Is slovenliness an index of genius? This is one of the questions raised by the downfall of “crypto wunderkind” Sam Bankman-Fried, or SBF, as he is known.
Before his fall, Bankman-Fried was hailed as the next Warren Buffett, perhaps destined to become the world’s first trillionaire. At just 30, as founder of the now bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX, he “amassed more wealth in a shorter period of time than anyone else, ever,” said a glowing profile on the website of Sequoia Capital, a venture capital fund that invested more than $200 million in his schemes.
V.C. investors generally consider themselves smart people, but SBF struck quite a few of them as being in a class of his own. He had a “reputation as a genius — a slightly awkward space cadet, but a genius nonetheless,” wrote the authors of a denouement on Vice. This perception of being a prodigy was critical to the fact that Silicon Valley titans handed him billions.
Central to his mythos was also his sartorial style, his “shambolic wardrobe,” as it was referred to in the New York Times. “The unkempt millennial,” cooed the Wall Street Journal. He “would only be photographed in shorts, a T-shirt or hoodie, and untied shoes,” noted the Guardian.
Elsewhere he has been described as part of “a loose intellectual confederation of scruffy, young STEM-oriented freethinkers” — STEM being the acronym for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
Flouting business dress codes became a marker of Bankman-Fried’s supposed brilliance.
In this respect he follows in a tradition laid out by some of the most legendary figures in tech, among them Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs. Where Jobs is famous for the fanatical control of his appearance — and that of Apple devices — Woz, as Wozniak is fondly known, is rumpled and bear-like.
And here’s a critical point: Jobs may have been the marketing genius who propelled Apple to a central place in contemporary culture, but Woz is the engineering genius who made the original Apple computers work. For several generations of computer engineers, his genial scruffiness has served as an inspiration.
Comparing Bankman-Fried to the founder of Facebook, the authors of the Vice article described him as “a schlubby Zuckerberg-type.”
This is unfair to Mark Zuckerberg. Zuck and SBF have in common their stratospheric business ascents and embrace of the T-shirt as a kind of monkish habit. Yet these days Zuckerberg is anything but shambolic. His hair is so flat it seems spray-painted on, and the crispness of the T-shirts on his honed body makes you wonder if they’re ever worn twice. He’s so squeaky clean, it’s as if he’s been a character in the virtual reality realm of his beloved metaverse all along. No scruff there!
Whatever the differences between Zuckerberg and Bankman-Fried, they share the attribute of a Y chromosome and this affords them fashion options not open to women.
On Twitter, Emily Peck, a journalist at Axios, has noted the gendered dimension of SBF’s wardrobe choices: “It’s not a new point but I can’t help repeating. No female founder could show up dressed like this in public and expect to get handed billions of dollars.”
Peck’s post has generated more than 35,000 likes, many from women like me who work in STEM fields and have witnessed in person how women, no matter how brilliant, are harshly judged by our appearance and presentation. One female chief executive tweeted back “a woman can’t show up in a t-shirt (even for the internal team stuff)” — let alone meetings with funders.
The only female tech founder most people have heard of, Elizabeth Holmes, has just been sentenced to prison as a result of her own start-up meltdown. During her also meteoric rise, Holmes was impeccably turned out. Perfect hair, flawless makeup, elegant clothes — often modeled on Jobs’ black-turtleneck look — she was the Vogue ideal of a tech mogul. This is no coincidence.
And the point expands beyond women. “Imagine if a black or female founder, overseeing tens of billions, showed up like this,” tweeted New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway, alongside a photo of SBF in crushed shorts and limp T-shirt at a cryptocurrency conference.
Of course, the mythos of the unkempt male genius extends beyond the tech industry — one thinks of the philosopher Slavoy Zizek, the physicist Albert Einstein and early Richard Branson. In physics in particular, for men, a rumpled demeanor is often viewed as a sign of commitment to higher thoughts.
Einstein’s unruly hair has indeed become a cultural symbol of genius, the untamed thatch iconically representing the untrammeled intellect beneath.
I do not mean to imply here that anyone should have to dress “well.” I’m just saying that men are allowed to disregard their appearance in ways women cannot contemplate if we wish to keep our jobs or get them in the first place, to say nothing of starting billion-dollar companies. We will not have an equal society until women have the same right to sartorial carelessness.
Margaret Wertheim is a science writer, curator and artist. Her books on the history of physics include “Pythagoras’ Trousers” and “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.