• Why was Justin Zhu fired from Iterable?

    According to the board, Zhu was fired for microdosing LSD before a board meeting in 2019, but Zhu thinks it’s about more than just the LSD incident.

  • What challenges to East Asians face in Silicon Valley?

    Zhu says that the East Asian culture of seeking consensus instead of wasting time on pointless debates is considered a weakness in Silicon Valley, whose CEOs are primarily White men.

  • Is there a place for other cultures in SIlicon Valley?

    Justin Zhu told his story to bring awareness to some of the challenges East Asians face in Silicon Valley, and to continue to be a role model for East Asian immigrants and CEOs. He says getting fired was the price he had to pay to speak up.

A few weeks ago, Justin Zhu, CEO of startup company Iterable Inc. was fired over what the company described as “violations of company policy”. That violation was showing up to a meeting in 2019 after microdosing LSD, something that’s become widely accepted in Silicon Valley. So why was he fired?

Despite the leaps and bounds that psychedelics like magic mushrooms have made in the sphere of medicine and even law, at a grass roots level it’s still on the fringe. The Silicon Valley has been celebrated for the magic mushroom taking geniuses it has bred, but deep down, the war is still on.

LSD is still illegal in the USA — we get that. But Justin Zhu isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, Silicon Valley executive to use and experiment with psychedelic substances. Plus, the way Justin Zhu sees it, the LSD incident was just one aspect of the story and that ultimately, the dispute amounted to discrimination; a textbook story about exactly why East Asians are so underrepresented in leadership in the Silicone Valley. 

Justin Zhu’s story is a powerful one — and one he really wants to share with the world. Racial bias, discrimination, and bullying are all verses to the song of Justin Zhu’s moment at the top of Iterable, but are the main chorus on the plummet to his dismissal.

LSD microdosing gone bad.

An illustration of silhouette pulling a string through the head that is connected to the brain; a concept of focus, creativity and microdosing.
@mappingthemind

Zhu and his partner Boni started Iterable in 2013, a marketing platform that could reach customers in a highly targeted way. It didn’t take long for Iterable to start signing clients and for investors to jump on board, and by 2016 it was worth $125 million.

But Zhu, while enjoying his success, was still isolated and sad. His company had lost sight of its altruistic goals and was too invested in its monetary goals. He was attending the wedding of an investor in 2019 when an entrepreneur recommended microdosing LSD to improve focus and wellbeing.

But it didn’t go exactly as he was planning. He took what he thought was a very small amount of LSD before a meeting with an investor. He thought it would help him with his pitch, but when it came around to presenting his pitch, he couldn’t properly read the letters on the slide. He said it felt as if his body were melting away. Zhu says he took a sip of his tea and powered through from memory instead. 

The pitch didn’t lead to an investment for Iterable.

Zhu’s other quirks.

Zhu had other quirks that his colleagues didn’t quite like; his choice of attire for example. To a meeting with Geodesic (an investment company), Justin Zhu wore cargo shirts and a t-shirt. He was told by another Iterable board member that Geodesic wouldn’t sign mainly because of Zhu’s choice of informal attire. He showed up to a business launch once wearing a velour, Cosmos reminiscent sweater that he said he bought because it reminded him of The Little Prince.

But it’s not just about quirks. Justin Zhu says there were fundamental things about his personality that his colleagues didn’t think fit into the paradigm of Silicon Valley leadership. He wasn’t quick to jump to conflict and instead preferred to converse to common ground, and Zhu says his colleagues mistook this for weakness. And he singles this as something belonging characteristically to East Asian culture, a stereotype about East Asians that explain their underrepresentation in leadership positions in the USA.

“I run the company with Eastern values,” he told Bloomberg, “That doesn’t mean I’m not equipped to be CEO.” 

Late in 2019, two of his investors called a meeting with him to raise the topic of Iterable’s leadership. Zhu got the idea they were suggesting he should step down. He told Bloomberg he remembered an early conversation with an Asian investor who told Zhu he would likely be fired one day for a White CEO. Zhu made a point at the meeting that he wanted to stay on board specifically to set an example for other East Asian immigrants and CEO’s. 

But that was the beginning of the end.

The price for speaking out.

Zhu chose to break the news to the board that he had been sharing his story with a Bloomberg reporter and that he had mentioned the LSD incident. But the board didn’t want Zhu telling his story to the investors. Needless to say, Justin Zhu wasn’t satisfied with that, reminding his board that the reason he’s there is to set an example for everybody who is going through what he is.

Later in April, Justin Zhu got the call. Even if it’s not the conventional story of racism, Zhu says it amounts to discrimination nonetheless. Iterable continues without Zhu, but without his quirky ideas, it would never have even existed. And Zhu is happy to pay the price for speaking out.

How do you feel about Zhu’s dismissal? Do you think it was warranted? Let us know your opinion in the comments!

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