Over the last few weeks, my news feed has been saturated with news of the same story. This story concerns that of a 19-year-old boy who allegedly made up a lie. What was it? Very simply, it was that he was not who he claimed to be. The contents of this lie threw Harsh Dalal’s company and personal credibility under the bus within a day. This lie resulted in a social death across news platforms from this continent to the next. Over the next 24 hours, news publications which had once lauded Dalal highly, proceeded to take his name down at lightning speed (except the stories that could give them the views, of course). Whilst the jury is still out on whether Dalal is guilty for the lie he was purported to conceive, I can’t help but ask myself – how could his story have been believed in the first place? I shan’t go into detail, you can read about what happened on every other news outlet. What I am more interested in is why this took so long to uncover and what does this say about startup culture?
1940s Hollywood = 2020s StartupWorld
An observation: 21st century startup world is 20th century Hollywood. Everyone wants to be the next Marilyn or Clark. But securing the big break and the title of ‘bombshell’, takes grit and a perhaps, a few white lies. Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean and Clark Gable had bad teeth. The ability to put on a trick show is what is expected.
When the news first broke, KrASIA’s managing director asked the Oasis team whether we should take down an interview we did with Dalal prior to the news outbreak. The content of this interview homed in on his life outside of work, his childhood stories and struggles with the CEO-title. Nothing groundbreaking. However, I now read this interview with a fresh pair of eyes. I do not see a conman possessing master manipulation skills, neither do I see a foolhardy boy who was ignorant of his actions. Rather, I see yet another founder jumping onto the ‘success’ bandwagon the second he saw a gap.
It is no secret that the innovation world is rife with founders who are hustling to make their next break. Those who want to close their next funding round with superstar VCs. And let’s not forget the lists. Universities have also been purported to consult Forbes 30 under 30 recipients for their own students to land up on the coveted list. As if there was a strict formula for Forbes success.
Not too long ago, WeWork was set to IPO with the backing of heavyweights such as SoftBank. However the inappropriate antics of its CEO, Adam Neumann, and a spurious business model threw the company into flames. Today, WeWork is on its last legs with Neumann no longer in the picture and an IPO far from materialising. And who could forget the 2016 Theranos scandal – where another dishonest founder, Elizabeth Holmes, painted a rosy picture that the highest echelons of the startup world fell for. Scandals at entrenched financial institutions like Archegos Capital and Greensill Capital which have implicated the likes of former British prime minister David Cameron and trusted multinational banks, further proves that deception’s potency should not be underestimated, no matter the scale. It is no wonder that a handful would twist the truth in order to reach stardom. The founders are merely side actors to the Silicon Valleys of today.
All hail the underdog
But make no mistake, everything takes two hands to clap. In Hollywood, as with StartupWorld, people love a good underdog story. This is why the media laps it up and it is deemed a hot potato. Whether it was a small town girl who scored success in the big city, or a 19-year-old who headed a $25 million dollar startup – whilst still in school! – human psychology makes us want to believe in the dream. After all, Hollywood was a brainchild of the American Dream.
Likewise every news outlet (us included) leaped at the chance to cover Harsh’s Hollywood ending. The fact that it seemed too good to be true, was the point. The media outlets cannot be blamed at all, they were doing their jobs – reporting a good story that would bring eyeballs. This means that unless they wore the hat of an investigative reporter, only the bare necessities of due diligence had to be done. The curtains only fell when a certain news outlet got a tip-off of something amiss, and the charade was over. The rest of the media followed suit and, in Gen Z speak, Harsh was effectively cancelled.
Okay, so what next?
Be better. We need to do better. Firstly, it is key that we change our perspectives on what ‘success’ looks like. This mindset change will not only affect us as an ecosystem but will also trickle down to the next generation of innovators. I am convinced that Harsh’s story is not unique, that there are other Marilyns or Clarks out there spinning a tale – they just have not been caught. What I am arguing is that what if we could make more room for different permutations of startup victories. Taking a break after a failed venture could be applauded. Offices without beer taps and swanky lighting could be respected. Owning up to leadership mistakes could be celebrated. Perspective change.
Secondly, the need for mentors and honest lessons. And no, I do not mean networking sessions with self-gratifying has-beens preaching their gospels. I mean conversations about the hard things. The idea that mentors are not simply those who have built an IPO-ed company, but those who possess skills and value sets that we would like to apply in our own journeys. Everyone does not have it figured out, but we can figure it out together. I ask myself, what if Harsh had a steady mentor who could have counselled him out this lie? Or even a close friend he could have sought honest advice from? Perhaps this would have been avoided.
Lastly, we need to practise showing grace. Let’s face it, we have all screwed up. Perhaps in not such epic proportions, but you understand. We were all 19 and foolish once, and required multiple olive branches. Even in leadership or in our homes, we should aim to practise mercy. If this all checks out, then a 19-year-old boy made up a lie and he got beat up badly for it. Big deal. But let’s hope that when the next young star comes crashing down for the same reason, we can show more discernment and wisdom. Rome was not built in a day but I have faith.