the prince would say publicly that he intended to put up another
$45 billion. He was also expecting Son in Riyadh later in the month,
at a Saudi financial conference known as Davos in the Desert. Neumann was invited, too, even though, as an Israeli citizen, he wasn’t
officially allowed in the Islamic country.
Then news broke on October 3 that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi had vanished inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Almost immediately, bin Salman was implicated. As gruesome details
emerged—a bone saw, body parts removed in suitcases—it didn’t take
long for investors or the general public to take issue with SoftBank’s
connection to the Saudi money. The company’s stock plummeted 20%,
losing some $20 billion in value.
Son remained quiet until the headlines
died down. A month later, during SoftBank’s
earnings presentation, he claimed he’d been
focused all along on helping Saudi citizens.
“We want to see those responsible [for
Khashoggi’s murder] held accountable. But
at the same time, we have also accepted [a]
responsibility to the people of Saudi Arabia—
an obligation we take quite seriously—to
help them manage their financial resources
and diversify their economy.”
It was during this time, as pressures on
Soft Bank’s stock price and Son’s biggest backer
mounted, that Son began to rethink his offer
to Neumann. The pair had been arguing over
who would ultimately control We Work when
the deal was done. On Christmas Eve, Son
called Neumann to break the news that the
“As long as you have the land and sunshine . . . I will give you free
electricity,” he said. Son had committed to investing as much as
$100 billion in Indian solar infrastructure. The free power would come
25 years from now.
Meanwhile, nine and a half time zones away, Adam Neumann,
cofounder and CEO of We Work, the fast-growing global office-leasing
player, was in New York celebrating a series of recent milestones: becoming New York’s largest private landlord; committing the company
to becoming carbon neutral by 2023; and officially launching WeGrow,
an early-education offshoot run by his wife, Rebekah.
Neumann and Son, who had become partners nearly two years
earlier, when Son first invested in We Work, were ebullient for other
reasons. They believed that they were on the verge of closing a $20
billion deal to buy out We Work’s other investors and fund sweeping
plans for new expansion. The arrangement would allow We Work
to forestall having to go public for years, letting it grow without
scrutiny from Wall Street analysts, mutual fund managers, or
other investors. Plus, the unusual venture would value We Work at
$47 billion, more than double what it had been a year earlier. This
would boost the fortunes of both men. Son could point to the deal
as evidence of his investment strategy’s success; Neumann would
join the rarefied club of American entrepreneurs, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Uber’s Travis Kalanick, whose
companies’ private valuations soared this high.
Meanwhile, there was a third man in the mix, Mohammad bin
Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman was Son’s
biggest investor. Two years earlier, he’d put in nearly half the capital,
$45 billion, to launch Son’s $100 billion Vision Fund, a brash and
controversial investment vehicle fueling the world’s biggest startups, including We Work, Uber, DoorDash, and ByteDance. In October,
“Sunshine is the gift of the gods,”
MASAYOSHI SON CHEERILY TOLD A CROWD OF
INVESTORS ON THE MORNING OF OCTOBER 3, 2018.
HE WAS IN GREATER NOIDA, INDIA, GIVING A SPEECH
ABOUT SOLAR POWER. THE DAY WAS HOT, IN THE
MID-90S, AND FOR SON, CEO OF THE JAPANESE
TELECOM CONGLOMERATE SOFTBANK, PARTICULARLY
BRIGHT. HIS VISIONS FOR SOFTBANK—TO BE AT THE
VANGUARD OF TECHNOLOGY AND AI INVESTING—HAD
CAPTIVATED THE GLOBAL CAPITAL WORLD.
After a couple of
rapes and murders by
drivers in 2018 led
to a #DeleteDidi
company, and the founders apologized for
being too focused on
growth. Didi raised
eyebrows in September
2019 for letting
riders choose to be
picked up by a Communist Party member.