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Nancy Koehn on BPR | 7/18/2018

Nancy Koehn: Elon Musk Brought Hubris — But Not Much Expertise — To Thailand Cave Rescue

Tesla-Hacker Lawsuit
FILE- In this June 14, 2018, file photo, Tesla CEO and founder of the Boring Company Elon Musk speaks at a news conference in Chicago. Tesla is suing a former employee at its Nevada battery factory alleging that he hacked into the manufacturing computers and disclosed confidential trade secrets. The federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, June 20, contends that Martin Tripp of Sparks, Nev., also made false claims to the media about information he stole, including claims that the company used punctured battery cells in the Model 3 electric car. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Kiichiro Sato/AP
Nancy Koehn on BPR | 7/18/2018

While rescue efforts were underway to free a young soccer team from a Thailand cave, Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk sent a crew bearing a "kid-sized" submarine to help aid in the rescue.

The problem was that the rescuers already on the ground didn't find the submarine particularly helpful — and said so. One expert caver, Vernon Unsworth, said the submarine was a "PR stunt" that had "absolutely no chance of working." Musk responded to Unsworth's concerns by calling him a "pedo," or pedophile.

Musk has since apologized, but the incident raised questions about how useful his intervention was in the first place. Nancy Koehn, historian at the Harvard Business School, told Boston Public Radio that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs often cast themselves as the heroes of social crises — but don't always contribute to meaningful solutions.

"I think there is a hubris here, there is a can-do optimism, and an extraordinary — and largely unplaced faith — that because you're Jeff Bezos and run Amazon you can set the new highway for space exploration, or because you're Mark Zuckerberg and you helped create Facebook you can reform the New Jersey schools, or because you're Elon Musk, you can rescue the Wild Boars [soccer team] in Thailand," Koehn said, referring to other entrepreneurs' high-profile forays into activism.

Koehn said she didn't want to discourage entrepreneurs from lending their time and money to social causes, but urged them not to assume that they alone have all the answers.

"It's not that we want in any way to criticize lots and lots of people's — including wealthy people's — instincts to try and help. It is the way it is done," Koehn said.

She said, in the future, Musk should try being less dismissive of more methodical solutions, and more open to the expertise of others.

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