- WASHINGTON POST
Servants Seem Out of Touch. Enter the Billionaire’s Battalion of Experts
17:22 JST, October 16, 2023
Jag Gill is a New York-based banker turned tech CEO. She has an MBA from MIT. She’s a serial start-up founder. In 2021, she launched an artificial intelligence-powered tech company, Vertru Technologies, focused on climate and human rights impacts in supply chains. Her demanding job means that she travels about every month of the year between New York City and places such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Stockholm and India. She sits in on roughly 25 meetings per week. And she has a monk in her life.
“There are areas I want to work on,” says Gill, who would prefer not to name the monk she met while at Tibet House US in New York, a cultural center established at the behest of the Dalai Lama. “There’s professional growth, being a better CEO and a better founder. So he helps me by organizing meditations, where we just sit in noble silence, or we may talk about things.”
To deal with stress and practice mindfulness, she joined a breathwork community with Angell Deer, a shamanic healer, mystic, medicine man, teacher, permaculturist, beekeeper and international speaker, according to his website.
In July, she traveled to Esalen, the storied Big Sur retreat known for its connections to the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s.
“I’m there exploring breathwork and these new modalities, but it’s all very steeped in Silicon Valley tech culture. There’s a guy from Google there,” she says. Ben Tauber, a former Google product manager, was CEO at Esalen until 2019.
The popularity of metaphysical practices in an industry otherwise founded upon the strict mathematics of algorithms has become a well-known facet of life among the tech elite. Founders are under immense pressure to alchemize start-up ideas into palpable profits for investors. Who better to guide you on that journey than a shaman? But while Gill engages with a well of inspirational figures, she also seeks out experts with a more science-based perspective.
To conquer stressful deals, she works with “CEO whisperer” Sharon Melnick, PhD, a business psychologist and executive coach focused on women’s success with a decade of research at Harvard Medical School under her belt.
“When I have big negotiations, or when I need tactics and strategies, she’s on the other end of the phone,” Gill says. “We’ve been doing a program together with some other women on power and pleasure. We are learning how to use dance, movement, flirting and self-talk to just be more alive in the world.”
Gill and her peers are pursuing the optimization of everyday life, supported by entourages of experts – often managed by a single power assistant – who help the hyper-successful live longer, do more and pursue a fleeting and intangible perfection in every aspect of their existence.
Personal chemists now help CEOs hack their psyches with psilocybin chocolates, ayahuasca retreats, microdoses of LSD and IV drips of ketamine. (Elon Musk is one alleged user.) Teams of private doctors, dietitians, scientists, wellness practitioners and trainers help aging executives search for the Fountain of Youth – with occasionally gruesome techniques (such as tech mogul Bryan Johnson’s “blood boy”). Shamans guide board room bosses through difficult decisions. Mixed martial artist Khai “The Shadow” Wu trains Mark Zuckerberg. “Pro-natalists” tap matchmakers to secure high-IQ partners to produce elite super children for a world they agree is doomed to societal and environmental collapse.
At the $100 million homes of these masters of the universe, vast teams of niche connoisseurs make sure that the right furnishings are in the lounge, the right cars are in the garage, the right toys are on the yacht, the right wines are in the cellar and the right works of art are on the walls – even if the owners of those Veblen goods aren’t always sure what it is exactly that they are buying.
“Amenity floors” – sprawling underground playpens that have become de rigueur in mansions – create a need for additional specialists. Even a starter estate now comes with a home gym, a movie theater, a wine-tasting room, a cigar room, a treatment room, a styling room, a swimming pool, a game room and, of course, a panic room. Each of those rooms represents an outside expert to hire, whether it’s the projectionist or the home security adviser who makes sure that you’ll be able to sit out a home invasion in comfort.
Real estate agents are traditionally one of the most omnipresent and trusted hired guns to the world’s rich. After going through decades of deals, they become like family, discussing markets over dinner at Per Se and showing up at birthday parties. Now, even the family broker is faced with competition from a more optimized expert.
“If one of my clients is interested in purchasing a property, I will assist by narrowing down which properties are better suited for them energetically,” says Wendi Eckstein, a Los Angeles area-based Reiki master practitioner who harmonizes the energy of individuals and the real estate holdings of wealthy families. “Or if a client feels that there is an uneasiness to the home, I will go in and balance the house.”
The economy of experts swirling around the super rich has to varying degrees existed for decades, perhaps centuries, but the motivations for hiring them and the roles they play have changed. As the straightforward materialism of the flash 1980s gave way to the holistic self-help perfectionism of the new millennium, tennis coaches and feng shui gurus began to look old hat. Faced with ever-less-ignorable wealth inequality and the hyper-visibility brought on by social media, a moral justification for conspicuous consumption was necessary. A holiday to a $20,000-a-night villa in Polynesia – with the nannies and PA in tow – could look out of touch. But add a marine biologist, an Indigenous healer and an environmentalist to talk to you about coral bleaching, and you are a step closer to being a better you. Their expertise gave your experience purpose.
Today, that pursuit of ethical, moral and professional optimization is being pushed toward its logical conclusion afresh by the rise of artificial intelligence, the creation of Scrooge McDuck swimming pools of lucre and a boiling over of existential angst.
“During the pandemic, a lot of people had a brush with their own mortality,” says Melnick, whose 2022 book, “In Your Power: React Less, Regain Control, Raise Others,” attempts to explain why CEOs, politicians and tech moguls often feel “out of their power,” unheard, reactive and held hostage to others, despite their material advantages. “It motivated many to want to optimize their lives. ‘Do I really want to live like this?’ ‘Is that all there is?’ A lot of factors not within our control prompt us to want to maximize what we can control – which is ourselves. Because of this, many embarked on a journey to ‘optimize’ what they eat, heal their mental health and get fit. We saw a lot of emphasis on this on social media.”
Although the pandemic caused most of us to confront our own powerlessness, the already rich were better rewarded for their introspection. Between 2020 and 2022, a fresh billionaire was minted every 30 hours. Billionaires as a whole saw their wealth blossom in the first 24 months of the pandemic more than it had in the period from 1987 to 2010, according to an Oxfam report analyzing Forbes estimates. Post-pandemic, those steeped in the capitalistic efficiency of, say, Silicon Valley or Wall Street, and self-improvement culture of curanderismo healers in Mexico and cryotherapy in the Swiss Alps now had the impetus and resources to apply the logics of those ideologies broadly.
“These are seasoned business people, and they run their personal lives the way that they would a corporation or business,” says Richard Kirshenbaum, the CEO and founder of NSG/SWAT (a boutique branding agency), an author and a frequent commentator on living life among the wealthy.
As a consequence, their homes are frequently operated like five-star resorts, according to Aimée Moreault, a Los Angeles-based personal assistant to ultrahigh-net-worth (UHNW) families, which are defined by the accumulation of at least $30 million, according to Knight Frank, a London-based real estate company. If you were lucky enough to be invited to the Malibu home of a person worth several hundred million, she says, you might be greeted by a personal hospitality director. Like at a luxury resort, the director is there to help plan guests’ daily activities, advise them on which trails to hike and set up the surfboards.
“They make sure there is consistency throughout their homes,” she says. “It’s about creating a lifestyle experience. It’s more of a younger, tech industry thing.”
The littoral locations often inhabited by the super rich are hubs for sport fishing, kite boarding, surfing and wakeboarding – sports that have boomed in popularity with a class that prefers its excitement to be imbued with an aura of health and fitness. It has led to demand for full-time water-sports specialists, who manage board sports and an array of watercraft, or who take the family tubing, fishing and jet skiing, according to Forrest Barnett, the president of Hire Society, a staffing agency with locations in New York, the Hamptons, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
He adds that exotic pets, exotic cars and exotic trips often get their own single-hat micromanager. And just as a Fortune 500 company might tap a consulting firm, those with unlimited means seek out experts who can sharpen a dull facet.
“I placed a full-time, permanent gaming expert,” says a person working for an UHNW family who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a nondisclosure agreement. “My client wanted someone who was the best at all of the best games.”
Astaple of life among the 1 percent – and pop culture moments from “The Devil Wears Prada” to Naomi Campbell’s infamous phone-throwing tantrum (not to mention the recent arraignment of Donald Trump’s body man Waltine “Walt” Nauta) – the power PA is also evolving. With dozens to hundreds of specialists working for a single family, the title of personal assistant is giving way to chief of staff, an appellation borrowed from politics. Combining business with pleasure, the CoS not only manages home life – the fitness instructor, dietitian, the watch adviser and Savannah cat tamer – but they also attend their “principal’s” business meetings, taking minutes, advising and facilitating high-level requests.
Yet unlike executive assistants of yore, the chief of staff is less burdened with planner keeping. AI assistants can now handle the more transactional tasks of scheduling. The more general aspects of travel have become a breeze for those who are not price sensitive thanks to online booking. Exclusive WhatsApp groups help execs like Gill quickly crowdsource needs and arrange last-minute meetings. But rather than put the assistant out of work, advances in technology have created more time to focus on the intimate aspects of the job, according to Bethany Burns, first mate to the captain (a title she created in lieu of chief of staff). Her captain is James Watt, the embattled chief executive of Scottish beer giant BrewDog and the subject of a 2022 BBC documentary alleging inappropriate behavior, claims that Watt has denied.
“The assistant role has become more specialized and more personal,” she says. “You’re a force multiplier. You are a key decision-maker. You are a partner in strategy. You are an influence, a project executor, an integrator. You are making sure that everything flows like qi.”
In a Wodehousian twist, the power assistant has also been saddled with an even more personal role worthy of the wardrobe-conscious Jeeves: tastemaker.
“It’s changed,” says Nahla Bee, a Los Angeles-based personal assistant to UHNW families. “It used to be that people who had a high net worth had a certain provenance and came from a certain type of family. And generally, they understood luxury from birth. Now, many people are becoming wealthy midlife, or early in life, for the first time.”
Moreault adds that, when young people become hundred-millionaires or billionaires “overnight,” they face a steep learning curve.
“The East Coast has much more of that traditional, old-school money that gets handed down. They are a little bit more used to having help around,” she says. “On the West Coast, they’re not always used to having people around. They’re not used to how much staff it takes to run the estates that they’re buying. So there is a lot of up educating people as to what it takes to live this lifestyle that they’ve seen on TV. You have to educate them and train them about what it means to collect art and what it means to collect cars.”
The nation’s 100 largest private landowners – billionaires such as telecom baron John Malone – own a slice of the United States roughly the size of New England, and that’s not even counting their properties overseas. Anyone who devoured “Downton Abbey” has a rough idea of what it takes to manage just one of those estates. Housekeepers, butlers, chefs, nannies, chauffeurs and gardeners, even those traditional staffing roles, are being optimized beyond the recognition of a stalwart Carson.
“Today it’s not just being able to find a nanny, but a ski nanny or a nanny that specializes in Montessori, Waldorf or Reggio Emilia philosophies,” says Samantha Lloyd-Gordon, founder and CEO of the SLG Group, a staffing agency serving UHNW individuals. “It’s not just holding a child and burping them. It’s about how you’re engaging with a child in a way that makes them a better person. It’s not that this stuff wasn’t always there, but there’s more of it because of social media and because we are all talking about this stuff more than we did in the past.”
Lloyd-Gordon adds that other now-common domestic jobs with hyper-specifications include drivers with a police background, firearm training and a concealed-carry permit; a housekeeper who is also an illustrious laundress; a chef capable of cooking for a family of four with four different dietary requirements; and, perhaps, an architecture tutor who can travel with a precocious child.
Even the butler is getting a remix, trading in his morning coat, white gloves and “G’evening, Sirs” for an iPhone and a business-casual nonchalance.
“When I first started my agency, a lot of my clients were sort of old-school with formal service and formal butlers,” says Philippa Smith, the founder and managing director of Silver Swan Recruitment. Founded in 2013, her company staffs the ski chalets, mansions, yachts and private jets of the global 1 percent, placing butlers on $170,000 to $200,000 per year salaries with benefits. Housekeepers make about $120,000, while chefs can make as much as $400,000, she says.
“Now, there is a younger generation of UHNW [individuals], and they don’t want a 60-year-old butler. They want a butler who can pack a suitcase but who can also handle personal assistant duties. They want a cool, good-looking 30-year-old butler.”
But the pursuit of excellence also has its more suburban side.
“People just want the best,” Smith says. “Some of that is for show. Some of it is about keeping up with the Joneses. If their mate down the road has a Russian-Mandarin-French-speaking nanny, they think, ‘Why the hell don’t we have a Russian-Mandarin-French-speaking nanny?’ It’s very competitive in the elite world, and everyone wants more. We’re a greedy species.”
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