#BeSomebody Speaker Draws Controversy at Austin High School
It all started with a high school assembly on the first day back from winter break. The guest speaker was the founder of an Austin-based company with a positive message about following your dreams. But what was supposed to be a motivational speech turned into a war of words between high school students and staff and Kash Shaikh, the founder of #BeSomebody, that played out on blogs and social media.
On January 5, Shaikh spoke to students at Austin High School, at the school's invitation. According to his Twitter, his talk at the high school was similar to his talk at a recent TEDxUWMilwaukee event, which was produced independently of the famous TED Conferences.
In his speech, Shaikh said he’s tired of people being all talk.
“I called myself out 19 months ago and walked away from everything I once thought was important: money, title, lifestyle, things, a career that started at Proctor and Gamble, the largest consumer products company in the world, and started to blossom at GoPro, the fastest growing camera company in the world,” Shaikh said. “I called myself out to go all in on my passion.”
When Shaikh used the #BeSomebody hashtag on Twitter, people responded positively. So he decided to create a media platform to encapsulate that passion. According to the #BeSomebody website, Shaikh wants to create a “motivational movement” that encourages people to become “passionaries." Passionaries, as defined by the company, are people who pursue their passions, find ways to connect with other people with similar passions and make a living from those passions in what he calls the “passion economy.”
Shaikh has been working on #BeSomebody since 2009. But last year, #BeSomebody received a $1 million investment from the media company E.W. Scripps to launch its platform. #BeSomebody now has a mobile app where users can connect with other people nearby who share their passions, including everything from writing and camping to music and travel.
In his speech, Shaikh talks about the importance of struggling to reach your passion. He cited his own struggle when he left his luxury apartment and "75 percent of his stock and equity" at GoPro and moved to Central Texas, where he launched his idea.
"I spent $250,000 of my own money," Shaikh said. "And when I raised money, I was moving back in with my parents at 35 years old. I had a BMW. I sold that. Now, I drive a 2004 Ford with 270,000 miles on it that doesn't start in the cold weather. There's a lot of people in a lot worse situations than me."
Shaikh says he rented an apartment in Pflugerville where he lived without any furniture except for a whiteboard that he and his brother built by hand because it was cheaper.
Response from the Crowd
Throughout the two months that followed the Jan. 5 assembly, teachers and students conveyed their disapproval of the speaker’s assembly message. They said Shaikh’s speech contained sexist comments and trivialized the idea of struggle. They pushed back against Shaikh’s advice not to have a “Plan B” when “Plan A” is to pursue your passions.
"I understand his message," says McCoy Johnston, a senior at Austin High School. "It's hard to follow your passion when you put your passion on hold, but if you throw away everything just to follow your passion and it fails, which I know is kind of a pessimistic way, you have nothing."
On Jan. 9, students in the Austin High Media Arts Program, called KAHS (pronounced "chaos"), posted a parody video poking fun at the assembly and its speaker. They pretended media teacher Gil Garcia was convinced by Shaikh’s message, coming back to the classroom with the new phrase #BeKAHS.
In the video, one student questions the idea by asking, “Weren’t we already KAHS?” pointing to one of the student's criticisms that the #BeSomebody mantra assumes that people who do not follow their passions are nobodies.
“We were already KAHS, but now we have an app!” Garcia responds. “It’s so much better now!’”
On Jan 23, Austin High School student Sean Saldana posted an op-ed in the student newspaper, The Maroon, with a more serious critique of the assembly.
“The message of doing things not only for money, the message of doing things out of passion and love is beautiful,” wrote Saldana. “But I think the speech Kash gave to a couple thousand students is incomplete, in that it lacks several warnings. “Sure #BeSomebody has a feel-good message meant to inspire the youth, but at its heart, #BeSomebody is a company,” Saldana continued. “And there’s just something inherently wrong about a company coming to a public school, wasting government resources (time that could be spent in class and money that’s paying a staff that isn’t working), to half advertise to people who have no choice about whether or not they want to hear. The whole thing is just kinda gross.”
The op-ed piece was posted online on Feb. 16.
On February 15, Shaikh wrote on the #BeSomebody blog with a post titled, “You Have No Idea What PASSION Means.”
“I’ve heard parents and principals and professors tell their kids to ‘forget about their passion and start thinking of their professions.’ I witnessed a teacher at Austin High School actually play the lead role in a project making fun of ‘passion’ on their school TV station, and a student leader write an article in the school magazine that claimed ‘following your passion is a flawed message.’”
Shaikh continued, “The problem is, most people don’t understand what PASSION means… all of those people who try to convince others – and yourselves – that ‘passion alone can’t get you anything’ have no idea the DEPTH of this word.”
Shaikh also turned to Twitter, calling the students and faculty, “UNinspired,” and linking to his blog post.
Students and teachers responded via Twitter and in the comments section of his blog post.
“When you discussed suffering and struggle after boasting of the corporate exuberance that you gave up…in front of a group of teenagers out of whom 40% receive free and reduced lunch and a faculty who has not gotten a substantive raise in at least eight years, you insulted us,” wrote Kevin Gillion, a Spanish teacher at Austin High School. “Suffering is having a disease, or living in poverty, or being chronically excluded from economic or political opportunity. Did you have to skip meals or go without electricity when you lived in the squalid, studio apartment in suburban Pflugerville? If not, then what you experienced was inconvenience–not suffering.”
According to state data, last year 33 percent of students at Austin High School were economically disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, others came to Shaikh’s defense in the comments section, saying they were inspired by his message.
"This is one the REALEST posts I have ever read," wrote one commenter. "Man, it jumped up and grabbed me by the throat and forced me to listen. I am not surprised it sparked some animosity to those being called out as the culprits endorsing a passionLESS existence. It seems to me, after working 40 years in the Education industry, that many of the teachers and administrators – while well-intentioned – are bitter and stale."
On Feb. 18, Alex Dorner, the Social Media Manager of #BeSomebodyblog, also joined in on Twitter, tweeting at Austin High's media teacher, Gil Garcia:
Austin ISD wouldn't make the Austin High School Principal available for comment, but in a statement, the school says a group of school administration chooses guest speakers.
"Austin High School prides itself on being a safe, respectful forum in which the school community can discuss and debate ideas and opinions," the statement reads. "Mr. Shaikh’s presentation sparked much discussion. Although some of the discussions after the assembly became heated, we are proud of the way our school community handled and responded to the ideas and opinions presented."
"It doesn't look good on Kash's part to be so invested, like being belligerent towards our school," says McCoy Johnston, the Austin High School Senior.
Looking back, Shaikh says he learned some lessons from the experience.
"I probably responded too quickly," Shiakh said. "I probably got into the debate too quickly and that's some things I would do differently, probably not get into the back and forth too much. But the one thing we won't do is change our message."
But Johnston says the kids were only following his message in the first place.
"Our passion is publication, our passion is to seek out the truth, seek out information that he wasn't properly giving us. I think it's wrong for him to attack us when we're doing exactly what he wanted us to do."
This article was changed to reflect that the Maroon op-ed piece was originally posted in print on Jan 23 and online at Feb 16.