“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. “They are different from you and me.” Fitzgerald’s point was that the rich should be judged by special standards. Ernest Hemingway’s equally famous (although perhaps apocryphal) retort dismissed Fitzgerald’s argument by saying, “Yes, they have more money,” suggesting that the difference was morally inconsequential.
I’m with Ernie on this.
For example, just because Google cofounder Sergey Brin is rich (number 26 on Fortune‘s 2007 list), doesn’t mean it was OK this past May for Google to invest $3.9 million in Brin’s new wife Anne Wojcicki’s venture, 23andMe, designed to help people browse their own genome-a New Age version of navel-gazing.
Google CEO Eric E. Schmidt told The New York Times that Brin had no input into the decision to invest in his wife’s company, adding that Google’s deliberations were totally objective and “done by the book beyond belief.”
(Schmidt did not tell how he managed to erase from his mind the fact that Wojcicki is married to the man who signs his paycheck. Perhaps the Google app that did that little job of work is still in beta.)
In any case, Google’s investment in its founder’s wife’s venture has not elicited a great deal of outrage, but it should. Think about it: Out of all the startups that could have used Google’s millions, out of all the companies in which Google shareholders could have profited by investing, Google gave its cash to Brin’s wife. Any way you slice it, that’s nepotism, and nepotism is not a peccadillo; nepotism is destructive and it’s a habit into which the rich and powerful are prone to fall, believing the rules that apply to others don’t apply to them. But as the late Robert Townsend wrote in his classic 1970 book, Up The Organization (recently reissued with a forward by management guru Warren Bennis), “If there’s even a bare possibility that you’re prejudiced, the smell of it will scare off or turn off the very people you need most. The stockholders will never know how many good people they missed.” In other words, writes Townsend, “Nepotism is a way of screwing the nonfamily shareholders.”
Is this just a misstep from the company with the “Don’t be evil” motto? Or is it an early indicator of a growing trend? I know what I think. What do you think?