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The breakthrough list: 17 people who had a big 2020

They cut through the noise and found themselves in the spotlight this year.

The breakthrough list: 17 people who had a big 2020

Clockwise from left: Rashad Robinson, Chamath Palihapitiya, Gwynne Shotwell, Vanessa Pappas and Brian Armstrong all found themselves in the spotlight this year.

Photo: Getty Images and Protocol

It was a big year for Big Tech, with the CEOs of Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter all appearing before Congress and billionaires like Elon Musk becoming even richer. But they're not the only people with power in the tech industry.

This year, Protocol wanted to highlight the people in tech who broke through the noise and became a name you should know. Some, like Snowflake's CEO Frank Slootman, celebrated giant business successes, while others, like TikTok's Vanessa Pappas, found themselves in a global political match over an app. Coinbase's Brian Armstrong managed to play both the hero and the villain in a year, alienating some employees with a reportedly hostile workplace while being championed by many in Silicon Valley for taking a no-politics stance during a highly political year.

These are the 17 people who found themselves in the spotlight in 2020.

Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games

For starting an app store war

Before the Big Tech CEOs testified before Congress in July's antitrust showdown, Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney talked with Protocol about what he called the "absolutely abhorrent" business practices of Apple and Google. "I think there are some bad practices that need to change and need to change quickly, and if the companies won't make changes themselves, then it's imperative that some combination of the courts and the legislative branch go about solving these problems," he said. The nod to the courts was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

In a coordinated blitz in August, Epic updated Fortnite to include a way to bypass Apple and Google's payment systems, got kicked out of the app stores and then filed lawsuits against both companies. Then, it held an event inside Fortnite complete with a parody of Apple's 1984 TV ad. Overnight, Tim Sweeney became the David against Tim Cook's Goliath — but it hasn't stopped there. Now there's a coalition of apps that are part of Sweeney's war against the App Store, and he shows no interest in backing down.

Vanessa Pappas, interim head of TikTok

For navigating app diplomacy

Famed Disney executive Kevin Mayer got the job of TikTok CEO only a few months before he quit, citing a changing political landscape as not part of the job he signed up for. That's when TikTok tapped its "secret weapon," Vanessa Pappas, to step in and navigate the app through a high-stakes political process.

The former U.S. general manager for the app had joined TikTok in 2018 after spending much of her career at YouTube, where she built its first ever audience development team before running its creator team. TikTok poached her to run TikTok in the U.S. before adding Australia and New Zealand to her purview — and then this year, the globe.

Now that TikTok's become a political pawn, Pappas has had to navigate how to keep a creator-base happy and loyal to the app even amid the uncertainty. And it seems to have worked, despite new competition from Instagram's Reels: Just think of how many of this year's trends, from whipped coffee to the Blinding Lights dance, started on TikTok.

Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom Eric Yuan had been focused for a decade on building a better video platform. Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Eric Yuan, CEO, Zoom

For powering the video world in a pandemic

No company has had a bigger year in 2020 than Zoom, a videoconferencing software that went from corporate meetings to a verb that came to define this period of the pandemic. Its understated CEO, Eric Yuan, had been focused for a decade on building a better video platform that challenged his former employer Cisco and would stand against Microsoft and Google in winning enterprise customers. But 2020 changed that, and suddenly it wasn't just Yuan who spent his days on Zoom (he famously conducted nearly all of his company's IPO roadshow over video), but everyone.

Zoom's reliability and ease of use is what made it take off, but it wasn't always smooth sailing. Yuan had to build a new security team to address privacy flaws, and the DOJ charged a former Zoom employee in China with disrupting video calls held in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But Zoom's revenue has skyrocketed 367% year-over-year, and Yuan was named Time's Businessperson of the Year for 2020. "We never thought about consumers or K-12 schools when we started planning the year 2020," he told Time. Now, everyone knows what Zoom is.

Rashad Robinson, president, Color of Change

For fighting racial injustice and holding tech companies accountable

While many companies really only started grappling with racial injustice following this summer, Rashad Robinson's Color of Change has been holding tech companies (and other giants like Pepsi and Coca-Cola) accountable for years. One of its earliest pushes was in 2014 when it helped lead a charge to get Twitter to release its diversity statistics. In 2016, Robinson sat down with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and other Color of Change team members after #AirbnbWhileBlack became a rallying cry. Airbnb ended up commissioning a civil rights audit of its platform.

But in 2020, Color of Change's power and Robinson's influence has only grown. This year, the group was part of a multiorganizational campaign for an advertiser boycott of Facebook in July, but left disappointed from a meeting with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg. Still, there were wins: Color of Change convinced Zoom to hire a chief diversity officer, and more recently, it pressured Google to stop hosting the Proud Boys' website.

"We've made ourselves unignorable," Color of Change's president, Robinson, told Protocol. "Being unignorable means they're going to have to navigate you."

Chamath Palihapitiya, investor, Social Capital

For fanning a SPAC frenzy

The theme of the financial deal industry in 2020 was the SPAC, and the face of it has been Chamath Palihapitiya. The founder of Social Capital had dealt with the implosion of his VC firm before he switched strategies and went after the SPAC deal instead, a process of taking a company public by merging it with a blank-check company. Instead of raising venture funds, Palihapitiya has repeated the SPAC process of raising money for his blank-check vehicles and then going after companies he wants. Virgin Galactic was an early success that set off this wave, but he's since repeated it with companies like real estate platform Opendoor.

And Palihapitiya isn't a quiet force while doing it. Instead, the investor is known for his brazenness and also a penchant for rants against people in his own industry. Outside of just the SPAC trend, Palihapitiya gained notoriety early in the pandemic when he railed against hedge fund managers getting a bailout: "We're talking about a hedge fund that serves a bunch of billionaire family offices. Who cares? Let them get wiped out."

Gwynne Shotwell, president, SpaceX

For the first private company to fly U.S. astronauts to space

In May, SpaceX made history when it became the first private company to send American astronauts to space. But don't give all the credit to Elon Musk. Gwynne Shotwell joined SpaceX in 2002 and is now in charge of the day-to-day operations of the $46 billion startup as its president and COO. It's been a banner year for SpaceX and Shotwell: It won new contracts with the DoD and doubled the internet speed of its Starlink satellite project. Even a rocketship explosion was seen as a milestone for the company as it works to send people to Mars. But May's Falcon 9 launch will be a defining moment in U.S. space history, and for Shotwell and SpaceX, too. "This is really just the beginning," she said at the time.

Frank Slootman, CEO, Snowflake

For a record-setting IPO

Frank Slootman's been a long-respected name in the world of enterprise CEOs, but this year's Snowflake IPO was Slootman's triple crown. After taking Data Domain and ServiceNow public, Slootman led the data warehousing company through the largest IPO ever by a software company with the $3.4 billion it raised. But the big interest in the big data company reignited the discussion around whether there's too much money left on the table. "It's just nonsense talk. A lot of the direct listing chatter, they're like, 'you left money on the table.' It's complete nonsense," Slootman told Forbes. "We could've scraped a few more bucks off the table, but if you think you could have sold this offering at $245, I mean, people are smoking something. That is just ridiculous." What's also ridiculous is Slootman's pay package as a result. He's now one of the highest paid technology execs with a reported $95 million payout every month.

Ifeoma Ozoma, Aerica Shimizu Banks, Emily Kramer and Françoise Brougher

For forcing companies to confront sexism and racism in the workplace

In June, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks publicly quit their jobs at Pinterest after coming forward with their allegations of racism and sexism at the social network. "The company was happy to have our Black faces on the work but not to pay us," Ozoma told Protocol at the time. Pinterest ended up launching an investigation into the claims and other experiences of employees, and in December, agreed to recommendations from an 18-page report on how to overhaul its culture. It's also facing a new shareholder lawsuit over the racism allegations.

But Ozoma and Banks were just the start of women holding their employer's accountable this year: In July, Emily Kramer sued her former employer, Carta, over claims of gender discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination in what remains an ongoing lawsuit. Pinterest also faced an additional lawsuit from its former COO, Françoise Brougher, who claimed that she faced gender discrimination at the company. Pinterest ultimately agreed to pay a $22.5 million settlement to Brougher, of which $2.5 million is earmarked for charity. Their experiences are a reminder that the treatment of women in the tech industry is still far from equitable, even in a post-#MeToo world.

Vijaya Gadde reportedly was early to suggest banning political ads at Twitter.Photo: Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Vijaya Gadde, head of legal, policy and trust, Twitter

For navigating Twitter through both a pandemic and an election full of disinformation

Jack Dorsey may call the final shots and be the one to respond to Congressional summons, but it's Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's head of legal, policy and trust, who's a guiding force in most of Twitter's high-stakes decisions. A near-decade veteran of the social network, Gadde reportedly was early to suggest banning political ads from the platform entirely, and has held similar levels of influence in shaping how Twitter handles everything from its election tweets to pandemic disinformation. That's not to say Twitter and Gadde always get it right. After the New York Post story on Hunter Biden, Gadde took to her own Twitter handle to explain the company would be changing its policy.

"I don't really see an easy solution for how you moderate content at scale around the world," Gadde told POLITICO. "There's going to be errors, and there's going to be corrections, and there's going to be inconsistencies." Gadde's job in 2020, a year with a double whammy of a political election and a pandemic, was to minimize the bad calls as much as possible, and she's emerged as a force inside Twitter because of it.

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, Quibi

For the quick bite of Quibi

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman had set themselves up for a breakout year in 2020 with the long-awaited launch of their "quick bite" streaming platform Quibi. The former co-founder of DreamWorks and former HP CEO were a powerhouse of experience, and investors had already bet around $1.75 billion that the duo could change the industry.

Instead, the pair were already fighting before the pandemic even threw a wrench in the year, and Quibi never recovered. The pandemic surely complicated its vision for building a streaming service that people watched during their commute and while in lines, but there were also terrible product decisions made and fighting at the top. By the time August rolled around, Whitman was already listing her Los Angeles condo on the market, and by October, Quibi announced it'd be shutting down six months after its launch. A quick bite indeed.

Tim Stokely, founder, OnlyFans

For transforming an adult content website into a media giant

Before the pandemic, OnlyFans had a sizable and growing following in the adult entertainment world as a place where creators could sell content to a dedicated fan base. But when the pandemic put people out of work and shut down the strip clubs, like everything else, the virtual equivalent exploded — and it's grown past its roots in adult entertainment into what many are calling a silent media giant. Cardi B released a behind-the-scenes "WAP" video through her OnlyFans account, and even Beyonce's name-dropped the company. Oh, and it's reportedly profitable and wants to expand next into sports and comedy content, according to The Information.

The company's bigger vision starts with founder Tim Stokely, a British serial entrepreneur who had tried other websites, from GlamWorship, which specialized in a financial domination sexual fetish, to 121with, a marketplace where specialists like plumbers could be paid for a video call to share their expertise. The ideas ended up merging into OnlyFans, which Stokely launched in 2016. The challenge for Stokely is transforming the website with such strong adult entertainment roots into more of a mainstream creator website, but with 85 million users and more than a million creators, Stokely's already created a hidden giant in the media world.

Brian Armstrong, CEO, Coinbase

For sparking a conversation on politics in the workplace

Seen as either a hero or a villain, Coinbase's Brain Armstrong emerged this year as a polarizing figure in the tech industry. In September, Armstrong published a blog post about how his company was going to be "mission-driven", which meant narrowly focusing on advancing cryptocurrency and ignoring larger political and societal discussions. Armstrong's stance was championed by several leaders in tech who felt like politics in the workplace had gone too far, and it came at a time when even giants like Google and Facebook were clamping down on internal conversations. But many others saw it as an abdication of doing the hard work of diversity and inclusion in favor of a strictly capitalist stance. At least 60 employees quit over the memo, and later The New York Times published a story featuring several former employees' allegations that Coinbase and Armstrong in particular had created a work environment that was not welcoming to all employees. It hasn't slowed Coinbase down though. In December, the company announced it had confidentially filed to go public, meaning Armstrong could be leading the first publicly-traded crypto exchange in the new year.

Trevor Milton, founder, Nikola

For over-promising and under-delivering

Hydrogen-powered truck startup Nikola was on the front wave of the SPAC takeovers when it went public in June through a reverse merger. The momentum continued when a few months later it announced a deal with GM, which would manufacture its trucks and take a stake in the company.

Then things fell apart for its founder, Trevor Milton, when a short-seller called the company an "intricate fraud" and sent shares plummeting. Since then, details have emerged about allegedly shady former business practices, and Milton was accused of sexual abuse by two women. Both the DOJ and SEC have subpoenaed company directors over the fraud allegations, garnering comparisons of Milton to Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Through it all, Milton and Nikola have denied any wrongdoing, but Milton ultimately resigned from Nikola in September.

From its peak in June, shares have fallen over 80%, and GM announced in November that it was scaling back its deal and no longer taking a stake in the company or producing its trucks. And other companies are following: In late December, a waste management company canceled its order for 2,500 trucks, sending the stock dropping again. Milton has remained mum on social media in the months since his resignation, but plans to remain the company's largest shareholder, according to Bloomberg.

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