Why I'm launching Divine Innovation
What brought me here, and what's next?
Welcome to Divine Innovation. I’m launching this newsletter in May 2020, but this project has long been in the making.
Freshly tossed into the workforce in 2017, I joined the growing team of a financial technology startup in Delhi, India. When I arrived, the startup was on the cusp of launching its flagship product, which opened the Internet’s bustling economy to the majority of Indians who exclusively used cash. Using a network of agents (like grocery store clerks and delivery men), the product let customers create virtual debit cards and save their income in an online wallet. It promised a safe place for users’ hard currency.
This was especially important after a disastrous nationwide economic policy called demonetization, which replaced all high-value paper currency with new banknotes. Indians suddenly had worthless cash savings, and had to stand in long bank lines to swap their old cash with new notes. More than 100 people died from exhaustion and starvation.
I believed in the startup’s capacity to prevent future suffering caused by policies like demonetization. So I threw myself into the company’s mission. Of course, I knew we couldn’t reform a massive national economy by ourselves. But I had faith in the startup’s potential to bridge a gap between (1) new technologies that currently served the elite, and (2) the people that needed structural economic changes the most. And with the language and research skills to do so, I thought I could be part of that shift.
But then we pivoted.
New regulations complicated the profitability of the startup’s cash-oriented product, and so it switched to building financial products for businesses. After two full years of working on the first product, all that work was gone. Poof.
I saw the toll this took on our team. The looks on their faces suggested that a biblical flood had swept away their life’s work. The new product failed to fully materialize and grow according to the co-founders’ vision. In a desperate attempt to rally morale, the company’s CEO threw increasingly far-fetched dates and growth benchmarks onto our Slack channels and company WhatsApp group. We fumbled every Hail Mary. Employees lost faith in the company.
But this isn’t a story of loss. The pivot forced me to come up for air. No longer fully immersed within the enticing dream-world of the original product, I understood what the startup really did. Though the product offered many useful services to people who needed them, leadership openly discussed the ways that user-generated data could be used to force even more products onto the startup’s user base, like insurance and loans and lines of credit.
In other words, the startup seemed poised to saddle users with debt in the name of innovation. It was eager to introduce cash-dependent Indians to every dimension of a modern financial system, and was willing to replace their old social vulnerabilities with new forms of precarity. The startup understood the risks and benefits of being a bank in sleek millennial trappings, and was okay with the social costs if it made a profit.
I don’t think you should blame the startup’s leadership alone for (1) preaching social change and a better life while (2) giving a conventional business plan a facelift with newer tech and minimalist design. Among startups, this bait-and-switch is a decades-long tradition. A litany of brands—from the multi-billion company “disrupting” tunnels to the Indian startup privatizing the bus—follow this mantra.
If you’re ready to condemn the startup’s co-founders for their hypocrisy and exploitative ambitions, you have thousands of CEOs and business leaders to disparage as well. The startup had copy-pasted the snake-oil sales formula that other tech companies had developed ages ago. It used smart marketing and alluring language to sell a vision; it brought employees and customers into the fold to grow its influence and line its pockets.
A cynical but reasonable take might tell you that the startup then functioned exactly like a religious institution, growing and sustaining itself on faith and the interests of those living off the resources that that faith generated.
Spoiler alert: that’s my take.
From the moment we pivoted, I started to look at how life at a startup was profoundly spiritual and religious. The startup was a cult, I came to see, and every bit of cult scholarship that I’ve read since has deepened this conviction. The state of the leadership’s cult of personality seemed strong. Mid-management publicly kowtowed to the co-founders, but expressed dissent and disillusionment in other pockets of the office, their heads bowed into their steaming cups of chai. The head honchos preached growth and conversion at all costs.
And strangely, they positioned themselves as counter-cultural oracles, despite the norm-core economic incentives ($$$) that shaped their strategy—not to mention the fleet of pricey, chauffeur-driven cars that whisked them off to their meetings with venture capitalists.
They won 30 Under 30 awards, and spoke at conferences for “disruptors.”
People totally bought their shtick.
But my startup wasn’t a spiritual bug. If we look to the high priests of tech, it’s clear that they recognize their spiritual power, and wield it to their advantage. When Mark Zuckerberg coolly declares Facebook “the new church,” we should take him seriously: the social media giant is poised to overtake Christianity as the world’s largest community, which gives Zuckerberg untold power over what we see and believe.
Others fail to crack the code, like Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos or the founding team of Away. The smoke and mirrors disappear, and reveal patterns of abuse and deceit in the name of a vision. They erupt in scandal or get raided by the FBI, just as spiritual and religious groups do.
In the end, as is characteristic of cults—but not of our stereotypes of them—people started leaving in droves for new (office) communities. I left a year after The Pivot to study religion and economy at Union Theological Seminary, with a dream to make sense of the spiritual dimensions of technology and the people that shape it. But more than half of the original team had gone before me; they joined fledgling but promising startups, hoping that this time, their team’s mission would come true.
I’m not sure what first brought me to think of the tech world through such a spiritual lens after the shock of The Pivot. Maybe it’s the way that new employee arrivals and religious festivals were celebrated with the exact same rituals and tone. Or maybe it’s the talk of “missions” and “conversions” and “angel investors” and “impact” casually thrown around during brainstorming sessions. (Maybe it’s Maybelline.)
But when I look back, I certainly blame myself for my automatron-like work in the name of the startup’s mission. I heard what I wanted to hear from leadership, and was convinced that I was doing socially-valuable and well-earning work. I told myself that a white, Ivy League-educated anthropology major could help change India’s economy.
I wasn’t just a convert: I was a missionary and evangelist. And I wasn’t the only one.
In neighboring Myanmar, Facebook’s muscled introduction to millions of users fueled disinformation and a genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Facebook employees worked in service of the company’s mission, and did whatever it took to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” no matter the cost.
If we have any hope of understanding (let alone regulating) the technology that pours itself into every niche of our lives, we have to grapple with what roles faith, belief, and practice play in our experiences with tech, and get to the heart of what drives technologists to do what they do.
This affects all of us.
Now that Divine Innovation is here, I’m so excited for what’s next. I’ll be publishing once every three weeks; I’ll dish out my takes on founding myths, the raw power of conversion, Silicon Valley’s history as a spiritual destination, and more. Eat up!
But before I send out the next newsletter, I’d love to hear what you want to hear and talk about together. I’m readily available on Twitter (@functionaladam), and can be reached by email at email@example.com. If you haven’t already done so, subscribe here:
I also welcome you to spread the “gospel,” a.k.a. “good news.” The good news here being that this newsletter exists. The best experiences are meant to be shared, so read and share Divine Innovation with friends and enemies alike.
Talk to you soon,