When TikTok was the title sponsor last summer for Vidcon, an annual convention for the creators and brands that make up a key part of the short-form video app’s audience and business, it was Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas who got on stage for the industry keynote event.
Months later, when TikTok was grilled by Congress over privacy and security concerns, Pappas was the TikTok executive in the hot seat fielding questions.
But while Pappas has arguably been the public face of the company for much of the past few tumultuous years, she has done so while acting as TikTok’s second-in-command. The person who has actually served as the CEO of one of the most popular apps on the planet for nearly two years is a longtime tech finance executive named Shou Zi Chew, based thousands of miles away from Washington, in Singapore.
In Silicon Valley, it’s common for tech CEOs to be household names and the faces of the company’s they lead. 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 TikTok CEO in April 2021, has largely stayed out of the spotlight at a time when the app he leads can’t seem to avoid it.
After averting a threat of a ban in 2020, TikTok has increasingly found itself under scrutiny from state and federal lawmakers in the United States over concerns about its ties to China through its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, as well as over fears that it could have a harmful impact on younger users.
Some US lawmakers have once again renewed calls to ban the app outright, while the Biden administration is still said to be negotiating with TikTok over a deal to let it continue to operate in the United States. Meanwhile, officials in the European Union have also begun toughening their rhetoric toward TikTok.
That could put greater pressure on Chew. Already, he has had to respond to pointed letters from US senators, and just last week he made the rounds in Brussels to meet with EU officials. At the same time, Chew, who previously was CFO of ByteDance, is reportedly constrained in how much control he has over TikTok and how much power rests with its parent company.
In a rare interview at the New York Times DealBook summit in late November, Chew was asked whether he worked “at the behest of the folks at ByteDance and therefore at the behest of the Chinese government.” In response, he said, “I am responsible for all the strategic decisions at TikTok.”
But he added that ByteDance is “organized the way you would expect an internet company to be organized,” featuring global investors and a board of shareholder and employee representatives. “I am responsible for the decisions at TikTok,” Chew re-emphasized, “but, ultimately, I have to be responsible to the shareholders and to the board as well.”
TikTok did not make Chew available for this story or respond to requests for comment.
‘A Singaporean based in Singapore’
In interviews, Chew has described himself as a a 40-year-old father of two who likes to golf and read books on theoretical physics. But it’s his national origin that TikTok seems to like to highlight most.
In a letter to US lawmakers in June, TikTok appeared to try and distance itself from ByteDance’ reach and said it was led by “its own global CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean based in Singapore.”
It’s not the first time TikTok has played up the nationality of its CEO. In 2020, as it faced growing pressure from the Trump administration, TikTok repeatedly defended itself against critics by touting its “American CEO,” Kevin Mayer, a former executive at one of the most iconic US companies, Disney.
Mayer held the chief executive position at TikTok for just three months before stepping down. Pappas, an Australian based in Los Angeles with experience at other big 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 traditionally straddles the fence of these worlds,” said Ivan Kanapathy, a former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on the White House’s National Security Council staff and current senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “And they’re quite good at it, geopolitically.”
“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.”
From an early start at Facebook to running TikTok
After completing his mandatory military service in Singapore, Chew attended university in London before graduating with an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2010. He was exposed to Silicon Valley while at Harvard, after he interned one summer at a “startup” that “was called Facebook,” as he put it in an alumni spotlight.
He eventually went on to become the CFO of Chinese tech giant Xiaomi, which he helped take public in 2018.
In 2013, he led a group that became one of ByteDance’s earliest investors. In an interview with business magnate David Rubenstein, Chew said he stayed in contact with the ByteDance team throughout his career and they eventually reached out 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 most focused on trust building,” Chew told Rubenstein. “We are a young company and I think trust is something that we have to earn, through actions.”
Chew doesn’t tweet and has a private, but verified, Instagram account with zero posts. He has shared a handful of videos on TikTok, mostly short clips of his travels and visits to various TikTok offices. But despite running one of the most popular apps on the planet, Chew largely keeps his own life private.
In some ways, it can be a refreshing break from certain US tech executives who can’t seem to help tweeting their every thought. But it might also stem from cultural differences that come from leading a massive tech company with a Chinese parent company, according to Matthew Quint, the director of the center on global brand leadership at Columbia Business School. While Chew is not a Chinese national, Quint noted Chinese tech companies and leaders that have drawn too much attention to themselves have faced tough government crackdowns.
Even if Chew does become more of a public figure and attempt to go on a charm offensive, it may not matter much for TikTok’s future in the United States. Ultimately, Quint said, “I don’t think the CEO of TikTok has much relevance at all” for US lawmakers scrutinizing its ties to China.
“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 course of the last 18 months or so,” Quint said.