AUSTIN, Texas -- SXSW -- The end of bro culture is nearish, according to someone who was once deeply entrenched in it. While it's too late for the current crop of bro-CEO-led tech companies, a new generation of companies will be the ones to spark lasting change.
Dan Lyons is an author, journalist and one of the writers for the HBO series Silicon Valley, but he was also once a fish out of water at the bro-heavy HubSpot. His experiences there inspired him to write the book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble and also to develop the theory that it will be the next generation of companies that fixes corporate cultures "that favor mostly young white men at the expense of women, people of color and old people" -- a.k.a. "bro culture." (See A Women in Comms Glossary.)
Susan Fowler's recent account of her year at Uber and the subsequent fallout signals two things, Lyons told SXSW attendees during a keynote address: the end of the era of people putting up with abuse and staying quiet, and the beginning of the end of bro culture. (See Culture in Crisis: What's Next for Uber & Tech?, Uber Engineering SVP Out as Probe Continues and Uber's HR Nightmare: Company Investigates Sexual Harassment Claims.)
Lyons says the new norm in the Internet age is startups run by bro-CEOs, white males with no experience or adult supervision that are arrogant, obnoxious and amoral, who hire clones of themselves under the guise of "cultural fit" and harass or at best ignore the women that get hired, and who don't care about ethics or rules, rather encouraging bad behavior. This culture has become pervasive in tech, and it's poisoning Silicon Valley.
After being laid off at Newsweek, Lyons decided to try his hand in the world of startups and joined HubSpot, where the average age was 26 years his junior. The startup had every cliché, he said, including a nap room, keg and push-up club. In his words, it was a mix of frat house, Montessori kindergarten and scientology program. The company had its own culture code and was all about team spirit, yet it also featured high turnover, low morale and a deeply entrenched bro culture that didn't match the surface-level culture they projected.
"On the surface you're making work fun, but you're also taking away things that make people happy like job security, stability, saving for retirement, work-life balance, fair share of equity, opportunities for all, women can get promoted, women can have kids and return to work," he said, adding that bro culture also ultimately takes away employees' dignity.
Lyons believes this type of culture exists in service of a business model -- that of cash. Companies go public without making any money, which was never the case before the 21st century. Case in point, out of 60 tech IPOs since 2011, only ten made a profit. Twitter, for example, went public losing money and has since lost another $2.5 billion. Yet its founders and venture capitalists still got rich.
"If you're not trying to build a long-term sustainable company, you're trying to make a movie you sell to the public market, then you don’t care about employees or diversity," he said. "You want to get rich quick."
So, why should the tech industry bother changing its way? Besides not being fair, Lyons said, it's simply not working. There's a business case for diversity, but there's also the very likely scenario that you end up in crisis management mode, much like Uber is now. Eventually, you have to change.
"At some point, people will wake up and realize this model of throwing a bunch of money at bros won't work," he said.
So how can the industry change? Lyons suggested that if the culture exists to serve a business model, the business model, and the focus on growth at all costs, needs to change as well.
Taking advice from women in the industry, he said new companies should always have at least one woman on their board and one in the C-suite from the very start, and that they should start a women's group in the company on day one. This way, according to angel investor Heidi Roizen, it opens up the conversation and shuts down harassment immediately. Create good jobs and treat employees well, pay taxes, be part of the community and hire with diversity in mind from day one, Lyons suggested.
"Forget about Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber: It's too late for them to change," he said. "The next generation is where it's going to be fixed. It's the companies that haven't been started yet."
— Sarah Thomas, , Director, Women in Comms