Condition from the Art: Saudi Money Fuels the Tech Industry. It’s Time for you to Ask Why.

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We have to discuss the tsunami of questionable money crashing in to the tech industry.

We ought to discuss it because that cash is all of a sudden in news reports, inconveniently outside within an industry which has chosen over keep its link with petromonarchs along with other strongmen around the lower low.

This news began surfacing over the past weekend, when Saudi Arabia arrested a passel of princes, including Alwaleed bin Talal, the millionaire tech investor that has large holdings in Apple, Twitter and Lyft. The arrests, a part of exactly what the Saudis known as a corruption attack, opened up up a chasm underneath the tech industry’s justification to take money in the religious monarchy.

Then there’s Russia. My friend Jesse Drucker reported on Sunday that Yuri Milner, the Russian millionaire who plowed early investments into Facebook, have been funded partly by companies controlled through the Kremlin. DST Global, Mr. Milner’s company, defended the arrangement as just business, and noted that DST had divested from Twitter and facebook years back. DST had made an appearance to visit some lengths to cover the origin from the funds through many offshore companies.

But mostly we have to discuss these funds because, boy, can there be a great deal of it — and because the world’s moneyed dictators, oligarchs along with other figures search for more places to fit their billions, mountain tops more is going to be visiting Plastic Valley.

This presents a conundrum. Tech companies love pseudo-revolutionary mission statements that celebrate the benefits of diversity, tolerance, freedom of expression along with other progressive ideals. They’ve contended their technologies are members of a pressure for global liberation — that forging more open communication and economic productivity through technology will release check your grip of tyrannies around the world. For a lot of the this past year, Plastic Valley has additionally guaranteed a revolution in the own culture, with small and big companies alike vowing to get more including ladies and minorities.

The cash from regimes which have been belittled for his or her human legal rights records — from Saudi Arabia’s government particularly, that has intends to funnel potentially countless vast amounts of dollars into tech companies through its condition-controlled Public Investment Fund — stands in stark contrast to individuals aims. By accepting these investments, tech companies reach enjoy the branding glory of worldwide good while taking billions from the government that stands against a lot of individuals goals — a government which has an abysmal record with human legal rights groups, which has systematically marginalized women, which has not had much legal due process which has recommended a serious type of Islam which has zero tolerance for almost any religious or intellectual diversity whatsoever.

“Look, every company includes a choice regarding their actions and inactions,” stated Freada Kapor Klein, co-chairwoman from the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which advocates for any more different and inclusive tech industry.

She stated companies could choose not to use governments whose actions they found troubling, quite a few today’s tech companies have forfeit an ethical compass. “There is definitely an elitism which makes it way too easy to allow them to rationalize their behavior using their belief that they’re the neatest guys — and, yes, it’s usually guys — within the room,Inches she stated.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t a subject lots of people want to speak about. SoftBank, japan conglomerate that runs the $100 billion Vision Fund, that is spending eye-popping investments in tech companies, declined to comment with this column. Up to 50 % from the Vision Fund, about $45 billion, originates from the Saudi Public Investment Fund.

WeWork and Slack, two prominent start-ups which have received recent investments in the Vision Fund, also declined to comment. So did Uber, which received a $3.5 billion investment in the Public Investment Fund in 2016, and that is in foretells receive no small investment in the SoftBank fund. The General Public Investment Fund also didn’t return a request comment.

Twitter, which had a $300 million investment from Prince Alwaleed’s Kingdom Holding Company this year — around the same time frame it had become speaking up its role within the Arab Spring — declined to discuss his arrest. Lyft, which received $105 million from Prince Alwaleed in 2015, also declined to comment.

Independently, several founders, investors yet others at tech companies who’ve taken money in the Saudi government or prominent people from the royal family did offer understanding of their thinking. Prince Alwaleed, some stated, wasn’t aligned using the Saudi government — his arrest through the government underscores this — and that he has recommended for many progressive reforms, including giving women the authority to drive, a set limit the kingdom states is going to be lifted the coming year.

The founders and investors also introduced in the Saudi government’s supposed push for modernization. The Saudis have outlined a lengthy-term plan, Vision 2030, that requires a decrease in the state’s reliance on oil along with a gradual loosening on social and economic limitations, together with a demand greater figures of ladies to go in the job pressure. The gauzy vision enables tech companies to tell you they are area of the solution in Saudi Arabia instead of part the issue: Sure, they’re taking money from among the world’s least transparent and many undemocratic regimes, but it’s negligence the federal government that wishes to complete better.

Another mitigating factor, for many, may be the sometimes indirect nature from the Saudi investments. Once the SoftBank Vision Fund invests many millions or billions right into a tech company, it is true that 1 / 2 of that cash is originating from Saudi Arabia. But it’s SoftBank which has control during the period of an investment and communicates with founders. The passive nature from the Saudi purchase of SoftBank’s fund thus enables founders to rest better during the night.

However, additionally, it includes a inclination to brush the Saudi money underneath the rug. When SoftBank invests inside a company, the Saudi connection isn’t necessarily made obvious to employees and customers. You’re able to benefit from the ease of your WeWork without getting to confront its devote the Saudi government’s portfolio.

Then, finally, there’s the justification of desperation. Some companies do not have any choice but to consider money that’s provided to them. (In ’09, The Brand New You are able to Occasions Company required financing in the Mexican millionaire Carlos Slim, that has been belittled for gaining his wealth through close connections with government officials.)

However the tech firms that the Saudis are itching to purchase frequently will have an option they are the most sought after companies in our era, and most of them don’t have any immediate requirement for more income. For example: Slack, which elevated $250 million from SoftBank recently, stated it’d no plans for spending the cash and rather had elevated it to preserve lengthy-term “operational versatility.”

Why children the Saudis? I believe it’s probably the most apparent reason: since the cash is there, and nobody is making too large a fuss about this.

It was once that the majority of the profit tech originated from more vaunted sources — universities, philanthropies, pension plans along with other nonprofits, which composed the majority of funders to investment capital firms like Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield &amp Byers.

Now we’re inside a new trend, when giant pools of cash splash through sleek-sounding Vision Funds and are available out seeming squeaky clean — and able to fund the following great factor to help make the world a lot better, we promise.

Email: [email protected]
nytimes.com
Twitter: @fmanjoo

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Corner Office: How to Be a C.E.O., From a Decade’s Worth of Them

Corner Office

By ADAM BRYANT

It started with a simple idea: What if I sat down with chief executives, and never asked them about their companies?

The notion occurred to me roughly a decade ago, after spending years as a reporter and interviewing C.E.O.s about many of the expected things: their growth plans, the competition, the economic forces driving their industries. But the more time I spent doing this, the more I found myself wanting to ask instead about more expansive themes — not about pivoting, scaling or moving to the cloud, but how they lead their employees, how they hire, and the life advice they give or wish they had received.

That led to 525 Corner Office columns, and weekly reminders that questions like these can lead to unexpected places.

I met an executive who grew up in a dirt-floor home, and another who escaped the drugs and gangs of her dangerous neighborhood. I learned about different approaches to building culture, from doing away with titles to offering twice-a-month housecleaning to all employees as a retention tool.

And I have been endlessly surprised by the creative approaches that chief executives take to interviewing people for jobs, including tossing their car keys to a job candidate to drive them to a lunch spot, or asking them how weird they are, on a scale of 1 to 10.

Granted, not all chief executives are fonts of wisdom. And some of them, as headlines regularly remind us, are deeply challenged people.

That said, there’s no arguing that C.E.O.s have a rare vantage point for spotting patterns about management, leadership and human behavior.

After almost a decade of writing the Corner Office column, this will be my final one — and from all the interviews, and the five million words of transcripts from those conversations, I have learned valuable leadership lessons and heard some great stories. Here are some standouts.

So You Want to Be a C.E.O.?

Interactive Feature | What Feaster Said

People often try to crack the code for the best path to becoming a chief executive. Do finance people have an edge over marketers? How many international postings should you have? A variety of experiences is good, but at what point does breadth suggest a lack of focus?

It’s a natural impulse. In this age of Moneyball and big data, why not look for patterns?

The problem is that the world doesn’t really work that way. There are too many variables, many of them beyond your control, including luck, timing and personal chemistry.

The career trajectories of the C.E.O.s I’ve interviewed are so varied that spotting trends is difficult, and a surprising number of the executives do not fit the stereotype of the straight-A student and class president who seemed destined to run a big company someday. I’ve met C.E.O.s who started out in theater, music and teaching. Others had surprisingly low grades in school.

So what explains it? Are there some qualities — beyond the obvious, like hard work and perseverance — that explain why these people ultimately got the top jobs?

I’ve noticed three recurring themes.

First, they share a habit of mind that is best described as “applied curiosity.” They tend to question everything. They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better. They’re curious about people and their back stories.

And rather than wondering if they are on the right career path, they make the most of whatever path they’re on, wringing lessons from all their experiences.

“I can find interest in a lot of different things and try to put that to work in a positive way, connecting the dots and considering how the pieces fit together,” said Gregory Maffei, whose background includes a college degree in religious studies, and is now the chief executive of Liberty Media, the giant company with interests in everything from SiriusXM to Formula One racing.

Second, C.E.O.s seem to love a challenge. Discomfort is their comfort zone.

“Usually, I really like whatever the problem is. I like to get close to the fire,” said Arkadi Kuhlmann, a veteran banking chief. “Some people have a desire for that, I’ve noticed, and some people don’t. I just naturally gravitate to the fire. So I think that’s a characteristic that you have, that’s in your DNA.”

The third theme is how they managed their own careers on their way to the top. They focus on doing their current job well, and that earns them promotions.

That may sound obvious. But many people can seem more concerned about the job they want than the job they’re doing.

That doesn’t mean keeping ambition in check. By all means, have career goals, share them with your bosses, and learn everything you can about how the broader business works. And yes, be savvy about company politics (watch out in particular for the show ponies who try to take credit for everything).

But focus on building a track record of success, and people will keep betting on you. “You shouldn’t be looking just to climb the ladder, but be open to opportunities that let you climb that ladder,” said Kim Lubel, the former chief executive of CST Brands, a big operator of convenience stores.

Ms. Lubel’s career twists embody that mind-set in an unusual way. She told me a remarkable story of applying for a job with the Central Intelligence Agency, and then — thinking she didn’t get the job — going to grad school instead. Only later did Ms. Lubel (whose maiden name was Smith) learn that the C.I.A. did try to hire her, but that they had offered the job to a different Kim Smith.

The Most Important Thing About Leadership, Part I

Interactive Feature | What Lubel Said

Because leadership is so hard, there is a boundless appetite for somebody to come along and say, “Here’s the one thing you need to know.” Such headlines are the clickbait of business websites.

If only it were that simple. But one thing isn’t necessarily more important than another. And people are, well, complicated. Better to understand leadership as a series of paradoxes.

Leaders, for example, need humility to know what they don’t know, but have the confidence to make a decision amid the ambiguity. A bit of chaos can help foster creativity and innovation, but too much can feel like anarchy. You need to be empathetic and care about people, but also be willing to let them go if they’re dragging down the team. You have to create a sense of urgency, but also have the patience to bring everybody on the team along.

“We think about our values in pairs, and there is a tension or a balance between them,” said Jacqueline Novogratz, chief executive of Acumen Fund, a venture philanthropy organization that focuses on the world’s poor. “We talk about listening and leadership; accountability and generosity; humility and audacity. You’ve got to have the humility to see the world as it is — and in our world, working with poor communities, that’s not easy to do — but have the audacity to know why you are trying to make it be different, to imagine the way it could be.”

The Most Important Thing About Leadership, Part II

Go ahead. Twist my arm.

Despite what I just wrote, if you were to force me to rank the most important qualities of effective leadership, I would put trustworthiness at the top.

We all have a gut sense of our bosses, based on our observations and experiences: Do we trust them to do the right thing? Will they be straight with us and not shave corners of truth? Do they own their mistakes; give credit where credit is due; care about their employees as people as opposed to assets? Do they manage down as well as up?

“If you want to lead others, you’ve got to have their trust, and you can’t have their trust without integrity,” said James Hackett, the chief executive of Ford Motor Company, who ran Steelcase when I spoke with him.

A close cousin of trustworthiness is how much you respect the people who work for you. It’s hard to argue with this logic from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood executive:

“By definition if there’s leadership, it means there are followers, and you’re only as good as the followers,” he said. “I believe the quality of the followers is in direct correlation to the respect you hold them in. It’s not how much they respect you that is most important. It’s actually how much you respect them. It’s everything.”

Discussions about different aspects of leadership sometimes remind me of Russian nesting dolls, because many of the qualities can feel like subsets of one another. But I keep going back to first principles of how we’re wired as human beings — we can sense at a kind of lizard-brain level whether we trust someone.

“Human beings are incredibly perceptive,” Pedro J. Pizarro, chief executive of Edison International, a public utility holding company. “And they seem to be more perceptive when they look at people above them than when they look down.”

‘Culture Is Almost Like a Religion’

Interactive Feature | What Nahm Said

It’s a predictable rite of passage as many companies evolve. At some point, the leadership team will go through the exercise of defining a set of values to shape the culture of their company. These lists can be all over the place — lengthy or brief, predictable or quirky.

But the exercise raises an obvious question: Are there some best practices? I have noticed some patterns.

Shorter is generally better than longer. In fact, when I ask chief executives about their companies’ values, it’s not unusual for them to struggle to remember them all if there are more than five bullet points. And if the boss can’t remember them, will anyone else?

Granted, others might disagree with me on this point, including Ray Dalio, founder of the massive Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, who has hundreds of principles for working at his firm. But here’s a thought experiment: What if every company that has codified its values conducted a pop quiz with employees to see if they know them all?

Values need reinforcement beyond repetition. Many companies, for example, make their values part of the hiring and firing process, and hand out awards to people who bring the values to life. “The culture is almost like a religion,” said Robert L. Johnson, chairman of the RLJ Companies, an investment firm. “People buy into it and they believe in it. And you can tolerate a little bit of heresy, but not a lot.”

Michel Feaster, the chief of Usermind, a customer-engagement software firm, shared an insight about the importance of specificity in the values exercise.

“The best cultural lists are the behaviors you want to cultivate,” she said. “The problem with values like respect and courage is that everybody interprets them differently. They’re too ambiguous and open to interpretation. Instead of uniting us, they can create friction.”

At the end of the day, does the values exercise even matter? Many chief executives don’t believe in them. And Tae Hea Nahm, managing director of Storm Ventures, a venture capital firm, thinks other signals are more powerful.

“No matter what people say about culture, it’s all tied to who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets fired,” he said. “You can have your stated culture, but the real culture is defined by compensation, promotions and terminations. Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what’s valued in the organization, and that defines culture.”

Men vs. Women (Sigh)

Interactive Feature | What Simmons Said

Are there differences in the way men and women lead? I’ve been asked this question countless times. Early on, I looked hard to spot differences. But any generalizations never held up.

Sure, there are differences in the way people lead. But in my experience interviewing executives for the past decade, they are more likely to be driven by other factors, like whether they are introverts or extroverts, more analytical or creative, and even whether they grew up in a large or small family.

That said, there is no doubt that women face much stronger headwinds than men to get the top jobs. And many of those headwinds remain once they become C.E.O.s.

But the actual work of leadership? It’s the same, regardless of whether a man or a woman is in charge. You have to set a vision, build cultural guardrails, foster a sense of teamwork, and make tough calls. All of that requires balancing the endless paradoxes of leadership, and doing it in a way that inspires trust.

A suggestion: I believe it’s time to give the narrative about whether men and women lead differently a rest. Yes, we need to keep talking and writing about why there are so few women in the top ranks. But this trope about different styles of leadership among men and women seems past its expiration date.

And while we’re at it, could everyone agree to drop the predictable questions about how female chief executives juggle family and work? Or start asking men the same questions, too?

I Have Just One Question for You

Interactive Feature | What Katzenberg Said

A big surprise has been all the different answers I’ve heard to the simple question I’ve posed to each leader: How do you hire? Even in recent weeks, I was still hearing job-interview questions I had never heard before.

Just last month, for instance, Daniel Schwartz, the chief executive of the parent company of Burger King, told me that he likes to ask candidates, “Are you smart or do you work hard?” (Yes, there is a right answer, he said: “You want hard workers. You’d be surprised how many people tell me, ‘I don’t need to work hard, I’m smart.’ Really? Humility is important.”)

Their creativity is no doubt born of necessity. Candidates are so trained to anticipate the usual questions — “What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?” — that C.E.O.s have to come up with bank-shot questions to get around the polished facades.

This has inspired a kind of running game I’ve played with many chief executives: If you could ask somebody only one question, and you had to decide on the spot whether to hire them based on their answer, what would it be?

I’d nominate a question that surfaced during my interview with Bob Brennan, an executive director at CA Technologies, a software firm, who was the chief of Iron Mountain, the records-management company, when I spoke with him.

“I want to know how willing people are to really talk about themselves,” Mr. Brennan said. “So if I ask you, ‘What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?’ you might bristle at that, or you might be very curious about it, or you’ll just literally open up to me. And obviously if you bristle at that, it’s too vulnerable an environment for you.”

I’ll let the human resources professionals debate whether such a question is out of bounds.

But I’m hard pressed to think of a better crystal ball for predicting how somebody is likely to behave in the weeks, months and years after you hire them. After all, people often adopt the qualities of their parents that they like, and work hard to do the opposite of what they don’t like.

The point is reinforced time and again in my interviews. When I ask executives how their parents have influenced their leadership style, I often hear powerful themes that carry through their lives and careers.

“I grew up in a big Italian family,” said Sharon Napier, the chief executive of Partners + Napier, an ad agency. “Fighting and being loud at the kitchen table was normal. I didn’t realize when you went to somebody else’s house they didn’t argue about something. So I love what I always call creative tension in the agency.”

She added: “I like having a good debate. At first, people think that’s combative. I really want to hear if you have a different opinion. There has to be enough trust to do that.”

My Favorite Story

Interactive Feature | What Kuhlmann Said

I heard it from Bill Green, who was the chief executive of Accenture, the consulting firm, at the time of our interview. I asked him about his approach to hiring, and near the end of our conversation, he shared this anecdote:

“I was recruiting at Babson College. This was in 1991. The last recruit of the day — I get this résumé. I get the blue sheet attached to it, which is the form I’m supposed to fill out with all this stuff and his résumé attached to the top. His résumé is very light — no clubs, no sports, no nothing. Babson, 3.2. Studied finance. Work experience: Sam’s Diner, references on request.

“It’s the last one of the day, and I’ve seen all these people come through strutting their stuff and they’ve got their portfolios and semester studying abroad. Here comes this guy. He sits. His name is Sam, and I say: ‘Sam, let me just ask you. What else were you doing while you were here?’ He says: Well, Sam’s Diner. That’s our family business, and I leave on Friday after classes, and I go and work till closing. I work all day Saturday till closing, and then I work Sunday until I close, and then I drive back to Babson.’ I wrote, ‘Hire him,’ on the blue sheet. He had character. He faced a set of challenges. He figured out how to do both.”

Mr. Green elaborated on the quality he had just described.

“It’s work ethic,” he said. “You could see the guy had charted a path for himself to make it work with the situation he had. He didn’t ask for any help. He wasn’t victimized by the thing. He just said, ‘That’s my dad’s business, and I work there.’ Confident. Proud.”

Mr. Green added: “You sacrifice and you’re a victim, or you sacrifice because it’s the right thing to do and you have pride in it. Huge difference. Simple thing. Huge difference.”

The story captures a quality I’ve always admired in some people. They own their job, whatever it is.

Best Career and Life Advice

My vote for career advice goes to something I heard from Joseph Plumeri, the vice chairman of First Data, a payments-processing company, and former chief executive of Willis Group Holdings. His biggest career inflection points, he told me, came from chance meetings, giving rise to his advice: “Play in traffic.”

“It means that if you go push yourself out there and you see people and do things and participate and get involved, something happens,” he said. “Both of my great occasions in life happened by accident simply because I showed up.”

Mr. Plumeri learned this lesson firsthand when he was looking for a job while in law school. He was knocking on doors of various firms, including one called Cogan, Berlind, Weill & Levitt. He managed to get an audience with one of the partners, Sandy Weill, who informed the young Mr. Plumeri that this was a brokerage firm, not a law firm.

Despite the awkward moment, something clicked, and Mr. Weill gave him a part-time job. And Mr. Plumeri moved up as the firm evolved into Citigroup, and he spent 32 years there, many of them in top jobs.

“I tell people, just show up, get in the game, go play in traffic,” Mr. Plumeri said. “Something good will come of it, but you’ve got to show up.”

As for life advice, my favorite insight came from Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University. Her suggestion to students:

“They should never assume that they can predict what experiences will teach them the most about what they value, or about what their life should be,” she said. “You have to be open and alert at every turn to the possibility that you’re about to learn the most important lesson of your life.”

Thanks to everyone who followed Corner Office over the years. I hope you found useful lessons in the interviews — I sure did. And thanks to all the executives who were so candid with me about the challenges they’ve faced and the mistakes they’ve made along the way.

Perhaps their stories will inspire others to learn how to be better leaders. It’s not easy, but the ripple effects of thoughtful leadership are worth the effort.

Chips Off the Old Block: Computers Are Taking Design Cues From Human Brains

SAN FRANCISCO — We expect a lot from our computers these days. They should talk to us, recognize everything from faces to flowers, and maybe soon do the driving. All this artificial intelligence requires an enormous amount of computing power, stretching the limits of even the most modern machines.

Now, some of the world’s largest tech companies are taking a cue from biology as they respond to these growing demands. They are rethinking the very nature of computers and are building machines that look more like the human brain, where a central brain stem oversees the nervous system and offloads particular tasks — like hearing and seeing — to the surrounding cortex.

After years of stagnation, the computer is evolving again, and this behind-the-scenes migration to a new kind of machine will have broad and lasting implications. It will allow work on artificially intelligent systems to accelerate, so the dream of machines that can navigate the physical world by themselves can one day come true.

This migration could also diminish the power of Intel, the longtime giant of chip design and manufacturing, and fundamentally remake the $335 billion a year semiconductor industry that sits at the heart of all things tech, from the data centers that drive the internet to your iPhone to the virtual reality headsets and flying drones of tomorrow.

“This is an enormous change,” said John Hennessy, the former Stanford University president who wrote an authoritative book on computer design in the mid-1990s and is now a member of the board at Alphabet, Google’s parent company. “The existing approach is out of steam, and people are trying to re-architect the system.”

The existing approach has had a pretty nice run. For about half a century, computer makers have built systems around a single, do-it-all chip — the central processing unit — from a company like Intel, one of the world’s biggest semiconductor makers. That’s what you’ll find in the middle of your own laptop computer or smartphone.

Now, computer engineers are fashioning more complex systems. Rather than funneling all tasks through one beefy chip made by Intel, newer machines are dividing work into tiny pieces and spreading them among vast farms of simpler, specialized chips that consume less power.

Changes inside Google’s giant data centers are a harbinger of what is to come for the rest of the industry. Inside most of Google’s servers, there is still a central processor. But enormous banks of custom-built chips work alongside them, running the computer algorithms that drive speech recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence.

Google reached this point out of necessity. For years, the company had operated the world’s largest computer network — an empire of data centers and cables that stretched from California to Finland to Singapore. But for one Google researcher, it was much too small.

In 2011, Jeff Dean, one of the company’s most celebrated engineers, led a research team that explored the idea of neural networks — essentially computer algorithms that can learn tasks on their own. They could be useful for a number of things, like recognizing the words spoken into smartphones or the faces in a photograph.

In a matter of months, Mr. Dean and his team built a service that could recognize spoken words far more accurately than Google’s existing service. But there was a catch: If the world’s more than one billion phones that operated on Google’s Android software used the new service just three minutes a day, Mr. Dean realized, Google would have to double its data center capacity in order to support it.

“We need another Google,” Mr. Dean told Urs Hölzle, the Swiss-born computer scientist who oversaw the company’s data center empire, according to someone who attended the meeting. So Mr. Dean proposed an alternative: Google could build its own computer chip just for running this kind of artificial intelligence.

But what began inside data centers is starting to shift other parts of the tech landscape. Over the next few years, companies like Google, Apple and Samsung will build phones with specialized A.I. chips. Microsoft is designing such a chip specifically for an augmented-reality headset. And everyone from Google to Toyota is building autonomous cars that will need similar chips.

This trend toward specialty chips and a new computer architecture could lead to a “Cambrian explosion” of artificial intelligence, said Gill Pratt, who was a program manager at Darpa, a research arm of the United States Department of Defense, and now works on driverless cars at Toyota. As he sees it, machines that spread computations across vast numbers of tiny, low-power chips can operate more like the human brain, which efficiently uses the energy at its disposal.

“In the brain, energy efficiency is the key,” he said during a recent interview at Toyota’s new research center in Silicon Valley.

Change on the Horizon

There are many kinds of silicon chips. There are chips that store information. There are chips that perform basic tasks in toys and televisions. And there are chips that run various processes for computers, from the supercomputers used to create models for global warming to personal computers, internet servers and smartphones.

For years, the central processing units, or C.P.U.s, that ran PCs and similar devices were where the money was. And there had not been much need for change.

In accordance with Moore’s Law, the oft-quoted maxim from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, the number of transistors on a computer chip had doubled every two years or so, and that provided steadily improved performance for decades. As performance improved, chips consumed about the same amount of power, according to another, lesser-known law of chip design called Dennard scaling, named for the longtime IBM researcher Robert Dennard.

By 2010, however, doubling the number of transistors was taking much longer than Moore’s Law predicted. Dennard’s scaling maxim had also been upended as chip designers ran into the limits of the physical materials they used to build processors. The result: If a company wanted more computing power, it could not just upgrade its processors. It needed more computers, more space and more electricity.

Researchers in industry and academia were working to extend Moore’s Law, exploring entirely new chip materials and design techniques. But Doug Burger, a researcher at Microsoft, had another idea: Rather than rely on the steady evolution of the central processor, as the industry had been doing since the 1960s, why not move some of the load onto specialized chips?

During his Christmas vacation in 2010, Mr. Burger, working with a few other chip researchers inside Microsoft, began exploring new hardware that could accelerate the performance of Bing, the company’s internet search engine.

At the time, Microsoft was just beginning to improve Bing using machine-learning algorithms (neural networks are a type of machine learning) that could improve search results by analyzing the way people used the service. Though these algorithms were less demanding than the neural networks that would later remake the internet, existing chips had trouble keeping up.

Mr. Burger and his team explored several options but eventually settled on something called Field Programmable Gate Arrays, or F.P.G.A.s.: chips that could be reprogrammed for new jobs on the fly. Microsoft builds software, like Windows, that runs on an Intel C.P.U. But such software cannot reprogram the chip, since it is hard-wired to perform only certain tasks.

With an F.P.G.A., Microsoft could change the way the chip works. It could program the chip to be really good at executing particular machine learning algorithms. Then, it could reprogram the chip to be really good at running logic that sends the millions and millions of data packets across its computer network. It was the same chip but it behaved in a different way.

Microsoft started to install the chips en masse in 2015. Now, just about every new server loaded into a Microsoft data center includes one of these programmable chips. They help choose the results when you search Bing, and they help Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-computing service, shuttle information across its network of underlying machines.

Teaching Computers to Listen

In fall 2016, another team of Microsoft researchers — mirroring the work done by Jeff Dean at Google — built a neural network that could, by one measure at least, recognize spoken words more accurately than the average human could.

Xuedong Huang, a speech-recognition specialist who was born in China, led the effort, and shortly after the team published a paper describing its work, he had dinner in the hills above Palo Alto, Calif., with his old friend Jen-Hsun Huang, (no relation), the chief executive of the chipmaker Nvidia. The men had reason to celebrate, and they toasted with a bottle of champagne.

Xuedong Huang and his fellow Microsoft researchers had trained their speech-recognition service using large numbers of specialty chips supplied by Nvidia, rather than relying heavily on ordinary Intel chips. Their breakthrough would not have been possible had they not made that change.

“We closed the gap with humans in about a year,” Microsoft’s Mr. Huang said. “If we didn’t have the weapon — the infrastructure — it would have taken at least five years.”

Because systems that rely on neural networks can learn largely on their own, they can evolve more quickly than traditional services. They are not as reliant on engineers writing endless lines of code that explain how they should behave.

But there is a wrinkle: Training neural networks this way requires extensive trial and error. To create one that is able to recognize words as well as a human can, researchers must train it repeatedly, tweaking the algorithms and improving the training data over and over. At any given time, this process unfolds over hundreds of algorithms. That requires enormous computing power, and if companies like Microsoft use standard-issue chips to do it, the process takes far too long because the chips cannot handle the load and too much electrical power is consumed.

So, the leading internet companies are now training their neural networks with help from another type of chip called a graphics processing unit, or G.P.U. These low-power chips — usually made by Nvidia — were originally designed to render images for games and other software, and they worked hand-in-hand with the chip — usually made by Intel — at the center of a computer. G.P.U.s can process the math required by neural networks far more efficiently than C.P.U.s.

Nvidia is thriving as a result, and it is now selling large numbers of G.P.U.s to the internet giants of the United States and the biggest online companies around the world, in China most notably. The company’s quarterly revenue from data center sales tripled to $409 million over the past year.

“This is a little like being right there at the beginning of the internet,” Jen-Hsun Huang said in a recent interview. In other words, the tech landscape is changing rapidly, and Nvidia is at the heart of that change.

Creating Specialized Chips

G.P.U.s are the primary vehicles that companies use to teach their neural networks a particular task, but that is only part of the process. Once a neural network is trained for a task, it must perform it, and that requires a different kind of computing power.

After training a speech-recognition algorithm, for example, Microsoft offers it up as an online service, and it actually starts identifying commands that people speak into their smartphones. G.P.U.s are not quite as efficient during this stage of the process. So, many companies are now building chips specifically to do what the other chips have learned.

Google built its own specialty chip, a Tensor Processing Unit, or T.P.U. Nvidia is building a similar chip. And Microsoft has reprogrammed specialized chips from Altera, which was acquired by Intel, so that it too can run neural networks more easily.

Other companies are following suit. Qualcomm, which specializes in chips for smartphones, and a number of start-ups are also working on A.I. chips, hoping to grab their piece of the rapidly expanding market. The tech research firm IDC predicts that revenue from servers equipped with alternative chips will reach $6.8 billion by 2021, about 10 percent of the overall server market.

Across Microsoft’s global network of machines, Mr. Burger pointed out, alternative chips are still a relatively modest part of the operation. And Bart Sano, the vice president of engineering who leads hardware and software development for Google’s network, said much the same about the chips deployed at its data centers.

Mike Mayberry, who leads Intel Labs, played down the shift toward alternative processors, perhaps because Intel controls more than 90 percent of the data-center market, making it by far the largest seller of traditional chips. He said that if central processors were modified the right way, they could handle new tasks without added help.

But this new breed of silicon is spreading rapidly, and Intel is increasingly a company in conflict with itself. It is in some ways denying that the market is changing, but nonetheless shifting its business to keep up with the change.

Two years ago, Intel spent $16.7 billion to acquire Altera, which builds the programmable chips that Microsoft uses. It was Intel’s largest acquisition ever. Last year, the company paid a reported $408 million buying Nervana, a company that was exploring a chip just for executing neural networks. Now, led by the Nervana team, Intel is developing a dedicated chip for training and executing neural networks.

“They have the traditional big-company problem,” said Bill Coughran, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital who spent nearly a decade helping to oversee Google’s online infrastructure, referring to Intel. “They need to figure out how to move into the new and growing areas without damaging their traditional business.”

Intel’s internal conflict is most apparent when company officials discuss the decline of Moore’s Law. During a recent interview with The New York Times, Naveen Rao, the Nervana founder and now an Intel executive, said Intel could squeeze “a few more years” out of Moore’s Law. Officially, the company’s position is that improvements in traditional chips will continue well into the next decade.

Mr. Mayberry of Intel also argued that the use of additional chips was not new. In the past, he said, computer makers used separate chips for tasks like processing audio.

But now the scope of the trend is significantly larger. And it is changing the market in new ways. Intel is competing not only with chipmakers like Nvidia and Qualcomm, but also with companies like Google and Microsoft.

Google is designing the second generation of its T.P.U. chips. Later this year, the company said, any business or developer that is a customer of its cloud-computing service will be able to use the new chips to run its software.

While this shift is happening mostly inside the massive data centers that underpin the internet, it is probably a matter of time before it permeates the broader industry.

The hope is that this new breed of mobile chip can help devices handle more, and more complex, tasks on their own, without calling back to distant data centers: phones recognizing spoken commands without accessing the internet; driverless cars recognizing the world around them with a speed and accuracy that is not possible now.

In other words, a driverless car needs cameras and radar and lasers. But it also needs a brain.

Lurid Lawsuit’s Quiet End Leaves Silicon Valley Start-Up Barely Dented

SAN FRANCISCO — At Upload, the parties never seemed to stop.

The start-up began by hosting impromptu gatherings to promote virtual reality as the next big thing. It quickly became an entertainment and news hub for the VR industry, hosting hundreds of events. The crowds were young and eager to network. Models did demos, and the liquor flowed.

The freewheeling atmosphere was not restricted to the evening hours. There was a “rampant sexual behavior and focus” in the Upload office that created “an unbearable environment,” a former employee, Elizabeth Scott, said in a lawsuit filed in May.

Elizabeth Scott, a former employee of Upload, sued the start-up in May, claiming “an unbearable environment.”

Ms. Scott said in her suit that the Upload office had a room with a bed “to encourage sexual intercourse at the workplace.” It was referred to as the kink room. Men who worked for the company were described in the suit as frequently talking about being so sexually aroused by female colleagues that it was impossible to concentrate. When Ms. Scott, Upload’s digital media manager, complained about the hostile atmosphere and other issues in March with her supervisor, she was fired, the suit said.

In a statement after the suit was filed, Upload said that “our employees are our greatest asset” and that “these allegations are entirely without merit.” The company said Upload’s chief executive, Taylor Freeman, and president, Will Mason, could not discuss the lawsuit and its specifics. On Friday, as this article neared publication, the men issued another statement that said, “We let you down and we are sorry.”

At a time when Silicon Valley is filled with tales of harassment and discrimination against women — just this week, the chief executive of the lending start-up Social Finance resigned amid accusations of sexual misbehavior — the purported behavior at Upload stands out. Ms. Scott said in the suit that while she was at a conference in San Jose, Calif., Mr. Freeman kicked her out of her room in Upload’s rented house so he could use it for sex.

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If the claims were striking, so was the response.

In contrast to the venture capitalists who were knocked off their perches this summer by harassment complaints, Upload was scarcely dented by the publicity surrounding Ms. Scott’s suit. Mr. Freeman and Mr. Mason were not forced to resign. Investors did not pull their money. The company’s events continued, if in terms that were a bit more muted.

A few weeks ago, the suit was crossed off Upload’s to-do list when it was quietly settled for a modest sum, said two people with knowledge of the case who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Both sides had an incentive to come to terms: Upload could say the problem was now in its past, and Ms. Scott, 26, got a victory of sorts without the risk of going to trial.

Shortly after Ms. Scott filed her suit, at least a half-dozen members of Upload’s team quit in solidarity, but they did not go public with their complaints. (At its peak, the company had about 20 to 25 employees.) In interviews, two of those who left described what happened but said that even though they were now working elsewhere, they did not want their names used.

“A lot of people were afraid to be in the media,” said another former employee, Danny Bittman, who broke his silence with a piece in Medium this week in support of Ms. Scott. “We were scared of everything that was happening.”

Behind the scenes, in members-only Facebook groups and other forums, the virtual reality industry is still roiled. People have opinions, they just do not want to be caught uttering them.

“People privately assumed the worst — that the Upload allegations are all true,” said Kent Bye, who does a popular industry podcast, Voices of VR. “Or they assumed the opposite — that the allegations are salacious, crazy and can be ignored. Regardless, they don’t want to risk their career by publicly talking about a connecting node for the entire industry.”

In more than two dozen interviews for this story, even those inclined to see Upload in the most favorable light said it was the story of a company run by young, immature men who were flush with cash and did not know how to handle their power.

That is true of many Silicon Valley start-ups. Some grow out of it. Others, like Uber — which fired 20 employees this year in a harassment scandal that ultimately pushed out much of its top management team — do not until they are forced to.

The situation at Upload was particularly fraught because its principal product was parties. In the great tradition of Silicon Valley start-ups, the company was less interested in making a profit than in getting attention, said former employees. So the line between work and play, often fuzzy, was entirely erased.

The existence of the kink room became the enduring symbol of Upload as soon as Ms. Scott filed her suit. Employees of the porn site Kink.com came to an early Upload party and left behind a sign, said two people with knowledge of the events. It became the name of a room toward the front of the office, a narrow chamber equipped with a bed.

“There was a lack of leadership to cultivate a healthy work environment, and investors who failed to take a more active role in oversight,” Mr. Bye said. “The only way to resolve these sorts of problems is to confront them head on, and that is precisely what no one seemed prepared to do.”

Tech’s Fresh Start

Upload was founded in 2014 as entrepreneurs — many of them women — flocked to virtual reality. There was a feeling of vast potential in the young industry, a sense of being able to make a mark by moving quickly and meeting the right people.

Upload was the place to do it. Two of the founders — a third had dropped out — were in their mid-20s, with energy and ideas but not many credentials. Mr. Freeman, the chief executive, listed “backpacking in Europe” and “freelance user experience designer” on his résumé.

Before becoming Upload’s president, Mr. Mason was an intern at a Florida design studio. A 2014 graduate of Stetson University in Florida, he began an online petition at Change.org in 2015 to remove the school’s first female president, Wendy Libby, labeling her “cancer.” The petition got little support.

“I tend to be fairly passionate about things and wear my heart on my sleeve,” Mr. Mason explained in an email about his petition. “Looking back, there are definitely ways I would handle this differently.”

Although Upload’s ambitions were ill-defined, the company was popular from the start. It quickly raised $1.25 million. One of its most prominent early investors was Joe Kraus, a Silicon Valley veteran who is now at GV, Alphabet’s venture capital arm. Mr. Kraus, who invested $25,000 of his own money in Upload, was described by the company as an adviser. He declined to be interviewed.

Larger sums came from Shanda Group in China and, in a second funding round of $4.5 million, Colopl, a Japanese mobile gaming company. Colopl’s Shintaro Yamakami is the only non-Upload employee on the company’s board. A spokeswoman for Mr. Yamakami said he was currently “refraining from public relations activity.” A spokeswoman for Shanda, an investment firm, said, “We do not have comments to offer.”

Ms. Scott joined Upload in April 2016. She had graduated in 2012 from Emory University, where she was president of a group called the Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention.

She declined to be interviewed. Her mother, Jenny Scott of Gainesville, Fla., said, “Elizabeth had several incidents growing up that targeted her physical safety and developed her sense of right and wrong.”

Ms. Scott, whose Facebook page describes her as “short, sassy & blonde. Take it or leave it,” managed the stories generated by Upload’s writing team on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, produced videos and handled relationships with software developers.

She said in the suit that she had other work, too: The women at Upload were required to do what were called “womanly tasks,” including cleaning up. They were also told to act like “mommies” to the men and help them with whatever they needed.

The suit presented a portrait of a deeply entitled male culture, one that clashed with the fresh start VR seemed to offer the tech industry. But Ms. Scott’s suit was the second in the virtual reality industry in just a few months to present such an unwelcoming picture.

Magic Leap, a VR start-up backed by Google and other high-profile investors, had been sued in February by a woman who said in her complaint that she had been hired to make the company more diverse and friendly to women.

The woman, Tannen Campbell, said in court papers that she had challenged Magic Leap “to acknowledge the depths of misogyny” in its culture that “renders it so dysfunctional” it threatened the company. The suit accused the company of gender discrimination and retaliation, which Magic Leap denied. It was settled in May.

Across the tech industry, sexual harassment appears to be ingrained. While the research is largely anecdotal and fragmentary, Chloe Hart, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Stanford University, said the subject came up often in 27 in-depth interviews she had with female engineers about their social interactions at work.

Two-thirds of the women, Ms. Hart said, had experienced unwanted sexual interactions, such as being groped or kissed, or hearing comments about the physical attractiveness of women colleagues and sexual jokes or references that made them uncomfortable. One-third talked about men they worked with expressing romantic interest that was not reciprocated.

This and other surveys suggest that in some ways, Silicon Valley has not evolved much over 50 years, even as more and younger women arrived.

Some young women said they did not expect much from Silicon Valley. Amanda Joan, a VR developer, said the “misogynistic and lewd culture” described in Ms. Scott’s suit was as common to Silicon Valley as heavy traffic and expensive housing.

“If I were to boycott every organization that exhibited such culture and behavior (publicly or behind closed doors), I would be severely limited in my options,” Ms. Joan wrote on LinkedIn last month. “Honestly, I wouldn’t hold my breath that there would be any left unless I moved to Wonder Woman’s home island.”

‘A Boisterous Culture’

About 11 months after Ms. Scott joined Upload, Ms. Scott said in her suit, she complained to a supervisor about the office atmosphere, about being shunned by Mr. Freeman and Mr. Mason and about being paid less for equal work and forced to perform menial and demeaning tasks. She was subsequently fired.

That was in March, after Mr. Freeman and Mr. Mason had been named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list of rising stars.

All the success on the surface masked a workplace where, one former employee said, “women are seen as the candy in the room.” At Upload events, VR technology was demonstrated by women hired from a company called Models in Tech. Ms. Scott’s suit said the founders tried to secure “submissive Asian women” for a fund-raising trip to Asia.

“Upload was a boisterous culture, a ‘bro’ culture,” said another former employee, Greg Gopman, in an interview. “Virtual reality is hyped and no one was hyping it more than Upload. Within the industry, they were loved for giving people attention in the most positive way. They had a lot of clout and were able to act as they wanted until someone called them out.”

Mr. Gopman, 33, is mentioned in Ms. Scott’s suit. Other male employees, the suit said, would talk about how he “refuses to wear a condom” and “has had sex with over 1,000 people.”

When asked about being mentioned in the suit, Mr. Gopman, who has drawn attention in tech circles before for criticizing homeless people, said he was not happy about it. “How am I going to get married some day if I have to explain that?” he asked. Upload declined to comment on its former employee.

Mr. Freeman, the chief executive, said in an interview that the company was moving on. The lesson he learned, he said, was that employees need to talk more, and that especially in times of trouble they need someone to hear their complaints. Under the agreement to end Ms. Scott’s suit, Mr. Freeman was precluded from discussing it.

“A lot of things could be avoided if there is an open line of communication,” he said. “Once you have five people, male or female, at a start-up you need external HR. Not having someone to go talk to about your potential concerns just makes it so much worse.”

He added, “We’re the strongest as a company that we’ve ever been because of this.”

As for Ms. Scott, she now works for a camera company. She told friends that she had numerous interviews with VR companies, but as soon as they found out she had filed suit against her previous employer, they all declined to hire her.

Sheriff’s Badge

A woman runs Upload now. Kind of.

Anne Ahola Ward, a specialist in increasing internet traffic, was a consultant to Upload. In June, when many of the employees were quitting, she proposed taking over. Her title is chief operating officer.

“Anne has had a lot of experience, and experience is a huge thing,” Mr. Freeman said. He demurred when asked whether she was the “adult supervision” that all start-ups are said to need. “We’re all adults here,” he said.

Ms. Ward, 38, is wry about the opportunity.

“I’m a woman in Silicon Valley,” she said. “Do you think someone would have handed me the keys to a start-up that wasn’t beleaguered?” Her husband asked the obvious question: Why aren’t you the chief executive? “The title isn’t important to me,” she said.

The kink room is now Ms. Ward’s office. There is no bed there. She has instituted mandatory anti-harassment training: a two-hour session led by an outside consultant. There is now a human resources department. People have formal job descriptions. And as a joke — but not quite — people in the office gave Ms. Ward a sheriff’s badge.

Correction: September 15, 2017

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Elizabeth Scott’s age. She is 26, not 27.

‘It Was a Frat House’: Inside the Sex Scandal That Toppled SoFi’s C.E.O.

SAN FRANCISCO — For months, the text messages came. Some were flirtatious, asking her to meet him late at night. Sometimes, the texts were sexually explicit.

The messages were directed at Laura Munoz, an executive assistant at the online lending start-up Social Finance. The texts were from her boss, Mike Cagney, the company’s chief executive, according to five people who spoke with Ms. Munoz or saw the messages. Given Mr. Cagney’s stature at Social Finance, known as SoFi, Ms. Munoz was at a disadvantage.

That became apparent when SoFi’s board was informed of Mr. Cagney’s communications with Ms. Munoz in late 2012. The board said it found no evidence of a sexual relationship. Ms. Munoz was then paid about $75,000 to leave the company, according to three people familiar with the proceedings who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly. Ivo Labar, a lawyer representing Ms. Munoz, said matters were resolved between his client and SoFi.

Around the same time, SoFi’s board and executives also heard complaints from investors that Mr. Cagney had made misstatements to them over the start-up’s student loan products, according to emails between investors, executives and the board that were obtained by The New York Times. Directors stood by Mr. Cagney in that instance, too.

The board’s support allowed Mr. Cagney to build SoFi into a fast-growing start-up that is trying to take on the big banks by offering lending, insurance and asset management online. The company has been valued at more than $4 billion.

But within SoFi, Mr. Cagney, a married father of two, continued to raise questions among employees with his behavior. He was seen holding hands and having intimate conversations with another young female employee, according to six employees who saw the two together. At late-night, wine-soaked gatherings with colleagues, he bragged about his sexual conquests and the size of his genitalia, said employees who heard the comments.

Mr. Cagney’s actions were echoed in other parts of SoFi. The company’s chief financial officer talked openly about women’s breasts and once offered female employees bonuses for losing weight, according to more than a dozen people who heard his comments. Some employees said on a few instances, they caught colleagues having sex with supervisors at SoFi’s main satellite office in Healdsburg, Calif., which was the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed last month.

Even as other Silicon Valley companies such as ride-hailing giant Uber have been in the spotlight this year for inappropriate treatment of women, Mr. Cagney’s case goes a step further. Although many of the issues at other firms stemmed from the actions of midlevel executives or investors, Mr. Cagney personally faces questions about his role. His conduct was described by more than 30 current and former employees, most of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

The behavior went largely unchecked until Monday, when SoFi’s board acted after weeks of growing scrutiny of the company. The start-up said Mr. Cagney, 46, would leave as chief executive by the end of the year and that he would step down immediately as chairman. In a statement announcing Mr. Cagney’s departure, SoFi did not explain the executive change.

The company said its business was performing well, and that SoFi was becoming a “major, innovative player in consumer finance.” A SoFi spokesman said the company did not comment on personnel matters and disputed that its business had taken on too much risk. Through the spokesman, Mr. Cagney also said he “vehemently denies” any improprieties at after-hours events with colleagues.

Yet Mr. Cagney’s position had become increasingly delicate after the filing of the sexual harassment suit, which accused him of “empowering other managers to engage in sexual conduct in the workplace.”

His situation was also exacerbated by claims about his approach to SoFi’s business, which uses money from Wall Street investors to fund student loans, personal loans and mortgages. At several points, Mr. Cagney ignored warnings from colleagues that he was being too aggressive with the business, according to more than a dozen employees who were involved in the conversations.

That included a time when Mr. Cagney decided to put customer service representatives in charge of lending determinations, despite them having no experience in the area. Another time, he told investors that SoFi had $90 million in debt financing for a loan product; the company did not in fact have the money, according to the internal emails reviewed by The Times.

SoFi’s board, which includes representatives of Japanese conglomerate SoftBank and the influential hedge fund Third Point Capital, now faces questions about whether it needed more checks and balances on Mr. Cagney.

Companies like SoFi show how boards are incentivized to prioritize cash flow and growth over governance, said David F. Larcker, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business who specializes in corporate governance. “The board now has a duty to correct for things that have gone wrong,” he said.

The board said that it found “no allegation or evidence of a romantic or sexual relationship” between Mr. Cagney and Ms. Munoz and referred all other questions to SoFi.

Workplace Pursuits

Mr. Cagney, who was born in New Jersey, started his career in finance in 1994 at Wells Fargo, where he climbed the ranks to the trading desk. He later left the giant bank to begin a financial software company, and then his own hedge fund, Cabezon, in 2005. On the side, he attended Stanford’s business school.

In 2011, Mr. Cagney began SoFi with several co-founders. The start-up, established as venture capitalists were getting excited about financial technology, raised nearly $100 million in its first year. In total, SoFi has now taken in $1.9 billion from investors including SoftBank, Discovery Capital and Baseline Ventures.

Even with other co-founders, Mr. Cagney quickly established himself as the company’s center of gravity. SoFi’s offices, with glassed-in conference rooms and cheap Ikea furniture, were set up in San Francisco’s Presidio, the park near the Golden Gate Bridge, because Mr. Cagney’s hedge fund already had its offices there. His home was less than a mile away.

Mr. Cagney exhibited an aggressive attitude at the office that he may have learned as a trader at Wells Fargo. He sometimes shouted obscenities and excoriated employees in front of others when they made mistakes.

Mr. Cagney hired deputies who had similar characteristics. One was Nino Fanlo, a former executive at Goldman Sachs and the private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, who became SoFi’s chief financial officer in 2012.

Mr. Fanlo, 57, sometimes kicked trash cans in the office when angry. He also commented on women’s figures, including their breasts; said that women would be happier as homemakers; and once told two female employees he would give them $5,000 if they lost 30 pounds by the end of the year, according to more than a dozen people who heard the comments and witnessed the weight-loss offer.

Mr. Fanlo said it was “patently false” that he did not respect women and that his team at SoFi had many women who received promotions and professional accolades. He also attributed his shouting and kicking of trash cans to frustration about deals and start-up pressures.

“You’re under extraordinary pressures at a company that is growing that fast,” Mr. Fanlo said.

More than two dozen former SoFi employees said they were uncomfortable with Mr. Cagney’s pursuit of women in the office. In 2012, he sent the text messages to Ms. Munoz, the executive assistant, until her colleagues took the issue up with executives and the board, according to the five people who spoke with Ms. Munoz about the matter.

Even as Mr. Cagney was texting Ms. Munoz, he also chased another young female employee. Six employees said they saw Mr. Cagney and the employee holding hands and talking intimately. One day in 2013, when Mr. Cagney was flirting with her at the office in front of colleagues, she grew enraged and left, according to three employees who witnessed the episode. Soon after, she left the company.

Around that time, SoFi’s board asked Mr. Cagney to not engage in inappropriate conduct with employees, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations. The situations were awkward in the office given that Mr. Cagney’s wife, June Ou, began working at SoFi in 2012, rising to become the company’s chief technical officer. Her desk was near Mr. Cagney’s. Ms. Ou did not respond to a request for comment.

Pushing the Business

SoFi’s business works in the following way: It loans money to students, home buyers and individuals with high credit scores. The company funds those loans with money from hedge funds and banks, who buy the loans through securities or bonds that SoFi creates.

As early as 2012, Mr. Cagney ran into trouble with some of his investors. That year, the company said it had secured $90 million in debt financing for one of its loan products, called Refi A. But some investors who had bought the securities noticed their returns were not in keeping with SoFi’s estimates and voiced concerns to executives and to a board member, according to the emails obtained by The Times.

About 10 SoFi executives met to discuss the situation; it was then that some of them learned Mr. Cagney had not actually secured the $90 million for the loan product, according to people who were at the meeting. Some attendees said they were dismayed at the possibility that they had made material misstatements to investors.

In October 2012, SoFi bought back the Refi A securities from investors for what they had paid, plus the investment return they had anticipated, or gave them the option to put their money into a different product. Mr. Cagney said in an investor letter that the product had been “imperfect,” but did not offer any details about the $90 million. The SoFi spokesman said that “no consumers were harmed in the process.”

In 2015, SoFi began offering mortgages. In meetings with the compliance officer overseeing the program, Mr. Cagney was told that SoFi was not doing enough to document the income of borrowers and was rushing to offer loans more quickly than competitors did, according to a person involved in the mortgage business. A SoFi spokesman said the company complied with all laws.

Mr. Cagney also led a push into personal loans last year. To strengthen that business, he asked customer service representatives to review and approve loans, a job that had previously been done by the company’s underwriters, said two people involved in the loan business. Many employees opposed the change because customer service representatives do not have the experience of approving loans, but the move helped SoFi double the amount of loans it issued in just a few months.

That created another problem: SoFi did not have enough money to fund all the loans it was giving out. Mr. Cagney told employees that because of the funding shortfall, it could take as long as 30 days for some new customers to get the money they borrowed. But the employees who dealt with the customers were told by a supervisor to say that people would still get the money within 72 hours as promised.

“We had to lie to them and tell them that we were a little behind or that the transfer got lost — just something to keep them off our backs,” said Marie Lombard, who worked from 2014 to 2016 at SoFi’s operations center in Healdsburg.

Mr. Cagney eventually took customer service representatives off the underwriting decisions.

A SoFi spokesman said that customer service representatives did not approve loans and that the company’s proprietary software made those decisions. He added that SoFi always communicated timing changes on its loans to borrowers and that delays have never run as high as 30 days.

An Internal Toll

Mr. Cagney’s risk-taking outside of SoFi also created problems. In January 2015, his hedge fund, Cabezon, suffered big losses on a currency trade. In the aftermath, SoFi’s board agreed to buy Cabezon for $3.25 million and give the hedge fund’s employees jobs at SoFi. That caused resentment at SoFi among some workers.

A SoFi spokesman said the company bought Mr. Cagney’s hedge fund partly because the board was concerned about Mr. Cagney’s ability to focus on both companies.

At the time, SoFi was growing rapidly. Since 2011, when it had five people in a one-room office, the company has grown to 1,200 employees and lent more than $20 billion to about 350,000 customers. Earlier this year, the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners led a new round of fund-raising that gave SoFi another $500 million and valued the company at $4.3 billion.

Mr. Cagney’s co-founders nonetheless left the company one by one, and Mr. Fanlo departed this summer. (Mr. Fanlo said that he left to pursue a new opportunity.)

In 2015, an anonymous email was sent to everyone in the company, complaining in detail about the work environment and nepotism in hiring, according to five employees who received the email. SoFi said that it takes every complaint seriously.

At the start-up’s office in Healdsburg, Yulia Zamora, who worked as an underwriter there from 2015 to 2016, said it often seemed as if there were no rules. She said she was propositioned by a supervisor numerous times.

“It was a frat house,” Ms. Zamora said. “You would find people having sex in their cars and in the parking lot. It was a free-for-all.”’

SoFi has recently been taking steps to contain the damage. Earlier this month, the company started an investigation into the harassment claims in the Healdsburg satellite office. At the same time, questions over Mr. Cagney’s own behavior also surfaced.

In recent days, Mr. Cagney canceled a trip to Singapore to attend a board meeting at SoFi’s offices in San Francisco on Monday. At the meeting, Mr. Cagney argued for his job — but eventually lost out to board members who viewed him as a liability, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.

“I want SoFi to focus on helping members, hiring the best people, and growing our company in a way consistent with our values,” Mr. Cagney wrote in a letter announcing his departure. “That can’t happen as well as it should if people are focused on me, which isn’t fair to our members, investors, or you.”