The co-founders of Wayfair, the online furniture retailer, have a history that makes for a sweet company backstory. Steve Conine and Niraj Shah met in high school in New Jersey and were magically reunited in college, finding themselves in the same dorm as freshmen at Cornell University. They failed at several joint projects before building Wayfair in 2002. Now they’re billionaires.
For the past 24 hours, however, they’ve also been vilified on social media. Workers at the Boston-based firm have gone public with a petition signed by more than 500 Wayfair employees after they learned that Wayfair had sold $200,000 worth of mattresses and bunk beds to a charity that furnishes a detention camp for migrant children at the Texas border. The employees asked the company to cut off ties to that charity and donate profits made from the sales to RAICES, a Texas nonprofit that works for refugees and immigrant rights. They also called for a walkout at the company’s headquarters today.
So far, the company has told employees in a letter posted online and published by the Boston Globe that it will not donate the profits or end its relationship with the contractor, Baptist Children’s Family Services. (Quartz at Work contacted Wayfair and will update this post with any response.)
Dismissing its employees’ concerns would be out of character for Wayfair’s leadership. Shah, the CEO, is also chair of an eponymous foundation dedicated to child health and education. The Shah Foundation’s goal, according to its website, is to “support innovative, transformative work in education, healthcare and community.”
“We believe healthy, nourished, engaged children make better students,” the website also states.
Last year, the foundation—where Nirah’s wife, Jill, is president—pledged to pay for 50% of a $3 million program to build “My Way Cafe” kitchens serving fresh food inside several public schools in Boston.
On the foundation’s website, both Shahs respond to the cute prompt “If I could wave a magic wand” in their bios.
Jill Shah has a warm message:
IF I COULD WAVE A MAGIC WAND:
Everyone would feel loved. Truly, confidently loved.
Niraj Shah writes:
IF I COULD WAVE A MAGIC WAND:
I would wipe out inefficiency in government and society. I would erase poverty and shift the world to an enlightened, post-money economy.
Critics would argue that Wayfair’s chief executive has a curious sense of what enlightened means. (Quartz at Work has also contacted the Shah Foundation for comment.) Reports revealed this week that at one border camp for separated children “flu and lice outbreaks were going untreated, and children were filthy, sleeping on cold floors, and taking care of one another because of the lack of attention from guards.”
On Twitter, some comments have supported Wayfair, arguing that the firm was assisting people already in a tough situation by supplying comfortable furnishings. However, the majority of statements—including one from senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential hopeful—say profiting from the crisis or supporting its governmental players is morally unjustifiable. She voiced her support for the employee activists on Twitter:
So did New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
In 2017, Conine and Shah made a political statement of their own, quietly removing Trump Home products for sale on the Wayfair site. Not acceding to the workers’ demands in this conflict would fly in the face of the Shah Foundation’s mission and Conine’s professed theory of management, as he once explained it in an interview with Boston Magazine:
My father used to always say, “Does he love me or does he not? He told me yesterday, but I forgot,” but it was in reference to employees. You have to tell your employees that they are valuable every single day, even if it seems redundant. It’s so important to keep your team excited about what they do, as well as about your company’s overall mission to keep the business moving in the right direction.
Employee activism appears to be on the rise across the US and other developed economies. For retail brands, it works hand-in-hand with consumer boycotts, which Wayfair is also facing. Ignoring employee concerns won’t work in this new world. Neither will expecting corporate hypocrisy to go unnoticed. Company executives everywhere may want to make a note: Do as these billionaire entrepreneurs say, not what they do.