product on the market. New brands like Aveda, Herbal Essences, and the Body Shop were encroaching upon Dr. Bronner’s green turf. And with Emanuel owing $1.3 million in back taxes to the IRS (he’d previously registered his company as a nonprofit religious organization, much to Uncle Sam’s chagrin), Dr. Bronner’s was at risk of going the way of the Rainbow Bridge in the sky.

Other members of the Bronner clan soon stepped in to save the company. First, Emanuel’s son Jim helped lift Dr. Bronner’s out of bankruptcy by restructuring it as a for-profit company. Then, in 1998, Jim’s son David, following an eye-opening post-college psychedelic sojourn in Amsterdam, became CEO — cosmic engagement officer, that is.

Even if you’ve never gone hiking, gone vegan, gone to Whole Foods, or gone on a psychedelic trip, you might recognize Dr. Bronner’s infamously loquacious label, a 3,000-word wall of text that’s as microscopic as it is cosmically odd. Next to the quietly impersonal sans-serif branding of most personal-care products, the Dr. Bronner’s label is a barbaric yawp.

With all its erratic punctuation and grammatical incoherence, its non sequiturs and obscure historical references, it appears to have been written by a pacifist polymath gone amok. (Emanuel was thought to have mental health issues. After a particularly fervent sermon in Chicago, his sister committed him to a mental hospital, where he was placed in solitary confinement. He soon escaped through a bathroom window and fled to California.) Jesus, Einstein, Mohammed, and Lincoln get mentions on the label, but so do Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. Jewels, dinosaurs, and “work-love-song-art-play-law-beauty” are noted, but so are slavery, starvation, and multilevel marketing.

On Twitter, the Dr. Bronner’s label has become a yardstick against which inane ramblings are measured. Say something thoughtless, incoherent, and verbose? You’re likely to be pilloried via organic soap label. The most frequent target is an expected one: President Donald Trump, whose misspelled, inconsistently capitalized, outdoor-voice-used-indoors tweets are often likened to a racist Dr. Bronner’s label.

Save for a minor “Old & Improved” redesign in 2015, the label hasn’t changed in decades. “We have a look and feel from another era, like a kind of apothecary,” David says. “Maybe people are yearning for that, to connect to something with a real history.” He contrasted his company with Kiehl’s, a competitor whose retro-chic branding plays up the year of its founding, 1851. “They’re a little bit of a fake brand,” he told me, chuckling. “I mean, okay, they’re not fake, but there’s not a soul behind it. They tout the age and heritage of the brand, but it’s just changed hands so many times.”

As the word “authentic” gets bandied about by every brand trying to sell a product by first selling us on a noble philosophy or tear-jerking founding tale, Dr. Bronner’s has aimed to practice what it’s been preaching since 1948. “We’re a real family company, fifth generation, and we just have really deep roots,” David says. “We’re just staying true to what we’re doing.”


The fringe beliefs, practices, and products of the counterculture have gone mainstream, driven by our collective desire to get back in touch with ourselves, with nature, with each other — without technology. But if the relationship between hippiedom and capitalism was once antagonistic, it’s now symbiotic. For contemporary brands, instilling us with a core hippie-inflected belief — that what we consume reflects who we are, and that our purchases should therefore be “cruelty-free” and “activated” and “clean” — has never been more lucrative.

The twinned trends of conscious consumerism and holistic personal wellness are dictated largely by companies with a vested interest in stoking our desire to feel healthy, ethical, enlightened, and environmentally responsible. Think, for example, of the “vanlife” phenomenon, an aestheticized version of sticking it to the Man by being tied not to a condo or a 9-to-5 job but to a van and Mother Nature, a commodified desire largely propelled by brands sponsoring attractively rugged couples to “live the dream” (while using their products).

Think, too, of yoga, pilates, and meditation, all of which can be done for free at home but which we now spend $40 to do in an aesthetically sedate “studio.” Think of the historically harmful fashion industry, in which brands like Everlane (tagline: “Radical Transparency”) and Toms shoes (a “purpose-driven, for-profit company”) do well by inflating the ways they’re doing good.

The trend of commodified hippiedom is most obvious, though, when it comes to things we put inside ourselves. Today, without so much as leaving my neighborhood, I can drink an organic smoothie with “healing spices” ($9), eat a bowl of ancient grains and ethically sourced greens ($13), and treat myself to a vegan brownie infused with CBD oil (extracted from cannabis, $5). I won’t be denigrated as a hippie, because the staples of the hippie lifestyle — nondairy milks, tofu, marijuana — have been given the corporate makeover. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods, for $13.7 billion, is a money-colored indicator that the organic food movement has jumped the shark.

But the organic personal-care market is still flowering. CBD- and hemp-based beauty products are popping up everywhere. Target recently began giving natural products a prominent space in the beauty section of its stores. “Clean beauty” now makes up nearly half the global beauty market, and the organic personal-care market is expected to nearly double in size, to $25 billion, by 2025.

You’d expect Dr. Bronner’s to have capitalized on these changing attitudes, on moneyed millennials’ desire to patronize brands that aren’t wrecking the planet somewhere along the supply chain. David says that Dr. Bronner’s “isn’t completely ignorant about marketing and sales and stuff.” But the company is doing what it’s always done. Consumers are the ones who’ve changed.

“Ways of being and thinking that were sidelined are now embraced more and more for their inherent health and vitality in protecting the human organism,” David says. “I think these mega-trends of environmental awareness and wanting to simplify, to use products that reflect that ethos, that don’t go to hell and back when they’re made — you know, we’re just really well positioned.”

What makes Dr. Bronner’s unique as a personal care product is how it’s positioned itself. Or, rather, how it hasn’t. For much of its history, Michael says, Dr. Bronner’s had “no salespeople, no advertising, and was run by a man who had no eyesight” — Emanuel went blind toward the end of his life — “with a label that violated every tenet of label design.” Strictly through word-of-mouth, Dr. Bronner’s became the best-selling liquid soap in the country. Even now, the closest it gets to big-money marketing is bringing its Magic Foam Experience, a mobile shower unit that blasts snow-like foam from massive soap tanks, to summer festivals, pride parades, and, naturally, Burning Man.

Dr. Bronner’s doesn’t “do” social media, either. It doesn’t “play the game” the same way, in Michael’s words, paying influencers or otherwise artificially inflating its following. Social media, David told me, “isn’t some kind of overwhelming marketing focus for us.” The company uses social media to advertise and communicate with customers, but also to champion, often in all caps, as if shouting, various causes: raising the federal minimum wage, ending factory farming, “CLIMATE ACTION NOW.”

A perusal of Instagram, however, reveals that Dr. Bronner’s has been co-opted by the very people it claims to care so little about: the trendsetters for whom social media isn’t a diversion but a career, a lifestyle. On Instagram, Dr. Bronner’s is often tagged by users with handles like @cleanandcrueltyfree_ and @littlewaste.lottalove, and appears in pictures alongside products from expensive-sounding brands: Ouai, Norvina, Pinrose, Glossier.

One designer photographs the soap beside a flowering succulent in a LaCroix can, the turducken of trendy DIY home decor. A #plantbased Instagrammer calls Dr. Bronner’s one of her top “lifestyle secrets for staying slim and healthy.” A “natural lifestyle shop” features Dr. Bronner’s in a “shelfie” with a bevy of natural skin care products whose descriptions are a Mad Libs of wellness buzzwords: “culturally inspired,” “free-from,” “made with spirit,” “high vibration with purpose.”

“A lot of brands on social media talk about self-care, and that’s so important,” says Annie Nolan, an Australian wellness blogger and activist. “You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself.” Nolan, who’s been sponsored by Dr. Bronner’s to give talks on regenerative agriculture and LGBTQ issues, has amassed 60,000 Instagram followers by sharing cute pictures of her bright-eyed, rainbow-haired children alongside messages espousing veganism, open-mindedness, and other liberal virtues. She laments that most personal-care companies are “all about looking attractive.” But Dr. Bronner’s, she explains, “also believes in collective wellness.”

“If we don’t look after other people and the people around us and those who are marginalized and the land we live on, and future generations and animals and everything, then we literally can’t look after ourselves,” Nolan says. Dr. Bronner’s slogan, she points out, is “All-One!”

Despite being of a personal care world focused on surface appearances, Dr. Bronner’s “doesn’t do things because they’re cute,” Nolan says. “Every company is quite happy to say they don’t torture bunnies, but Dr. Bronner’s says real things, like, ‘We want immigration reform.’ That’s one of the biggest things for me. They walk the walk.”

Under David’s leadership, activism has been Dr. Bronner’s business, and business has been very, very good. So good that rejecting buyout offers is a regular part of being David Bronner. When he became CEO in 1998, Dr. Bronner’s annual revenue was $4 million. In 2018, it was $122.5 million. Of that, $8.4 million went to charitable causes: regenerative organic food and agriculture ($1.3 million), animal welfare ($755,000), criminal-justice reform ($500,000), child and youth services ($265,000), and more. Most of Dr. Bronner’s activism has implications for both people and the environment. Last spring, it announced the Regenerative Organic Certification, a rigorous sustainability standard with the motto “Farm like the world depends on it.”

The lion’s share of that $8.4 million went to advocating for drug policy reform. Since 2001, Dr. Bronner’s has given $5 million to the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and more than $5 million to the hemp and cannabis legalization movement. David’s love of the cannabis plant species is no secret. He wears clothing made from hemp, was instrumental in adding hemp oil (for a smoother lather) to Dr. Bronner’s list of ingredients, and in 2016 received the Seattle Hempfest’s Cannabis Activist of the Year award.

It goes without saying that he smokes weed. And on Earth Day this year, he launched Brother David’s, his own ethical, Sun+Earth Certified, nonprofit cannabis company. Brother David’s website reads like a 4/20-themed Dr. Bronner’s label: “Cannabis is our sacred ally, helping us heal, connect and appreciate each other, and elevating our consciousness into the magical living moment.”

But Dr. Bronner’s activism doesn’t just benefit external parties. David and Michael have made their company a model of workplace equality. Employees’ health care is fully covered, and they can receive up to 25 percent of their salary as a bonus. In a country where the median CEO-to-worker pay ratio exceeds 300 to 1, David and Michael make roughly $200,000 a year. They’ve capped their salaries at five times that of their lowest-paid workers, who make a minimum wage of $18.71 an hour in a state, California, where the minimum wage for companies with 26 or more employees is $12.00 an hour. More than half of Dr. Bronner’s employees are women, and nearly 60 percent are people of color.

“We’re an activist company,” David tells me. “Our focus is mostly on trying to leverage our business to promote social change for the good.” Michael calls Dr. Bronner’s “a for-profit with the DNA of a nonprofit.” You can’t buy the physical product on the shelf without implicitly supporting “the mission-oriented side, the cause, the things that impact the vibe.” Dr. Bronner’s, in a nutshell, is about the overlapping areas — not, Michael corrects me, a dichotomy — of “soap and soul.”

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Twitter co-founder and Medium CEO Ev Williams on Kara Swisher podcast

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Right now, it feels like social media is “in the bleakness of figuring out where it needs to go,” Twitter co-founder Ev Williams says. But it won’t be that way forever.

“I don’t have any answers as to how we get out of the current situation, but I think there’s a tendency to say, ‘Oh, social media is terrible,’ and forget all the great things about it, which I still believe are true,” Williams said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher.

Speaking with Swisher at the 2019 Collision conference in Toronto, Williams said his recent departure from the board of Twitter was a choice to focus more on his work as CEO of the blogging platform Medium — and not a Chris Hughes-style protest. He said it’s worth remembering all the goodness that social media can amplify, even though right now it feels like it’s favoring things like racism, vitriol, and Donald Trump.

“It amplifies a lot of bad aspects of humanity,” Williams said. “It’s very powerful at that and very powerful at connecting people with terrible ideas and amplifying those and making them seem like they’re good ideas. On the other hand, it does the opposite.

“I think there is a better version of social media to be invented and I don’t know if that will happen incrementally, because there’s lots of smart people trying to evolve these systems at these massive companies,” he added. “Or if it will happen with just completely new paradigms and new ideas that come along.”

You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast. On the new episode, you’ll also hear a live interview with Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Ev.


Kara Swisher: We’re here with Ev, who I’ve known for forever.

Seems like it.

Seems like it, and I want to talk about a lot of things, but let’s start first of all, [this session is] called “Life After Twitter,” which, you’ve had quite a life after Twitter. You left the board this year.

Yeah, a couple of months ago. Recently.

Can you talk about, a little bit, why you did that?

Yeah, it’s not very dramatic. I’ve been on the board since there was a board, so approximately 12-13 years, and only on the board for the last 10 or so, so it’s … Or however many, nine?

Mm-hmm.

So I stayed on the board as long as I thought I could be helpful, mostly, and the company is in a really good place now compared to some of the time it’s been before and I just felt like I want to spend my time and energy on other things.

Was it overwhelming for you, like the issues you all faced there around hate, around President Trump, around … mostly President Trump, really.

Well, I mean, being on the board is not being at the company.

Right.

And so, while this is called “Life After Twitter,” I kind of laugh because it’s kind of been life after Twitter for me for a long time.

Yes.

And I’ll always be associated with the company, I’ll always be rooting for it, I’m still a shareholder of the company so there’s … a certain part of my year is no longer spent in Twitter board meetings, but I’ve been focusing my time on other things for a long time.

All right, I want to get to the things you’re doing. But where do you think it is right now as a medium, the whole social media space? It’s obviously been under attack quite heavily. I don’t assume you’re going to write a Chris Hughes-like document for the New York Times, correct?

No.

Calling Jack un-American or anything like that?

No. No. No.

No.

Sorry, I didn’t hear the question.

Where do you think social media is right now?

Where do I think it is?

And what it needs to do to fix itself.

It’s in the bleakness of figuring out where it needs to go. I think the … I don’t have any answers as to how we get out of the current situation, but I think there’s a tendency to say, “Oh, social media is terrible,” and forget all the great things about it, which I still believe are true. And I believe the terrible things are true because social media is humanity and it amplifies … unfortunately, it amplifies a lot of bad aspects of humanity. It’s very powerful at that and very powerful at connecting people with terrible ideas and amplifying those and making them seem like they’re good ideas.

On the other hand, it does the opposite. And I think we are … I think there is a better version of social media to be invented and I don’t know if that will happen incrementally, because there’s lots of smart people trying to evolve these systems at these massive companies. Or if it will happen with just completely new paradigms and new ideas that come along. I’m confident it will remain around but I think, also, people’s relationship and sort of the novelty and some of the excitement that brought it — brought us, too — is wearing off.

It seems lost in some way.

It’s like a sugar high and now we’re like, “Oh, do we need this in our life in the same way?”

And do you imagine … Let’s get to new companies, because you’re an investor with Obvious Ventures. You’re not really investing in that space …

We don’t really, no.

Why is that?

It’s not that we wouldn’t, but at Obvious Ventures we focus on what we call “world-positive investing,” which is things that we think address big systemic problems we face as a society. We haven’t seen something come along … and we don’t do, actually, very many internet or media things. We do a little bit, but we do things more in health and wellness and sustainability.

So “world-positive,” that’s a very techie word. What does that mean?

Well, it’s just our term …

Because I’m wary of it.

Before things like, we have a lens. We’re not an impact investor, we’re a for-profit investor that doesn’t compromise on financial returns because … But we’re very genuinely focused on things that we think are big ideas and big solutions.

So, why don’t you want to call it “impact investing?”

Because …

Because that’s what it’s called. I mean …

Impact investing can be great. But impact investing, historically, is a view that we will take a lesser financial return in order to have some sort of other impact. Which, there’s investments that make sense for that. Our view is that the biggest companies that scale the most are not going to have … They’re going to have big returns.

Mm-hmm.

And so rather than say, “We’re going to compromise return,” we feel like that can be a failure mode and say, “Actually it’s not that healthy of a company,” or, “It doesn’t have great product-market fit.” We’re saying, “No, it has to be great.” So, an example — well, one of our companies is Beyond Meat which is …

Which you’ve done really well on.

Which has done phenomenal and it’s not an impact investment, it’s a phenomenally lucrative, profitable investment that addresses this massive need of lowering our carbon footprint when it comes to meat.

What’s really interesting is that Beyond Meat is doing great in the stock market and Uber is tanking, and Lyft is tanking, also.

I wouldn’t have predicted that necessarily.

I would not have predicted that.

A few years ago.

So talk about how you got into this, the Beyond Meat, because there’s also Impossible Foods. There’s a lot of food-tech investing, I guess, if you want …

Beyond Meat was one of the first investments we did, we actually rolled into Obvious Ventures. Biz [Stone] and I, my longtime partner Biz, was a vegan for a long time. Kleiner Perkins did the Series A in Beyond Meat, I think, because they knew he was a vegan and they were like, “Hey, are you interested in this company?” And so he brought it to us and we are very excited about it, we love the products. I’ve been vegan and pescatarian for a long time and …

Wait, which one are you?

I was vegan, now I’m pescatarian. So …

Okay.

But, I haven’t eaten a land animal for a very long time, so I enjoyed the products. Biz enjoyed the products. We’re …

You just draw the line at fish?

I draw the line at fish.

All right. Okay.

Yeah. And Ethan Brown, the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat, is just an incredible human, and so we backed him fairly early on.

At the time you did it, there wasn’t a lot of people interested in that sector. And there was investments, but it was more on the research side, a lot of the research stuff, and this is a small market. What did you hope — I’ll get to the stock thing — why did you go public with it and what did you hope for? That it would be in every supermarket? Or you’re aiming at people who eat meat?

Yeah, the goal with it, and the company’s been around for a few years, and the goal with it was always to penetrate the meat market. And, I mean, not in the actual … in the grocery store sense, this massive trillion dollar market that we thought there’s a better alternative to. So we didn’t have the plan for that. Ethan and his team had the plan, but it’s going well so far.

So where do you imagine … there’s a world positive. How much pushback have you had from meat companies? I know they don’t want you to call it “meat.” Because just the way the milk distributors don’t want oat milk to be called oat milk or cashew milk or …

I think some of them see it as an opportunity and some of them see it as a threat, I would imagine.

Because Tyson is in it? Right?

Tyson was actually a big investor and shareholder and they got out just before the IPO.

Because they’re making their own version.

Yeah. I would assume any meat company … The response to the Beyond Meat IPO, which has been so gratifying, is that people are paying attention to this plant protein company that most people wouldn’t have predicted would make such a big blip. And I think it’s a lot of people seeing the potential.

And in terms of when you think about these world-positive things, talk about what your theories are of venture investing because that’s changed a lot. You know, you have the advent of giant investors like SoftBank, which of course has gotten a bath in the Uber investment. How do you look at investing, then, as a venture? How do you distinguish yourself?

So we kind of play a different game, I think, than most Silicon Valley investors. And first of all, it’s our lens, of filtering out a lot of things that could be great investments, but if we don’t think really are going to address some need for society we’ll say, “That’s okay, there’s lots of others we’ll focus on.” Which eliminates most of enterprise software.

Mm-hmm.

And then also the message that entrepreneurs really appreciate is that we are mission-aligned and we will support an entrepreneur who is mission-focused. People come to us because they really like hearing that, because as an entrepreneur you can be — and I’ve been in this position — where you’re aligned with your investors in terms of wanting to build something really big, but you can get misaligned in terms of really the purpose of that thing.

So what does that bring you to? What areas are you excited about, in that regard?

So we do a lot of stuff in sustainability from solar and solar software. We’re investors in Proterra, the electric bus company. There’s some other … Another exit we just had was Olly, which was a supplement company. And so we tend to do things that are outside of the traditional Silicon Valley world that I know. Which, of course, Silicon Valley’s expanding greatly in terms of what they invest in, but it’s not a lot of software or media.

All right. When you — I’m going to get to Medium in a second — but when you think about venture, I just interviewed Mark Cuban and Steve Case, and they were talking about the efforts they’re making to get all around the world, to try to get more talent from elsewhere. Right now, 80 percent of venture capital goes to three states.

I didn’t know that.

And most of it to California, and most of it to Silicon Valley, continues to be all white, all male, not very geographically diverse, not very globally diverse. Why does that continue, from your perspective?

I think it’s habit. It’s definitely not the lack of viable investments that are outside the geography or demographics of that traditional set and so we aren’t internationally focused. And one thing is that so much of the money is in Silicon Valley and the firms are there because they come out of, you know, it’s historic. And it is hard to invest in other places where you’re not … There’s just a time in the day problem.

Mm-hmm.

We have a couple investments in Europe, but not a lot. And we have some in New York and throughout the country, but part of that … I certainly celebrate expanding the ethos and the formula of Silicon Valley to other places, but it’s pretty massive and there’s this perpetuating cycle. People come out of companies, and they go back in, and they invest in their friends …

I get that, but why doesn’t it happen? You’re a very well-meaning person, you have a broad attitude toward diversity, but most people just talk about it and nothing happens in that regard. It seems like you’re, 1) missing the boat, meaning there’s lots of investments you’re missing, and 2) perpetuating something like this is not an excuse for doing that.

Yeah, I agree. I don’t see any excuse for doing it. We try very hard to invest … I don’t have the data off the top of my head about our portfolio.

Mm-hmm.

I know it is something that comes up in every partner meeting and every conversation I’m in about how we both hire in the firm — both women and people from underrepresented backgrounds and how we get that into our portfolio. And we work on it daily, and my partner is very focused on that. But I don’t have an excuse …

Do you think Silicon Valley has changed in attitude, given this sort of techlash that’s happening?

I think it has, dramatically. I mean, in my 20 years of building companies in Silicon Valley, the intensity of focus on diversity and inclusion in the last five years is dramatically higher. It’s an order of magnitude higher. And it’s changing how … Definitely how we invest, how we run companies, how we hire. It’s changed all those things, in my experience. And we have a long way to go.

Yeah, and the numbers still don’t bear it out. It’s really …

I totally agree.

It’s the strangest thing. So when you think about where the biggest, most interesting innovations are happening, where do you tend towards right now? You’re obviously in food tech. There’s a lot of mobility stuff going on — and that’s not mobile phones. Where do you think that the hottest place to look at is? And where do you think the hype, the worst place right now is?

Well, I don’t spend that much time looking at investments, to tell you the truth. I spend more of my time on Medium, which maybe we should talk about that!

Yes, I’m going to talk about that. I’m going to get to that right now.

But, I mean, I think obviously AI is infiltrating everything we do and there’s very interesting things we’re … actually there’s an overlap of AI and material and molecule discovery, which, I’ll probably butcher this if I try to even explain it. One of our companies is Zymergen, which is based on … which is just doing mind-blowing things in inventing new … discovering new materials and new chemicals through AI.

Right.

And so that’s a field that I barely understand, and I think every time I learn more about it, it’s doing incredible things. And there’s a number of companies like that.

All right. Medium.

Yes.

What’s happening with Medium now? When last we talked, you were … You’ve changed it about 63 times. Like, in the way you’re looking about it. How do you look at it right now? What do you think of it as?

I would argue I have not changed it 63 times, although …

You shifted.

I do defend my need to change my mind.

I don’t mind it. I don’t care if you change it.

We haven’t changed that many things about Medium. Medium’s been around for about seven years.

Mm-hmm.

The entire time, it’s been an open publishing platform that has grown that entire time. So, more people write, more people read. Two years ago, we started building a subscription business on top of that. That’s been going very well.

And so in the last two years, the main thing we’ve done is built this premium consumer subscription business on top of the open publishing platform. So it’s really a mesh of those two things that allows anyone to publish, have a voice, potentially get paid. We pay thousands of writers from all over the world, every week, and that’s a growing amount. And then we have a professional editorial team and then we also work with third-party publishers. So we do all that …

Would it be right to say that you’ve pushed off of the professional stuff more and tended more towards different writers? Has that not worked as well? Or what part has worked the best?

Everything’s growing. The bulk of Medium is still self-published authors and we have our partner program where we pay them through. Most people writing on Medium don’t opt in to get paid, they’re looking to find audience. We also have a growing editorial team that is publishing … The latest thing we’ve been doing is starting these little publications or mini magazines around a variety of topics. We’ve been doing that both in-house and through partners like Mark Bittman and Roxanne Gay. We just launched something a couple weeks ago.

And so all that is working and it’s really the combination of things that are working, because it’s very clear to me that advertising isn’t working, peer advertising for publishing, for quality information. People still want good things to read and to inform their view of the world, and so every publisher that, as you know, is putting up paywalls and subscriptions, and it seems very clear that people aren’t going to subscribe to dozens of sites.

That’s right.

Just like they don’t subscribe to every TV show they watch or every musician. They’re going to look for a lot of value under one subscription that’s personalized, that’s high quality, that’s, I think, ad-free is tremendously different.

Well, they’re doing that with podcasts. They’re trying to bring together podcasts …

They are. And we’re much farther along than anyone doing that in podcasts.

Do you consider yourself a network then? And how would you describe yourself as a media company?

We’re … You could call it a network, and Medium’s always been a network, it’s really a platform and the subscription part is a bundle. It’s a bundle of thousands of writers, of dozens of publications, for one price. Some of that is licensed, by the way, from third-party publishers. So we include New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg. A lot of these, part of … Just a few stories from them are in there. And so really our goal is to build the best content subscription product that there is.

Do you think, yourself, of buying big media companies? All the others … A lot of … Laurene Powell Jobs, Marc Benioff, obviously Jeff Bezos, and others with some money have been purchasing things. There was a rumor you were looking at New York magazine? Is that true?

It’s true, there was a rumor about that. And…

You got me there.

I love New York magazine, I think they do a great job. And look, I think it is something I’ve thought about.

Right.

Because I think there’s a lot of those organizations that do great work and they need a new model, frankly. And a lot of them I think will be fine, but a lot of them are going through more difficult times. The difference between myself and most of the people you mentioned is, if we were to do that it would plug into the business and building.

So what do you imagine — finishing up — the modern media company looks like? What’s been the thing that you’ve done and you’ve thought, “Ah, that’s not the way it should go”? What do you think a modern media company looks like? Because you could go and buy old media companies …

Yeah.

And try to …

Yeah. I don’t think that’s … I think a modern media company … I think the idea of being open to some degree is important, and this is where we’re really trying to capture the best of what you get from the internet and from social media in many ways, which is giving a lot of people the chance to be heard. But it’s not guaranteeing … It’s not just let the machines and algorithms and people fight it out for attention, it’s really blending openness …

So not Twitter, right?

Not Twitter, but it’s … We just serve a very different purpose. So the modern media company, if you’re building a publisher today, given the internet, I think it’d be crazy to limit yourself to the people in the building or the people who you know. And so we have the good fortune of getting tens of thousands of people every single day saying, “Here’s my story. Here’s my idea. Here’s my perspective.” And we curate that and sometimes we edit it and we put it in front of more people, and then we also get the benefit of working with people who are well-established.

And so a modern media company, I think, taps the world’s brains and really builds the best … And a big part of what we do and our philosophy is blending humans and machines. So we’ve seen the pure, open platform, what that gives us in terms of content. And we’ve seen the traditional world and how that can be limited in terms of scale and efficiency. And so I think the next version’s going to blend those things and that’s what we’re trying to do.

And are you positive about media? Because it’s still in its long death swoon. Which, they still haven’t killed off media. It’s been more … Reading is more popular. Television’s more popular. Are you worried about media?

About media?

In general, do you think the changes that are being made are …

I’m very optimistic. It’s interesting that the written word and publishing, which we’re currently focused on though not limited to, is kind of the last to be … There’s a time when it was going to be the death of the music industry and there was a time … It was never, as I recall, the death of the TV industry, but there’s a time when reality TV dominated and that’s what we kind of thought the future was. And both of those are tremendously better, both as businesses and as consumer products. And I think the same thing, for the same reason, can happen with the information we read, and nonfiction educational content as well.

So you imagine that there will be great media brands, not … Like, you have Game of Thrones, for example, which just finished, which we’re not sure what we’re going to do after that. But you, still, are positive that media can morph into this in this noisy, angry…

Absolutely. The reason it sucks is because of advertising. Full stop. That is the game that we’ve been playing for 20 years, and it wasn’t so bad at first, and now? Attention wins. Period. The cheapest way you can generate attention, which is the same reason that reality TV dominated, change the business model, you change the content.

To me, people talk about saving publishing or saving news. How about we create something way better? And I think we can do that, in the same way other industries do, by changing the incentive structure.

So that would make, kind of, Twitter and Facebook reality television in a weird way? Because that’s where a lot of people get their news.

The reality TV version of the internet will exist for a long time, just as a reality TV version. I think Facebook and Twitter are distribution systems for content more than they are content themselves and social media is a whole ‘nother thing. But I’m talking about publishing, and even when people are talking about where they get their news and information, most things people read are on other sites that are commercially published and driven by advertising.

All right. Last question. Do you think you’ll go public with Medium?

It’s too soon to say, but if we do I would like to go on the Long-Term Stock Exchange, another Obvious investment.

All right. All right. We’ll talk about that later. Thank you, Ev.

Thanks, Kara.


Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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Alexa Chung ELLE Cover Star March 2012

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Alexa Chung ELLE Cover Star March 2012

For your daily dose of fashion and beauty visit http://www.elleuk.com

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Lil Nas X and Wrangler’s “Old Town Road” clothing line inspires country music fan backlash

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“Old Town Road” star Lil Nas X’s latest move is into fashion, courtesy of a collaboration with Wrangler, the legacy denim and apparel brand that’s become a signature element of the Western aesthetic.

The chart-topping rapper has partnered with the company to launch a capsule clothing collection inspired by his hit song and featuring graphic T-shirts, jeans, and other denim apparel. The collaboration is essentially an extension of one of the most memorable lyrics in “Old Town Road,” which shouts out Wrangler by name: “Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty.”

Wrangler describes the capsule collection, which launched May 20, as “fresh remixes of classic Wrangler styles for the kind of modern cowboy that can’t be put in a box.”

That’s a cheeky reference to “Old Town Road” itself, which sparked an intense debate over whether the song counts as country music when it debuted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in March, and was subsequently removed. Despite its references to established Western themes and imagery — the song’s lyrics revolve around a lone cowboy riding his horse into the sunset, after all — Billboard said the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Some country music fans and industry observers agreed, arguing that “Old Town Road” qualifies more as hip-hop than country. Others criticized Billboard for feeding rigid ideas about who or what qualifies as country enough, and suggested that Lil Nas X’s race played a part in the song’s reclassification; the fact that Lil Nas X is a black teenager from Atlanta and country is a predominantly white genre did not go unnoticed.

The song quickly became the catalyst for an industry-wide discussion about the definition of country music and racially tinged gatekeeping within the genre. It also became the top song in the country, and has now been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks straight.

Just like the song itself riled some country music fans amid an outpouring of support for Lil Nas X from his own expansive fanbase, the rapper’s collaboration with Wrangler has met with a polarized response.

The Lil Nas X capsule collection is clearly intended to celebrate and capitalize on the success of “Old Town Road.” Although many Lil Nas X fans have expressed interest in buying the collection, Wrangler is also facing criticism from some consumers, many of whom are threatening to boycott.

Much of the backlash is playing out on social media, where Wrangler has received thousands of comments from customers expressing anger and “disappointment.” (It is unclear if customers have also been contacting the company via other, less public methods; Vox has reached out to Wrangler for comment.) And much of the current conversation revolves around how Wrangler seems to be promoting inclusivity by branching out from its reputation as a brand worn by cowboys and farmers.

Two recent Instagram posts from Wrangler showcasing items from its Lil Nas X collection have received more than 1,000 comments each. While plenty of people have commented on how awesome it looks or asking questions about where to buy, several have declared that the “Old Town Road” items are “ruining the cowboy name that y’all have.”

“Wranglers are to be worn by cowboys and farmers not rappers this is very disappointing,” reads one representative Instagram comment.

Some commenters have more explicitly mentioned race — or called out others’ racism.

“This is the dumbest thing i have seen all day,” one user wrote. “Wtf @wrangler? Why is it about diversity and equality ? There jeans. Quit playin politics.”

Lil Nas X, for his part, seemed mildly surprised by the response.

These comments are in the same vein as those used by some country music fans to describe “Old Town Road” when the song made its chart debut, arguing that rappers have no place in the genre (often while neglecting to acknowledge modern country’s own hip-hop influences). Lingering over this debate is race, which many Instagram users have called out in the comments on Wrangler’s posts. Country music is perceived as an insular, predominantly white genre, while Lil Nas X is a black rapper who draws influences from black artists and musical styles.

But Wrangler’s continued support of Lil Nas X is clear; the brand has been actively responding to its detractors on social media, simply repeating on that is devoted to creating high-quality products for all of its customers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the drama over the Lil Nas X collection has only served to draw more attention to it. Some pieces have already sold out, like a pair of shorts that say “Wrangler” on the booty, in keeping with the lyrics of “Old Town Road.” Considering that items in the collection cost between $39 for a graphic T-shirt and $129 for a pair of jeans, the outcry, at least from Wrangler’s perspective, seems to have paid off.

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