Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas took the stage for the industry keynote event at Vidcon, the annual convention for the creators and companies that make up a significant portion of TikTok’s audience and business, last summer as the title sponsor.
Pappas was the TikTok executive in the hot seat when Congress interrogated the company about privacy and security issues months later.
However, Pappas has undoubtedly served as the company’s public face for most of the previous few turbulent years while also serving as TikTok’s second-in-command. Shou Zi Chew, a seasoned tech finance executive situated thousands of miles from Washington in Singapore, has been the CEO of one of the most well-known apps on the planet for almost two years.
On September 14, 2022, TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas made her way to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, for a hearing before the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the effect of social media on homeland security. – Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Pictures
In Silicon Valley, it is typical for tech CEOs to be well-known figures and the public faces of the businesses they oversee. Before Elon Musk acquired it, Jack Dorsey was the bearded face of Twitter, and Mark Zuckerberg is synonymous with Facebook. However, Chew, who became TikTok’s CEO in April 2021, has mainly avoided the media’s attention at a time when the app he controls is unable to do so.
After avoiding a ban threat in 2020, TikTok has come under increased attention from state and federal authorities in the US due to worries about its connections to China through its Chinese parent firm, ByteDance, and worries that it would negatively affect younger users.
While the Biden administration is reportedly still in talks with TikTok over a compromise to let it continue operating in the United States, some US politicians have once more called for an outright ban on the app. In the meantime, European Union officials have started speaking out more strongly against TikTok.
That might put more strain on Chew. He has already had to react to scathing letters from US lawmakers, and he only visited several EU authorities in Brussels last week. Chew, who formerly served as CFO of ByteDance, is reportedly limited in his ability to influence TikTok and how much power resides with its parent firm.
Chew was questioned about whether he works “at the behest of the folks at ByteDance and therefore at the behest of the Chinese government” during a rare interview at the New York Times DealBook summit in late November. He responded, “I am responsible for all the strategic decisions at TikTok.”
The TikTok Inc. CEO, Shou Zi Chew, speaks on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore. – Bryan van der Beek/Getty Images/Bloomberg.
However, he said that ByteDance is “organized the way you would expect an internet company to be organized,” with a board of shareholders, staff representatives, and international investors. Chew underlined again, “I am responsible for the decisions at TikTok, but in the end, I also have to be accountable to the shareholders and the board.”
Chew was not made accessible by TikTok for this article or in response to demands for comment.
A Singaporean Living There
Chew has identified himself as a 40-year-old father of two who enjoys playing golf and reading physics books in interviews. But TikTok appears to like emphasizing his nationality the most.
TikTok attempted to remove itself from ByteDance’s influence in a letter to US senators in June, claiming that it was run by “its global CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean based in Singapore.”
J'ai fait part à Shou Zi Chew, CEO de TikTok, des priorités et des exigences de la France quant à la protection des mineurs, la lutte contre la désinformation et le respect des données personnelles. pic.twitter.com/iyW1wySS5J
— Jean-Noël Barrot (@jnbarrot) January 18, 2023
It’s not the first time TikTok has made a big deal out of the CEO’s nationality. TikTok frequently defended itself against detractors in 2020 as it came under increasing criticism from the Trump administration by praising Kevin Mayer, its “American CEO,” a former executive at one of the most recognizable US firms, Disney.
Mayer resigned from her job as TikTok’s CEO after only three months. Then, for less than a year, Pappas, an Australian living in Los Angeles with previous experience at other significant US Internet platforms, including Google’s YouTube, served as interim global president of TikTok.
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Chew Then Assumed Control as CEO
Ivan Kanapathy, a former director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia on the National Security Council staff of the White House and currently a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, claimed that they brought him in specifically because, quite frankly, he isn’t a Chinese national and Singapore traditionally straddles the fence of these worlds. Geopolitically, they are pretty skilled at it.
“Ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to be enough for Washington,” Kanapathy added of Chew’s Singaporean origin, offering comfort to lawmakers concerned about China’s reach over TikTok. “For now, I don’t think it makes much of a difference because, at the end of the day, he still answers to ByteDance, and so there’s only so much he can do.”
Starting Early With Facebook and Operating TikTok
Chew attended college in London after completing his mandatory military service in Singapore, and in 2010 he earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. After working as a summer intern at a “company” that “was named Facebook,” as he described it in an alumni spotlight, he became familiar with Silicon Valley while still a student at Harvard.
The Chinese tech company Xiaomi, whose IPO he assisted in 2018, eventually hired him as CFO.
He was the leader of a team that invested in ByteDance early in 2013. Chew said that he maintained contact with the ByteDance staff throughout his career and that they eventually got in touch with him to extend the CFO job in an interview with business tycoon David Rubenstein. In April 2021, he succeeded Pappas as TikTok’s CEO, and Pappas was appointed COO.
According to Chew, the CEO of TikTok, “I’m most focused on trust building,” Chew told Rubenstein. “We are a young company, and I think trust is something we have to earn through actions.”
Chew doesn’t tweet and has an unpopulated, private, verified Instagram account. He has uploaded a few films to TikTok, most of which are brief vignettes of his travels and stops at various TikTok offices. Nevertheless, Chew generally maintains his personal life in secret despite running one of the most well-known apps on the planet.
Question for TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew: Does the Chinese Communist Party have access to U.S. user data? pic.twitter.com/pHGGLdLDZk
— Robert Gouveia Esq. (@RobGouveiaEsq) November 27, 2022
It can be a welcome change from some US tech execs who can’t help but tweet everything they think. According to Matthew Quint, the center’s director on global brand leadership at Columbia Business School, it may also result from cultural differences that come with running a major digital firm with a Chinese parent company. Quint stated that Chinese internet companies and leaders who have attracted too much attention to themselves have been subject to harsh government crackdowns, even though Chew is not a citizen of China.
Even if Chew attempts to go on a charm offensive and gains more incredible notoriety, it could not have much of an impact on TikTok’s future in the US. Quint concluded that for US politicians investigating TikTok’s ties to China, I don’t think the CEO of TikTok has much relevance.
“We’ve seen a rotating group, many of whom are not born-Chinese nationals, and that has not swayed the pressure around TikTok from a regulatory, national security perspective over the last 18 months or so,” Quint said.
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Although Pappas has been the face of TikTok to the world for most of the company’s turbulent history, she has done so in the capacity of the company’s second-in-command. Shou Zi Chew, a veteran tech finance executive headquartered in Singapore rather than Washington, has been the de facto CEO of one of the world’s most popular apps for nearly two years.
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