Some 332 million people reside in the US. And if we stick to the data revealed by the platform itself, which ensures that it has 150 million users throughout the country, a good part of them have a TikTok account.
Despite that level of penetration, his popularity, having grabbed headlines and heated debates in gatherings of all kinds —from economic to technological, political and even conspiratorial— it is likely that until a few days ago few Americans would have heard of the name Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of the social network . He didn’t sound like an American. And surely neither to the inhabitants of Europe, where the company has also gained notable popularity.
And it is logical. Chew may hold the reins of one of the most influential and fastest-growing social platforms, the protagonist of a meteoric rise that at least by mid-2022 allowed him to look over his shoulder at Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter, but as a manager he has chosen to a low profile.
He does not lavish himself on interviews. Not even on TikTok itself. His profile is far from the media exposure of other present or past CEOs in the sector, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey or, of course, Elon Musk, who are used to headlines. Chew’s profile is technical, more discreet. His command post is far from Silicon Valley: The Wall Street Journal places it in Singapore, his homeland, where he arrived after an intense career that had previously taken him through Goldman Sachs or DST.
If that has changed, if Chew has been forced to step forward, in the direction of the spotlight, it has been to try to win the trust of US legislators, a complicated endeavor in which TikTok is at stake, according to the data provided by the manager himself. The risk that hangs over its head is the veto in the US or being forced to sell its division in the country.
The platform has been installed for a long time in the eye of the hurricane, a controversy that comes from years ago and already led Donald Trump to threaten with his veto. The reason? The accusations of being a resource at the service of the Chinese Government, of espionage, of posing a threat to national security, invading the privacy of its users and even being harmful to the health of young people.
Against that backdrop, Chew took the podium at the US Committee on Energy and Commerce on Thursday to testify. Or rather, to scare away suspicions. His role was not easy. And the stream of questions from the congressmen, who subjected him to an inquisitive, sharp interrogation, during which they did not hesitate to interrupt the CEO to demand more specificity, did not help him in his endeavor either.
Beyond the balance of his intervention or whether or not it has served to clear the future From TikTok in the United States, the big question that the day left bogging down was: Who is Chew, the young manager whom in recent days we have seen speaking from his TikTok profile wearing a sweatshirt and replying to the suit?
Its origins are far from Washington or Beijing.
Chew was born in 1983, into a modest family in Singapore. His father worked as a builder; his mother, an accountant. His national exam scores when he was 12 ended up opening the doors to an elite secondary school: he studied at Hwa Chong and later at University College London and Harvard Business School, where in 2010 he earned an MBA and his First experience in the technology sector, with an internship at Facebook.
Over the following years, his resume continued to grow with his time at Goldman Sachs, the venture capital firm DST and Xiaomi, where he held the position of CFO with 32 years In 2021 he went on to hold a similar position at ByDance and shortly after he took over from Kevin Mayer at the helm of TikTok.
Chew, during his speech this week at the US Committee on Energy and Commerce.
His rise, facilitated by his academic curriculum, his command of Mandarin and professional experience, ended up catapulting him to the Fortune 40 list of personalities under 40 that same year. All with a discreet profile, in the background, along with his wife, a Taiwanese-American whom he met during his time at Harvard and two children who, curiously, he does not allow to use the app because, he claimed at the end of last year, they are still “too young”.
Some time ago Chew claimed that the most exhausting experience he had faced in his life was survival training that he had to do for five days in the jungles of Borneo, part of his training as a recruit for the Singapore armed forces. After Thursday’s harsh questioning and scrutiny from lawmakers, perhaps the answer will be today something different.
Cover image: World Economic Forum (Flickr)
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