Uncommon Ground: Robinhood’s Vlad Tenev

August 10, 2021

“We aim to take market share and usurp, but we’re very much operating within the system.” — Vlad Tenev


In 2013, Vlad Tenev launched the Robinhood platform to democratize financial markets. So what common ground does the Bulgarian-American entrepreneur share with Entitled Opinions host and humanist Robert Pogue Harrison, who claims that teaching, thinking, and writing about cultural history has been his lifelong vocation?


The Stanford professor made a guest appearance on Tenev’s half-hour podcast series Under the Hood to explore the connections. Here’s an obvious one: the CEO also started at Stanford, where he envisioned a trading platform to encourage young investors by not requiring minimum accounts or charging commissions.


The fugitive “Robin Hood” was another link. Tenev suggested that Robin Hood’s intent was to democratize resources, adding that “he wanted to open up the forest and have it not just the purview of the king, but open for everyone to hunt.”


Harrison, the author of Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, drew an analogy between the outlaws’ Sherwood Forest and the markets of Wall Street, adding, “Your platform is trying to get the underdogs or the least privileged into a system which traditionally enriches the already rich.”


Both men also share an interest in the work of the late French theorist René Girard, who taught at Stanford for decades. Girard said society’s last taboo is envy, which drives today’s social media. Recalling Girard’s most famous protégé, the early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, Harrison observed, “Facebook is a machine of engendering envy, and people keep upping the ante of how happy they are, how beautiful their kids are, and how wonderful their vacations and meals are. You enter into this mad mimetic escalation of self-representation on one hand, and the envy of your friends and rivals on the other.” Yet Robinhood has thrived with the social media, allowing people to interact in ways unimaginable a decade before.


 


“In our capitalistic society, there’s not just one king. There are several kings. They are the banks, the corporations, the hedge funds, the investment bankers.”  — Robert Pogue Harrison




Photograph of Robin Hood statue in Nottingham Castle by David Telford.