WeWork Cofounder Miguel McKelvey: Blind Spots in Leadership
WeWork grew from a scrappy co-working startup to a tech darling with more than 800 locations around the world, before their well-documented undoing in late 2019. Cofounder Miguel McKelvey helped build the first WeWork in New York City with his bare hands, and later became the company’s Chief Culture Officer.
McKelvey left WeWork in June 2020, a few months before taping this episode. When he looks back on his decade-long tenure there, he acknowledges that the blind spots he had, as a white male executive, affected WeWork’s diversity and inclusion right from the beginning.
He joins host Porter Braswell to talk about using his position as a business leader to speak up in support of Black Lives Matter, why so many start-ups struggle with diversity and inclusion, and what senior leaders can learn from what went wrong with WeWork’s culture.
HBR Presents is a network of podcasts curated by HBR editors, bringing you the best business ideas from the leading minds in management. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Harvard Business Review or its affiliates.
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: If you find yourself as a startup and you’re five white guys sitting in a room, like that’s something you should bring awareness to right away and start saying, “Okay, we’ve already gone too far down this path, so what can we do to change it?” And certainly I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that many of us in our networks are surrounded by people who look like us.
PORTER BRASWELL: Welcome to Race at Work, the show where we explore how race affects our careers and our lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a Wall Street career to start a company called Jopwell because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week, we talk to a different leader about their journey with race, equity, and inclusion. These are the conversations we don’t usually have at work. But this show is a safe place to share and learn from each other.
PORTER BRASWELL: My guest this week is WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey, who with his co-founder Adam Neumann led the company for 10 years. Miguel left the company a few months before this taping. But in the last few years he was there, he served as WeWork’s Chief Culture Officer. And when he spoke to me, Miguel was honest about the blind spots he had, as a white male executive, and how they affected WeWork’s diversity and inclusion right from the beginning.
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: So, at the beginning of the company, I think that I believe my responsibility was to get the company off the ground and make it work more from just a perspective of like all the boxes that need to be checked in order to make a company operate – and one that was growing incredibly quickly and was difficult to execute. So I think that, that I didn’t know upfront what my full responsibility was. I think later on in the journey, maybe halfway through the 10 years, I started to evolve because I felt a lot more eyes upon me. Rather than just being in my own corner, doing my own work, I started to feel much more like, “Okay, people are actually looking at the way that I am, the way that I act, the things that I do, the things that I say.” And so I think that was an evolution to realize, like there is something much more to this than me just doing my job. And I think in the culture context, it’s so hard to fully understand all the component parts that make up a company culture. And so I think that for a lot of the time, I thought that just being myself was enough, just showing up who I am as my authentic self was enough. I think only later on did I realize I needed to be much more proactive in order to really set the right example. And in some ways I think, that at least in the framework of those 10 years, I think I was too late to realize that.
PORTER BRASWELL: And what do you think looking back on your time triggered you to understand that you might’ve been too late? Like was there a moment in time when you looked at the thousands of employees that you had at WeWork and you thought to yourself, “Oh God, I got this wrong?”
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: I think that at WeWork we did a really good job of sharing responsibility amongst younger employees, like we really did a lot in terms of giving women and people of color responsibility for very large important roles in running our business and running our buildings around the world. But when you went upstream from that, we did not do a good job of hiring diverse leaders. And I noticed that the most explicitly when I started hosting what I was calling “Leaders Circle.” And “Leaders Circle” was at a time where I realized, okay, we have somewhere over 150 people who are VP and above at this time. And I wanted to start bringing them together because I felt like we didn’t know each other. We weren’t connected. We didn’t share time and space outside of functional responsibility and functional context. So I was like, “How can I start to build connection amongst that leadership group?” And when I looked at that, I realized there was one African American – one Black guy, Craig Robinson, was on our team. And that was like explicitly like an “oh my God” moment. Like again, I felt like I had been showing up as like my authentic self in this sort of setting an example, but yet I hadn’t been measuring, I hadn’t been looking and saying, “Okay, wait, where are we actually falling short?” To me it’s not enough just to raise awareness, that’s obviously a step in the process, but I think like I needed to bring to the table like “Okay, here are the five things you can do to help change this in your team, in your department, in however you can see to affect change.”
PORTER BRASWELL: So, looking back now, what would you advise those listening to this, what are those things that you can put in place as a leader of a company so that when you do have 150 VPs, that it is reflective of what this country looks like?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: What I’ve learned certainly as an entrepreneur is that I would never let that happen again from the beginning. So in starting from the ground up, I would have that awareness and I would do it different because when you get to 150 it does become difficult to change. Like it takes time to balance that out or to find the right mix because you have people who are in incumbent roles and you have to like look for the ways that, that can change. And those are big numbers. So the first thing I would say is like, for any entrepreneur or someone who’s starting, and these are conversations I have with people all the time, it’s like, if you find yourself as a startup and you’re five white guys sitting in a room, like that’s something you should bring awareness to right away and start saying, “Okay, we’ve already gone too far down this path, so what can we do to change it?” And certainly I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that many of us in our networks are surrounded by people who look like us and who have shared experiences that we’ve shared. And so it’s oftentimes most simple just to connect with those closest to us. So I think that if you go even before you get to the startup phase, for example, I think that proactively diversifying your network is a good thing to do. And what that might mean is, like, not taking meetings with some people who might seem like they could be meaningful in your journey because you’re out of balance. So I’ll just say one example of coming to London, I have proactively, I moved to London back in December. And in building my new connections here in London, I’ve proactively tried to connect with people who weren’t just immediately in my network who were referrals that looked like me. I haven’t taken all the meetings with white guys. I’ve tried to diversify that, so that I’m building over time from scratch a network that is more diverse. Going into the later stage of a company where it’s already built. I mean, I think that, there are a lot of resources out there for the more practical side that of including a diverse slate in your hiring, but the part which I haven’t yet seen, at least for me, and I’m not in the space right now because I’m not working in the company is how do you get that shift in both awareness, but also in accountability? Because it’s one thing to measure metrics, like it’s one thing to be like, “Yeah, we have to do this because whatever, the HR team says that our metrics have to be correct.” But how do you get especially white males, for example, to really believe in it and own it – to really own it, to take responsibility and own it. That’s a harder thing to cross and I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that yet.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. Well, you know what? WeWork scaled at a rate that was almost unprecedented at the time and when you look back, how do you rate or judge the ability to scale, but at the same time, incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion from the ground level, and how do you prioritize one over the other? How do you think about that, moving forward?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: It’s interesting because I do think that that oftentimes becomes the key challenge when you go back to that sort of like network point is that when you’re young – and I don’t mean that in age, but young in experience and young in a process, meaning you’ve never been through it before and you also are trying to go really fast – it’s easy to make easy decisions. It’s easy to take what’s in front of you and accept it. And so if you’re hiring, if you’re looking candidates, if you’re trying to find you know people for roles that need to be filled and you have a friend of a friend. Or you know you have somebody’s cousin or you know whatever it might be, it’s easy to accept those as solutions because they make it easier. They make the path to scale faster. And in some ways simpler. But I think the narrative needs to change, right? So I think it’s not just about a single company, but it’s more about the narrative that needs to shift, which is that your company will be better off if you make different choices along the way. And I think that’s something that has not been put forward as often and powerfully enough because if you were actually thinking about it as the success of your company is dependent on these choices that you make, you would see it differently than “Hey, I’m trying to fit into again, some metric requirements.” I think those mindsets are just completely different. Like you’re doing it because you have to check a box versus you’re doing it because you actually believe that it will benefit your company. And so that to me is where, if I would’ve known, like if I would have been – I know I wasn’t thinking that. I just know when I was thinking about growth, I hadn’t learned. I hadn’t taken the time to push myself in that area of curiosity. And again when I look back, that feels like a miss to me.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah, well, let’s talk about some of the things that can go wrong then because WeWork has had alleged gender and racial discrimination lawsuits against the organization. And again, with you sitting at the helm of running the culture, I know you can’t talk specifically about the individual cases because they’re ongoing, but what happened? Give us a sense of what went wrong.
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: I do think when you engage in complexity, when you do push yourself into space that may be unfamiliar and you include people on that journey, there will inevitably be failures. Like if we’re all pushing ourselves to try to learn and grow in a more expansive way, then we’re going to make mistakes. And so I can say in the context of our company, without being specific, I can say that there were lots of times where people got things wrong and how people are affected when things go wrong, it can be painful. And certainly I have empathy and sympathy for anyone who experienced something that was really difficult and challenging. But at the same time, sometimes you have to go through those kinds of things in order to learn and to grow. So it’s hard, again, I would never wish anyone to be involved in a lawsuit. But at the same time, it may be for the sake of progress. Like I do know that some of the spike moments in our company, the ones that were the most difficult to deal with were also the greatest points of growth and evolution. So there is hopefully a kind of benefit to going through that crucible.
PORTER BRASWELL: I think that good can come out of difficult places, but at the same time, I don’t know if it’s worth it. And I think that, to your point, when you push the boundaries of what’s possible, especially in the context of work, things can go wrong. So if you look back on your time, are there things you would have done differently?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: I think that a lot of the way that I was from a mindset perspective was, “I’ll model behavior” – meaning I’ll model what I believe is the right way to show up in this context. I didn’t have enough agenda. I think if I would have had more of a clear agenda, if I would have been really forward in pushing things in more dimensions, that it would have benefited more of our team members – and not just meaning like people of color or diverse people. I mean, it’s like, obviously there are people, white people, who would have benefited from being a part of a clear agenda. And whether that’s programming, whether that’s conversation, whether that’s ways that – management training, like there are so many things that we could have done that could have been effective. All of that said, I don’t know that it would have been effective enough. Like I really can’t say that that would have been successful there in my experience – and I studied a lot of them, a lot of HBR articles actually like about diversity and diversity inclusion programs – and there’s a lot of history of not success, right?
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah.
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: Or unsuccessful programs and unsuccessful efforts. So do I believe that I could have like done it all perfectly had I known? I don’t give myself that much credit.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. Well, on the back of leadership – on May 31st, 2020, six days after the murder of George Floyd you posted a very personal message on your Instagram account. Do you mind reading that post that you wrote?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: Sure, I’m happy to read it. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud, so pardon, it will be the first time. “I am the problem, I am complicit in and I benefit from structural racism. I am not doing enough to change myself or the systems I exist in. Reading articles and following social media and feeling anger and frustration and empathy isn’t enough. I am safe in my privilege and I must admit to myself that if I’m not taking action, I’m not an ally. I must learn more, I must listen more, I must do more. I am the problem.”
PORTER BRASWELL: So, there are so many leaders throughout corporate America that I know personally, and they’ve told me, that they wanted to say something, but they just didn’t know the words to say. They wanted to say something, but they didn’t want to be canceled. They wanted to say something, but they didn’t want to stand out on an island and declare something without knowing the proper history and context. Did you take into account your position as a leader in saying those things and what that would have done for the culture at WeWork, positively or negatively?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: So yes, I thought about it. But at the same time, I wasn’t going to be constrained by any of those considerations because like I needed to be in that place where I couldn’t be calculating, I couldn’t be saying, “Oh well, what are going to be the potential push backs from this?” Or who knows what someone will think about what I’m saying or doing? I just moved all that stuff out of the way. And so a lot of what happened for me in that moment was a reflection upon my own accountability and setting it out publicly, I felt like would push me into a place where now I’m accountable to myself in a new way. And for me, I need that. I need to see myself differently in order to proceed into this new future.
PORTER BRASWELL: You took that personal stand; do you think that was a good business decision?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: I do, but I think it was only a small sliver of the overall business equation. So at the time, while I was the co-founder of the company, I also was not in a position of power and influence that I had previously. So, had it happened a year ago – I’m just being honest about my status within the company – had it happened a year ago, things would have perhaps in more affected or my stance would have been more effective internally and externally. I believe that the narrative of our company at the time had been shifted away from me in some ways. So I’m not sure, I’m not sure what it did for the company in that regard. But I do believe that the company followed in doing some pretty good things, and I definitely believe that’s a good business decision.
PORTER BRASWELL: So, in that post, you said that you’re going to be a part of the change that we all want to see, that we all need to see. So what are some of the things that you’ve done? How have you evolved as a person since the murder of George Floyd?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: For me, a lot of it has to do with my own endurance. One of the things I was saying at the time to all the people that I was around is like this is a long-term effort. So don’t think that this is like a onetime thing where you’re just going to like post something on Instagram and like you’ll check a box and then it’ll all go away, and then you can go back to your normal life. I was trying to instill in all the people in my business network that I was having conversations with is this is long term. This is a shift which we should all experience, but not with a like spike, but with a long concerted, diligent effort to make change. And so that’s been my approach. I definitely had a spike during a period of time where I was like, feeling it so anxiously and I made multiple posts on Instagram.
PORTER BRASWELL: You were an active poster. I follow you.
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: Yeah. Well, I was at the time in that mode of like, “I got to get this stuff out of my head” because it was burning inside me and I needed to just let it out again for me. I mean, I wasn’t even in any mode of like, this is about anyone else at the time. I was just like, I felt these things so strongly and I needed to get them out. But then I moved back into this mode of, “Okay, what do I know how to do?” Like I’m a builder, I’m an entrepreneur. I have capabilities that I can share with people and with the world, and I need to put those to use in this context. And so that was the mode that I moved into. And what that means is that this study never stops. I mean, I’ve just, for example, I bought a whole bunch of books on Audible, for example, and like on a Sunday afternoon, I listen to one of them, hopefully cover to cover, for example, if I can, because it’s not like this was a time where it was like yeah, you learn all about it and then that’s the end. Like we have to have a perspective that this is a long, long term push in order to make the right change. And so that’s my – is just stay connected to it. Like even though it sucks, like keep reading the news, keep following the stories, keep learning more and more and more. And I’m over here in London, where it’s actually quite a different thing. And in fact, there’s certainly lots of nuance and difference to the way racism shows up here. And at first I was kind of like, “Qow, I don’t know if I can even engage with it.” Like I’m going to keep my mind in America, in the United States. But I have just recently shifted and said, “Hey, I live over here now.” I think I have a responsibility to also engage in the story of racism and the history of slavery, for example, here and try to learn more about what’s going on and what’s still affecting people here on the ground today.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. Let me ask you a question about funding. Again, you openly speak about your white privilege and when you enter a room, you are from the majority culture and so you’re not dealing necessarily with things that underrepresented communities deal with. So do you think that you being white and a male had an effect on the ability for WeWork to raise the amount of capital that you raised? And if so, what do you think needs to change about that system?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: It’s a super interesting system because you hear all the time from investors that they don’t bet on companies, or they don’t bet on ideas, or they don’t bet on business models, but they bet on people or they invest in people. And so when an investor is a white guy and his experience is to bet on other white guys and that’s made him comfortable and he’s done it time and time and time again, then most likely the next time they’ll repeat that process and that bet because it’s what makes them most comfortable. And I think this is like something that’s really, that I’m learning more and more about is like intersections and the ways that non-binary sort of category is important because I’m white, male. I sort of fit like, and I’m like six foot eight. So I’m like, I sort of fit all the boxes where I’m just like showing up in the room as like a person who fits the mold for like white guy entrepreneur. At the same time, I don’t think that we have narratives that show how someone who has a different set of intersections – a person of color, a Black person who’s, let’s say in a wheelchair, for example, because of something that happened at a time in their life – like that person’s narrative could be incredibly powerful when applied to a business context because they have a certain perspective that other people may never see. But it’s so hard for someone who’s bet on like the white guy t10 times or a hundred times to even enter that, to even have the curiosity to enter that. “Like okay, what could this person see that I may be blind to?” So just in that context, to me it just feels like whole new ecosystems need to be built to support a new set of innovators and entrepreneurs. And to me, that’s the future. I mean, that’s what the next, hopefully 10 years we all see is these new ecosystems that bloom, that recognize this opportunity.
PORTER BRASWELL: Okay, question for you. Do you think if you and Adam were Black founders – same experience, same existence, same backgrounds – but you were black, do you think WeWork would have been able to do what WeWork was able to do from a funding perspective and scaling perspective?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: It’s a very hard question to answer because I am an optimist and I believe in people, and I know people like you, Porter, who have built things from the ground up. And if you switch places with me, would I think you’re incapable of achieving what I achieved? It’s very hard for me to say that, it’s very hard for me to say that. At the same time, I can see why that calculation of possibility seems less likely. And so, like I can say, “Yeah, I can go along with the narrative, then it wouldn’t have worked out.” But then when I go to the individual and I think, are there two Black guys out there who can do this? I a hundred percent believe in that, so it’s a tricky thing to answer in that context.
PORTER BRASWELL: That makes sense. And I have no assumption in terms of, if you would have been able to pull it off. What I do know is that the flow of capital to black founders and women just is not the same. I think that if you and Adam were from an underrepresented background, that you would have been successful because you would have figured out a way around the obstacles. I don’t think you would have got the capital that you would have gotten. And I think that that’s a part of the structural things that need to change in this country, especially when it comes to funding, which is a topic for another podcast. So I’ll stop there.
PORTER BRASWELL: Given that WeWork has such an international footprint, how do you think about, you no longer there, but if you were there or if you were advising others, Q: How do you think about helping employees and leaders engage in the topic of race and all of the different verticals within this diversity umbrella on an international stage?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: So, as an example, when I heard that our plans were to open in South Africa, the first thing I did was went around to the team members who were going to go to South Africa and open. And I said, “Look, like we’re not going to open in South Africa and be an all-white team. Like I better not come there to visit and walk in the door and see like that our whole team is made up of white people.” To me it was like a realization that had to become institutionalized from that point forward, that awareness had to become institutionalizing. We can’t like repeat the same mistakes. And then beyond that, then I thought about like, “Okay, where is there going to be a future for our business in South Africa?” I mean, if the great opportunity with the group of people that are there is not going to be in the small number of white people, it’s going to be in the great number of innovative entrepreneurial Black people who are helping to evolve that country and build businesses there. So it wouldn’t even make sense to like hire a team that doesn’t reflect that community because then you would be creating a place that’s not as welcoming to them as we would aspire to be.
PORTER BRASWELL: So why that’s so important to me is because by 2040, the majority of people in this country are going to be people of color. And so the demographics are shifting and we’re seeing that play out. And for companies to be relevant in the future, they are going to have to have a workforce that reflects that population and the changing consumer habits and desires. So obviously it makes sense to have a more racially diverse organization. And I think what’s powerful about your story is that in your place of power and privilege, being a senior person at WeWork, you mandated because it’s good for business we have to have a person of color in place leading that organization in South Africa. And so I think that’s the power of somebody in your position when the conversation is so often, “Oh, we don’t know how to go about hiring more diverse individuals. Or we don’t know … like how do we communicate that to the company?” Well, there’s an example of you dictating that it’s going to happen and it happened, and it was good for business.
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: Well, let me just say, I think that goes back to what I’ve said about actually owning it. And I think that’s where actually change will happen more meaningfully is when leaders fully own it – not just, “Oh yeah, we need to do that, but it’s someone else’s job.”
PORTER BRASWELL: One question I like to ask is – do you think we should talk about race at work? Is there a space for that question?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: I think we have to talk about race at work, but we have to be very clear and intentional about how we do it and the way that we include and invite people to take part. Because I think that it is one of the most complex things that any person can contemplate. And so being in the right frame of mind, being in the right place – whether you’re a person of color, whether you’re a white person – it’s complex for everyone. And so we have to do it in a way that we probably all need help with, we all need help in order to do it in a way that’s productive. That said, I also think that we should also talk about race outside of work. We should bring it to work because we need it to show up in a way there that helps us all grow and evolve. And we need to share that space in a way that allows us all to become our best selves and for the company to be more successful. But at the same time, we need to practice it in places that may be safer. And so I think that’s a really important thing to like bring is just like a general sense of comfort with like saying words. It’s hard to know what words to say as a white guy. I struggle with, do I call Black people Black? Do I call Black Americans, African Americans? Do I call them something else? Is there like different specificities that I’m required to say in order to make sure that I’ve acknowledged everyone’s background correctly? And those, a lot of people would just rather avoid that all together. And so I think that’s part of the issue is like, if you’re at work, it’s a high-risk place. If you don’t practice in the safety of your own home, it’s even more high risk. So I think these are kind of things that like we should be trying to do with our friends, with our families, in order to just generally get it out there, get these words out there. So I just think like we should all be in dialogue about them more openly and with more, pushing ourselves into unsafe spaces a little more in order to find the space where it feels really productive and moving us forward.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. So what’s next for you, Miguel?
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: Well, I’ve learned that I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I think that the way that I process things in my life is to be a sponge, to watch, to learn, to absorb for periods of time. And then when I see an opportunity, to try to manifest something that’s tangible, that becomes real. It’s been a company multiple times for me, and so at this time I am imagining a new company. I don’t know exactly what that company will be yet, but I do know that I’m going to take what I’ve learned, in fact, many of the things we’ve discussed today, I’m going to take them into that new company, not only for the sake of building a strong company, but also for the sake of the narrative, like for the sake of trying to set a good example of how it can be done.
PORTER BRASWELL: I appreciate that Miguel. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sharing your journey with us on this podcast, Race at Work. So thank you very much.
MIGUEL MCKELVEY: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Porter.
PORTER BRASWELL: That’s Miguel McKelvey, co-founder of WeWork. This episode was produced by Amy Chyan and edited by Anne Saini. I’m Porter Braswell. Thanks for listening to Race at Work, part of the HBR Presents network.