August 22, 2002
‘Inside the Cult of Kibu’
A behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall of a dot-com: is it her Jewishness that keeps her out?
On my first day as editor-in-chief of a heavily financed Bay Area Internet startup whose mission -- its mostly female staff of trendy 20-somethings recited like a mantra -- was to "empower" young women, I realized I had a big problem.
My hair was all wrong.
It wasn't that my shoulder-length dark ringlets were unstylish. It's just that, as I gazed at my new Kibu.com colleagues with their sleek, stick-straight blond tresses, I knew that I was different.
Besides a fellow curly-haired brunette named Lisa, I was the only Jew at the 60-person company.
In the scheme of corporate America, this ratio hardly seemed skewed. But for an L.A. native who'd previously worked only in Hollywood -- an industry where to be a goy bordered on the eccentric, if not the decidedly disadvantageous; where colleagues kvelled over a writer's new script; admonished difficult directors to "act like a mensch," and doled out judgments worthy of an elder Jewish mother atop Mount Sinai -- ("Would it kill him just once to put a lunch on his expense account? Oy gevalt, that one's a schnorrer") -- I felt like a complete outcast in my new environment.
Experience seemed to bear this out. My second day at the startup, I attended the company-wide staff meeting which, strangely, consisted of going around the room and sharing "your most embarrassing story" (most had something to do with wrap-around skirts falling off at church); and, like a sorority pep rally, applauding ourselves for how great we were.
Yet the editorial meeting I called the next day turned out to be not another love-fest, but the most frustrating meeting I'd ever run -- and this includes the time I volunteered to lead a group of troubled teens in prison. After a failed attempt at witty introductory remarks (my Sarah Silverman routine bombed), I handed out production schedules and deadlines, which were met with blank stares and dead silence. The only noise in the room came from a dropped metal hair clip that a Chanel "Face," a preppy producer named Slick, was using to braid her colleague Shannon's flaxen hair. Hmm.
Not sure what to make of this inauspicious reception, I decided to check in with the CEO (think: Britney Spears with crow's feet) who didn't like to get "bogged down with details."
I gave her the broad strokes: the Face of Horoscopes didn't "believe in astrology"; the Face of Fashion, who drove a Porsche, kept forgetting that teen girls shop at The Gap, not Gucci; the Face of Wellness, an earnest Martha Stewart-like ophthalmologist, was interested exclusively in sharing recipes (when I suggested that her content could be a bit more "fresh," she thought I was asking her to post a salad recipe); the Face of Beauty used the word "luscious" so incessantly (luscious lipstick, luscious liner, luscious lids) that when I did a search for "luscious" and left "replace with" blank, her word count shot down by 30; and the Face of Guys, a 20-year-old Backstreet Boys doppelgänger, called me "unreasonable," because I wouldn't let him wax poetic about his favorite magazine, Maxim, on a site providing "insight" and "inspiration" to teen girls. And, I added, we'd just launched with virtually no sponsors, users, or a feasible business plan.
Something had to change.
Apparently, our CEO also needed a change. She announced that, in order to prevent burn-out, she and Molly, our co-founder, would chill out on a beach in Hawaii.
With our bosses MIA, it became increasingly difficult to separate out the world of our teen audience from the world of our business. Two cliques formed, composed of those who tried to keep the company on track ("the studious kids" -- the two Jews, me and Lisa) and those who just wanted to have fun ("the popular kids" -- almost everyone else). I felt like I was trapped in "Heathers" meets "Lord of the Flies." Soon I began having flashbacks to high school, and if there's one thing I gleaned from that adolescent political arena, it was that if you wanted to exert any power at all, you had to belong to the popular crowd. So what if at my West Los Angeles high school, the Jews were the popular crowd?
I called an emergency meeting with our Face of Hair.
The effects of the flat iron, a hair-straightening device that allowed me to look like a clone of my Kibu kin, were instantaneous. My colleagues complimented me on my fashionable new locks. They asked me to join them for lunch. They confided their imaginary cellulite problems.
Now that I was one of them, they showed up for most of their story meetings, appreciated my suggestions and turned in their work on time. Being overtly Jewish, I concluded, had been my liability.
Or so I thought.
Two months later, Lisa and I were "unhired" from the company because of religious differences -- not Jewish vs. Christian, but heathen vs. believer. We stood out in the startup culture not because of our ethnicity, but because we declined to bathe in the sickly sweet baptismal keg of Kool-Aid. We refused to become embroiled in a Jonestown-style New Economy mass delusion that led to no one questioning the viability of their business models. So I wasn't surprised when, by autumn, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Kibu "a poster child for mismanaged Web companies" and announced that the doomed dot-bomb was shutting its doors.
Sipping my Kibu-branded "chai energy tea," I stared at the article and thought about all I'd learned from my startup experience: trust your instincts, not the hype; create the product before you launch; bigger isn't necessarily better; work for people who have a clear vision; if you jump on a bus, make sure you know its destination; and finally, becoming a shiksa to fit into a workplace is as idiotic as joining a dot-com in the first place.