Elon Musk may be Time’s person of the year, but 2021 seems a bit late to take notice of the Tesla and SpaceX CEO. In the second year of Protocol’s Breakthrough List, we showcase the people in tech who broke through the noise, for better or worse. Some won acclaim by speaking out, like Frances Haugen, who ended up with her own Time cover after blowing the whistle on Facebook. Others, like the notoriously press-averse Tiger Global crew, ended up changing the industry through quiet action.
Here are 11 people who found themselves in the spotlight in 2021.
For the Facebook Papers
Before 2021, Frances Haugen had a pretty typical tech resume: She worked at Google, Yelp and Pinterest before she joined Facebook. But her 2021 was anything but typical.
In October, Haugen went on “60 Minutes” and revealed herself as a Facebook whistleblower who had leaked thousands of documents to the press. She had worked for nearly two years on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, and amassed tens of thousands of pages of documents including internal research. (Full disclosure: The author’s husband also works at Facebook on an unrelated team.)
Haugen gave many of the documents to The Wall Street Journal, which began publishing findings in September. A larger media coalition was given access to all the Facebook Papers, which included revelations on what Facebook knew about things from human trafficking to global politics to the company’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. But her work wasn’t just handing off documents to the press. Haugen captured the spotlight when she testified before Congress on Oct. 5 and also filed a whistleblower complaint with the SEC. Given her documents cracked open a world of trouble for Facebook (now Meta), it’s unlikely Haugen’s name fades away anytime soon.
FTC chair Lina Khan
For becoming Big Tech’s Public Enemy No. 1
As it turns out, leading an anti-Amazon crusade is appealing to both sides of the aisle. In June, Lina Khan was confirmed by the Senate to serve the Federal Trade Commission in a 69-28 vote. Her appointment upset Facebook and Amazon; both immediately asked if she could be recused from actions against them. Khan’s rise started in a 2017 Yale Law Journal article, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” and continued as she worked as a lawyer for the House antitrust subcommittee’s probe into Big Tech competition.
She hasn’t wasted time in her new role as FTC chair. In her first six months on the job, the agency re-filed its case against Meta and sued to block a $40 billion semiconductor merger between Arm and Nvidia.
Tiger Global’s Chase Coleman, Scott Shleifer and John Curtius
For changing the rules of tech investing once again
The Tiger Global trio of Chase Coleman, Scott Shleifer and John Curtius rewrote the rules of venture capital after their breakneck pace and hands-off approach showed a new way to win deals. And it worked tremendously in their favor: At one point, the firm was basically doing a deal a day, leaving other VCs struggling to keep up.
What makes the Tiger team different from a lot of venture capital firms is that it takes much more of a hands-off approach on investing and rarely takes board seats. At a time when venture firms are also launching their own media units, Tiger’s trio is also notoriously press-shy and rarely does interviews. Still, mention any of their names as being part of a deal and VCs and startup founders know exactly who you’re talking about.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez
For turning Miami into a tech hub and crypto haven
Silicon Valley’s favorite politician is nowhere near Silicon Valley. Instead, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has turned his city into a tech hub, drawing venture capitalists, startup founders and a whole lot of excitement over crypto. His ascent into the tech spotlight began in December 2020 when he tweeted asking how he could help move Silicon Valley to Miami. It went viral and helped kick off a movement of people and capital, not only for better weather and beaches, but also lower taxes. Suarez has fully embraced his role, going so far as to propose that a paycheck and part of his retirement contributions be paid out in bitcoin. (This was two days before incoming New York City Mayor Eric Adams also asked to be paid in BTC.) The challenge for Suarez will be making sure that Silicon Valley doesn’t supplant the folks who were already there, something that’s already caused a bit of a fight.
Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal
For taking over Twitter’s next chapter
When Jack Dorsey abruptly stepped down as Twitter CEO, he instantly catapulted a long-time engineering leader into the driver seat as the company kept careening down the social highway. Parag Agrawal had spent the last decade at Twitter, working his way up to becoming a key ally of Dorsey and the social network’s CTO. “Parag has been behind every critical decision that helped turn this company around,” Dorsey wrote, calling his trust in Agrawal “bone deep.” And Agrawal hasn’t wasted his time putting his own stamp on the company. In his first week, he reorganized the company and let go of Twitter’s head of engineering and chief design officer.
Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Herd
For being the youngest female CEO to take a company public
While the tech industry is used to seeing young founders in their 20s taking companies public and becoming millionaires or billionaires overnight, all of them have been male. Bumble’s founder Whitney Wolfe Herd made history in February for becoming the youngest female CEO to take a company public at age 31, her baby on her hip. “Honestly, it’s a little sad to me that I’m the youngest,” she told Fast Company at the time. “When you look across the landscape of men that have taken tech companies public, they do it in their twenties, and I think that’s a reflection of the funding they’re able to get and the societal acceptance of them perhaps dropping out of school or taking a non-traditional path.”
Her path was nontraditional: She worked at Tinder early on, then sued the company for sexual harassment. She settled the suit, but it didn’t knock her out of the online dating space. Bumble had a great splash in the public markets when it debuted, making her also the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, but a drop in stock recently meant she had to relinquish that title.
Robinhood co-founders Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt
For making and breaking the stock market
Robinhood has been on a rollercoaster of a year. Its usage blew up as people got invested in trading meme stocks like GameStop and AMC, but it was too much for the stock-trading app to handle. It ended up having to halt trading in some popular stocks, igniting the fury of its users and ending with Tenev called before Congress.
One (kind of) bright spot: Robinhood raised $2 billion in its own IPO in July, with both founders officially becoming billionaires. Its stock has largely declined in value (save an early August spike) and its market cap is now roughly half of what it was when it went public. Part of that is thanks to more problems at the company: In November, the company said a hacker got access to the personal data of 7 million customers, although no bank data was accessed in the breach.
Better.com CEO Vishal Garg
For being a dumb dolphin
The award for worst layoffs goes to Better.com CEO Vishal Garg, who became notorious for laying off 900 people in a Zoom call right after raising $750 million. It turned out, though, that the call was a symptom of a larger leadership problem. Vice revealed that Garg had insulted one of its top investors, calling him “sewage,” an “ingrate,” a “thug” and a “miserable miser.” Last year, Forbes had published an email Garg wrote to Better.com employees: "You are TOO DAMN SLOW. You are a bunch of DUMB DOLPHINS and…DUMB DOLPHINS get caught in nets and eaten by sharks. SO STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE EMBARRASSING ME.” Now it’s Garg who's become the embarrassment for Better.com. After the layoffs, an executive exodus and an apology, Garg is the one taking a leave of absence. That’s one way to break through, but we don’t recommend it.