The Business of Unicorns

Quitting corporate culture


in Features • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan


Let’s imagine that a corporation transforms into a person. Pretend that it inhabits a human body with a beating heart and a back that aches when it sleeps on the wrong side of the bed. Who is that person? What are they like? Do you see them as a co-worker or even a friend? Would you want to join them for drinks after work? Would they get an invite to your wedding? These questions aren’t as outlandish as they appear, especially if you’re familiar with the legal concept of corporate personhood. Corporations can hold property, enter contracts, and sue like any human being — and, controversially, they maintain First Amendment rights to spend money on elections and object to federal birth control mandates on religious grounds, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

When I worked in the finance industry, I wouldn’t have struggled to answer those questions. If my corporation entered the room, I would’ve felt uncomfortable. I would’ve straightened my spine, cleared my throat, and smoothed the folds of my slacks to appear as presentable as possible. We wouldn’t have been friends. If my corporation became a person, I wouldn’t want to know them. They probably wouldn’t want to know me, either. I was an asset at best and an inconvenience at worst. If I quit, they would replace me within the hour. If I died, they wouldn’t shed a tear.  

Other kinds of corporations exist, though. These entities are different. Special. We called them Unicorns. Venture capitalist Aileen Lee coined the term back in 2013 to describe privately-owned start-ups less than a decade old with a valuation of at least a billion dollars. At the time, Unicorns were so rare that they felt as mythic as the creature that inspired their name. Though more and more entities met the qualifications in the years that followed, Unicorns continued to hold that status in the finance world — one of folklore, one of legend, passed down in whispers amongst those who dreamed we might encounter one someday. 

Uncommon, but not impossible to find. If you’re on the hunt for a Unicorn, the best place to start is the technology sector. You can usually track them through the economic forest via their marketing — think Instagram-ready aesthetics with clean logos, sharp lines, and catchy copywriting. Their names, short and sharp, like footprints down a well-worn path. Take Gusto, Houzz, and WHOOP, for example, easy to remember, fun to repeat. Don’t get distracted. You’re almost there. Another tell-tale clue is in the dirt. They claim their products will disrupt the market. No one else is doing what they’re doing! With little competition, their valuation soars, and at last, you’ve caught yourself a Unicorn. 

Don’t let the glamorous appearance fool you, though. A Unicorn’s horn is sharp enough to draw blood. And they aren’t afraid to use it. 

WeWork is the oft-cited example of the Unicorn run amok. The story is familiar to most of us by this point— you’ve probably read the book, listened to the podcast, or watched the AppleTV+ series inspired by the podcast. At its height, the company was valued at 47 billion dollars. Despite billions pouring in from investors, its September 2019 plan to go public failed dramatically, and CEO Adam Neumann was pushed out. With a $445 million exit package, of course. 

WeWork isn’t an anomaly. Plenty of vaguely technology-focused “disruptor” companies are overvalued by the market. Many aren’t even profitable. These entities operate at a loss, but investors are eager to get involved, believing that it’s their chance to get in with the next big thing. It doesn’t always pan out that way, though. 

When these companies fail, they fail in a spectacular fashion. In time, the Instagram-ready facade fades away, revealing the ugly truth underneath. Look at WeWork alongside other hot-shot start-ups like Away and Homepolish, and the pattern is clear.  It’s the employees who pay the heaviest price, as they’re forced to scramble in the face of mismanagement, toxic behavior from higher-ups, massive layoffs, and weeks without pay. The emperors behind the brand used to look ambitious and brilliant — but without their clothes, suddenly, they seem egotistical, fanatical, even a bit narcissistic.  

Corporations don’t only passively ignore our humanity, but they actively seek to strip it away. Our bodies, our health, and our well-being are entirely expendable. We are overworked, stressed out, and exhausted. The corporation doesn’t think to hire another employee to share our workload. Even if they did, we would remain crouched uncomfortably at our desks, our eyes seared by the fluorescent light of the computer screen for hours at a day, our bodies crumbling before our eyes. Our illnesses, ailments, and disabilities must remain hidden, lest we be seen as sick. Weak. Malingering

And that’s if we’re lucky. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of frontline workers reported to their in-person jobs despite the unknown threats to their physical health. The crisis underlined that sectors like health care, agriculture, and public transportation are essential to the functioning of our society — but corporations didn’t do much to protect these workers, either. In a country without universal health care, more than one in every five US workers still lacks access to paid sick leave. Without the financial resources to take unpaid time off, or to leave jobs with unsafe conditions, many had no choice but to jeopardize their bodies to keep a roof over their heads. Women, people of color, and low-wage workers disproportionately bore the brunt of that risk, too, exacerbating existing inequalities in our systems. 

It’s easy to blame the monster for its bad behavior. It’s easy to punish one bad actor, portrayed by Jared Leto in the inevitable dramatization, and move on. But the corporation is only doing what it’s told. When I worked in the finance industry, my company’s investment recommendations urged investors to put their money in corporations that demonstrated aggressive and continued growth. Profitability seemed an antiquated metric in the face of expansion that continued to accelerate year-over-year, as companies ate up more market share and obliterated the competition. A single quarter of slow-down was punished with a Sell rating. There’s just no room in the corporate budget for basic kindness or compassion. They must be competitive, powerful, and efficient if they wish to win over investors.  

Like the titan Saturn immortalized by artist Francisco Goya, the corporation will do anything to stay in power. Even consume its young. The cruelty is in the design. 

The financial industry doesn’t like Bernie Sanders. “He scares me more than the coronavirus,” one institutional analyst, who hopefully wasn’t moonlighting as a psychic, wrote over email in late February 2020. At the time, the market plummeted from panic over the virus, and all three of the major indices dropped over 10% into something called correction territory. It was bad — only to get worse — as the words “pandemic” and “work-from-home” hadn’t entered our daily lexicon just yet. Still, the senator from Vermont held our attention. 

Sanders had a nickname in the office. “Crazy Bernie,” my coworkers called him. They attributed the moniker to then-president Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Other cruel nicknames sourced from the Twitter feed included “Sleepy Joe” for Joe Biden and “Mini Mike” for Michael Bloomberg. But Sanders drew the most rancor from my coworkers. “California went to Crazy Bernie because they’re a bunch of bums,” one declared. “It has one of the highest homeless populations in the country.” And, dear reader, my coworkers did not hold unhoused people in high esteem, either. 

My officemates agreed that of all the Democratic nominees, Biden acted the most like a “leader.” As they spoke, I thought about his slew of very public gaffes, including the moment where he mistook his wife for his sister during a Super Tuesday speech. To me, he seemed awkward, confused, out-of-touch, a relic of a different age. Though he would ultimately earn my vote in the general election, at the primary stage, he didn’t inspire me much.  

I held my tongue, though. The financial world wasn’t friendly to women who chose to voice their opinions. Take Elizabeth Warren, who was still in the primary race at the time. My coworkers described her as too passionate, too aggressive. “She talks too much,” they said. She was too much. It seemed like every woman was too much for them. 

So was Barbara. She was one of our prospective clients, another woman who worked in the finance industry. When one of our salespeople reached out to her over the phone, she pushed back. She didn’t believe our thesis, she didn’t see the value, she didn’t have much time to talk. She cut him off. She was aggressive. “What a bitch!” My coworker moaned. When he prepared to call her back later that day, a smirk spread across his face. “I feel like she’s going to spank me,” he said. 

I learned that it was best to stay quiet. To fade into the background, where invisibility afforded me a meager layer of protection against their complaints. It was easy — as the only woman on most conference calls, the other participants didn’t seem to know or care that I was there. They would laugh and joke about fantastical sexual encounters with Swedish supermodels. One client admitted that he found an 18-year-old girl “quite striking, just like her mother.” The girl in question happened to be the man’s daughter. 

The men would laugh and laugh. They supported each other, and they egged each other on. At the time, our president was a man who reportedly told a Miss Universe winner in 1997, “Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?”  

His daughter, Ivanka, was 16 years old at the time. 

My officemates hoped Michael Bloomberg’s bid for the presidency would succeed. He was something of a hometown favorite, originating from the same industry as the rest of us. Access to his Professional Service, the industry standard for data, analytics, and communication, cost my company more each year than my salary. 

When we visited the Bloomberg offices for a meeting, their employees smiled a toothy grin as they told us that 80% of the company’s profits went towards charity. It all felt like a bad parody. 

“Have you ever noticed that there are so many Asian people these days?” These words came from our intern, a young Finance student at a local university who spent a couple of hours each week at our office.  

If finance is an uncomfortable place for women, it’s an outright hostile place for ethnic minorities. It was a lesson the intern seemed to take to heart, and no one in the office stopped him. Quite the contrary. My boss chipped into the conversation, venting about how Asians seem to comprise “80% of people on the metro”.  

Another co-worker chimed in that it would only get worse, describing growing immigrant populations in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. “It’s not that I don’t like them,” she said. “It’s just that there’s something about their culture that doesn’t appeal to me. Either you like one culture or you don’t. I’m not racist, I’m just being honest.” 

I don’t think it is useful for me to list all the indecent, racist, anti-Semitic comments that I heard around the office on a seemingly daily basis. My coworkers attacked everyone, from trans people to the unhoused to the mentally ill. The message was always the same — I’m not hateful, I just don’t like them. They’re just not okay. And it’s all their fault. 

When I was hired, my coworkers joked that they selected me because my “Jewish-sounding name” would appeal to some of our clients. I hid my sexuality from them. Once, the office erupted in a discussion about what they would do to their children if they came out as transgender. It sent me back to the closet for the first time since I left my conservative hometown at 18 years old.  

Why did I stay? Over two years have passed, and I’m still not sure that I have a good answer. 

It was February of 2020. Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s memoir of hope and disillusionment as an employee in Silicon Valley, debuted. I felt a sense of kinship with her, both of us shielded from certain inequalities by our thinness and our whiteness, but exposed to others by virtue of being women in male-dominated fields. Quietly, I devoured the press coverage at my desk. Book in hand, I scanned through its pages, trying to divine some sort of meaning from her experience, searching for something I wasn’t sure I could put into words.  

The book did inspire me to take notes on my experiences. I wish I could tell you it was all a noble effort to change company culture. It wasn’t. It was a refuge, a place to hide when these conversations erupted around me, a way to occupy my fingers at my keyboard so no one would ask for my input. I didn’t speak up. I didn’t shout them down. I regret that. 

I was 22 years old at the time, fresh out of university. With a Master’s degree in History, I was told that I was lucky to have a job in the first place. I believed it. I was young, naive, and unsure of myself, working in a hostile office where no one else was like me. Six months in, and I already had a plan to leave later that year. I needed 12 consecutive months of experience to move forward with my immigration process. So I stayed.  

If the corporation is a person, I suppose it isn’t entirely inhuman. It fed me. It kept a roof over my head. It paid my bills — including the therapy expenses I took on to cope with working there. It was enough, albeit barely. But it was better than nothing.  

The dynamics of abusive relationships are complicated, especially between children and their parents. For many survivors, it’s a challenge to label their experiences with a word as heavy as “abuse.” Parents are supposed to love us, aren’t they? They fed us, didn’t they? They worked, they paid the bills, remember? Those tokens of kindness, minuscule in the face of what we’ve suffered, remain enough to blind us to the bad. It’s not easy to accept that people contain multitudes. That they can be capable of good and bad, all at the same time.  

Maybe, then, what happened next was a blessing in disguise. In mid-March, as coronavirus cases skyrocketed, my office sent us home. I received a call from my boss the next day. He was letting me go, he said, at least until he had a better understanding of the situation. Months later, I was formally laid off, along with many of the coworkers quoted in these pages. My boss mentioned that I could pick up a few projects with him if I wanted, an easy way to make some extra cash as a freelancer. 

“No thanks,” I said. And I hung up the phone. •