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How do we think about startup ethics?

Meet your classmates from all around the world and who (normally) attend classes on both coasts. The Xfund team lays out the “Three C’s” of business ethics . One of Harvard Business School’s most popular professors, Tom Eisenmann, debuts an unpublished case study: the story of uBiome, a Stanford-founded startup that begins with great promise — and ends in an FBI raid.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Assuming that uBiome made no false claims about the product’s efficacy when marketing to consumers through the Indiegogo campaign, do you feel that this early version of the product was ethically sound?

  2. At what point did the founders cross over the line separating ethically sound from unethical behavior?

  3. What led the founders to engage in unethical practices?

  4. How responsible were employees and non-management board members for the ethical breaches?

  5. Could uBiome have been a viable venture if management had avoided unethical practices, or was the venture doomed to fail anyway?


Should we ask permission, or beg forgiveness? (Compliance)

Kevin Hartz, one of the brightest luminaries in Silicon Valley, co-founded Eventbrite and Xoom. He was an early investor in Airbnb, Gusto, Opendoor, Palantir, PayPal, Pinterest, Reddit, Trulia, and Uber. Kevin will lead a case discussion with you about his struggles moving Xoom forward while being restrained by the myriad regulations, customs, and laws that govern entrepreneurial activity. At times, Kevin, opted not to be in compliance with the law. What drove these decisions?


You want to be Facebook. Or do you? (Contribution)

In the early days of Facebook, Annie Ta helped launch technologies like Facebook Exchange and Facebook Connect, which gave the company unprecedented abilities to reach targeted individuals with resonant messages. These technologies would compound for more than a decade and come to cement Facebook’s dominance of our attention. In recent years, this dominance has allowed Facebook to exert enormous influence over issues from George Floyd to Donald Trump.


Facebook’s current VP of Global Communications John Pinette and Pinterest’s current Head of Inclusive Product Annie Ta bookend an era that began with great promise, and has ended in a confrontation with the President (and much of the government) of the United States. They grapple with their responsibilities to their shareholders versus their responsibilities to society.

If you have any questions, feel free to email


You Don’t Want the Truth. You Can’t Handle the Truth! (Contribution)

Veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin has covered startups and tech for the last 16 years, but now she fears that the “democratization of news,” cults of personality, and the reality distortion fields they produce will swallow the truth. Lessin founded The Information in part to defend that truth.  What are the boundaries of this role?  How do founders like Lessin trade this off against the necessity to run a profitable entity?


The Social Dilemma – What's Inside the Algorithm? (Consequence)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should consumer products be regulated on the amounts and types of data they are allowed to collect?

  2. Should consumer products be regulated on the number of ads they are permitted to display in a given time period or session?

  3. Are there ethical upper bounds to engagement?

  4. Is it possible to build a social network that is not monetized by ads?

  5. Given that you have built a public company monetized by ads, what would you do today? 


We Accelerated at Full Speed. And Then We Crashed. (Consequence)

Jenna Golden was Head of Political Sales at Twitter during the 2016 election. Her team sold one of the most valuable and expensive ads to Donald Trump. And then it all went wrong. What happened? What would you have done differently? We conclude the series with a riveting and recent case study that ties together all we have learned.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe that Twitter and other social platforms should be in the business of selling political advertising?

  2. What are the key things the Twitter leadership team should have considered before allowing us to offer this custom emoji product to Presidential candidates?

  3. If both the Trump and Clinton campaigns had decided to purchase this product, would that have changed the way you viewed the situation? Do you think the outcome would have been different?

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