Wednesday, November 8, 2017

WeWork: More Education Dilettantery

There's a new batch of rich dilettantes ready to put their disruptive fix on education. It's WeWork, and if you don't know who that is, it may be because you are over thirty and work in a school.

Neumann's IMDB picture

WeWork  is many things, not the least of which is a huge real estate empire (10 million square feet of office space). Stories about the "unicorn" company talk a lot about "communal" offices, the company repeatedly billed as "a company providing community, shared workspace and services to freelances, small businesses, startups and entrepreneurs." A New York Times article described the corporate goal as "to over5take any conceivable venue for entrepreneurial-minded up-and-comers who are drawn to a clubby sense of community and the turnkey ease (if impersonal feel) of communal spaces."  But it's not just that they have the space-- it's that they have a vision for how to use that space super-efficiently:

In the future, you’re going to love going to the office. Everything you need to do your job effectively will present itself without effort. You won’t have your own desk, because your employer will know you only use it for 63 percent of the day. But you won’t mind sharing it, because said employer will make sure you have a private room with green leafy plants, soundproof walls, and warm light between 2 and 2:20 p.m. so you can call your daughter. At 3:30 p.m., when you need a conference room for the product managers’ meeting, you won’t even have to book it. It’ll just be there. And everyone attending remotely will already be invited.

Now you're thinking, "But to do that, the company would have to know..." Everything. Correct. Co-founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey want to collect every piece of data possible about how people use offices, how they work, how work itself works. In other words, while the surface business is real estate and dreams, the core that supports it all is data collection on an epic scale. Not for nothing are they also called "the first physical social network."

All this matters because the young titans are branching out. They've already launched WeLive, extending their concept to living space. Now they would like a shot at education with WeGrow. 

Taking point on this seems to be Adam Neumann's wife, Rebekkah Paltrow Neumann. This filmmaker-actress-entrepreneur went to Cornell and majored in Business and Buddhism. She was accepted into the Smith Barney Sales and Trading program, but left to pursue her acting and film career, which now includes launching WeWork Studios. And she's Gwyneth Paltyrow's first cousin. And she's WeWork's branding officer.

So what kind of school would these folks like to launch. Well, Rebekah Neumann has dropped some hints.

“In my book, there’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses,” said WeWork co-founder Rebekah Neumann, the company’s chief brand office...

WeGrow is already up and piloting, and Bloomberg took a look at some of what is going on there. The school has seven students and two teachers, and hopes for sixty-five students next fall. . The school likes project-based learning, but this may not be exactly the kind of project-based learning you're used to thinking of:

The kids have already gotten lessons from the Neumanns’ employees in creating a brand and using effective sales techniques, and from Adam Neumann on supply and demand. Mentorships with WeWork customer-entrepreneurs are available. “Basically, anything they might want to learn, we have people in the field that can teach it,” Rebekah Neumann said. When one of their students, an eight-year-old girl named Nia, made T-shirts to sell at the farm stand the kids run, “we noticed she has a strong aptitude and passion for design,” Neumann said. She is securing an apprenticeship with fashion designers who rent space from WeWork.

Yes, apparently it turns out that you are never too young to learn to think, "This is interesting and all, but how can I make a quick buck from it?" We've all been arguing about whether five year olds should be playing or learning academic materials-- turns out we'e over looked another possibility, which is learning how to monetize the world around you.

Neumann's own vision for life is, well....

In her own family, she said, “there are no lines” between work and life or home and office. “My kids are in the office. I’m doing what I love, he’s doing what he loves, they are observing that, and they are doing what they love.”

This is in keeping with the WeWork vision, which is rolling out of bed straight into your workspace. I love my job. I love it a lot. I still go home and do things that are not my job. But I don't find this boundaryless existence as troublesome as some of her other thoughts:

Neumann argues it’s conventional education that is “squashing out the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that’s intrinsic to all young children.” Then, after college, she said, “somehow we’re asking them to be disruptive and recover that spirit.”

You know who really likes "disruption"? Rich people who are so well-insulated by their wealth that they never have to worry about "disruption" actually inconveniencing them or forcing them to change their lives in ways they wouldn't like. Rich people who know that no matter how bad the disruptions get, they will stay safe and dry (and wealthy) through it all. That's who loves disruption.

 Neumann does seem to have consulted an actual educator-- Lois Weiswasser. And WeGrow has dreams of sliding scale tuition so that even the Little People can let their toddlers learn how to be Captains of Industry, though at this point nobody seems to know how to pay for this highly expensive model for school (the Neumanns might want to give Max Ventilla a call). In the meantime, let's not forget that WeWork's whole model involves collecting a huge amount of data, because these are people who believe the naive notion that if you know everything, you can predict and prepare for anything.

Once again, if these people weren't rich-- if a failed actress with no education background at all said, "I think I'd like to start a school"-- we wouldn't be talking about this at all. But wealth gives you the chance to run any experiment you can afford to finance. It seems early to make a prediction, but I'm calling it anyway-- WeGrow is not the school of the future. Let's just hope it creates minimal disruption along the way. 

[Update PS: Here's a more detailed look at what life inside a WeWork office is like.]


  1. I think a return to pre-Reagan tax brackets is some disruption that I could get behind!!