TikTok, the popular short video app, has come under intense scrutiny in recent years over concerns about its ties to China and its impact on younger users.
As the public face of the company, Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas has answered questions from Congress and represented the company at industry events. But Shou Zi Chew, who will be his CEO of TikTok from April 2021, is making strategic decisions that have kept the app alive amid these challenges.
Chew, a seasoned leader in Internet finance, was formerly the CFO of ByteDance, the Chinese parent firm of TikTok. He has mostly avoided the spotlight while leading the app through a labyrinth of political and legal difficulties from his base in Singapore, hundreds of miles away from Washington.
In Silicon Valley, tech CEOs are often household names and the public face of the companies they run. But Chu takes a different approach, focusing on making the strategic decisions necessary to keep TikTok running, while also addressing concerns about privacy and security practices.
Despite the pressure on the app, Chu insists he is responsible for all strategic decisions on TikTok. We also acknowledge that we must be held accountable.
Chew’s position as CEO of TikTok has been demanding, but he has excelled at it, making difficult choices to maintain the app’s functionality while navigating a difficult and constantly shifting regulatory environment. Chew’s leadership and decision-making will be essential to the success of the app as TikTok continues to come under scrutiny and pressure from politicians.
Chew Faces Scrutiny
Chew has largely stayed out of the spotlight as the app faces mounting scrutiny from lawmakers over concerns about its ties to China and the potential harm it could cause to younger users. Despite being the CEO of one of the most popular apps on the planet, Chew has not become a household name in the way that many Silicon Valley CEOs have.
Chew, a longtime tech finance executive based in Singapore, took over as CEO of TikTok in April 2021. He has been described as a 40-year-old father of two who enjoys golfing and reading books on theoretical physics. Despite his low profile, Chew has had to respond to pointed letters from US senators and make the rounds in Brussels to meet with EU officials.
TikTok has played up the nationality of its CEO, highlighting that Chew is a Singaporean based in Singapore. In 2020, as it faced growing pressure from the Trump administration, TikTok defended itself against critics by touting its “American CEO,” Kevin Mayer, a former executive at Disney. However, Mayer held the position for just three months before stepping down.
Some analysts suggest that TikTok brought Chew in specifically because he is not a Chinese national, and Singapore is known for straddling the fence of different worlds geopolitically.
However, Chew still answers to ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, and ultimately, his nationality may not be enough to appease lawmakers concerned about China’s influence over the app.
While Chew has emphasized that he is responsible for all the strategic decisions at TikTok, he acknowledges that he must also be responsible to the shareholders and board of ByteDance. As TikTok continues to face increased scrutiny and pressure from lawmakers, Chew’s leadership will undoubtedly be put to the test.
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Playing Up Singaporean Nationality
In interviews, Chew has described himself as a 40-year-old father of two who enjoys golf and reading books on theoretical physics. However, it is his Singaporean nationality that TikTok seems to be highlighting most.
TikTok has previously played up the nationality of its CEOs as a way to distance itself from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, which has faced increased scrutiny and pressure from the US government. In 2020, as TikTok faced growing pressure from the Trump administration, the company repeatedly touted its “American CEO,” Kevin Mayer, a former executive at Disney.
Mayer held the position for just three months before stepping down, and his successor, Vanessa Pappas, was an Australian based in Los Angeles. Chew, a Singaporean based in Singapore, took over as CEO in April 2021.
Some experts speculate that Chew’s appointment was specifically because of his nationality and Singapore’s reputation as a country that straddles the fence of the US and China’s worlds. However, others argue that Chew’s nationality is unlikely to sway US lawmakers who are concerned about TikTok’s ties to China.
Chew’s career path has taken him from Singapore to London, where he attended university, to Harvard Business School, where he earned his MBA in 2010. While at Harvard, he interned at a startup that “was called Facebook.”
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Leading the Way
He later became the CFO of Chinese tech giant Xiaomi and helped take the company public in 2018. In 2013, he led a group that became one of ByteDance’s earliest investors.
As CEO of TikTok, Chew has stated that he is most focused on building trust. In an interview with David Rubenstein, he said, “We are a young company and I think trust is something that we have to earn, through actions.” Chew largely keeps his own life private and does not tweet, although he has shared a handful of videos on TikTok.
According to Matthew Quint, the director of the center on global brand leadership at Columbia Business School, Chew’s low profile may stem from cultural differences that come from leading a massive tech company with a Chinese parent company.
However, even if Chew were to become more of a public figure, it may not matter much for TikTok’s future in the United States. Quint noted that the CEO of TikTok has not swayed the pressure around the company from a regulatory, national security perspective over the last 18 months.