When TikTok was the title sponsor final summer season 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 issues, Pappas was the TikTok government within the scorching seat fielding questions.
However whereas Pappas has arguably been the public face of the corporate for a lot of the previous few tumultuous years, she has accomplished so whereas appearing as TikTok’s second-in-command. The one who has truly served because the CEO of some of the in style apps on the planet for practically two years is a longtime tech finance government named Shou Zi Chew, based mostly 1000’s 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, has largely stayed out of the highlight at a time when the app he leads can’t appear to keep away from it.
After averting a risk of a ban in 2020, TikTok has more and more discovered itself underneath scrutiny from state and federal lawmakers in the USA over issues about its ties to China by its Chinese language dad or mum firm, ByteDance, in addition to over fears that it might have a dangerous affect on youthful customers.
Some US lawmakers have as soon as once more renewed calls to ban the app outright, whereas the Biden administration continues to be mentioned to be negotiating with TikTok over a deal to let it proceed to function in the USA. In the meantime, officers within the European Union have additionally begun toughening their rhetoric towards TikTok.
That might put higher strain on Chew. Already, he has had to reply to pointed letters from US senators, and simply final week he made the rounds in Brussels to satisfy with EU officers. On the identical 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 dad or mum 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 parents 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 anticipate an web firm to be organized,” that includes world traders and a board of shareholder and worker representatives. “I’m liable for the selections at TikTok,” Chew re-emphasized, “however, finally, I’ve to be accountable to the shareholders and to the board as effectively.”
TikTok didn’t make Chew out there for this story or reply to requests for remark.
In interviews, Chew has described himself as a a 40-year-old father of two who likes to golf and skim books on theoretical physics. Nevertheless it’s his nationwide origin that TikTok appears to love to spotlight most.
In a letter to US lawmakers in June, TikTok appeared to try to distance itself from ByteDance’ attain and mentioned it was led by “its personal world CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean based mostly in Singapore.”
It’s not the primary time TikTok has performed up the nationality of its CEO. In 2020, because it confronted rising strain from the Trump administration, TikTok repeatedly defended itself in opposition to critics by touting its “American CEO,” Kevin Mayer, a former government at some of the iconic US corporations, Disney.
Mayer held the chief government place at TikTok for simply three months earlier than stepping down. Pappas, an Australian based mostly in Los Angeles with expertise at different massive US tech platforms like Google’s YouTube, then served as interim world head of TikTok for lower than a yr.
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 employees and present senior affiliate on the Heart for Strategic and Worldwide Research suppose tank. “They usually’re fairly good at it, geopolitically.”
“In the end, 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.”
After finishing his necessary navy 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 season at a “startup” that “was referred to as Fb,” as he put it in an alumni highlight.
He finally went on to change into the CFO of Chinese language tech big Xiaomi, which he helped take public in 2018.
In 2013, he led a gaggle that grew to become one in every of ByteDance’s earliest traders. In an interview with enterprise magnate David Rubenstein, Chew mentioned he stayed in touch with the ByteDance staff all through his profession and so they finally 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 instructed Rubenstein. “We’re a younger firm and I believe belief is one thing that we have now to earn, by actions.”
Chew doesn’t tweet and has a non-public, however verified, Instagram account with zero posts. He has shared a handful of movies on TikTok, principally brief clips of his travels and visits to numerous TikTok workplaces. However regardless of operating some of the in style apps on the planet, Chew largely retains his personal life non-public.
In some methods, it may be a refreshing break from sure US tech executives who can’t appear to assist tweeting their each thought. Nevertheless it may also stem from cultural variations that come from main a large tech firm with a Chinese language dad or mum firm, in response to Matthew Quint, the director of the middle on world model management at Columbia Enterprise College. Whereas Chew shouldn’t be a Chinese language nationwide, Quint famous Chinese language tech corporations and leaders which have drawn an excessive amount of consideration to themselves have confronted powerful authorities crackdowns.
Even when Chew does change into extra of a public determine and try and go on a allure offensive, it could not matter a lot for TikTok’s future in the USA. In the end, 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 strain round TikTok from a regulatory, nationwide safety perspective over the course of the final 18 months or so,” Quint mentioned.