Scientist, executive, acrobat: 3 women make their mark on tech
Three bright and motivated women with groundbreaking ideas have made a significant, albeit very different, mark on the struggling tech industry in 2021.
Frances Haugen, Lina Khan, and Elizabeth Holmes – data scientist turned whistleblower, lawyer turned antitrust authority, and former Silicon Valley thief turned criminal accused – have all played important roles in a tech world where men have long dominated the spotlight. Think of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk.
Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, has released internal documents to support accusations that the social media giant has shifted profits to the detriment of user safety. At 32, Khan is the youngest person to lead the Federal Trade Commission, an agency now poised to aggressively enforce antitrust law against the tech industry.
Holmes, who was once worth $ 4.5 billion on paper, is now awaiting a jury verdict on fraud charges she misled investors and patients about the accuracy of blood test technology developed in its startup Theranos. Her story has become a moral tale of Silicon Valley – a founder who flew too high, too fast – despite male tech executives being accused of similar or worse actions without facing charges. .
Haugen joined Facebook out of a desire to help it fight disinformation and other threats to democracy. But her frustration increased when she learned of the misinformation online that fueled violence and abuse – and that Facebook was not addressing effectively.
So, in the fall of 2021, Haugen, 37, released a trove of Facebook documents that listed how her former employer was failing to protect young users from body image issues and was amplifying hatred and extremism online. His work also laid bare the algorithms Big Tech uses to personalize content that will keep users hooked on its services.
“Frances Haugen has transformed the conversation about technology reform,” Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who has become one of its main detractors, wrote to Time magazine.
The Facebook company, which has since rebranded itself as Meta Platforms, has disputed Haugen’s claims, although it did not point out any factual errors in its public statements. Rather, the company focuses on the massive sums it says it has invested in security since 2016 and on data showing the progress it has made against hate speech, incitement to political violence and ‘other social ills.
Haugen was in a good position to set off his bomb. As a graduate business student at Harvard, she helped create an online dating platform that eventually evolved into the Hinge dating app. At Google, she helped make thousands of books accessible on mobile phones and created a nascent social network. Haugen’s creative hustle and bustle got her to multiple jobs in 15 years at Google, Yelp and Pinterest and of course Facebook, which hired her in 2018.
Haugen’s revelations have spurred global lawmakers seeking to tame Big Tech, although there has been little concrete action in the United States, Facebook has rushed to change the subject by rolling out its new company name. and by highlighting its commitment to develop an immersive technological platform known as “metavers”. . “
Haugen moved this year to Puerto Rico, where she says she can enjoy an anonymity she would never have in northern California. “I don’t like to be the center of attention,” she told a full house at a conference in Europe in November.
A similar dynamic prevailed for Khan, an outside scholar with big new ideas and a sweeping program that ruffled the pens of institutions and business alike. President Joe Biden stunned Washington in June when he installed Khan, a forceful Big Tech critic then a law educator, as head of the Federal Trade Commission. This signaled a strong government stance towards the giants Meta, Google, Amazon and Apple.
Khan is the youngest chairman in the 106-year history of the FTC, which monitors competition, consumer protection and digital privacy. She was an unorthodox choice, with no administrative experience or knowledge of the agency other than a brief stint in 2018 as legal counsel to one of the five commissioners.
But she brought an intellectual weight that packed a political punch. Khan rocked the antitrust world in 2017 with her academic work as a Yale law student, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” which helped shape a new way of approaching antitrust law.
For decades, antitrust work has defined anti-competitive action as market dominance that drives up prices, a concept that does not apply to many “free” technology services. Khan instead pushed to examine the broader effects of corporate concentration on industries, employees and communities. This school of thought – dubbed “hipster antitrust” by critics – appears to have had a significant influence on Biden.
Khan was born in London; her family moved to the New York area when she was 11. After graduating from college, she spent three years as a political analyst at liberal-leaning think tank New America Foundation before moving to Yale.
Under Khan’s six-month tenure, the FTC stepped up its antitrust attack on Facebook in federal court and conducted a competition investigation against Amazon. The agency went on to block the $ 40 billion purchase by graphics chip maker Nvidia of chip designer Arm, saying a combined company could stifle the growth of new technology.
In Khan’s aggressive investigation and enforcement agenda, key priorities include racial bias in algorithms and abuse of market power by dominant tech companies. Internally, some employees resented administrative changes that expanded Khan’s authority over policy making, and a Republican commissioner assaulted Khan in public.
“She turned things upside down,” said Robin Gaster, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who focuses on economics, politics and technology. “It’s going to be a field test of whether an aggressive FTC can broaden the envelope for antitrust enforcement.”
The United States Chamber of Commerce, the main business lobby, has publicly threatened to fight in court, claiming that Khan and the FTC are waging war on American business.
Holmes founded Theranos at the age of 19, abandoning Stanford to pursue a bold and humanitarian idea. Possessing seemingly limitless networking ease, Holmes pitched Theranos blood testing technology as a breakthrough that could search for hundreds of medical conditions using just a few drops of blood.
By 2015, 11 years after leaving Stanford, Holmes had raised hundreds of millions of dollars for his business, bringing its market value to $ 9 billion. Half of that went to Holmes, earning her the nickname of the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at age 30.
Barely three years later, however, Theranos collapsed in a scandal. After a three-and-a-half-month federal trial, a jury is now weighing the criminal fraud and conspiracy charges against Holmes for allegedly fooling investors and patients into covering up the fact that blood testing technology was prone to savage mistakes. If convicted, Holmes, now 37, faces up to 20 years in prison.
When he was young, Holmes was a competitive prodigy who openly aspired to make his fortune. She began studying Mandarin Chinese with a tutor around the age of 9 and headed for summer language courses at Stanford after her sophomore year in high school.
During her sophomore year at university, she put the rest of her tuition on the line and gave up to run her business.
As Theranos ascended, some viewed Holmes as the next Steve Jobs. Theranos ultimately raised over $ 900 million from investors, including media baron Rupert Murdoch and the Walton family of Walmart.
The company’s fairytale success began to crumble in 2016, when a series of Wall Street Journal articles and a federal regulatory audit discovered a grossly inaccurate pattern of blood results in tests performed on Theranos devices.
The Holmes lawsuit has exposed in painful detail the “pretend until you do” culture of Silicon Valley. Tech entrepreneurs often make too many promises and exaggerate, so prosecutors faced the challenge of proving Holmes’ boosterism crossed the line into fraud.
Follow Marcy Gordon on https://twitter.com/mgordonap