[1.0] on founding myths
fake meat, wokewashing, and the stories we’re told
In my launching post for Divine Innovation, I shared about my work at an Indian startup. Its founders created and reiterated a founding myth about the company; its financial products were saving lives, and its employees (including myself) were working in service of a larger mission that could change India’s economy.
But myths can be vulnerable to facts and history, especially when they try to shapeshift.
After we pivoted to a different business model and the narrative around the company’s purpose and value changed suddenly, I saw the founding myth for what it is: a compelling story and a tool to create a cult-like following, one that makes participation in the company’s mission a moral act and minimizes dissent. And I understood that I was a missionary and evangelist in the name of the startup’s mission.
To Bronisław Malinowski, a founding figure of cultural anthropology, myth is “not merely a story told, but a reality lived.”
In the tech world, even though the products change quickly, the landscape can feel static. Media covering startups is plastered with stories featuring archetypal co-founder white dudes, arms akimbo, sharing their founding myth with a friendly journalist. Their omnipresence feels eternal and inevitable, a reality repeatedly lived and retold to the same effect.
My intention is to use Divine Innovation in service to communities that contest these myths, and to feature them, demonstrating that the dehumanizing and alienating role of technology in our lives is not inevitable. Founding myths have power, but as I shared in my last post, they are not invincible. Our history and present are abound with sudden changes in how we engage with the technology around us, in ways that pivot us to better lives.
First, I want to lay the foundation with one startup’s founding story. The way its genesis is recounted is representative of a larger structure that wields myth to influence what we experience and believe.
Inc. published this article last year on Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat, who established an empire of fake meat products such as plant-based sausages and burgers.
[Here’s a link to the full article if you’re interested.]
You have every right to ask what lessons Beyond Meat’s saga has to offer. But digging in, we see that Ethan Brown is following a tried and true storytelling structure—one openly endorsed by business strategists and scientists in the pages of the Harvard Business Review.
In “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool,” executive coach Harrison Monarth introduces us to Freytag’s pyramid. It’s a dramatic structure that “can be traced back to Aristotle,” one that “Shakespeare had mastered.”
Trace the plot structure above onto the Beyond Meat story (summarized shortly below), and you see that Ethan Brown follows the method to a T. [Quotes from the article are in italics.]
Brown: (1) sees hypocrisy and realizes meat can be made artificially, and discovers a chance to change the world; (2) faces doubt and self-doubt; (3) perseveres and lands in Whole Foods, and gets friends and family to invest, because they saw my passion; (4) gains approval from many who doubted him, and then (5) finds strength in the haters’ doubt, which just fuels us.
Concluding his article, Monarth says it straight:
“Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.”
Listeners need more than raw information to care. There needs to be a compelling story around the product to rally behind it. Monarth doesn’t call that compelling story a myth, but other business leaders do.
In his own HBR article, Paul J Zak, a “neuroeconomist,” describes his attempts to “‘hack’ the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors.”
Zak’s US. Department of Defense-funded (!!!) study found that character-driven narratives tend to make people more willing to help others, for instance by donating to a charity featured in a story. These plots should start with some tension in order to sustain the listener’s attention. Citing Zak’s research, Monarth argues that this science explains why stories that follow Freytag’s Pyramid—starting off with expositions and complications—are also so effective in business settings.
“My research has also shown that stories are useful inside organizations,” Zak continues. “We know that people are substantially more motivated by their organization’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services).”
By superseding a company’s transcendence over its transactions, people confound a product and a mission. Consumption and participation in a company’s profit-making efforts become a moral act in service of a larger, structural goal.
Beyond Meat’s customers, who buy fake sausage and taco crumbles, become warriors against climate change.
Its employees don’t just have a marketing or sales job: they’ve joined a “chance to change the world.”
“Finally, don’t forget that your organization has its own story – its founding myth,” Zak adds, explicitly framing his research in religious terms. “These are the stories that, repeated over and over, stay core to the organization’s DNA.”
As these founding stories become more sacred, the groups that produce and reiterate them veer towards cult-dom. The myths take on a valence and importance that a product can’t take on by itself. Business decisions become prophecies, and those creating them are more omnipotent and infallible than they were before. People repeating and honoring the myth are rewarded. Those who challenge it are punished.
Beyond Meat’s job postings explicitly require a “passion for Beyond Meat’s mission, vision and values.” They mean it.
If key business leaders—those advising startup founders on how to turn storytelling into a tool—see power and profit in myth, then we should understand what a myth is and does.
In Ancient Greece, mythos referred to sacred words and oral stories. As with any topic ever, present-day scholars don’t totally see eye to eye on what “myth” means today. But I like this definition put forth by scholars of religion Diana G. Tumminia and R. George Kirkpatrick: “Myths present sacred narratives that usually include venerated characters whose actions lead to the present state of spiritual affairs that must be addressed through the group's action.”
In Beyond Meat’s case, CEO Ethan Brown is a “venerated character” who has created an ~*innovative*~, carbon-busting meat. He has demonstrated his resilience and foresight through his personal trials and the success of his company. His mythic status suggests he should be listened to and followed.
“In addition to shaping an ongoing group reality, a mythos guides one's interpretation of oneself, because myth symbolically articulates a person's selfhood within the context of the definitions and images the group supplies,” Tumminia and Kirkpatrick continue.
We don’t leave myths at the office; they become part of us. We internalize the lessons they offer. Ethan Brown’s success reifies larger myths like the ideas of the “lone genius” and of “meritocracy,” which together justify current political and economic conditions. In this worldview, Ethan Brown proves that people just have to work harder to be successful, and find their own billion-dollar ideas that save the world. Wealthy investor friends, personal savings, America’s history of white supremacy be damned.
This story about fake meat is probably one of the more innocuous examples of how myth can be used in service of leadership and wealth. And the Department of Defense’s interest in the role of mythmaking in business suggests that myths aren’t just profitable; they can be weaponized, too.
But as much as myths are powerful organizing forces, they rely on human hosts; this means they can be challenged and dismantled through mass opposition. And my own experiences reveal that myths are often at their most vulnerable when they try to shapeshift.
“Myths… are not entirely fixed because they often reflect the unfolding process of reality construction taking place with leaders and followers in reference to the outside world,” Tumminia and Kirkpatrick add.
History suggests that, in response to current protests against police brutality, white supremacy, and racism, companies will try to wokewash their founding myths in order to stay relevant. They’ve tried before.
In late 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to tweak his company’s founding story. He suggested that he started the company in response to the Iraq War as a means to shape American foreign policy through fact-driven public debate on his platform.
Obviously, every part of that is a lie; Facebook was founded to rate how attractive other students were without their consent. Zuck was publicly fact-checked for that lie, and was prevented from pivoting Facebook’s sacred narrative to gain even more legitimacy and power.
But that’s just one instance in a web of thousands of myths that remain uncontested; as long as other, larger myths stay in place, Silicon Valley remains a nexus for interests that threaten our wellbeing. And Facebook is still a pseudo-state, with the power to shape elections and people’s realities. Storytelling and myth will be used in service of their wealth accumulation and power hoarding; the media becomes a technology to distribute those myths.
Wokewashing is an attempt to get away with a myth-based bait-and-switch: to legitimize and validate people’s experiences with some myths, retain others, and create entirely new ones in the process. Some people might buy it.
And a light survey of my inbox reveals a litany of companies in the midst of pivoting their founding myths, “expressing their solidarity” with protests against police brutality and white supremacy—from Amazon (which uses its Ring doorbells to expand law enforcement’s facial recognition capabilities, partners extensively with ICE, threatens union organizers in its warehouses, and much more) to The Shed in Hudson Yards (which gerrymandered its access to financing meant for “distressed urban areas”).
Even LinkNYC phone/WiFi kiosks have been up to this nonsense! The machines (and their human creators) have been criticized for their sketchy privacy policies and the three surveillance cameras nestled inside them. Nevertheless, LinkNYC tried to co-opt the aesthetics and sentiments of protests against a white-supremacist militarized state.
Tech companies will pour billions into wokewashing their brands to appear in line with popular dissent, all the while working in service of wealth and power accumulation. People across the country see these superficial overtures for what they are, and are also mobilizing against other weaponized lies and myths that surround them.
“Race is probably the quintessential example of a myth—an imaginary concept shaped by historical and material interests—that has had world-changing and ongoing structural effects,” writes Karen Ho, a leading scholar of capitalism. “To claim that myth can pose no real threat is therefore contrary to social fact and anthropological understanding.”
As people demand more just social conditions, so too is there a need for a more just distribution and production of resources, power, and information. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon affirms: “Genuine disalienation will have been achieved only when things, in the most materialist sense, have resumed their rightful place.”
Ultimately, tech companies will say that things are in the rightful place when they’re in their hands, disrupting and automating the messiness and inefficiency of the human experience. But the mass agitations we’ve seen in the past few weeks—and for eons before that—prove that these myths are being actively contested as hollow deflections from the real issues at hand.
My exploration of startup culture and its myths is a small node within a larger effort to mobilize against economic and racial injustices. Wildly powerful and hypocritical institutions have to be named and confronted.
The people and movements featured in coming issues of Divine Innovation will make clear that popular resistance against tech-mediated surveillance and supremacy is strong and diverse. These are extant movements that you can support and possibly join. There is a proud and long tradition of using technology for liberation and accountability; this history spans far beyond the digital, and reaches into the tendrils of our material realm—from houses, to trains, to mines, to plantations, to mills.
Myths can be weaponized, but they can also be challenged and replaced in efforts to improve our social and material lives. How technology is approached and used can change, too; it can even hold sacred human life and wellbeing. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.