Last year, for a column I was writing about the power that large asset managers like BlackRock and Vanguard exert over the global economy, I called up Vivek Ramaswamy. He was delighted to hear from me.
I don’t mean this as self-aggrandizement. Ramaswamy was set to start Strive, an asset management company he hoped would take on the BlackRocks and Vanguards of the world, and was about to publish his second book, so he had good reason to court media attention. Still, I found his enthusiasm noteworthy; as a journalist who covers Silicon Valley, I’m used to chatting up smooth-operator entrepreneurs eager for coverage, but Ramaswamy’s media hustle was of a different order.
He told me I could call him anytime I’d like to bounce ideas off a “thought partner.” He sent me a PDF of his upcoming book — “No one has seen an advance copy yet” — and followed up to ask, seemingly earnestly, for my thoughts on his thesis. And when I joked, in my piece, that the title of his first book, “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” sounded “as if it had been formulated in a lab at Fox News to maximally tickle the base and trigger the libs,” he texted me with an explanation that he suggested I append to the published column:
Maybe that was all really the case. But I got the impression that he was also trying — a little too hard — to paint himself in a light that he thought might appeal to a lefty Times columnist.
In the wake of his breakout performance at last month’s Republican primary debate, much has been made of Ramaswamy’s irrepressible annoyingness — is it a bug that could prevent him from winning the G.O.P. presidential nomination, or is it the feature that could help him secure it? But what I found striking about Ramaswamy, both in our conversations and on the debate stage, was not that he’s especially irritating (how many people who run for president aren’t?) but that he represents a distinct, very familiar flavor of irritation: He’s the epitome of millennial hustle culture, less a Tracy Flick know-it-all than a viral LinkedIn post come to life. The guy who’s always mining and nurturing new connections, always leveraging those connections into the next new thing, always selling and always, always closing.
Seen this way, Ramaswamy’s otherwise quixotic-seeming presidential run makes perfect sense. Whether or not it wins him elected office, running for the White House is the ultimate rise and grind, and it probably offers far more upside than down. Incessant, glad-handed striving has already made Ramaswamy a wealthy man. According to a report in Politico this year, his campaign said he’s ready to put more than $100 million into his presidential bid, but because this latest side hustle feeds so neatly into his other projects, it’s hardly clear that the run will be so costly. Measured in name recognition, the expansion of his network or future moneymaking opportunities, running for president could well add to his riches.
Take Strive, the management company he co-founded. In “Woke, Inc.,” Ramaswamy lamented what he saw as the pollution of capitalist principles with social justice activism. Rather than focus on the bottom line, he argued, the leaders of America’s largest corporations had allowed their employees and other elites to goad them into adopting what he said are costly political stances on race, gender, climate and other charged issues.
This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking position on the right — combating corporate wokeness is basically Ron DeSantis’s whole thing. But whereas DeSantis’s fixation on all things woke is primarily a vehicle for his political ascent, Ramaswamy saw in wokeness a larger opportunity. He would write a book and guest essays assailing corporate E.S.G. (environmental, social and governance) practices, and he was also considering a political run, but to really “move the needle,” he told me, would also require taking on “the asset management ideological cartel.” And backed with a reported $20 million from billionaire investors and tech entrepreneurs he’d courted, among them Bill Ackman and Peter Thiel, he started Strive.
That’s not a lot of money with which to take on the giants of asset management — BlackRock and Vanguard each manage trillions in assets — but Ramaswamy’s hustle was unceasing. Three months after it opened for business, Strive announced that it had already attracted $500 million in investments for its anti-woke E.T.F.s, or exchange-traded funds. In June it reported $750 million in assets under management, and this week it reported crossing the $1 billion mark. That’s minuscule compared with the giants, but its growth is significant; in July, Semafor’s Liz Hoffman noted that it took J.P. Morgan two years to reach $1 billion in assets after it started offering E.T.F.s in 2014.
“It is a rare feat for any indie issuer to hit $1 billion in first year,” Eric Balchunas, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst, told Bloomberg News of Strive’s accomplishment. “Ramaswamy’s wealthy backers helped a lot, and running for president probably can’t hurt, either.” You think?
Ramaswamy no longer works at Strive. Via email, the company told me that he was the executive chairman of the board and ran day-to-day operations until February, when he stepped down to run for president.
But he still has a huge interest in its success. In an S.E.C. filing last month, Ramaswamy is identified as the company’s majority shareholder. In a financial disclosure form filed in June, Ramaswamy valued his stake in Strive at over $50 million — a remarkable amount for a company that’s just about a year old, where he worked for just months. His disclosure listed his stake in Roivant Sciences, a biotech company he was previously the chief executive of, at over $50 million as well. (Forbes recently calculated Ramaswamy’s net worth at around $950 million.)
Looking back on my exchange with Ramaswamy, I find it interesting how hard he pushed back on his association with the word “woke”; he hasn’t shied away from it on the campaign trail. In February, when he announced his candidacy in The Wall Street Journal, he wrote that “America is in the midst of a national identity crisis” and that “the Republican Party’s top priority should be to fill this void with an inspiring national identity that dilutes the woke agenda to irrelevance.”
But his current comfort with “woke” works for winning over a G.O.P. primary audience. When he needs to cultivate a broader base, whether in the general election or in hopes of expanding his Rolodex for whatever side hustle comes next, I’m sure he won’t hesitate to reach out and tell me just what he thinks I want to hear.
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