Who is Shou Zi Chew? Growing scrutiny of TikTok puts a new spotlight on its CEO
When TikTok was the title sponsor last summer of Vidcon, an annual convention for creators and brands that are a key part of the short-form video app’s audience and business, it was COO Vanessa Pappas who took the stage for industry keynote event.
Months later, when TikTok was grilled by Congress over privacy and security concerns, Pappas was the TikTok executive in hot-button issues.
But while Pappas was undoubtedly the public face of the company for much of the past a tumultuous few years, she did it while acting as TikTok’s second-in-command. The person who served as CEO of one of the most popular apps on the planet for nearly two years is a longtime person tech finance director named Shou Zi Chew, based thousands of miles from Washington, Singapore.
In Silicon Valley, it’s common for tech CEOs to be household names and the faces of the companies they run. Mark Zuckerberg is synonymous with Facebook and Jack Dorsey was the bearded face of Twitter, before Elon Musk acquired it. But Chew, who took over as CEO of TikTok in April 2021, had largely stayed out of the spotlight at a time when the app he runs can’t seem to avoid him.
Everything has changed in the last few weeks. Chew testified before Congress on Thursday for the first time, in a closely watched hearing about the platform’s potential national security risks and its impact on young users. Prior to his appearance, Chew went on a media tour, speaking to several US newspapers and meeting behind closed doors with members of Congress as part of a larger messaging campaign to help save the app in the United States.
After dodging a ban threat in 2020, TikTok has found itself increasingly under the scrutiny of state and federal lawmakers in the United States over concerns about its ties to China through its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. , as well as fears that it could have a detrimental impact on younger users.
Some US lawmakers have once again renewed their calls for an outright ban on the app. The Biden administration is threatening to ban the app if TikTok if its Chinese owners don’t sell their stake in the platform. And European Union officials have also begun to toughen up their rhetoric towards TikTok.
TikTok’s in-depth review can now extend to Chew. Even before his Washington debut, the CEO had to respond to pointed letters from the United States senators, and just last week he toured Brussels to meet with EU officials. At the same time, Chew, who was previously chief financial officer of ByteDance, would be limited in the control he has over TikTok and the power held by its parent company.
In a rare interview at the New York Times DealBook summit In late November, Chew was asked if he was working “at the request of the folks at ByteDance and therefore at the request of the Chinese government.” In response, he said, “I am responsible for all strategic decisions at TikTok.”
But he added that ByteDance is “organized as one would expect an internet business to be organized,” with global investors and a board of shareholders and employee representatives. “I’m accountable for decisions at TikTok,” Chew emphasized again, “but, ultimately, I also have to be accountable to shareholders and the board.”
TikTok did not make Chew available for this story or respond to requests for comment.
In interviews, Chew has described himself as a 40-year-old father of two who likes to play golf and read books on theoretical physics. But it is his national origin that TikTok seems to like to highlight the most.
In a letter to U.S. lawmakers in June, TikTok appeared to try to distance itself from ByteDance’s reach and said it was run by “its own global CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean based in Singapore.”
This is not the first time that TikTok has highlighted the nationality of its CEO. In 2020, as it faced mounting pressure from the Trump administration, TikTok repeatedly defended itself against criticism by touting its “American CEO,” Kevin Mayer, a former executive of one of the most emblematic American companies, Disney.
Mayer served as chief executive of TikTok for just three months before stepping down. Pappas, a Los Angeles-based Australian with experience on other major US tech platforms like Google’s YouTube, then served as interim global head of TikTok for less than a year.
Then Chew took over as CEO.
“I think they brought him in specifically because, frankly, he’s not a Chinese national, and Singapore has traditionally straddled the fence of those worlds,” former China director Ivan Kanapathy said. Taiwan and Mongolia on the staff of the White House National Security Council. and currently a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Think Tank. “And they’re pretty good at it, geopolitically.”
“At the end of the day, I don’t think that’s going to be enough for Washington,” Kanapathy added of Chew’s Singaporean origin, comforting lawmakers concerned about China’s reach on TikTok. “Right now, I don’t think it makes a big difference because at the end of the day, it always responds to ByteDance, and so it can’t do much.”
After completing his compulsory military service in Singapore, Chew attended university in London before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2010. He was exhibited in Silicon Valley at Harvard, after being interned a summer at a “start-up” that “was called Facebook,” as he put it in the spotlight of alumni.
He eventually became the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Xiaomi, which he helped take public in 2018.
In 2013, he led a group that became one of ByteDance’s first investors. In an interview with business tycoon David Rubenstein, Chew said he stayed in touch with the ByteDance team throughout his career and they eventually approached him to offer him the CFO position. . He took over as CEO of TikTok in April 2021, with Pappas named COO.
As CEO of TikTok, “I’m mostly focused on building trust,” Chew told Rubenstein. “We are a young company and I think trust is something we have to earn, through actions.”
Chew does not tweet and has a private but verified Instagram account with zero posts. He has shared a handful of videos on TikTok, mostly short snippets of his travels and visits to various TikTok offices. But despite running one of the most popular apps on the planet, Chew largely maintains its own privacy.
In some ways, this may be a refreshing break from some American tech executives who can’t seem to stop themselves from tweeting their every thought. But it could also stem from cultural differences related to running a massive tech company with a Chinese parent company, according to Matthew Quint, director of the Center for Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. Although Chew is not a Chinese national, Quint noted that Chinese tech companies and executives who have drawn too much attention to themselves have faced harsh government crackdowns.
Even if Chew becomes more of a public figure, that might not matter much for the future of TikTok in the United States. Ultimately, Quint said, “I don’t think the CEO of TikTok has much relevance” to US lawmakers considering his ties to China.
“We’ve seen a rotating group, many of whom are not Chinese nationals by birth, and that hasn’t influenced the pressure around TikTok from a regulatory and national security perspective for the past 18 months or so. “Quint said.
This story has been updated with additional developments.