Niraj Shah: Wayfair CEO in Spotlight After Conspiracy Theory Goes Viral

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Getty Niraj Shah, co-founder and chief executive officer of Wayfair, on July 14, 2017 in Sun Valley, Idaho.

On July 10, a conspiracy theory went viral on social media accusing the online furniture retailer Wayfair of human trafficking through its website. The theory claims that Wayfair is using highly-priced items like storage cabinets, shower curtains and pillows as a front for selling children. There is no evidence to support this accusation, which is based solely on the prices and names of certain items.

The theory originated on a conspiracy subreddit when a poster claimed that the “extremely overpriced” cabinets — priced at around $13,000 to $14,000 — could be a front for human trafficking. Twitter users then connected the names of some of the cabinets to the names of children who were reported missing online. Wayfair addressed the conspiracy in the following statement, emailed to Heavy:

There is, of course, no truth to these claims. The products in question are industrial grade cabinets that are accurately priced. Recognizing that the photos and descriptions provided by the supplier did not adequately explain the high price point, we have temporarily removed the products from site to rename them and to provide a more in-depth description and photos that accurately depict the product to clarify the price point.

Many mainstream outlets have debunked the conspiracy theory. Fact-checking site Snopes wrote that about 800,000 children are reported missing every year and “the fact that some of these product names were the same as the first names of children who had gone missing could easily be nothing more than a coincidence.” The outlet also pointed out that some of the cases of people reported missing in the conspiracy theory have been solved. However, despite this, many people have continued to promote the theory online and it gained even more traction when it was shared by Instagram influencers like Rebecca Pfeiffer and Maddie Thompson.

The sudden spotlight on the company has left many people wondering, who is at the head of the company? The CEO of Wayfair is Niraj Shah, who also happens to be one of its co-founders.

Here’s what you need to know about Niraj Shah:

1. He Co-Founded the Company in 2002 With Steve Conine & Has Been the CEO Since Then

Wayfair founders Shah and Conine at Entrepreneurship Summit NYC co-founders Niraj Shah '95 and Steve Conine '95 take turns telling the audience about the other — sharing their strengths in business and their leadership styles while at the same time poking a little fun at themselves as leaders — at the second Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit NYC on October 11, 2013.2013-12-13T19:28:48Z

According to the Wayfair website, Niraj Shah and Steve Conine founded Wayfair together in 2002, “on a shoestring budget in a spare bedroom of Steve’s house.” The two met when they were still in high school during a summer program at Cornell University. After high school, they both returned to the university to study engineering, where they lived in the same dorm and became friends. They first started an e-commerce website selling stereo racks and stands and soon built other sites for different items.

In 2011, the entrepreneurial duo combined all of its 250 standalone e-commerce sites into one platform for all home needs, called Wayfair. Within its first year, Wayfair’s revenue exceeded $600 million and became a household name. In the past year, the company generated $9.5 billion in net revenue.

While Shah remains at the head of the company as the CEO, Conine is also an integral part of the business, serving as its co-chairman.

2. Shah Has Received Recognition as an Entrepreneur & Was Included in Fortune Magazine’s 40 Under 40

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GettyNiraj Shah, chief executive officer of Wayfair, and his wife Jill Shah arrive for a morning session of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 11, 2018 in Sun Valley, Idaho.

In an interview with Boston, Shah said although he always had an entrepreneurial spirit, he didn’t know it was a possible career path when he was younger. “When I was growing up, it wasn’t clear that being an entrepreneur was a thing you could choose to go do,” he said. “I was that kid that had the lawn mowing business and the paper route and the baseball trading business. So I had the entrepreneurial thing, but I didn’t know it was an option. This was before it was an option in colleges.”

Shah was named one of Fortune Magazine’s 40 Under 40 in 2013, at the age of 39. In 2010, when the company was still named CSN Stores, Shah won the Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the consumer retail category for New England. At the award ceremony, Shah said: “Receiving this very prestigious award was a true honor and one that I share with my business partner, CSN Chairman and Co-Founder Steve Conine, who joined forces with me almost eight years ago to form the first CSN Store.”

According to his Wayfair bio, he’s also very involved in the Massachusetts business world, serving on the board of Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Forbes estimates Shah’s net worth at $2.7 billion.

3. Along With His Wife Jill, Shah Founded a Non-Profit, the Shah Family Foundation

Shah and his wife Jill founded the Shah Family Foundation in 2017, whose aims are to support “innovative and transformative work in education, healthcare and the community,” according to its LinkedIn page. The foundation’s work is based in Boston, with Jill serving as its president and Shah as a board director.

The foundation has focused a lot of its efforts on providing students with healthier lunches at school, its website shows. In an interview with the Boston Foundation, Shah said, “Jill drives the family foundation’s efforts, but those are the areas we’re both really passionate about: public education, health care—ideally projects that are getting to the core of the problem versus just treating the symptom.”

One of the organization’s partners is the Boys & Girls Club of Boston. “They invest and innovate to increase the number of youth we impact,” the Shah Foundation’s website states. “Their vision is an outcomes-driven experience that helps members succeed academically, live healthy lifestyles and practice good citizenship.”

4. Wayfair Has Been at the Center of Controversy in the Past & Some Are Pointing to Shah’s Affiliation With the Boys & Girls Club as Problematic

Wayfair has been at the center of controversy in the past when employees staged a walkout over the company’s sale of beds to a Texas detention center for migrant children. In June 2019, hundreds of Wayfair employees signed a letter stating that the company had sold $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture to a detention facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas.

The company responded that it was “proud to have such an engaged team that is focused on impacting our world in meaningful and important ways,” but their company’s policy was to fill all lawful orders, the Boston Globe reported. Wayfair later offered a $100,000 donation to the Red Cross, who said the funds would be used to help community organizations helping with the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Shah has also been connected with another controversy in recent days, this time through his foundation. Some people who support the Wayfair conspiracy theory have pointed to the Shah Family Foundation’s support of the Boys & Girls Club as problematic. That’s because the Boys & Girls Club has been the subject of media investigations into allegations of child sexual abuse. A Hearst Connecticut Media investigation, “At Risk: Boys & Girls Clubs and Sexual Abuse,” in 2019 found 250 victims in 30 states who claimed they were sexually abused by employees and volunteers of the Boys & Girls Club when they were kids. Hearst Connecticut Media described the project on its website, saying reporters and editors, “examined thousands of documents from more than 100 civil and criminal cases of alleged sexual abuse involving staff, members or volunteers of Boys & Girls Club affiliates across the country over 70 years. The Boys & Girls Club of America does not keep a public list of allegations of abuse connected to clubs.” The articles that stemmed from that investigation can be found here.

Hearst Connecticut Media received the 2020 Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award and the 2020 Investigative Reporters & Editors national award for its coverage of the sexual abuse cases and investigation into the Boys & Girls Club. The Shah Foundation has not commented on its association with the Boys & Girls Club since the investigation was published.

5. Shah Is Married to Jill Shah & They Have Two Children Together

Shah was born in Massachusetts to immigrants from India. A Boston Globe article reports that Shah’s grandfather was an entrepreneur as well, running a steel manufacturing business in India that made pots and pans. Shah’s father worked for General Electric before his retirement, after which he joined Wayfair to provide the company with financial advice.

Shah’s wife Jill is an entrepreneur as well, who started an alternative medicine directory named Jill’s List in 2010. She sold the business to Mindbody in 2013, a California-based wellness company, and now runs their Boston office.

The couple has two kids together and the family lives in Boston. In her profile on the Shah Foundation’s website, Jill describes herself as “Lucky mom of two terrific kids. Married to a man I love and admire. Live in Boston. Like to run, ride, do yoga and cook.”

In a 2016 interview, Shah said: “[I] spend most of my time either working or with my family. I have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old. Those two things take up most of my time. Hobbies I don’t have that much time for. I enjoy reading but don’t do it as much as I’d like. I have a naïve ambition to become good at golf, and I enjoy playing tennis in the summer.”

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