Can CEOs Forward Progress? Probably Not.

Oct 15, 2020

2 min read

In 1988, Dave Rhodes promised thousands of Americans $50,000 in cash in return for $5 and some stamps. The invented author of the most successful chain letter ever sent, Rhodes claimed that by helping build out a mailing list his marks could create massive value for corporations and thereby themselves. This sounded plausible enough that the letter, dubbed “Make Money Fast,” made the leap to legend, becoming an exponential growth on the face of the early Usenet.

Still in high circulation in 1994, MMF soiled the concept of “pass it on” long before copypastas and grandmothers colonized Facebook. The math, cynical and simple, now looks as revolutionary as an Egyptian artifact.

10
100
1,000
10,000
100,000
1,000,000
10,000,000

The new Pluto Pledge, heavily publicized in England, exists in the multi-level shadow of what might be called the “Rhodes Pyramid.” Conceived by Pluto CEO Alex Rainey, the 10-step prescription for racial equity purports to offer a roadmap “to become an antiracist, diverse, and inclusive business.” It is similar in form and function to the Pledge For Allies Creating Equity authored by a group of Y Combinator founders, which requires an annual donation and a commitment to sitting through educational videos designed to teach “about the ways in which generations of white Americans have benefited from institutionalized racism and systematic oppression.”

Pluto is a travel insurance company with an all-white, all-male management team, but Rainey appears to be genuine in his commitment, having donated to BLM UK and Color in Tech (“This is of paramount importance,” he explained over the phone). YC is a well-known accelerator with a long-standing commitment to diversity and a track record of honesty in regards to the homogeneity of its batches. That is to say that these chain mail pledges, which will inevitably multiply, are likely conceived in both good faith and in the spirit of productization and hypergrowth, which may place them at odds with the work if not the spirit of change-making.

Pledges are solutions designed to scale — the sort of solutions one might expect from executives skilled at scaling. The issue presented is that these pledges take a checklist rather than inventory approach to change management. These approaches are often ineffective. YC is famously well-managed, has been working hard on the issue of diversity for years, and has made admissions of their own limited progress.

For diversity practitioners the issue with these kinds of pledges is best understood at the intersection of good intentions and customer retention. In 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral, raising $115 million. It was a wild success, but not a sustained one. Fewer than one percent of donors to the ALS Association ever donated again. This is not to say that the effort was bad, but that it represents a flawed model for a sustained social commitment and a concerning model for ongoing financial commitment.

Many business leaders don’t need to be convinced of the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But many of those same leaders are demonstrably bought into the notion that solutions ought to be scalable. It behooves those tasked with managing institutional change to have an argument for custom solutions at the ready. Perhaps the best argument is that proposed viral solutions are being authored by well-meaning activists with little to no demonstrable success addressing the problems they intend to solve.