He burst into the restaurant larger than life: iconic thick-rimmed glasses, wide smile nearly splitting his head in two, drowning with plans and dreams and ambition. It was Wednesday, April 9, 2014. His name was Jake Millar. He was 18 years old.
We were there to help him with the plans and the dreams and the ambition. Our nonprofit, Ministry of Awesome, is a force for high-growth startups, and our team was meeting with anyone who wanted to share their bold idea with us and see how we could support them.
Jake’s vision was for an inspirational website where he would interview well-known leaders and get their advice for young people. He wanted to help his peers appreciate how vast and varied the options were for their lives, to help them do what they really wanted to do -- and not just what they thought they should do. He had turned down a $40,000 scholarship to law school to do this. His site was called Oompher.
We gave him feedback and agreed to introduce him to a few people, including a senior leader at Careers NZ. He left and started executing on his vision. He followed up. He followed through. He built his website, interviewed a wide range of accomplished people, delivered on his dream. A year later Careers NZ bought the company from him.
Jake was unstoppable, irrepressible. Before the ink was dry on the deal, he was forming his next venture: a similar site but for business leaders, called Unfiltered. He raised $1.2 million from a who’s who of investors including Kevin Roberts, who had been CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi for 17 years. He interviewed the likes of Sir Richard Branson and General Stanley McChrystal. He launched Unfiltered Live, a business conference. His style remained vivid and memorable: bow ties, colorful suits, fancy shoes.
I caught up with him periodically. He shared with me some of the startup challenges that sat behind the enthusiasm and optimism. He shared the pivots he was making to overcome them. I offered what insufficient insight, experience and encouragement I had.
None of it worked.
I attended Unfiltered Live in June of 2019. Jake drank too much at the fancy pre-dinner and didn’t make it to the actual event. The cracks were starting to show.
He held on for another year and a half, but eventually Unfiltered went bust. Jake looked around for a last-ditch deal to save some semblance of face and legacy. He pulled off the deal -- sold to another company for pennies on the dollar -- but didn’t manage to save the face.
An angry investor or two was all it took for a media narrative to form: He had it coming.
Served him right, they said. It was obvious it would never work, they said. He should have been more careful with the money, they said. He shouldn’t have bought those fancy shoes. A social media wolf-pack had formed, and it was out for blood. Publicly torn to pieces, Jake fled to Africa.
In September, I caught up with him on Zoom. He had been in Mexico, Switzerland, the U.S. His mental health had suffered severely. He was clearly still unwell. And yet he remained as optimistic as ever: he was turning the corner, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. He would bounce back. Just you wait.
Earlier this week, my friend Jake Millar was found dead in Kenya. He was 26 years old.
My heart is heavy with grief, but I’m not sharing this story to garner sympathy. I’m sharing this story because almost every one of us has, at some point, joined a social media wolf-pack. And I want us to understand -- we need to understand -- that our snarky comments, our social media pile-ons, our self-righteous takedowns have a real cost.
Jake was torn to shreds by people who apparently have never made mistakes in their lives, in a way that produced precisely nothing except to make those people feel smug.
If there is anything good to come from his passing, I hope it serves as a reminder that there is a substantive difference between accountability and shame. We should all strive to hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions, but public shaming doesn't do that. Public shaming destroys the person on the receiving end and feeds the worst in those who perpetrate it.
My heart and love go out to Jake's mother, now learning to live with the unimaginable.
And to Jake himself, I hope you now have the peace that was denied to you in life. Love to you, my friend. You were something special, and you will be missed.