In a recent ad directed by Spike Lee, Jennifer Lopez, wearing a white shirt and sitting on a white couch with a white lamp and white walls behind her, offers a way out of the pandemic darkness. “If you want to get back to your favorite places and feel confident they have put your health and safety first,” she says before the screen cuts to Michael B. Jordan, then Lady Gaga, then Robert De Niro, each one repeating the mantra to finish J.Lo’s sentence, “look for the WELL Health-Safety seal.”
It’s not the kind of ad you’d expect from a company with links to the Chinese Communist Party. Then again, it’s a weird and rather mysterious commercial that does nothing else to explain what exactly the product is or why you’d look for it.
Suspicion of a hidden agenda behind the safety seal has sparked lively speculation online about possible New World Order and satanic connections. In fact, the infomercial was a deliberate strategy by Delos, the “wellness” real estate company behind the ad. “What I wanted to do with this campaign was make it very much in the style of a public service announcement,” the company’s chief marketing officer told Ad Age.
The strategic ambiguity of the ad campaign, which has celebrities endorsing an imitation public health announcement, mirrors the confusing and contradictory aspects of Delos’ business model. Delos is a real estate company with projects worldwide, but all it’s selling here is its “seal” of approval. To justify the imprimatur, the company will apparently help modify the built environment of buildings to make their interior spaces healthier, more livable, and more efficient for the people inside, but not by implementing those improvements itself. Instead, as part of what’s becoming a multitrillion dollar “wellness” industry, Delos sells how-to manuals and services, including data analytics systems and certifications, to building owners. The company’s blend of social activism with global domination of the real estate market has been under development for the past decade (or possibly more; its history is murky). Now the pandemic has provided Delos’ big moment, what the company’s CEO Paul Scialla called “a catalyst” for the “wellness real estate movement.”
It’s a scary, virus-filled world out there, and a year is a long time to be locked down. Long enough for people to feel desperate to get out into the world again but terrified of what lurks beyond. Delos’ sales pitch reinforces the fear while presenting the company as a protective bubble and standard bearer in a world increasingly organized around biohealth regulation. Already valued at $1.25 billion, the company is expanding dramatically, including into places like the New York City public school system. In light of all that, it’s worth examining how Delos got to this position and what that says about the opportunities presented by a post-COVID economy. It’s an arc that starts on Wall Street, winds through the Clinton Foundation and Bill Gates’ investment fund, then takes a detour through China, before ending up back in the United States, with J.Lo and friends promising that if we trust the seal, all can be right again.
Delos was founded by twin brothers, Paul and Peter Scialla, former partners at Goldman Sachs who left their jobs on Wall Street to start the company. They were joined by co-founder Morad Fareed, a former executive of the Starwood Hotels and before that a player on the 2006 Palestinian national soccer team. Fareed was also a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, one of the offshoots of the nonprofit Clinton Foundation that was founded in 1997 by former President Bill Clinton and served as a clearing house for legitimate philanthropic initiatives, off-the-books campaign contributions, and assorted forms of influence peddling. Delos’ ties to the Clintons’ constellation of former politicians, business people, and dignitaries continue today. Early members of its advisory board included people like Terry McAuliffe, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee who co-chaired Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign and chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run for president, and Richard A. Gephardt, the former House majority leader who became a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Delos appears on the Clinton Foundation’s supporters page as having given between $1 million and $5 million in cumulative contributions.
The timeline of Delos’ early years varies widely enough that three different New York Times articles about the company provide three different years for its founding. A 2013 article mentions “Paul D. Scialla, a co-founder and the managing partner of Delos,” a 2018 article says it was started in 2014, and a 2019 article says the company was founded in 2012. Then there’s a Forbes article that says Paul Scialla got the idea for Delos in 2009 and left Goldman Sachs to found it along with his brother in 2013. An article posted on Delos’ own website says the company was founded “back in 2007.”
In 2010, Delos pledged $400,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative to build 200 affordable homes in Haiti after the earthquake there, as noted in a post on the Clinton Global Initiative website that describes “Delos Living’s vision” for “building a more healthy society through the development of Wellness Real Estate.” Another reference on the website introduces what would become the WELL-Health Safety rating. “In 2012, Delos committed to developing and deploying the WELL standard, the first building standard focused exclusively on people’s health and wellness.” At a 2012 Clinton Global Initiative summit, Bill Clinton celebrated Delos’ “really cool commitment.” “I wish I were part of it,” he said, adding, “well, I sort of am now.”
From its Clinton-connected, socially conscious origins, Delos pivoted to the luxury product depicted in a 2013 New York Times profile about “Health-Centric Homes, for a Price.” Early press accounts describe the Scialla twins’ experiments in wellness real estate at their 6,000-square-foot New York City loft. Amenities at the residence included “delicate circadian rhythms with constantly changing types of illumination and blackout shading,” air that is “continually cleansed” and “subtly infused by aromatherapy appropriate to the time of day,” along with “rift-cut Siberian oak floors ... set upon a layer of cork and rubber that reduces stress, muffles sound and nudges a body toward perfect posture.” For the bathroom, a “heated stone path to the shower provides instant foot reflexology, and inside the shower, the cascade is supplemented by a spritz of vitamin C and aloe that neutralizes chlorine and soothes the skin.” Delos’ early years were focused on establishing the WELL building standard in high-end condos, but eventually expanded to big-name venues like Yankee Stadium and the Empire State Building.
In 2014, with new age guru Deepak Chopra and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio already serving as advisers, Delos established a public benefit corporation, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), to oversee the company’s wellness certification program. Then came a period of significant growth. According to reports from October 2015, Delos raised $108 million from private investors in a funding round. The lead investors were Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ holding company Cascade Investment LLC, followed by Beijing based Sino-Ocean Land Holding Limited.
The Chinese investment company, now known as the Sino-Ocean Group, is a state-owned real estate firm that manages property investments for the government of China. The company is chaired by a Chinese Communist Party functionary named Li Ming who serves on the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, regarded as a top political advisory body to the Chinese government. Since 2016 Ming has also served on the Delos advisory board. Having a close relationship with Ming appears to have opened other opportunities. A Delos press release from December 2015 reads:
“Sino-Ocean Land pledged to pursue WELL Certification for all of its new development projects in Southern China, which represents a significant majority of its development pipeline in the country, over the next five years. In order to launch their commitment, the company today announced that its Guangzhou Tianjiao project is the first mixed-use complex registered to pursue WELL Certification in China.”
And so it continued for the next several years, as Delos oversaw more expansion of the wellness market in China. “If you believe in the wellness trend, why wouldn’t you apply it to the largest asset class there is? That seems to be the way to extract the most value from it,” Scialla told Forbes in April 2019.
Applying concepts like “mindfulness” to concrete and steel, the wellness real estate movement blends aspects of yoga, environmentalism, interior design, and new age spirituality with finance and traditional real estate development. The 2019 Forbes article—notable for its author’s mild skepticism, as opposed to the dozens of other journalistic accounts indistinguishable from Delos’ own marketing materials—provides an overview of the business’s growth. “Modeled after the well-known LEED green building standard, which is administered by a nonprofit, Scialla’s project differs in one key aspect: Delos is very much a for-profit company. Over the past five years, he has raised $237 million at a valuation, most recently, of $800 million.”
Whatever its real or perceived benefits, wellness as a category of products and experiences is decidedly not the same thing as health. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing. The American medical establishment doesn’t have all the answers and, as the past year has shown, can be slow to admit to its own blind spots. But it does mean that wellness is a comparatively unregulated industry, where it’s easier to make unsubstantiated and unprovable claims. “I have no idea what wellness means,” Dr. Norman Edelman, senior science consultant for the American Lung Association, told The Wall Street Journal in 2019. “I don’t know what they are measuring.”
The WELL Health-Safety seal is a recent addition to Delos’ product line. It was launched in 2020 as a direct response to the pandemic.
Last August, when New York was still reeling from the initial wave of COVID cases, the state’s Department of Education contracted with Delos to install 10,000 air purification units into city public schools at a cost of $2.7 million. “The decision to partner with Delos was made in response to COVID-19,” notes a Delos press release. In a second contract for air purifiers from March 2021, Delos collected $21.5 million. Delos is also expanding its services to other “social impact” development ventures like senior housing and urban opportunity zones.
Improving the air quality in public schools is clearly a good thing, but it’s unclear why Delos was the right company for that job and how it wound up in the position to get contracts. Delos isn’t an HVAC company or an air purification specialist, it’s a general wellness brand that recently started directly selling air purification units “powered by” HealthWay, an actually accredited air purification company. And while there’s science backing up some of Delos’ more general wellness real estate claims, wellness itself is not a science. Delos’ decision early on to tout the advisory role of Deepak Chopra, the “poet-prophet of alternative medicine,” may not be the kind of qualification most families would want in the company controlling their schools’ air supply during a pandemic.
“We will not be going back to the ‘old normal,’” the World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told an audience last July, sounding what became the refrain from a chorus of experts over the last year. The message penetrated even to the level of people’s internal desires. “The danger comes from hankering for normalcy again,” advised a CNN article from September. In January of this year, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that mass vaccinations would allow the United States to get back to normal by spring, then shifted that to “the end of the summer, the beginning of the fall,” before moving it again to say that Americans can look forward to “a degree of normality by the beginning of 2022.” We’re looking at “kind of a new normal,” Fauci says.
Delos is offering a way to speed that up without violating the moral and health-related rules set by the experts. “In the absence of a coronavirus vaccine and coordinated global response to combating COVID-19, IWBI’s WELL Health-Safety Rating has emerged as a key guide to reopening economies safely,” a Yahoo article from last October asserts, in language that sounds like a Delos press release but provides no evidence for its claims. But how does the safety seal do that? Its website declares the “WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management is an evidence-based, third-party verified rating for all new and existing building and facility types focusing on operational policies, maintenance protocols, stakeholder engagement and emergency plans.” But the final frame of the J.Lo ad clarifies: “The WELL Health-Safety seal is awarded after an annual review of a building’s written [emphasis added] policies and protocols. Achievement of the WELL Health-Safety rating does not guarantee that a space is safe or free from pathogens.”
Costs for the seal are highly variable. Technically it’s $2,500 for enrollment, then 16 cents per square foot starting at $6,500 and capped at $98,000. That’s in addition to on-site performance testing starting at $6,500, but includes neither the recertification Delos recommends, nor—more significantly—the capital improvements to bring a building within Delos wellness standards. But the pricing may be beside the point.
“For the consumer, there is no transaction associated with our campaign,” Delos’ chief marketing officer said of the company’s ad campaign. And that may explain why the ad doesn’t cite the wellness seal’s specific health benefits. Instead, Delos chose to hire a cast of expensive A-listers like Lady Gaga, whose net worth is estimated at well over $100 million. If you can tap into the power of celebrity to convince the public that they won’t be safe entering any building without the IWBI seal, the groundswell of demand will be enough to convince building owners they have to keep up with wellness trends to be competitive.
In fact, some academic studies back up the health benefits of the general “wellness” model, including improvements to air quality and worker productivity, which could appeal to owners and employees alike. But it’s not clear where those fit into Delos’ signature pandemic product, the WELL Health-Safety seal. There’s a saying from the tech industry that if you’re getting something for free, it means you’re the product. If Delos’ seal isn’t even promising to improve your wellness, let alone keep you safe, what is it actually selling?
“You hereby grant to Delos a non-exclusive, irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide, fully paid, royalty-free, sublicensable and transferable right and license to use, copy, edit, modify, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, publicly display, publicly perform, and otherwise fully exploit non-identifying information and content submitted by you or collected by or through your use of the Services (including information and content provided from Products and Apps connected to the Services).”
In a job listing from March 2021 posted by the IWBI to LinkedIn, the company advertises for a data scientist. The listing specifies the job will entail “managing external relationships with vendors and partners for data acquisition, and insight distribution.”
And then, naturally enough, there is the appearance of a connection to Hunter Biden. In December 2014, the younger Biden’s investment firm, Rosemont Seneca Partners, negotiated a deal with a Chinese state-backed firm called Gemini Investments that acted as a holding company for the Sino-Ocean group. The deal culminated in Gemini investing $34 million into a fund managed by Rosemont. In August 2015, Rosemont’s real estate arm, Rosemont Realty, sold a 75% stake to Gemini in a deal that called for the Chinese to invest $3 billion into the U.S.
In his 2019 book Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, the author Peter Schweizer quotes Li Ming, the Chinese Communist Party official and Sino-Ocean head who serves on Delos’ board, offering his thoughts on the deal: “Rosemont, with its comprehensive real-estate platform and superior performance history, was precisely the investment opportunity Gemini Investments was looking for in order to invest in the U.S. real estate market,” he said. “We look forward to a strong and successful partnership.”
Hunter Biden, with his personal demons and less philanthropic approach to real estate, left behind a trail of business deals that form an unattractive portrait of a mercenary American ruling class. But Delos is something very different. A company founded to harmonize social responsibility with access to the world’s largest asset class, a real estate brand with a celebrity face that can speak the language of goop-reading moms while negotiating business partnerships with Chinese state-backed real estate holding companies. The experts might be wrong about the pandemic changing everything. It seems we’re already back to the old normal.
Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.