In June, as the sun set on Dublin, Ohio, a well-to-do suburb of Columbus, several dozen people dressed in golf shirts and floral shifts filed into a small auditorium to listen to a talk by a new neighbor. Vivek Ramaswamy, a thirty-seven-year-old entrepreneur, had settled in the area with his wife and toddler son after making a large fortune as the founder of a biotech company. Now, thanks to dozens of appearances on Fox News to criticize “cultural totalitarianism” enforced by liberal élites, he was closing in on fame as a conservative pundit. In the past year, he had cast aspersions on Black Lives Matter and “the death of merit”; mask mandates and U.S.-border protection; public-school curricula and the actor Jussie Smollett. All the flame-throwing had established him, in the words of one anchor, as the network’s “woke and cancel-culture guru.”
Ramaswamy has perfect-looking teeth, a high forehead, and a thick shock of hair that rises into a swirl at his crown. Out on the sidewalk, he’d hastily replaced his flip-flops with sneakers, in a nod to formality. At the front of the auditorium, perched on a stool, he spoke into his microphone with a showman’s brio, as if addressing a far larger crowd. He enjoyed forums like this, “where there’s no agenda, there’s no objective, other than to create spaces for open conversation, for people to be free to say, and feel free to say, the kinds of things that they might have wanted to say behind closed doors,” he said, smiling brightly. The true test of the strength of a democracy was not, he argued, how many people voted. It was “the percentage of people who feel free to say what they actually think, in public.”
One of the opinions he wished to air to those assembled was that “woke-ism”—a belief system that Ramaswamy sees as an insidious secular creed—has overtaken religious faith, patriotism, and the work ethic as a key American value. Corporate virtue-signalling and hypocrisy are everywhere, he told the audience. “Let’s muse about the racially disparate impact of climate change as you fly on a private jet to Davos,” he said, to laughter from the nearly all-white crowd. C.E.O.s were recruiting “token” people of color for their boards in the name of diversity while refusing to seek out diverse points of view. The Walt Disney Company was self-righteously protesting Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law after cutting deals with the repressive Chinese government to film footage for “Mulan” in Xinjiang.
To Ramaswamy, such corporate do-gooderism—and especially environmental, social, and governance investing, known as E.S.G.—is a smoke screen designed to distract from the less virtuous things that companies do to make money. Amazon donates to organizations that aid Black communities while firing workers trying to unionize. Nike produces advertisements with the civil-rights activist and former N.F.L. quarterback Colin Kaepernick while exploiting workers in Asia. Many such companies, he intimated to the audience, were building tacit alliances with the Democratic élite.
That corporations are given to hypocrisy is hardly a novel observation. But Ramaswamy’s twist on the familiar critique, which he laid out last year in a book entitled “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” is to place E.S.G. investing at asset-management firms like BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street at the center of what ails American life. He calls this kind of socially conscious investing—not political corruption or dark money, not election denialism, not disinformation—the gravest danger that American democracy faces today. E.S.G., he told his audience, lets the private sector “do through the back door what our government couldn’t directly get done through the front door.”
The three top asset-management firms collectively hold more than twenty trillion dollars in retirement funds and other capital, about the same as the national gross domestic product. And the stocks that the firms control give them extraordinary influence over almost every public company in the world. “It’s not a right-leaning issue, it’s not a left-leaning issue,” he said. Private-sector attempts to address climate change are not only laughably insincere, he argued; they’re encroaching on work that should be done by the government—and only if the citizens agree.
Ramaswamy’s crusade against E.S.G. is based on a pair of seemingly contradictory ideas: that attempts by companies to address societal problems are cynical and ineffective, and that those attempts also pose an existential threat to the democratic process. But such inconsistencies are often obscured by Ramaswamy’s frictionless oratorical style—a brisk patter, peppered with references to Hobbes and Hayek, that wends toward well-modulated moments of outrage. In Dublin, his words had gray and blond heads bobbing in agreement.
Ramaswamy’s mother worked as a geriatric psychiatrist; his father was an engineer and a patent lawyer at General Electric. They came to the U.S. from South India before Vivek was born, in 1985. Growing up in the Cincinnati area, Vivek established himself as an overachiever: an accomplished pianist, a nationally ranked tennis player, and the valedictorian of his Jesuit high school. He graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School, worked at a hedge fund, then started a pharmaceutical company, Roivant Sciences, where he made hundreds of millions of dollars. That a chunk of this wealth derived from a failed effort to bring an Alzheimer’s drug to market is something he doesn’t dwell on in speeches.
After Ramaswamy emerged from that failure, his cutting one-liners, which he deployed in “Woke, Inc.” and on Twitter, attracted notice at Fox News, and last year he left his pharmaceutical venture behind. His mother, Geetha, had never heard of Tucker Carlson or watched Fox News before her son started showing up on the network. “I wish he could be on other channels as well,” she told me. But, to her chagrin (and to his, though he’s slower to admit it), other networks weren’t biting.
In recent years, Ramaswamy has contemplated a move into politics—something he discussed with a friend from law school, J. D. Vance, a venture capitalist who was just elected to the U.S. Senate in Ohio. But if the event in Dublin, organized by a marketing executive, felt vaguely like a campaign stop, Ramaswamy was there to promote more than policy ideas. Although he’d begun his talk by saying “there’s no agenda,” it eventually turned into a sales pitch for an investment company he’d just started. The company, Strive Asset Management, had the financial backing of the billionaire Peter Thiel, Vance’s V.C. firm, and other investors, and intended to compete with BlackRock and its peers. Although Ramaswamy was still hiring and searching for office space, he told the audience that Strive would soon offer investment funds, at fees competitive with BlackRock’s, that wouldn’t ask the companies it invested in to “push political agendas.” It would ask them only to deliver quality products and services and to make money for shareholders.
As the talk concluded, anti-woke investing didn’t appear to be foremost on attendees’ minds. Two women descended on Ramaswamy with smiles as broad as his own. They’d founded their own K-12 school after criticizing what was being taught at their children’s private school. They planned to center virtue and patriotism in their new curriculum. Would Ramaswamy like to meet with them to discuss it further? (He would.) Two more women approached: would he attend their “Freedom Rally”? (He was supportive but noncommittal.) A man with a thick and bristly mustache pulled in close, stared him in the eyes, and asked, “When’s the last time you read ‘The Art of War’?” (“Uh, high school?”) Ramaswamy turned away to relieve his wife, Apoorva, a doctor who was eight and a half months pregnant, of their restless two-year-old son. By the time he turned back, a woman in a bright-red top was confiding that she, too, was concerned about the local schools. As Ramaswamy’s son dipped his hand in a cup of water and appeared ready to burst into tears, the woman said, “We’ve worked so hard to get rid of the gender-identity stuff. Now we want to . . .”
A shadow flickered across Ramaswamy’s face. “Don’t talk about that so much,” he told her while also signalling to his wife and a body man who was travelling with him that it was time to move on. “Talk about what you want to replace it with instead—civic education, American history, patriotism.”
The term “woke,” which dates back nearly a century, was initially used in Black communities to describe a raising of consciousness and has since become a catchall denoting awareness of a range of social-justice issues. In recent years, “wokeness” has also become, in conservative circles, a subject of suspicion and ridicule: shorthand for performative righteousness, like “political correctness” before it. Opposition to woke principles has become a business opportunity, too. A former Green Beret has found success with a “patriotic” coffee brand, Black Rifle, based in Salt Lake City. The conservative commentator Sara Gonzales founded American Beauty, a cosmetics company “for women who love America.” (Lipstick shades include Freedom Fighter and Triggered.) Vanessa Santos, who runs a right-leaning public-relations firm called Red Renegade PR, told me that the market for anti-woke goods is niche but ardent. “People want to buy something that’s patriotic,” Santos told me, and “they want to know the kind of person who’s behind the product.”
Ramaswamy’s Strive isn’t even the only “anti-woke” asset-management firm to launch in the past few years. In 2020, the money managers William Flaig and Tom Carter started the American Conservative Values E.T.F., a fund that boycotts companies deemed to be supporting a liberal agenda. 2ndVote Funds, which offers two products and emphasizes conservative and faith-based values, appeared the same year. Last month, Strive surpassed both outfits in size, announcing that it had more than five hundred million dollars in investment assets after its first three months.
What Strive sells are E.T.F.s—exchange-traded funds, which consist of a basket of stocks or bonds, similar to a mutual fund. The first E.T.F. that the firm introduced invests in energy companies. It was soon followed by an E.T.F. that focusses on the semiconductor industry. Strive also began a publicity campaign targeting seven companies—Amazon, Apple, Chevron, Citigroup, Disney, ExxonMobil, and Home Depot—that Ramaswamy claims would be more profitable if they abandoned their E.S.G. goals.
The creation of firms like Ramaswamy’s represents a countermovement to a phenomenon that itself was a countermovement. E.S.G. investing arose in part as a response to the concept of shareholder primacy, which Milton Friedman famously articulated in a 1970 essay in the Times. Corporations should not be concerned with the public interest, such as reducing discrimination and pollution, he argued. Managers’ only duty was to maximize the profits of shareholders, the company’s true owners—an idea that, for obvious reasons, was instantly appealing to many investors.
The opposing argument, which came to be known as stakeholder capitalism, contended that when companies made decisions they had a responsibility—financial as well as ethical—to everyone affected by their dealings. As such, they might weigh factors other than profit, such as environmental impacts and the well-being of workers and communities. The term “E.S.G.” was first formally proposed in a 2004 U. N. Global Compact report. Specific ways of measuring a company’s E.S.G. performance have since been refined into a scoring system. Pension-fund managers, for example, might use the scores to evaluate long-term risks such as climate change and demographic shifts, to avoid squandering the money of workers who would depend on their retirement funds in the future. Some companies game their E.S.G. scores and exaggerate their “responsible” choices as a cynical marketing strategy. But even companies that take the goals seriously aren’t motivated primarily by virtue. Rebecca Henderson, a Harvard Business School professor who consults with companies on sustainability, said, “I promise you, these companies want to make money.” But, she added, executives are also eager to stay viable in a future in which carbon might be taxed and more employees and consumers will avoid companies that pollute heedlessly or mistreat their workers.
Larry Fink, BlackRock’s C.E.O. and a proponent of E.S.G. investing, is a favorite target of Ramaswamy. As a shepherd of around eight trillion dollars in investor money, Fink has urged companies to adopt plans to become carbon neutral and ultimately transition to a post-carbon economy. Ramaswamy contends, without citing specific evidence, that Fink is collaborating with political élites on such matters: promoting environmental policies that they have failed to push through Congress. He has attacked Fink’s supposed liberal agenda so assiduously that a newcomer to U.S. politics might, after imbibing conservative media, mistake the BlackRock C.E.O.—one of the most powerful men on Wall Street—for a darling of the American left.
BlackRock’s business is more complicated than Ramaswamy suggests. For instance, not all of its funds are E.S.G.-based. (A company spokesperson notes that less than six per cent of its assets under management are in “dedicated sustainable investing strategies.”) Last year, BlackRock announced that it would allow investors in some of its funds to participate in company shareholder votes on matters such as executive compensation and climate policies, rather than BlackRock voting on their behalf.
Some skeptics of Ramaswamy speculate that, for all his insinuations about Fink’s alliances, he’s part of a well-established campaign that is guided by right-wing mega-donors and is intent on sabotaging climate-change measures. Ramaswamy dismisses such notions; he’s down, he says, with the “grassroots” people—conservative patriots who are fuelling anti-E.S.G. backlash that has reached Republican-controlled legislatures from Texas to West Virginia. In October, Louisiana announced that it would withdraw nearly eight hundred million dollars from BlackRock. Similarly, Florida later declared that it would divest two billion dollars from the company.
Bill Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square Capital, a fifteen-billion-dollar hedge fund, was, behind Thiel and his affiliates, the second-biggest seed investor in Strive. Still, he told me, he disagrees with much of what Ramaswamy says: “My experience, at least with the companies we know, is that being thoughtful with everything from packaging to environmental considerations is generally something that’s good for business. If Exxon were smarter, they probably should have made some earlier-stage investments. They should have put up capital in the first round of Tesla.” Nonetheless, Ackman appreciates Ramaswamy’s emphasis on what he thinks is an unhealthy concentration of capital in the asset-management industry. “A world in which three fund managers are controlling corporate America is not a world that’s good for America,” Ackman said. Because BlackRock and its competitors make most of their money through fees, he said, and don’t own the stock they control on behalf of their investors, they have little at stake in the outcome of policies that they’re promoting.
Tariq Fancy, who until 2019 worked as BlackRock’s global chief investment officer for sustainable investing, has doubts about both Ramaswamy and E.S.G. He has concluded that sustainable investing, at least as BlackRock was practicing it, is counterproductive. E.S.G. creates an illusion of progress that allows people to avoid harder, more meaningful ways of addressing climate change and other problems. He said that most E.S.G. investing (which he differentiated from corporations trying to make themselves “greener”) takes the form of divestment—choosing not to put money in, say, fossil-fuel companies. Such discrete redirections of resources, he suggests, are unlikely to build into movements powerful enough to provoke broad policy change. “Look at the Middle East,” Fancy said. “They’d talk about not having investments in alcohol, but they never thought that it would stop people in France from drinking wine.” He also noted that Ramaswamy and other conservatives say that the government, not people like Larry Fink, should address climate change, but fail to acknowledge that the political and regulatory process has been distorted by corporate interests. “If they were serious, they would follow the argument to its natural conclusion,” he said. “You would want to get money out of politics. ” The more likely reality, Fancy believes, is that the Ramaswamys and Thiels of the world would prefer to see little to no government action on climate change, labor practices, diversity in boardrooms, or other issues.
When I asked Ramaswamy why he ignores how money in politics compromises the regulatory and legislative process, the issue seemed to bore him. People had been fretting about getting money out of politics for years, he said. His Larry-Fink-as-left-wing-bogeyman theory, by contrast, felt fresh.
But didn’t the enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of a few pose a serious threat to democracy? Not necessarily, he replied. “You can buy your yachts, you can buy your houses, you can buy your nice cars, but you shouldn’t be able to buy a greater share of voice as a citizen,” he said. The ultra-wealthy did buy more of a voice, I pointed out, by influencing the political process at every level, from choosing the President and hiring lobbyists who write legislation to pouring money into school-board elections. He picked up his phone, as if to seek out a more interesting conversation. “I just don’t think that’s the biggest problem.”
Shortly after Ramaswamy was born, his family commissioned his horoscope, which predicted that he was destined for greatness. He would later say that his family bestowed on him, their firstborn, a sense of “deep-seated superiority” and an expectation that he would outperform the “average mediocre Joes” with whom he went to school. Geetha told me that she and her husband, known as V. G., believed that Vivek and his younger brother, Shankar, as children of immigrants, would have to work harder to succeed than the children of American-born parents. “There are a lot of things we didn’t know, being from India,” she said.
In eighth grade, at a large and economically diverse public school, Vivek was “roughed up” and pushed down the stairs by a Black student. An injured hip required surgery, and his parents decided to enroll him in a private preparatory school. When I first asked Ramaswamy if that incident influenced his views on race, he seemed not to have thought much about it. But some days afterward he wondered aloud if the experience had precipitated his doubt that members of one underrepresented group had a unique claim on being discriminated against: “All human beings can be on both the giving and receiving end of that.”
A strain of animus toward Black Americans runs through much of Ramaswamy’s public commentary. After a foundation that has been linked to Black Lives Matter was discovered to have spent donations on high-end real estate, he started to quip that B.L.M. should stand for “Big Lavish Mansions.” In our conversations, he could be similarly antagonistic, as when he discussed how today’s civil-rights activists—a group he defined as comprising Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Ibram X. Kendi—had “sold out” to corporate America. He couldn’t say exactly how Kendi had sold out, but he believed that Jackson, the Baptist minister and former Presidential candidate, who is now in his eighties, had profiteered on his standing as a civil-rights leader. Ramaswamy likened this to extortion, but later clarified that the extortion attempts he meant to criticize were racial-equity audits conducted by the former Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch and their law firms. Corporations such as Starbucks and Verizon, he said, felt that to avoid accusations of racism they had to hire the firms, often at great expense, to assess their diversity policies.
“I definitely find the idea of systemic racism revolting,” Ramaswamy told me. He allowed that it had existed in the U.S. at moments in the past, offering the era of slavery as one example. But racism was atrophying, he said, so societal goods should not be unevenly distributed on racial grounds. He mentioned a white, heavyset conservative male classmate at Harvard who was considered uncool, and argued that the social pecking order was stacked against him “more than some athletic Black kid who came and got a place on the basketball team.” Ramaswamy blamed affirmative action and similar policies for forcing élite institutions to lower their standards, and said that the current narrative of systemic racism creates more racism than would otherwise exist. “Affirmative action is the single biggest form of institutionalized racism in America today,” he concluded.
Ramaswamy’s political awakening began not at home but in the company of a conservative-Christian piano teacher with whom he took private lessons from elementary through high school. As he worked his way from the easy Bach preludes to Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca,” the teacher, who became something of a godmother, railed against Hillary Clinton and extolled the virtues of free speech, patriotism, and Ronald Reagan.
A conservatism that puts its faith in unfettered markets would come to inform even Ramaswamy’s understanding of caste relations in the Indian state of Kerala, where he spent summers with his family. Ramaswamy’s family is Brahmin, the highest caste in the Hindu hierarchy. In “Woke, Inc.,” he maintains that “American-style capitalism” is repairing the damage of that pernicious system, writing approvingly that a “lower-caste guy” in India can now deliver Domino’s pizza and “my family tips him to show their appreciation.”
At Harvard, where he majored in biology, Ramaswamy joined the South Asian Association but was more interested in American politics. Identifying as a libertarian, he became president of the Harvard Political Union. He also performed Eminem covers and original free-market-themed rap songs as a kind of alter ego called Da Vek. Paul Davis, who lived in a dorm with Ramaswamy and later worked with him at his pharmaceutical company, said, “He knows his views and style rubbed some people the wrong way, but he didn’t care.”
At the time, Ramaswamy was irritated by what he saw as groupthink all around him. One of his classmates’ campaigns, a push to raise wages for janitors on campus, prompted him to lash out in the Harvard Crimson. The article was an early demonstration of his glee at puncturing what he sees as liberal pieties. Those supporting a wage increase, he wrote, had inadvertently linked the “fundamental human worth” of the workers they were championing to the paychecks they received. True, a bigger paycheck might give the janitors more financial stability. But the higher pay—more than “the laws of supply and demand would require,” he claimed—would signify that Harvard students felt sorry for the janitors. This would harm the janitors in other ways, as “a condescending strain of sympathy subtly yet naturally replaces the mutual human respect that otherwise would have existed.”
The summer after Ramaswamy’s sophomore year, he took an internship at a nine-billion-dollar hedge fund called Amaranth Advisors. He thought that working in the firm’s biotech division, where a team of doctors and scientists evaluated stocks for the firm to invest in, might be more exciting than working in a lab. “Woke, Inc.” records his disillusionment with the experience. He recalls Amaranth’s founder, Nicholas Maounis, explaining to the summer interns that the purpose of a hedge fund was “to turn a pile of money into an even bigger pile of money.” Ramaswamy joined a company-sponsored cruise, where he says he came to the attention of the firm’s big traders by winning a poker tournament. After that, they began taking him to extravagant restaurants and clubs with bottle service—indulgences subsidized by investor fees. “Even at the age of nineteen, it struck me as, like, this is not the way a company should be,” he said. The next year, after one of the firm’s traders reportedly lost several billion dollars in a week betting on natural-gas futures, Amaranth collapsed. (Maounis, through legal counsel at his new firm, Verition Fund Management, said that he recollected neither Ramaswamy nor the events he related.)
Ramaswamy’s next summer internship, another disappointment, was at Goldman Sachs. He describes the inner workings of the firm as a charade, with jaded bankers in hand-tailored dress shirts doing little while making a show of how busy they were. He was especially struck by what was often called Service Day, when employees engaged in volunteer projects around the city. One day, he recalled, he and some co-workers gathered at a park in Harlem for a tree-planting session. A Goldman boss showed up in Gucci boots, told the employees to take photographs to document their presence, and then split. The group reconvened shortly afterward at a bar. (A former Goldman executive who participated in the volunteer program for nearly two decades told me that, although the flavor of the episode seemed credible, it was hard to imagine an entire group abandoning a project before starting.)
When Ramaswamy remarked to a colleague that it should be called Social Day, not Service Day, the colleague asked him if he’d ever heard of the Golden Rule. To treat others as one wished to be treated, Ramaswamy offered. “No,” the colleague told him. “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
After graduating from Harvard, Ramaswamy took a job as a biotech-stock analyst at QVT, a hedge fund in New York City led by physicists he considered brilliant. He learned about financial engineering and how to evaluate investment opportunities, but after a couple of years he got restless. In 2010, he spent a day auditing classes at Yale Law School, where he’d previously deferred enrollment. Sitting in on a criminal-law course taught by Jed Rubenfeld, Ramaswamy was mesmerized.
“I am inherently interested in questions of justice,” he told me. “It was a disciplined way to explore and figure out what I believed about things. I thought, I have to do this.” While continuing to work at QVT, he enrolled at the law school. In the years he was there, he said, he made around ten million dollars. At Yale, he established important connections: with Vance, a fellow Cincinnati Bengals fan; Thiel, who hosted an intimate lunch seminar for select students, and who later staked him on a venture helping senior citizens access Medicare; and his future wife, Apoorva, who lived across the way from him while attending medical school.
Ramaswamy stayed at the hedge-fund job after getting his law degree, and also took a standup-comedy class. The course was “traumatizing,” he said—he wasn’t any good. But he did learn a trick that stuck: carrying around a notebook to capture passing thoughts or jokes as soon as they arose. While researching biotech companies for QVT, he began filling the notebook with ideas and with impressions of executives he met. In 2014, these scribblings became the basis for Roivant, his pharmaceutical venture. It was a fine time to start a company. Venture-capital investors were flush with cash and searching for ambitious young men with startups that they could invest in.
The pharmaceutical-development process, which involves moving drugs through rounds of testing and approvals, is slow, and drugs are often abandoned along the way. Sometimes a drug doesn’t work. Other times, the decision to drop a product is economic: executives determine that the drug, no matter how effective, won’t be profitable, or won’t align with their business strategy. Ramaswamy’s idea was that Roivant could license drugs that had been left languishing, take them through the rest of the development process, and share the proceeds with the original manufacturer.
Ramaswamy had no experience running a company. Nonetheless, he’d soon declare that Roivant would be the “Berkshire Hathaway of drug development.” He raised approximately ninety-three million dollars from investors, among them QVT. Roivant had around ten employees at the start, including Ramaswamy’s mother and brother, and was organized in the spirit of a hedge fund, with subsidiaries that each specialized in a single medical issue, such as women’s health or urology. Scientists and pharmaceutical experts hired for a subsidiary were offered equity in the company as an incentive to leave jobs at more established drugmakers. Ramaswamy’s advisory board included several well-known Democrats, including Tom Daschle, the former Senate Majority Leader; Kathleen Sebelius, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama; and Donald Berwick, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Berwick was attracted to Roivant, he told me, because of its commitment to improving access to critical medicines. “I thought he had latched on to an important problem in that there are important drugs that don’t get developed because they don’t fit in the business model of the company, so these assets stay on the shelf,” Berwick said. “His idea was to get them off the shelf by making them attractive. ” In discussions with Ramaswamy, “politics never came up,” Berwick said. What the founder did talk about was pricing drugs reasonably so that they’d be accessible to patients who needed them.
At the end of 2014, Roivant acquired one of its first drugs, an experimental Alzheimer’s medication, from GlaxoSmithKline, for five million dollars up front. There is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, and drug companies have spent billions of dollars trying to develop one. Geetha Ramaswamy had worked for pharmaceutical companies that were developing treatments for Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders, and had clinical expertise that would be valuable to her son’s company. The drug that Roivant bought, known as SB-742457, had been shelved even though in early trial phases it had shown signs of reversing mental decline when paired with an older drug called Aricept. Ramaswamy’s company would owe G.S.K. a 12.5-per-cent royalty on net sales and other possible payments should it manage to bring SB-742457 to market.
In 2015, the biotech industry was in the midst of a boom—or, some might say, a bubble. Stock prices had been skyrocketing in an environment full of hype. Ramaswamy took advantage of the moment. He created a subsidiary in Bermuda to own the drug, and prepared to sell shares to the public before the medication, in combination with Aricept, began the pivotal Phase III clinical trial.
That June, the subsidiary, Axovant, raised more than three hundred million dollars through an initial public offering—a remarkable amount given that the subsidiary’s value was based solely on the potential of one untested drug. As the drug, since renamed intepirdine, proceeded through the clinical trial, with around thirteen hundred patients, Forbes put Ramaswamy on its cover and called him “The 30-Year-Old CEO Conjuring Drug Companies from Thin Air.” In the accompanying article, Ramaswamy declared, “This will be the highest return on investment endeavor ever taken up in the pharmaceutical industry.” The following year, Forbes named him one of the richest entrepreneurs in America under the age of forty. But in September, 2017, with Axovant reportedly valued at around $2.6 billion, Ramaswamy received an unpleasant phone call. Intepirdine was a bust. It had failed to meaningfully improve the health or cognition of the patients in the clinical trial.
“It felt humiliating,” Ramaswamy told me. Roivant had acquired another promising drug, to treat prostate cancer, that, when used in combination with a second drug, seemed to ease symptoms of uterine fibroids and endometriosis. But the prostate medication was years away from coming to market. “I’d let people down. I took it hard,” he said. Even now, he says, the wounds from the fiasco aren’t fully healed. However, he’s come up with a positive spin on it: “My latitude for being willing to fail big is a lot higher than it was then.”
In the summer of 2019, the Business Roundtable, an association of more than two hundred C.E.O.s of the largest companies in the country, issued a new statement of corporate responsibility, saying that businesses should aim to operate ethically in addition to delivering profits to their shareholders. The statement was not binding for members, but it reflected anxieties about wealth inequality and about the declining financial security of the middle class. Around that time, individual companies, from Airbnb to Citigroup, issued their own statements on moral obligations. In January, 2020, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, David Solomon, the C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs, announced that the firm, in its U.S. and Western European markets, would no longer underwrite initial public offerings for companies whose boards lacked at least one “diverse” member. (That number is now two.)
Ramaswamy’s notebook began filling up again. “Everyone was saying the exact same thing at the exact same time, and it got under my skin,” he said. He submitted an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal in which he denounced “stakeholder capitalism” for advising powerful companies “to implement the social goals that their CEOs want to push.” These were issues that should be decided by the citizenry, he wrote, through voting and policymaking. After the article ran, Ramaswamy relished the impact that he seemed to be having. “It wasn’t like being at a dinner party, where I’m just sharing my opinions,” he told me. “If I wasn’t the one making that argument, I wasn’t sure if anyone else would be taking that on. That was enjoyable, but it also came with some sense of responsibility. ”
A book seemed like a natural next step. Seeking advice, he turned to Rubenfeld and his wife, Amy Chua, who is also a professor at Yale Law School and whose book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” about spurring her two daughters to become overachievers, had been a best-seller. (Chua had also mentored Vance at Yale and advised him on the writing of his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”) Around the time they met, Rubenfeld was under investigation by Yale for sexual harassment—a charge that he denies and which led to a two-year suspension from the faculty. He heard out Ramaswamy’s somewhat scattered ideas and suggested a tauter study of capitalism, democracy, and the changing culture of the American workplace. Rubenfeld said of Ramaswamy, “He is one of the most skilled people I know in terms of listening to criticism and learning from it.” Ramaswamy accepted the advice, began writing trenchantly about his experiences in the Ivy League and the corporate world, and eventually took his proposal to a publisher of conservative authors, Center Street.
In May, 2020, as he was working on the manuscript, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, and cities across the country erupted with protests. Corporate executives began issuing statements expressing sympathy and support for racial justice. (A photo circulated of Jamie Dimon, the C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, kneeling in apparent solidarity.) Ramaswamy, unsurprisingly, was annoyed. “The murder of George Floyd was tragic,” he wrote in “Woke, Inc.,” “but it was also tragic that thousands of people of all races died of diseases every day that could be better treated by a broken health-care system.” Employees at Roivant, too, wanted Ramaswamy to issue a statement of support for Black Lives Matter. Instead, he sent a company-wide e-mail that acknowledged the “painful” week and the protests, and advised his staff to “stay safe.” This did not go over well. A colleague accused him of being “tone-deaf,” and many of the young people Roivant had recruited demanded to know how the company was addressing systemic racism in its subsidiaries. He later wrote, “There was something curious to me about corporate America’s fixation on the BLM movement, even as other obvious injustices continued to abound. I was personally appalled by China’s persecution of its Uighur population.” But, he went on, “none of my employees or directors expressed concern to me about these human rights violations.”
In the aftermath of the January 6th attack on the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, Ramaswamy co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with Rubenfeld. They called the assault on the Capitol “disgraceful,” but sounded more exercised that Twitter, Facebook, and other tech companies had suspended Trump’s accounts on the ground that he had incited violence. The op-ed contended that the tech companies’ decisions about whom to ban were politically motivated.
Members of Roivant’s advisory board were following Ramaswamy’s new career as a cultural critic, and some were distressed. In Berwick’s view, Tucker Carlson and Fox News were toying with American democracy. Moreover, Berwick thought, Ramaswamy’s regular public statements about how corporations did not exist to deliver social benefits ran counter to Roivant’s original mission—to bring reasonably priced medicines to people who needed them.
The day after the Journal piece appeared online, Berwick resigned from Roivant’s advisory board. Daschle and Sebelius quit, too. Ramaswamy was startled by the departures, particularly Berwick’s, but he was unrepentant. A week and a half later, he went on Carlson’s show to call on President Joe Biden to pressure Twitter to reinstate Trump.
“To me, he’s assuming a status quo that does not exist,” Berwick said. “Democracy is so under the gun right now. And the very forces that he’s talking about, these moneyed forces, are part of the reason. His view is they should get out of the political scene entirely, and my view is they’re in it—the money’s there.”
Just a few weeks after January 6th, Ramaswamy announced that he would step down from the business he’d founded to focus full time on his writing and political interests. Roivant had recovered from its Alzheimer’s-drug failure, and he told me he realized that he “couldn’t be a free-speaking citizen without hurting the company.” He was also mulling a run for the Senate seat in Ohio held by Rob Portman, who said that he would not seek reëlection, in large part because of the polarization in Washington.
The Republican Party was perennially in need of candidates of color to diversify its ranks—especially those with stage presence and a good origin story. Ramaswamy was invited to a dinner attended by Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, and took the opportunity to raise the subject of his political future. He recalls McCarthy saying that he could do more good as a thought leader for the Party than as a junior member of Congress. Others he consulted suggested that a life in politics would be a source of misery and frustration.
Ramaswamy was also casting about for another business to start—maybe an anti-woke shoe company to compete with Nike, or an anti-woke beverage company to take on Coca-Cola. But conditions seemed more propitious for an “anti-BlackRock”—something much bigger than the anti-E.S.G. companies that had already formed.
At the time, a wave of anti-E.S.G sentiment was taking hold at the local level. States including Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Texas passed bills that allowed their officials to restrict the activities of financial institutions if they were determined to be limiting their dealings with the fossil-fuel or firearm industries. The lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, which has received funding from the billionaire Koch brothers and other allies of the fossil-fuel industry, is an enthusiastic supporter of such anti-E.S.G. endeavors. (Ramaswamy has appeared frequently at Heritage functions.) Heritage also has ties to the State Financial Officers Foundation, a group that includes conservative state treasurers and has promoted anti-E.S.G. efforts. Ramaswamy spoke to a gathering of the group this past February. A few months later, he was collaborating with one of its rising stars, Riley Moore, the West Virginia state treasurer, on a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The piece criticized the disproportionate power of the “big three” asset managers over public companies.
Moore told me that, after he took office in January, 2021, he heard that coal, gas, and oil companies with operations in his state were struggling because some banks had made it more difficult for them to borrow money. (He declined to name any of the companies.) “I immediately started to dig in and wonder about how we could push back,” Moore said. West Virginia was one of the country’s largest energy producers, with some seventy-two thousand workers in the sector, and the industry generated millions of dollars in revenue for the state. Moore wrote to Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, BlackRock, and U.S. Bank, warning that they might lose state contracts should they be found to be boycotting fossil fuels.
“Everybody talks about climate change, and I get what they’re saying—maybe the climate is changing,” Moore said. “But it misses what’s measurably changing drastically in this country, and that is the question of human flourishing. We see people’s life expectancy dropping, drug addiction, people generationally doing worse than their grandparents or parents were doing. That is a huge problem, one that has to be addressed more immediately than the question of the climate changing. Here in West Virginia, that is a rich man’s problem.”
Moore added that today some West Virginia coal miners make ninety thousand dollars a year. Meanwhile, small towns and local businesses have been “gutted” by Walmart. “If they take our coal-mining jobs away in certain parts of this state, the only jobs we have left are in Walmarts,” he said. “And that’s not living.”
Some states that pass anti-E.S.G. legislation could face a new set of economic difficulties, according to a recent study by Daniel Garrett, an assistant professor of finance at Wharton, and Ivan Ivanov, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. They found that in Texas five banks paused or halted their underwriting of municipal bonds after anti-E.S.G. laws were adopted in September, 2021. The experts’ estimate suggests that a loss of competition in the market cost Texas municipalities an additional three to five hundred million dollars in interest on bonds in the first eight months.
Earlier this month, the anti-E.S.G. movement gained ground in unexpected territory. Vanguard withdrew from a large climate-finance alliance, the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative, which aims to encourage fund companies to reach net-zero carbon targets by 2050. The company, which had been under pressure from Republican politicians, stated that it would track its own climate progress instead. Critics immediately accused the company of giving in to the anti-woke movement. Ramaswamy filed the news away as another victory.
He was also gratified, this fall, by the response to a public letter he’d sent the C.E.O. of Chevron, urging him to reject calls by BlackRock and other institutional shareholders to reduce carbon emissions and to increase investments in renewable energy. When I met Ramaswamy for dinner one night in Manhattan at his favorite Mexican restaurant, he told me he’d be meeting later that evening with Chevron’s C.F.O. Ramaswamy seemed exhilarated by the thought that he, like Larry Fink, could start telling business leaders what to do.
He’d been on a round of speaking engagements and was in the city with his body man to promote, among other things, a new book with a self-explanatory title: “Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence.” As he tore into a plate of quesadillas with huitlacoche, I asked Ramaswamy if his burgeoning reputation as a conservative firebrand had taken a personal toll. He chose his words carefully. A family member no longer spoke to him, and he’d been ghosted by a close friend. Although he’d forged new relationships with conservatives, none of the connections had turned into friendships. “I feel like the public advocacy, or whatever you call what I’ve been doing in the last couple of years, has eroded more friendships than new friendships made up for it,” he said.
Although Ramaswamy delights in the visibility that his Fox News appearances bring, he wonders about the opportunities foreclosed. “I feel like I recoil when I see someone describe me as a conservative,” Ramaswamy said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a conservative. It’s just not how I would describe myself.”
Fear of the label did not stop Ramaswamy from travelling to Washington, D.C., a few weeks later to receive the Gentleman of Distinction Award at the annual gala of a right-leaning organization called the Independent Women’s Forum. The unofficial theme of the event, which took place in the great hall of a museum, seemed to be outrage about transgender athletes in women’s sports. Still, the mood in the room was exuberant. The midterms were imminent, and Republicans were anticipating big gains.
Ramaswamy had flown in from an investment conference in Las Vegas, where he had been interviewed alongside Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State, at an event entitled “ESG for Thee, China for Me.” Somewhere along the way, he had upgraded his footwear to black brogues, and when he took the stage he delivered a speech less folksy than the one he’d tried out months earlier, in Dublin. He shared his child-of-immigrants story; quoted Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.; slammed E.S.G. and tech censorship; and then got to the self-mythologizing portion of the narrative—that he had stepped down from his company, where he’d been working to develop a cancer drug, to fight a new kind of cancer afflicting our culture.
“That is this new secular religion in America that says that your identity is based on your race, your gender, and your sexual orientation, full stop,” he said. “That America is a systemically racist nation. That if you’re Black you’re inherently disadvantaged. That if you’re white you’re inherently privileged.”
The following month, the Republicans’ disappointing performance in the midterms led to furious intraparty debate over whether to remain loyal to Trump or to move on. But a point of consensus seemed to be that the quality of the Party’s candidates mattered. After people started suggesting that Ramaswamy run for President, he found it hard to shake off the idea. Maybe he was the right person to unify the country around shared values—values that, at the D.C. gala, he underlined in a pounding conclusion.
“The idea that no matter who you are, or where you came from, or what your skin color is, that you can achieve anything you ever want in this country, with your own hard work, your own commitment, and your own dedication—that,” he said, his voice soaring, “is the American Dream.”
Moments later, he was engulfed by admirers. Frank Coleman, of the Cigar Association of America, who claimed that the F.D.A. was “trying to kill the industry” by threatening to ban flavored cigars, had never heard of Ramaswamy before, but said, “It was a tremendous speech.” Tulsi Gabbard, the former congresswoman and 2020 Presidential candidate who’d recently announced that she was leaving the Democratic Party, called Ramaswamy courageous. Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, used the same word. An hour later, Ramaswamy was still fielding well-wishers when he realized that he needed to get to the airport. It was wheels-up soon, and he had places to go. ♦