How a Liberal Billionaire Became America’s Leading Anti-DEI Crusader

Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post
In the days following Hamas’s attack, before Israel’s invasion of Gaza, more than two dozen Harvard groups circulated a letter charging the Israeli “apartheid regime” with being “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

Three years ago, Vivek Ramaswamy called up hedge fund manager Bill Ackman with an idea: an “anti-woke” asset management firm that would combat social justice and climate initiatives spreading through the business world.

Though the billionaire power broker had made a career forcing management changes in businesses including Wendy’s and JCPenney, Ackman seemed an unlikely backer for his tennis buddy’s project. A longtime Democratic donor, Ackman had helped propel the career of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and his philanthropic efforts included paying for thousands of undocumented immigrants to attend college. Moreover, Ackman had praised the movement Ramaswamy opposed – known as environmental, social and corporate governance, or ESG – endorsing ESG practices in his 2021 shareholder letter.

But the tumultuous years of the pandemic had shifted the Wall Street billionaire’s worldview. Like others in his uber-wealthy circles, Ackman had come to believe that well-meaning ESG efforts had curdled into something pernicious, stifling debate, destroying careers and undermining the meritocratic values that made the free-market system “the most powerful potential force for good in addressing society’s long-term problems,” as he once put it.

Ackman invested $2.5 million in Ramaswamy’s Strive Asset Management – an early flash point in his personal transformation. By last month, when the hedge fund manager led a successful campaign to oust Harvard University’s first Black president, he had fully emerged as one of the most powerful – and unexpected – adversaries of a diversity movement that has swept society since the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a White police officer.

In hours of interviews with The Washington Post, Ackman, who is Jewish, argued that campus responses to the Oct. 7 attack had been lackluster compared with the solidarity shown post-George Floyd. To Ackman, the contrast exposed the hypocrisy of the movement for “diversity, equity and inclusion,” or DEI – which includes race-based hiring goals and diversity trainings he called “unhealthy” and the “root cause of antisemitism.”

“Say whatever you want about me being a powerful person,” Ackman said. “I don’t want to advantage my own group at the expense of another. What I want is fairness.”

A master of making public companies bend to his vision, Ackman is translating his Wall Street tactics to attack the ideology of DEI, which generally asserts that including underrepresented groups benefits companies. Ackman says those efforts have in practice become discriminatory and claims even Martin Luther King Jr. would have opposed them.

He is creating a think tank, which he describes as a cross between a research center for his curiosities and an incubator of solutions, underpinned by a philosophy he defines as: “Look, I don’t like when people get screwed.” He says he will pursue his crusade against “discrimination in all forms … to the ends of this earth,” echoing a line from his infamous six-year battle with the supplement company Herbalife. He communicates with his 1.2 million followers on X – a platform he rarely used before the pandemic – in thousand-plus-word screeds written from the elliptical, Ubers and his private jet. He wants everyone to know that his most popular recent X post has 36 million views. (“Pretty f—–g huge,” he says. “How many subscribers does the Washington Post have?”)

Despite his intention to end the DEI industry, he has yet to speak to someone who works in the field.

Ackman’s evolution mirrors many elites who, like the hedge fund manager, see themselves as moderates and not culture warriors.

The group includes Elon Musk, who says he voted for Democrats including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and President Biden, but now surrounds himself with a right-wing cohort online and recently declared “Diversity Equity and Inclusion” to be “propaganda words.” In a recent memo, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen named his “enemies” as “ESG,” “social responsibility,” “sustainability,” “socialism,” and “anti-greatness.” And Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, in an interview last month, said he didn’t care for the “whole diversity and inclusion thing,” arguing that ads showing models with various body types can send the wrong message. (“You’ve got to be clear that you don’t want certain customers coming in,” said Wilson.)

Ackman “has this weird resonance, because people are like – he is basically right – even if no one in a real position of power will say it out loud,” said Sam Lessin, a former Facebook executive who recently ran for a seat on Harvard’s alumni Board of Overseers with support from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and opposes DEI.

“If you have experienced and understand what excellence really looks like, then you know that for America’s future … we need excellence,” he added.

Investor Mark Cuban, a strong DEI supporter, argues that the investor class has become newly emboldened to attack the movement, in part because of X, formerly Twitter. They are “falling into the anti-woke echo chamber,” he said. “Twitter is the glue that unites them.”

Some DEI experts agree that certain diversity initiatives have had a chilling effect on public debate. There are many “institutions where it is impossible to say certain things, and the world is divided into oppressor and oppressed,” said Ralph Richard Banks, director of the Center for Racial Justice at Stanford Law School.

But Banks disagrees with critics like Ackman who “think the solution is to eliminate the entire industry,” arguing the outcome would be a grave setback to limited racial progress. “[Ackman] is well-intentioned, but … he can re-create the same us-vs.-them dynamics that are the root of so many of these problems.”

Ackman waves off critics who dismiss him and like-minded titans as wealthy White men clinging to power. And he rejects the idea that anyone should judge him by his new right-wing bedfellows. He says that robust debate, even with people with whom he vehemently disagrees, is exactly what society is currently lacking – the very point of his crusade.

If he has a megaphone, he argues, it’s only because people want to hear what he has to say.

Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post
“I don’t want to advantage my own group at the expense of another,” Ackman said. “What I want is fairness.”

A self-appointed ‘Mr. Fix It’

Ackman, whose high school yearbook tagline was “most verbose,” has never shied away from a fight. Close friends in his upscale Chappaqua, N.Y., hometown and later Harvard would tease him about his persistence and competitiveness.

“Whether it was a Scrabble match or a tennis game, if Bill lost, you were getting a rematch because Bill is not going to end the day on a loss,” said a good friend from Harvard, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid associating with Ackman’s fight against DEI. One time she purposefully threw a contest to be able to go home to sleep.

Ackman, who is worth about $4.2 billion according to Forbes, could be just as relentless for causes he cared about. He volunteered as a peer counselor for Room 13, Harvard’s mental health crisis line, taking calls in the 7 p.m.-7 a.m. shift. “Bill has always been Mr. Fix It,” said the friend, with a “streak of wanting to fix problems.”

Friends say Ackman gets his outspoken nature in part from his father, Larry, a real estate executive. Stephen Fraidin, a family friend and Yale Law professor, said Larry Ackman broke up the genteel tenor of PTA meetings with comments that were “about four times more aggressive” than the norm. Before Larry died in 2022, his last letter to his son was about the dangers of rising antisemitism.

Fraidin, who later drew up the paperwork for Ackman’s first hedge fund, remembers him as a precocious teen whose overflowing opinions animated hour-long car rides to NYC for weekend enrichment classes.

This self-appointed Mr. Fix It tendency became the hallmark of Ackman’s career. In the mid-1990s, he took a large stake in the troubled real estate company that owned Rockefeller Center and grew frustrated with mismanagement. “I watched [the other board members] make mistake after mistake after mistake,” he said. Eventually he brought on partners to buy the company outright.

“That was probably the first moment that I realized that, as a shareholder, I could do this better than the guy running the company,” he said.

As an activist investor, Ackman would take a sizable position in companies, then force changes to make them more profitable. He founded Pershing Square Capital Management, deploying obsessive research, a nose for underperforming stocks and blitzkriegs of loud shareholder letters to push out leaders of more than a dozen companies. Hugely profitable turnarounds at food giant Wendy’s, mall operator General Growth Properties and rail operator Canadian Pacific have helped make him one of the most prominent hedge fund investors on Wall Street.

Still, his bold bets were wrong almost as often as they were right. He possessed “Golf Channel commentator” good looks and a near-blinding emotional attachment to his investments, sometimes getting weepy during shareholder presentations, according to Liz Hoffman’s “Crash Landing: The Inside Story of How the World’s Biggest Companies Survived an Economy on the Brink.”

His reputation for impulsivity extended to his support of Booker. Ackman teared up the first time he heard Booker, then the mayor of Newark, speak. He soon promised tens of millions of dollars to the struggling majority-Black city, which he’d visited only a few times. (Booker, who is still close friends with Ackman, declined to be interviewed.)

“Once he decides what’s right … he doesn’t back down,” said Keith Creel, whom Ackman recruited to lead Canadian Pacific Kansas City, a large railway operator. Though wary of corporate raiders, Creel grew to respect Ackman, who parachuted in from New York in 2012, unafraid to take on a lazy board that Creel said was “run like a country club.”

Even in the brash world of finance, these tactics have rubbed many the wrong way. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz once called Ackman “despicable,” accusing him of leaking company information to push out the CEO of JCPenny, a member of the Starbucks board. Longtime rival Carl Icahn, the activist hedge fund manager, called Ackman the most sanctimonious person he ever met. A rival investor said he’d “rather hang out with drug dealers and prostitutes” than Ackman.

But Creel and other friends insist Ackman’s campaign against DEI is free of cynicism or ulterior motive. “He’s a very principled person,” Creel said. “He’s a guy who thinks that if the right thing isn’t being done, he is going to do it whether it makes people uncomfortable or not.”

Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, attended Harvard with Ackman in the mid-1980s. While Ackman’s singular determination makes sense in the cutthroat world of Wall Street, Barrett said, it is inappropriate when the target is the first Black leader of the most prominent educational institution in America.

“When he is bullying a company that he has bought stock in, at least he owns a piece of that company,” Barrett said. “But when you go out into the broader world and start telling institutions that you don’t have an ownership stake in how to behave properly, when you take on complex multidimensional issues like race in higher education … all you’re really saying is: I’m a really rich guy, I’ve got access to communications technology and I’ve got no shame.”

In 2012, Ackman took on the biggest activist campaign of his career against the supplement maker Herbalife. He argued it was a massive pyramid scheme that preyed on working-class strivers. Herbalife disputed the claims.

The dramatic strategy was classic Ackman. In an hours-long, 342-slide presentation, he called Herbalife “a criminal enterprise” and its CEO “a predator.” He told shareholders that his $1 billion bet against the company’s stock price, known in investing circles as a “short,” would be a “death blow.” He funded Latino activists who had filed a class-action suit against the company and promised any profits would go to charity. With his signature odds-be-damned confidence, he announced that Herbalife would be shut down immediately, repeating the claim as if he could will it into happening.

It didn’t.

Though federal authorities charged the company with deceptive practices and bribery, Wall Street was never on Ackman’s side. Icahn, who, like Ackman, is Jewish, propped up the company’s stock, publicly scolding Ackman on CNBC for being a “little Jewish boy crying” in a schoolyard.

Ackman ended his short bet against Herbalife in 2018. Naturally, he still believes he is “100 percent right.”

In retrospect, he says it was a “mistake” to tie his campaign against the supplement maker to a short sale – a lesson he is taking to his current crusade against DEI. He said he promised himself that if he ever took on another campaign that ambitious, it wouldn’t be bound to money.

“Because a rich guy was going to make a profit … it made people question the credibility of our work,” he said.

The Herbalife fight made Ackman a star of CNBC and finance publications. But soon he would take his voice to a larger and very different stage: Twitter, now X.

Until 2020, Ackman had just 30,000 followers on the platform and had tweeted fewer than two dozen times.

But that February, he became increasingly anxious about reports of a mysterious virus emerging from China. He discovered that the platform was full of scientists and epidemiologists sharing their views. Messaging with experts on the platform, he became convinced that the virus was about to surge. Ackman panicked, moving his family and his elderly parents to his mansion in the Hamptons.

He also saw an opportunity for a hedge. The market was at an all-time high, ignoring the impending risk of a major global catastrophe. In an emergency meeting, Ackman instructed his investing team to buy large swaths of low-cost financial products – known as credit-default swaps – insurance against the market failing.

“We basically made 2.7 billion in two weeks, from Twitter. And I wasn’t even paying for my subscription,” Ackman said, winking.

Two years later, when the Pershing Square Foundation invested $10 million in Musk’s bid to buy Twitter, Ackman joked it was a token to repay the billions he made on the prescient trade.

In the meantime, Ackman was hooked. Not only was the platform “a powerful research tool,” he said, it was in some ways a more potent form of communication than television and shareholder letters. He issued covid warnings. He criticized Biden and U.S. foreign policy. He supported Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who was acquitted after killing two protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020. (Rittenhouse is “a civic-minded patriot” who acted in “self-defense,” Ackman concluded, after watching hours of testimony one night). He said vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy raised “important issues about vaccines.” He started to critique ESG.

Privately, friends worried that the Twitterverse, and its algorithmic boosting of right-leaning opinions that accelerated in the wake of Musk’s 2022 acquisition, was having a blinding effect.

Ackman says it has opened up a world of possibility.

“It just sort of leads you to different people over time,” Ackman says. “There’s a whole group of people who are kind of in deep on this stuff.”

By Oct. 7, when news broke that Hamas had attacked Israel, Ackman’s followers were ready to listen.

‘What has Harvard become?’

Ackman says he had never given much thought to diversity initiatives until this past fall. He’s long been interested in how racial groups scramble into elite clubs, writing his Harvard thesis about the experience of Asians and Jews trying to get into the Ivy League.

Though he credits much of the success of his eight-person investment team – which is majority non-White – to its diversity, he rejected a proposal for diversity training at his own company. (The team currently has no Black people and one woman.) He recognizes discrimination as a persistent problem, noting that his father was told as a recent graduate not to apply to Chase bank because he wouldn’t “make much progress” as a Jew. So when Claudine Gay was named Harvard’s first Black president over the summer, he was “happy” for someone other than a White man to lead the school.

And Ackman was looking forward to new leadership for other reasons. Despite giving about $50 million to Harvard over the last 15 years, private tensions had ballooned between Ackman and the university. He says Harvard used a 2017 donation in a way that violated his specifications, something he did not speak about publicly at the time.

In the days following Hamas’s attack, before Israel’s invasion of Gaza, more than two dozen campus groups circulated a letter charging the Israeli “apartheid regime” with being “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” The letter did not acknowledge the loss of life in the surprise attack that killed 1,200. “What has Harvard become?” Ackman asked himself, seething in disbelief.

As protests erupted on campus, Ackman, whose wife is Israeli, joined a group of outraged donors from Silicon Valley and Wall Street to complain.

“I called my friends on the board, and I’m like, I want to help,” Ackman said. “This thing is heading for a train wreck. I said, I’d love to sit down with Claudine. I’d love to sit down with the board. Let’s work on this together. You know I care about the institution.”

Ackman was put in touch with board chair Penny Pritzker, a phone call he describes as “one of the most disappointing conversations I’ve had in my life.”

Ackman says he told Pritzker that he had no choice but to share his concerns publicly.

“Then I literally hung up the phone, sat down on my computer, and typed Harvard Letter Number One,” Ackman says. (Pritzker declined to comment. A person close to her, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations, described Ackman’s phone call as “verbally abusive.” Ackman said the call was “polite and respectful.”)

“The letter,” a massive 3,138-word tweet he also sent to Harvard, was written in the style of his strident shareholder missives.

He demanded that Harvard release the names of the students whose groups had signed the protest letter to block them from Wall Street jobs.

“One should not be able to hide behind a corporate shield when issuing statements supporting the actions of terrorists,” he declared.

Internet sleuths heeded Ackman’s call and published the students’ names. One group blasted them on the side of “doxing trucks” that drove around campus. Ackman says he mostly opposes doxing but that “students should be accountable for their public statements.”

A few weeks after the attacks, Ackman flew to Boston, meeting with professors, a law school and a business school class, and holding a listening session for more than 200 students. He says the students shared stories about antisemitic incidents that they’d experienced and described a lack of concern from the administration.

Ackman left the meetings disheartened and perplexed. “The problem was much worse than I thought,” he said. “So I called people on the faculty who I knew would confide in me. And that’s when I started learning about the whole DEI thing. Then I started doing a deeper dive.”

Ackman’s deep dive involved a lot of learning from X. He began to read posts by conservative activist Christopher Rufo and by Aaron Sibarium, an investigative reporter with the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon. Rufo, a senior fellow at the right-leaning think tank the Manhattan Institute, has led a high-profile charge against critical race theory, an academic concept that posits structural racism is built into American institutions. The idea underpins DEI programs and anti-racism seminars, which Rufo argues often label White people as oppressors, leading to reverse discrimination. Boosted by last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning affirmative action in college admissions, Rufo’s arguments have spurred GOP leaders to ban teaching critical race theory in nine states.

Ackman read Rufo’s book, “America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything,” and messaged with him online. His first X post about DEI was a comment on a video clip of Amanda Seales, a Black comedian, who argued it was wrong to present Hamas “as this big bad wolf.”

“Is this incredible ignorance, conscious avoidance of the truth, or racism?” Ackman posted. He noted that “a large proportion of the Hamas supporters … are members of the black community and/or other people of color.”

“Some have argued,” Ackman continued, this is spurred by a DEI movement that “delineates the world into an oppressor/oppressed framework,” with Jews identified as White oppressors, an argument that parrots Rufo’s book. “Do you agree with this explanation?” he asked his followers.

Four days later, Gay sparked outrage alongside two other university presidents, Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of MIT, during a widely criticized hearing on Capitol Hill. Asked whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s hate speech policy, Gay answered “it depends on the context.”

Ackman went ballistic. Since Oct. 7, his X feed had become a steady stream of Israeli hostage stories, videos of antisemitic incidents on campuses and criticism of Harvard. The day of the hearing, he tweeted 23 times.

“She has to go now,” he said of Gay. The university president got the same treatment Ackman had dealt so many corporate chiefs – a relentless public crusade – only this time, he marshaled a giant army on X.

A Wall Street man, he tracked his bets as if watching a stock ticker. “One down,” he said when news of Magill’s impending resignation broke on Dec. 7.

“I give this a 95% probability,” he posted eight minutes later.

“Oddsmakers are now at 99%” he wrote the following day.

Then he was on to MIT. “To the MIT governing boards,” he wrote on Dec. 10. “Let’s make a deal. If you promptly terminate President Kornbluth, I promise I won’t write you a letter.”

On Dec. 10, Rufo messaged Ackman about an investigation he was about to publish involving plagiarism allegations he had unearthed about Gay. Sibarium, a Yale graduate, wrote that Gay had “paraphrased or quoted almost 20 authors without proper attribution,” and Rufo had interviewed a scholar, Carol Swain, who accused Gay of plagiarizing her work. Ackman reposted Rufo, Sibarium and other conservative activists throughout December, sometimes six times a day.

By then, Ackman’s own posts were being boosted by a business leader with the biggest megaphone on the platform: Musk. “#DefundHarvard,” wrote Musk, who has more than 140 times Ackman’s following, in one of several replies to the businessman’s posts.

On Jan. 2, Gay resigned from Harvard. It was “distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor,” she wrote in her resignation letter, noting she’d been subjected to “threats fueled by racial animus.”

Ackman posted his own more-than-5,000-word letter that day, too, so long it hit the character limit for paying users. In it, he reiterated a claim that he had insider information that the Harvard presidential search committee had purposefully excluded candidates who didn’t come from a marginalized group. “The more I learned, the more concerned I became, and the more ignorant I realized I had been about DEI, a powerful movement that has not only pervaded Harvard, but the educational system at large,” he wrote.

Harvard spokesman Jason Newton told The Post that staff from the university’s Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging can serve on search committees but “have no authority” over hiring decisions. He had no further comment on Ackman’s crusade. Gay did not respond to a comment request. A person involved in the presidential search process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe it, said that Ackman’s actions were “destructive, racist, and reprehensible” and that DEI-criteria had no influence on the hiring process.

Some of Ackman’s friends and former classmates have mixed feelings about his Harvard crusade. They worry his use of X has caused him to fall in with a group acting in bad faith. The seemingly self-satisfied and strident persona he displays on X, satirized recently by the writer Kurt Andersen as “dark-comedy hybrid of ‘Succession’ and a Nabokov novel,” doesn’t reflect the loyal friend who can laugh at himself and will consider different views, they say.

But others praise what they argue is a political conversion. “He’s a guy who has gone through something of an intellectual transformation: I don’t know if he quite recognizes it in himself,” said Ramaswamy, who recently dropped out of the Republican presidential campaign. “The thing about him is he is very receptive to the best arguments, even if it’s very different from what he used to believe – and that’s a good thing.”

Ackman, alongside Musk, recently debated investor Cuban, who chastised the men for pushing away diverse talent. (“The loss of DEI-phobic companies is my gain,” Cuban said). But Ackman later spoke privately to Cuban and concluded there is more common ground than difference between them. “Like me, he believes in diversity with a lowercase d,” Ackman said, noting he is opposed to “DEI” as a “political movement.”

Cuban said the conversation was “very respectful” but that X’s “echo chamber” was “far more intoxicating for someone like Bill than being on CNBC.”

anford’s Banks says the complaints over DEI reflect growing pains as American institutions try to become more equal. While researchers have found that diverse companies perform better financially, DEI consulting is a relatively new industry whose efficacy is still largely unproven. When conservatives come to Stanford and complain, “If we’re being honest, we’d say, you know, it’s even worse than you think,” Banks adds.

But he and other DEI experts say critics like Rufo and Ackman don’t represent the entirety of the industry. “There is good DEI and bad DEI. But what these people are doing is saying, let’s scrap the whole thing, and that’s clearly an overcorrection,” Banks said.

“It’s a false claim: that DEI is about flipping the power structures,” said DEI consultant Lily Zheng, noting the reverse racism is a “carbon [copy] of arguments against affirmative action from the ’70s.”

But Ackman isn’t stopping. For everyone who has called him a racist, he says, there are more people who have thanked him privately. He keeps a stack of thank you letters on his desk to prove it. (He reads from the letters randomly, including one from a doctor and another from a university president). He says he is aware of the weight of history in targeting the first Black Harvard president, but it doesn’t much matter to him. “I’m an equal-opportunity criticizer,” he says.

He plans to give more money to Jewish causes – in the past, he said he didn’t think Jews needed it.

Though he isn’t sure what his think tank will do, he says it will hire the very best people – Wall Street analysts, journalists, academics – to go deep on problems “where people have been taken advantage of,” including “vaccine safety” and “Why is DEI not working.” Once they understand the reason for the problems, they will propose solutions, such as a new company or a political campaign.

“Is there a policy fix? Is shining a spotlight on it going to fix it?” he asks, and smiles, half-serious. “Or is this something Bill can handle with a tweet or two?”

Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post
Conservative activist Christopher Rufo is pictured with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Boosted by last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning affirmative action in college admissions, Rufo’s arguments have spurred GOP leaders to ban teaching critical race theory in nine states.