Thoughts and Reflections on the Book "Becoming"

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Last December, I was in a book store in my hometown in Germany when someone was pointing at Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” and asked the cashier if the book is any good. Standing right next to that woman, I confidently chimed in: “oh yeah, it’s latest rage.” My confidence was a bit of a far fetch considering that I had not read the book. 

Fast forward half a year to today, I just finished listening to “Becoming.” Over 19 hours of material that I consumed this week (again, at 1.75x speed which brings it down to ~11h of content). 

Overall, I thought it was a great read. The book had three larger sections, first her upbringing in Chicago, second her life with Barack, and lastly her life in the White House. For me personally, the second section was the most interesting one. It was nice to hear about her upbringing or hear her perspective on the time she spent in the White House, but learning about Barack Obama through her lens – which was the focus of the second section – I found most interesting. 

In her first section, the focus was on her upbringing in the South Side of Chicago. There were valuable lessons about racism, inequality, and a number of other social justice topics. The one quote from the book that stuck with me was that “failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.” She said that in context with the way how many blacks are treated and the language that is often used around them. 

The second section, as mentioned, was about how she and Barack met, dated, and ended up getting married. But it also included her perspective on him, his ambitions, his way of thinking and doing, as well as his career progression along the many years they were together. As an Obama fan through and through, I have read a bunch of biographies and memoirs of people who worked with him. But getting to learn about him through his wife was a much deeper and closer point of view. 

In her third section she talked about life in the White House. What it was like to move in, and to live a new life under the scrutiny of media. What it was like to raise two daughters in the eye of the public, and how they adjusted to this new life with all of its limitations, responsibilities, and opportunities that came with it. It was a very candid, always appreciative, but at times also lamenting recount of their eight years in the White House. 

Throughout the entire book, Michelle Obama also talked a lot about what it’s like to be a woman next to a husband who is very driven, and successfully so – what it all meant for her. Princeton and Harvard educated herself, she often had to put her own ambitions behind Barack’s. Not just as the woman that she was, but also as a mother with all of its responsibilities, many of which Barack couldn’t shoulder given his absence and focus on politics. I think she talked about a lot of the issues women face in today’s society: pursuing one’s own career, trying to be a good mother, or getting one’s husband to be an equitable partner.

What I also appreciated a lot was to read about this all from the perspective of a black woman. She raised a lot of race-related sensitivities in the book that helped me develop my own understanding of race in the US. 

Thoughts and Reflections on the Book "Shoe Dog"

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Finished reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Co-founder and former CEO of Nike. Wanted to share some of my takeaways from the book. 

Phil Knight is probably among the most notable and successful alums from the Stanford GSB. In fact our campus is named after him after he made a whopping $400M donation to Stanford – one of the largest ever to a university by an individual.His name was always present, and of course so was Nike as a brand, but I had never had a chance to learn the story of Nike, his story. 

The book itself I recommend highly. It’s an easy read of 400 pages, or ~13 hours of audio material if you are the Audible-type of person. Once again, given how neatly it was written and narrated, I was able to rush through it at 1.75x speed. Only when the author shares numbers, I need to stop and slow down the speed to catch what’s being said. 

The story of Nike is amazing because it all started with a shoe distribution business. In 1962, at the tender age of 24, Phil had the idea of importing Japanese shoes to the US. He had seen in other industries how Japanese quality had overtaken US product quality, and he was keen on exploring the same for shoes. As an avid runner, he was a shoe dog. So he flew to Japan, found a manufacturer and started importing their shoes. 

The business grew over the years. Surprisingly, he didn’t throw himself at it full-time. He was working for Price Waterhouse Coopers on the side as an accountant, until the business reached a size and workload that he couldn’t ignore anymore. 

Hearing his story, I found it amazing how easygoing he was. Most of his MBA classmates went on to embark on their corporate careers, but he bounced around between his shoe distribution business and an accountant job so he could actually pay the bills. Nowadays entrepreneurship is so highly glorified, but back then people looked down on someone who wasn’t in a stable job. And I don’t think he really cared. 

As the business grew, so did his problems. The manufacturer dropped them at some point, and he had to come up with his own line of shoes. That’s how Nike was born, in 1972, 10 years after starting the shoe distribution company Blue Ribbon. And so he went on, staying on as CEO for a total of 52 years – until he stepped down in 2016. 

What shocked me right from the beginning was that early on – it must have been 1964 or something – he signed his former college track coach as a partner, with 50% of equity. And it’s not that the trainer was equally involved that would justify a 50% share. But over the years that trainer turned out to be indispensable as he helped craft new design and come up with new innovations. Still, it was surprising for me to see how quickly Phil Knight brought on a partner – at a time where the value of such person wasn’t very obvious, at least not to me. 

The one thing I loved about the Nike story is how it all started, and how slowly, incrementally, but also steadily the business grew. A shoe distributor growing into a shoe creator. A shoe creator turning into the Nike brand. The Nike brand turning into this global, cutting-edge fitness apparel company. Step by step a small distributor in Oregon morphed into something that is now worn all around the world. 

It showed once again how far you can get if you work really hard, really dedicatedly on something. If you are a little crazy, a little lucky, but most of all, if you believe in what you do. It was a very inspiring story, one that makes you want to dream about entrepreneurship and building an empire of your own. 

Thoughts and Reflections on the Book "Bad Blood"

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It took my less than two days to devour the 350 pages of Bad Blood via audible, listening to its 11.5 hours of audio material at 1.75x speed. And boy, what a story! I knew about the company and their rise and fall, but didn’t know all the details. After hearing many friends rave about the book and the investigative journalism done by John Carreyrou, I felt I had to read it. 

One of the things that surprised me right from the beginning was that the Theranos story had started as early as in 2003. I don’t know why, but I thought the entire saga was much more recent. The other thing that surprised me was that while much of their downfall happened during my time at business school, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, it was never discussed – neither by students nor in class. Considering that she (and the media) prided her with being a Stanford drop-out, I’d hope that the school would make it some subject of discussion after all. 

One of the recurring thoughts I had when reading the story was: how could she manage to build a company of 800 people, close nation-wide distribution deals, hit a $9B valuation, and build a board that included names like Kissinger and Matis – all based on lies and a technology that never worked as promised. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. 

I highly recommend the book, but more importantly, I recommend reading and reflecting over the story. The Theranos story is a painful and important reminder of the many things that are wrong with our society, with our media, with the way how we interact with each other, with Silicon Valley and entrepreneurship, etc. 

For one, it showed how much the media loves to glorify stories like hers. A 19-year old Stanford drop-out, a woman no less, starting a biomedical company that “can change the world.” Media is all about selling stories, and hers was one that had all the ingredients. And she only fueled the frenzy: the secrecy around her technology, the similarities with Steve Job/Apple that she nurtured, it was all a show, and the media loved 10x-ing everything that she fed them with. 

What I found terribly shocking was how many people she deceived. Political giants like Kissinger, Shultz or Matis where on her board. Murdoch, among many others, was an investor. She was close with the Clinton’s and started to nurture a good relationship with the Obama White House. Vice President Biden came by to visit her company, and there she was on stage with Bill Clinton and Jack Ma. No one could see through it. Her “empire of lies” was growing bigger and bigger, and no one could resist her charm and allure. 

The sad truth is that I, too, would have fallen for it. As I was reading, I wondered many times if I could have see through it. I am sure I would have been doubtful about some of the stuff that happened at the company (assuming I was working there), but chances are that I would have quelled my doubts by telling myself exactly what everyone else told themselves: how can so many people be wrong about her and the company? She is on all these covers, the company is growing, the money is flowing in, the partners are all lined up. This can’t be all fake, right? 

One thing that helped mask all these lies was the fact that she was building a healthcare company. Give the many regulations and institutions that manage those, in combination with the fact that health tech R&D tends to take longer and often plagued with delays, she was able to go on for so long without being noticed. In other industries, it would have been much harder to mask it for so long. 

The other thing that helped her go on for so long was the fact that she kept the experts away. None of her board directors had any experience in healthcare (in fact they were all white, male, and old… falling for her young charm). And of all the millions she raised, none of that came from experienced health/biotech VCs. And the experts within the company? She made sure they’d either never notice (by keeping the company notoriously compartmentalized) or by terrorizing them into silence once they did notice. 

As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but see many similarities with the current government. The many lies that you feed yourself with. The fake reality/world you make up in your mind until you believe it yourself. So much of it we can see in the Trump administration. 

The biggest personal takeaway for me was that this story makes you take all these fundraising headlines and glorifications of entrepreneurs and their companies with so much more caution, distance, and skepticism. 

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Thoughts on US/Iran tensions

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Imagine the US response if Iran had parked an aircraft carrier and other warships just off US shores, and loudly announced that they were sending more troops to Iranian military basis in all of its neighboring countries, in this case Canada to the North and Mexico to the South. And now also imagine Iran were to fly surveillance drones over the US airspace – or even just anywhere close to it. Drones that Iran uses to identify potential targets for a “preemptive attack” on the US.

What would the US do? Yeah, exactly.

Why is Iran so hostile towards the US? Let me see... in 1953 the US overthrew a democratically elected president because they didn’t like his plans to nationalize the oil industry. In the early 1980s the CIA helped Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons against Iran, killing 20,000 people (let alone supplying Iraq with weapons for eight years that ended up killing hundreds of thousands). In 1988 the US shot down a passenger airplane, killing 290 civilians (and has never apologized for it). The list of US aggressions against Iran goes on and on.

With that in mind, think about all the targeted provocations of the past few months.

  • Single-handedly pulling out of a functioning nuclear agreement the terms of which Iran was meeting

  • Terrorizing Iranians with crippling sanctions that have caused the currency to drop by 80%, resulting in nothing but suffering among an innocent population 

  • Fabricating incidents like the attack on a Japanese oil tanker. On the day that Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran – really? Let alone that Iran went to rescue one of the tanker crews. 

  • Shabbily accusing Iran of collaborating with the Taliban so that they could justify invoking the post-9/11 authorization of attacking Taliban allies. For starters, the Taliban and Iran are profound enemies, not allies. 

  • Flying a drone in/close to Iranian air space which wasn’t just out there for fun, but to spy on Iran. And then you are surprised they shoot it down?

  • Cancelling an airstrike "with 10 minutes to spare" because he learned people will die? Ridiculous! Trump is trying to spin himself as the hero, proudly holding off the rabid military because of lives on the line.

Are you now adequately distracted from the Mueller report? Yeah, thought so.

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China Musings #21: Chinese Women and Luxury Cars

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In a place like Shanghai, you get to see a lot of luxury cars. Maseratis, Ferraris, Lamborghinis – you could just stand at a street corner and count them as they drive by. At first I would notice the cars but then I also noticed the drivers. In far more than half of the cases, the drivers were female. 

I asked some Chinese friends, and they initially joked that it’s women driving the cars of their wealth hubbies, but that didn’t really add up as I observed some of these women. They looked like the owned the cars. What am I saying, they looked like they owned the city. They eluded confidence and an aura of success. It’s quite impressive. So I did some research, and was surprised about what I learned. 

So turns out that the purchasing power of women in China is almost on par with that of affluent Chinese men. Not very surprising considering that 51 percent of senior management positions are held by women, 2/3 of the world's female self-made billionaires are from China, and women in China contribute half of the household income.

But what *is* surprising is that affluent Chinese women have developed a global reputation for being avid buyers of luxury cars – in the biggest car market in which luxury cars already account for 10.3% of all car sales. In fact, Chinese women account for 40 per cent of Porsche and Maserati’s buyers in the Chinese market. In the rest of the world, women account for less than five per cent of buyers. Ferrari noticed that Chinese women prefer more powerful and more expensive models, and sales to Chinese women are about four times the sales to women in the west. 

The trend has driven a number of foreign prestige auto brands, such as Audi, Cadillac and Ferrari, to step up their efforts to market toward this consumer segment. Due to their varied cultural, social and economic backgrounds, Chinese women have very different buying habits than their Western counterparts. And some brands have responded creatively to these differences, developing marketing campaigns that appeal specifically to Chinese women (think along the lines of cocktail parties with Giorgio Armani’s cosmetics line and Italian lingerie company La Perla).

One thing you sense here is how ambitious Chinese women are. Paired with their financial means, this translates into a strong desire for more “high powered” products than women in the US or Europe. Luxury cars in particular have become a way for Chinese women to display their power, an outspoken symbol of their newfound status in society. Maserati in particular is a brand that meets these aspirations: it’s a very performance-oriented sports car, bold, innovative, and with a touch of glamour. As a matter of fact, I never seen as many pink and purple Maseratis as I have seen here in China.  

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Tales of Life & Death – Dealing with personal uncertainty

Someone I love is fighting with cancer. I have therefore decided to make that person, their life, and their battle my priority over the next few months. Under the name “Tales of Life & Death,” I’ll be sharing more from this journey.

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In my conversations of the past few months, people have repeatedly applauded my decision to prioritize the health of said loved one. Upon hearing the diagnosis in late November, I hit the brakes on my own career, left the company I helped co-found, and temporarily relocated to where the patient is living. As much as it looked like a tough decision that would merit applause, it really was just the most obvious thing I could do – and wanted to do. 

Apart from the fear I felt for the patient, the entire situation evoked a lot of personal fears. I was anxious about how this would all play out for me, about how long I would need to put my own life on hold, and when it would it be morally and ethically justifiable for me to continue with my life. Let alone what life would hold for me once I was ready to hit resume. 

The past few months were not easy. Being unemployed was a frightening thought. Having to deal with a serious illness of a loved one is insanely stressful. And as a social person, knowing that I’d find myself in an environment where I didn’t know many people was scary. But there I was, knowing I was entering a difficult period in my life that had no clear timeline. 

As I was embarking on this journey, a friend advised me to approach this new phase in my life with curiosity, and not so much with anxiety. Yes, there were all these things that I knew were coming and that scared me – the “known knowns.” But there were also so many things that I didn’t know were coming my way – the “unknown unknowns.” How could I know how this period would change me the better? How could I predict how my priorities might change? I just couldn’t.

But in an attempt to prepare myself for these good things to enter my life, and to train my eyes to see them, I sat down and wrote an extensive list of how this entire situation could end up being a blessing. I was basically trying to “brace for impact.” Being away from China might make me appreciate it more. By taking velocity out of my life I might be able to gain clarity of thought. Facing serious illness might help me see what truly matters in life, and what doesn’t. 

Now, three months into the journey, the patient’s situation has become stable. We were able to move from chemotherapy (carpet-bombing the body with chemicals) to a much less aggressive therapy called immunotherapy (more like a “sniper” that goes after the bad cells). At the same time, the past three months have allowed me develop a business idea that I deem worth pursuing as my next project. 

My loved one’s journey isn’t over, but it is now at a point where I can allow myself to hit resume – a moment I didn’t expect to come so fast. Equipped with a lot of élan, I look back on the past three months not as time that I lost, but a much needed break to make sure I am not just running in my life for the sake of running, but that I am running into the right direction to begin with.

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