When TikTok was the title sponsor final summer time for Vidcon, an annual conference for the creators and types that make up a key a part of the short-form video app’s viewers and enterprise, it was Chief Working Officer Vanessa Pappas who obtained on stage for the trade keynote occasion.
Months later, when TikTok was grilled by Congress over privateness and safety considerations, Pappas was the TikTok govt within the sizzling seat fielding questions.
However whereas Pappas has arguably been the general public face of the corporate for a lot of the previous few tumultuous years, she has executed so whereas performing as TikTok’s second-in-command. The one that has really served because the CEO of some of the well-liked apps on the planet for almost two years is a longtime tech finance govt named Shou Zi Chew, primarily based hundreds of miles away from Washington, in Singapore.
In Silicon Valley, it’s frequent for tech CEOs to be family names and the faces of the corporate’s they lead. Mark Zuckerberg is synonymous with Fb and Jack Dorsey was the bearded face of Twitter, earlier than Elon Musk acquired it. However Chew, who took over as TikTok CEO in April 2021, had largely stayed out of the highlight at a time when the app he leads can’t appear to keep away from it.
That each one modified in latest weeks. Chew testified earlier than Congress on Thursday for the primary time, in a closely-watched listening to in regards to the platform’s potential nationwide safety dangers and its impression on youthful customers. Forward of his look, Chew went on a media tour, talking with a number of US newspapers and assembly behind closed doorways with members of Congress as a part of a broader messaging marketing campaign to assist save the app in america.
After averting a risk of a ban in 2020, TikTok has more and more discovered itself beneath scrutiny from state and federal lawmakers in america over considerations about its ties to China by way of its Chinese language guardian firm, ByteDance, in addition to over fears that it may have a dangerous impression on youthful customers.
Some US lawmakers have as soon as once more renewed calls to ban the app outright. The Biden administration is threatening to ban the app if TikTok if its Chinese language homeowners don’t dump their stake within the platform. And officers within the European Union have additionally begun toughening their rhetoric towards TikTok.
The heightened scrutiny on TikTok might now prolong to Chew. Even earlier than his Washington debut, the CEO had to answer pointed letters from US senators, and simply final week he made the rounds in Brussels to satisfy with EU officers. On the similar time, Chew, who beforehand was CFO of ByteDance, is reportedly constrained in how a lot management he has over TikTok and the way a lot energy rests with its guardian firm.
In a uncommon interview on the New York Occasions DealBook summit in late November, Chew was requested whether or not he labored “on the behest of the oldsters at ByteDance and due to this fact on the behest of the Chinese language authorities.” In response, he mentioned, “I’m liable for all of the strategic selections at TikTok.”
However he added that ByteDance is “organized the best way you’ll count on an web firm to be organized,” that includes international traders and a board of shareholder and worker representatives. “I’m liable for the choices at TikTok,” Chew re-emphasized, “however, in the end, I’ve to be accountable to the shareholders and to the board as nicely.”
TikTok didn’t make Chew out there for this story or reply to requests for remark.
‘A Singaporean primarily based in Singapore’
In interviews, Chew has described himself as a a 40-year-old father of two who likes to golf and browse books on theoretical physics. But it surely’s his nationwide origin that TikTok appears to love to focus on most.
In a letter to US lawmakers in June, TikTok appeared to attempt to distance itself from ByteDance’ attain and mentioned it was led by “its personal international CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean primarily based in Singapore.”
It’s not the primary time TikTok has performed up the nationality of its CEO. In 2020, because it confronted rising stress from the Trump administration, TikTok repeatedly defended itself in opposition to critics by touting its “American CEO,” Kevin Mayer, a former govt at some of the iconic US corporations, Disney.
Mayer held the chief govt place at TikTok for simply three months earlier than stepping down. Pappas, an Australian primarily based in Los Angeles with expertise at different huge US tech platforms like Google’s YouTube, then served as interim international head of TikTok for lower than a 12 months.
Then Chew took over as CEO.
“I believe they introduced him in particularly as a result of, frankly, he’s not a Chinese language nationwide, and Singapore historically straddles the fence of those worlds,” mentioned Ivan Kanapathy, a former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on the White Home’s Nationwide Safety Council workers and present senior affiliate on the Heart for Strategic and Worldwide Research suppose tank. “They usually’re fairly good at it, geopolitically.”
“Finally, I don’t suppose it’s going to be sufficient for Washington,” Kanapathy added of Chew’s Singaporean origin providing consolation to lawmakers involved about China’s attain over TikTok. “For now, I don’t suppose it makes a lot of a distinction as a result of on the finish of the day, he nonetheless solutions to ByteDance, and so there’s solely a lot he can do.”
From an early begin at Fb to operating TikTok
After finishing his necessary army service in Singapore, Chew attended college in London earlier than graduating with an MBA from Harvard Enterprise College in 2010. He was uncovered to Silicon Valley whereas at Harvard, after he interned one summer time at a “startup” that “was referred to as Fb,” as he put it in an alumni highlight.
He ultimately went on to change into the CFO of Chinese language tech large Xiaomi, which he helped take public in 2018.
In 2013, he led a gaggle that turned one in all ByteDance’s earliest traders. In an interview with enterprise magnate David Rubenstein, Chew mentioned he stayed involved with the ByteDance staff all through his profession they usually ultimately reached out to supply him the CFO place. He took over as CEO of TikTok in April 2021, with Pappas named COO.
As CEO of TikTok, “I’m most targeted on belief constructing,” Chew informed Rubenstein. “We’re a younger firm and I believe belief is one thing that we have now to earn, by way of actions.”
Chew doesn’t tweet and has a personal, however verified, Instagram account with zero posts. He has shared a handful of movies on TikTok, largely quick clips of his travels and visits to varied TikTok places of work. However regardless of operating some of the well-liked apps on the planet, Chew largely retains his personal life personal.
In some methods, it may be a refreshing break from sure US tech executives who can’t appear to assist tweeting their each thought. But it surely may additionally stem from cultural variations that come from main an enormous tech firm with a Chinese language guardian firm, in keeping with Matthew Quint, the director of the middle on international model management at Columbia Enterprise College. Whereas Chew just isn’t a Chinese language nationwide, Quint famous Chinese language tech corporations and leaders which have drawn an excessive amount of consideration to themselves have confronted robust authorities crackdowns.
Even when Chew does change into extra of a public determine, it might not matter a lot for TikTok’s future in america. Finally, Quint mentioned, “I don’t suppose the CEO of TikTok has a lot relevance in any respect” for US lawmakers scrutinizing its ties to China.
“We’ve seen a rotating group, lots of whom are usually not born-Chinese language nationals, and that has not swayed the stress round TikTok from a regulatory, nationwide safety perspective over the course of the final 18 months or so,” Quint mentioned.
This story has been up to date with extra developments.
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