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This man is disrupting the cult of the billionaire

Author Anand Giridharadas is rebuking the idea that philanthropic billionaires are society’s heroes. Even some plutocrats are starting to agree with him.

This man is disrupting the cult of the billionaire
[Photo: Andrew Hetherington]

A black suburban dispatched by MSNBC’s Morning Joe is idling outside best-selling author Anand Giridharadas’s Brooklyn apartment when I arrive just after dawn one morning in August. Giridharadas, dressed for TV in a pin-striped blazer and with a swoop of carefully styled hair, hops into a bucket seat and greets our driver by name as we glide down empty streets toward Rockefeller Center.

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“I love it,” Giridharadas, 38, says of being on television, as we wait in a narrow greenroom before his 7 a.m. call time. An author and journalist, he first appeared on Morning Joe in 2015 after sparring on Twitter with the show’s cohost Joe Scarborough about the Trump campaign’s proposed Muslim ban. By the time Giridharadas’s 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, became a best seller, he had become somewhat of a regular. Being on the show “made me realize how few people I was reaching,” he says. “I just didn’t have a sense of the scale.” (He now has more than 520,000 Twitter followers.) The talking-head format favors big shows of personality over substantive debates about economics or politics. But joining the fray is worth it, he says, “to give millions of people a diluted version of my idea.”

That idea, or at least the sound-bite version of it, is that today’s plutocrats—as Giridharadas isn’t afraid to call the 1%—maintain their elite status, and the broader status quo, by using their wealth to control, marionette-style, the priorities of America’s noble-minded societal institutions, from top research universities to humble community organizations. For too long, Giridharadas argues, we’ve allowed our modern moneyed classes to burnish their reputations with philanthropic gifts and Davos fireside chats while the corporations they control simultaneously gut our labor institutions, plunder our planet, and hoard our collective resources. Given this exercise of power, he believes, it should come as no surprise that inequality has been on the rise in the United States for the past three decades, and that no giant check from on high has fixed it.

Winners Take All struck a chord. It also, somewhat remarkably, infiltrated corporate C-suites and nonprofit boardrooms, prompting attendees at elite annual confabs from Davos to Sun Valley (a circuit Giridharadas terms “MarketWorld”; see sidebar) to reexamine their own practices and incentives. The Obama Foundation hosted a dinner discussion featuring Giridharadas’s ideas, and he has spoken at Google, the University of Chicago, and impact-investing conference SOCAP. If people start to reconsider so-called win-win solutions—a favorite term in conference rooms and charity galas for proposals that boost a company’s bottom line while contributing to social progress—Giridharadas believes he will have succeeded. He hopes that “the next time you hear ‘win-win,’ you [think], That’s what rich people say when they don’t want to give anything up,” he explains.

Despite such rhetoric, Giridharadas is careful, in his book at least, not to demonize. At times he is surprisingly sympathetic to the MarketWorld leaders he profiles, including former president Bill Clinton and “power pose” popularizer Amy Cuddy. Giridharadas hails from the same circles, after all. The Ohio-born writer attended Sidwell Friends prep school, the University of Michigan, and Harvard, where he studied political philosophy. Before becoming an India-based South Asia correspondent for The New York Times, he also did a brief stint as a consultant for McKinsey. (He does not mention this background until the book’s acknowledgments.) The goal of Winners Take All is to prosecute the system, not the individuals. “It’s not that [they’re] bad people,” he says of the 1% and the recipients of their patronage. “It’s good people ambling into these structures and then sticking to them at [an] emotional, cultural, self-belief level.”

Giridharadas’s approach is strategic. Make an argument, on a platform like Twitter, that questions the foundation on which people have built entire lives and careers, and they’ll tune you out. But make that same case in a book, laying out your thesis clearly and respectfully—and get readers to spend hours of their time meeting you halfway—and you have a chance of accomplishing a rare feat in our polarized era: changing minds. “Books are a place where you can tell the truth, where you can be a critic,” Giridharadas says. “There’s a space for unencumbered honesty.” He is bullish on the format, and he is already working on another one.

This morning, though, he has just a few minutes of airtime, and his goal is more modest: attract just enough interest to get viewers to follow him on Twitter and maybe buy the book. While Scarborough bemoans Trump and quotes de Tocqueville, Giridharadas and his fellow panelists on the Brady Bunch–style screen grid offer furrowed brows or patient half smiles. Giridharadas is ready to weigh in. But first, a commercial break.

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Until very recently, all a business had to do to win the public’s admiration was express good intentions. Facebook aspired to connect far-flung friends and family. Purdue Pharma, creator of the opioid OxyContin, dreamed of alleviating pain. BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, envisioned a clean-energy future for itself. Uber offered taxi drivers a chance to be their own boss.

Now, with wealth increasingly concentrated in the hands of monopolistic companies and their owners, platitudes that once pacified the public are instead spawning skepticism and distrust, if not ridicule. Giridharadas, with his book and media persona, offers both an explanation for this shift in mood and catharsis. Winners Take All presents an insider’s critique of our system of do-gooder capitalism, while on Twitter Giridharadas is more personal and pointed, taking aim at each fresh example of wealth and power gone unchecked: Jeffrey Epstein and his growing list of enablers; musician Bob Geldof, who used his ties to humanitarian efforts in Africa for personal financial gain; Donald Trump, and then Donald Trump again. When the members of the Business Roundtable—a consortium of CEOs from America’s largest corporations—issued a statement in August, with much fanfare, regarding their intention to protect the interests of employees and communities in addition to those of shareholders, the response from progressive-minded business circles was a collective snort. “Is there one tax maneuver that is legal but unethical that [even] one company behind the statement will renounce?” he tweeted. “I’m curious if any CEO will send me a single tangible example of a thing they will stop doing because of this supposedly landmark statement.” One CEO emailed him; as far as Giridharadas knows, zero have made tangible changes.

[Photo: Andrew Hetherington]
“A big part of what I was trying to do [with the book] is reawaken people to the language of power, justice, and rights,” he says. “What almost every kind of solution that I’m critiquing in the book has in common is [that they all make] change without changing power.”

Technology companies are, in his view, among the worst offenders. “‘Facebook is just a community,'” he says, parroting the social network and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who balks at any suggestion of his singular influence. “No, you’re an authoritarian titan.”


One day in September, I make my way to the SoHo headquarters of Sir Kensington’s, the condiment company best known for its artisanal ketchup and mayonnaise, to meet with cofounder and CEO Scott Norton. Racks of whole dried spices in cork-topped glass vials line the office wall.

Norton’s company, which was acquired by Unilever in 2017, became a certified B Corporation last year, a process that required it to prove that it meets a high bar in such areas as governance and environmental protection. But in Winners Take All, Giridharadas calls out the B Corp designation as yet another example of business leaders overreaching to solve a limited set of social problems while ignoring or even aggravating those outside of their self-interest. B Corps, corporate social responsibility, impact investing—they all sound good. But Giridharadas believes that they are models for change with no real accountability to the broader public. In a democracy, why should we cede policy-making authority to startup founders and MBAs?

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“Before Anand, it was simple,” says Norton, who sports a trim beard and a navy-checked shirt. Enlightened business leaders had popularized the idea that a business could simultaneously make money and make the world a better place. Call it “wokeness as a business strategy,” he says, as opposed to “a true questioning” of how a company’s decisions might impact all of their stakeholders. Giridharadas, he says, has forced even the most well-intentioned leaders to examine the darker sides of their business models. Sir Kensington’s, for example, was founded on the premise that ingredients in the most prosaic condiments should be high quality and well sourced. But the company uses avocado oil in its vegan mayonnaise. Booming demand for the fruit is accelerating deforestation, particularly in Mexico, and the industry’s labor practices are often suspect. Since reading Winners Take All, Norton says he’s been more aware of how neither he, nor his company, is perfect. “We’re not choosing to extract ourselves and get out of this business even though we don’t have clarity,” he says of the ingredient. Sir Kensington’s is working to define a set of avocado-oil supply-chain goals.

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark was similarly affected by Winners Take All. He says that he first read the book in digital form, and then purchased a physical copy for Giridharadas to sign when the two met earlier this year. (Newmark supplied his own Sharpie.) The book’s primary message, in Newmark’s view, echoes the religious education he received in his childhood: “Take less, give more, and practice a greater compassion.”

By making Craigslist predominantly free when it launched more than two decades ago, Newmark has indeed taken less. And compared to many of his peers, he indeed gives more—$20 million for what is now the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York and $6 million to Consumer Reports, for starters. But by undercutting the price of classified listings, a critical source of advertising revenue for traditional media publications, Craigslist hastened the demise of newspapers across the country, even as it benefited consumers looking for love and dining room chairs. Balancing the math of that human equation, Giridharadas would say, should never be the job of one person, no matter how generous or progressive.


Giridharadas does not raise specific policy solutions in Winners Take All, beyond an implicit call to vote and participate in civic life. Nonetheless, the book has become intertwined with the growing policy discussion around taxing the wealthy that has been led by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and also championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If a book like Giridharadas’s explains the cause of our inequality inertia, a plan like Warren’s ultra-millionaire tax offers a bracing punch-in-the-nose solution.

Dan Riffle, senior counsel and policy adviser to Ocasio-­Cortez, heard Giridharadas interviewed on NPR earlier this year and connected with him on Twitter. (Riffle’s display name on the platform is @EveryBillionaireIsAPolicyFailure.) “An analogy that you used to hear is that [inequality] doesn’t matter because we can just grow the pie,” he says. “Not exactly, right? We could create more wealth, and next quarter or next year there will be more money to go around. But we’re dealing with the here and now. The pie is a certain size. There’s only a finite amount of money in circulation. There’s only a finite amount of wealth out there. And the number of people who share in those resources is also finite and defined.” In Riffle’s view, wealth is “a zero-sum game,” and to think otherwise is “nonsensical.”

A small number of plutocrats are starting to think along these lines. Patriotic Millionaires, a group founded in 2010 that includes former BlackRock executive Morris Pearl, Oscar Mayer heir Chuck Collins, and Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer, has denounced Trump’s tax cuts and lobbied Congress to be taxed at higher rates. Heiress and filmmaker Abigail Disney, a member of the group, says that the experience of reading Winners Take All was like scratching “every itch I’ve ever had.” She had participated in countless high-level change-the-world-themed conferences and cocktail hours, and she had felt alienated by their narrow and self-serving version of generosity. Take the conversation around fundraising for girls’ education in developing countries, for example. “We chase it because girls don’t do inconvenient things like want rights and want to vote and want equal pay,” Disney tells me by phone. “Once they turn into women, they start being too politically threatening. Those rooms full of people do not like you talking about rights.”

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In the aftermath of a summer heat wave, I meet Giridharadas at a recording studio near New York’s Madison Square Park. It’s decorated like a grown-up Urban Outfitters, with red and orange walls, cabinets made of reclaimed wood, and a Buddha statue. Giridharadas is there to tape a podcast episode with religious scholar Reza Aslan and entertainer Rainn Wilson, the Los Angeles–based hosts of a new show called Metaphysical Milkshake, set to debut this fall. Giridharadas settles into the recording booth, alone behind a window.

Soon, he is asking and answering his own questions. It’s a way to serve his hosts an unsolicited assist, but also a way to exert control—and trot out some of his favorite lines, like “innovation” being Latin for “new shit.” This is Giridharadas’s umpteenth media appearance, and by now he is confident in the appeal of what he has to say.

Recording complete, we walk down Broadway and stop at a Cambodian restaurant for a late lunch. The second round of Democratic debates is coming up, and Giridharadas has little patience for the low-polling candidates, some of whom he views, dismissively, as trying out for gigs on MSNBC. He is most excited to see Warren and Sanders, both of whom he has spent time with and whose politics most closely align with his own.

I end up watching the first night of the second round of debates at Giridharadas’s apartment. His wife, Priya Parker, a workshop facilitator and author, whom he met while they were both working in India, joins us. (Their 4-year-old son, Orion, makes an appearance in a tiger tail before going to bed.) Friend Casey Gerald, a critic, memoirist, and cofounder of the now disbanded MBAs Across America, also stops by. Giridharadas, seated on a floor cushion, sips a glass of mezcal, illuminated by the reflected glow of the projector screen in his living room. Healthcare, reparations, student debt. Sanders’s eyes bulge and Marianne Williamson quivers like a flame. On each topic, the candidates jockey for a tweet-worthy moment. Warren’s ultra-millionaire tax comes up briefly, before fading from discussion.

But the issue will come up again, especially as corporate titans’ gestures both big (philanthropic foundations) and small (ditching their corner offices to sit with their employees) continue to be ineffective in delivering substantive change. By combining moral authority with seemingly endless streams of capital, America’s entrepreneurial thought leaders became seemingly invincible. The cracks in that system are showing.

The Billionaire Circuit

Giridharadas has a term for the rotation of far-flung events where elite thought leaders gather to share ideas: MarketWorld. Here’s a tour.

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[Illustration: Srdja Dracovis]
1. World Economic Forum
Davos, Switzerland, January
This invite-only meeting draws “global citizens,” including CEOs and prime ministers, in Moncler coats. This year’s theme: the fourth industrial revolution.

[Illustration: Srdja Dracovis]
2. SXSW
Austin, March
Silicon Valley parties with New York media at this taco-and-marga­rita-fueled bash, which also includes music and film festivals. (Fast Company hosts a variety of speakers each year as well.)

[Illustration: Srdja Dracovis]
3. TED
Vancouver, April
A speaking engage-ment at this confer-ence for “ideas worth spreading” confers “thought leader” status. Some talks have been viewed tens of millions of times online.

[Illustration: Srdja Dracovis]
4. Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference
Sun Valley, Idaho, July
Herbert Allen Jr.’s investment firm hosts tech, telecom, and media giants at this dealmaking bonanza, where Verizon agreed to buy Yahoo for $4.5 billion.

[Illustration: Srdja Dracovis]
5. Aspen Ideas Festival
Aspen, Colorado, Summer
An annual conference for “leaders around the globe to engage in deep discussion.” The gathering is known for its mix of politicians, economists, and artists.

[Illustration: Srdja Dracovis]
6. David Geffen’s yacht Rising Sun
Somewhere in the Mediterranean, Summer
Where Jeff Bezos and retired Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein go to mingle with runway models and pop divas.

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[Illustration: Srdja Dracovis]
7. Google Camp
Sicily, Italy, Summer
Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin invite A-listers including pop stars, media moguls, and even tech rivals to this weekend party estimated to cost $20 million.

[Illustration: Srdja Dracovis]
8. Summit Series
Eden, Utah, Year-round
Summit is a club for entrepreneurs-cum-wellness junkies that offers members Instagram-­friendly opportunities to gather and has satellite events in L.A., Tulum, and Kenya.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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