There are 332 million people living in the US. And if we go by the data provided by the platform itself, which claims to have 150 million users across the country, a good part of them have a TikTok account.

Shou Zi Chew

Despite this level of penetration, its popularity, and the fact that it has grabbed headlines and heated debates in all kinds of discussions -from economic to technological, political and even conspiratorial- it is likely that until a few days ago few Americans were familiar with the name Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of the social network. It didn’t ring a bell for Americans. And certainly not to people in Europe, where the company has also gained remarkable popularity.

And it makes sense. Chew may hold the reins of one of the most influential and fastest growing social platforms, protagonist of a meteoric rise that at least in mid-2022 allowed him to look over his shoulder to Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter, but as a manager he has opted for a low profile.

He does not lavish in interviews. Not even on TikTok itself. His profile is far from the media exposure of other present or past CEOs in the sector, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey or of course Elon Musk, who are used to the headlines. Chew’s profile is technical, more discreet. His command post is far from Silicon Valley: The Wall Street Journal places him in Singapore, his homeland, where he arrived after an intense career that had previously taken him to Goldman Sachs or DST.

If that has changed, if Chew has been forced to step into the spotlight, it has been to try to win the trust of U.S. lawmakers, a complicated endeavor in which TikTok has a lot at stake, according to the information provided by the executive himself. The risk hanging over his head is a veto in the US or being forced to sell its US division.

The platform has been in the eye of the storm for some time, a controversy that has been going on for years and has already led Donald Trump to threaten to veto it. The reason? Accusations of being a resource at the service of the Chinese government, of espionage, of posing a threat to national security, invading the privacy of its users and even being harmful to the health of young people.

Against that backdrop, Chew took to the dais of the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday to testify. Or, rather, to scare away suspicions. His role was not an easy one. And the barrage of questions from the congressmen, who subjected him to an inquisitive, sharp interrogation, during which they did not hesitate to interrupt the CEO to demand more specifics, did not help him in the endeavor either.

Beyond the balance of his speech or whether or not it has served to clear the future of TikTok in the United States, the big question that the day left bouncing around is: Who is Chew, the young manager who in recent days we have seen speaking from his TikTok profile wearing a sweatshirt and replying in a suit?

His origins are far from Washington or Beijing.

Chew was born in 1983 into a modest family in Singapore. His father was a builder, his mother an accountant. His grades in the national exams when he was 12 years old eventually opened the doors to an elite secondary school: he studied at Hwa Chong and later at University College London and Harvard Business School, where in 2010 he obtained an MBA and his first experience in the technology sector, with an internship at Facebook.

Over the following years his resume continued to fatten with stints at Goldman Sachs, venture capital firm DST and Xiaomi, where he served as CFO at the age of 32. In 2021 he moved to a similar role at ByDAnce and shortly after took over from Kevin Mayer at the helm of TikTok.

His promotion, facilitated by his academic curriculum, his command of Mandarin and his professional experience, catapulted him that same year to the Fortune 40 list of personalities under 40 years of age. All with a discreet profile, in the background, with his wife, a Taiwanese-American whom he met during his time at Harvard, and two children whom he curiously does not allow to use the app because, he said at the end of last year, they are still “too young”.

Some time ago Chew claimed that the most grueling experience he had ever faced in his life was a five-day survival training in the jungles of Borneo, part of his training as a recruit for the Singapore armed forces. After Thursday’s stern questioning and scrutiny by lawmakers, perhaps the answer today will be somewhat different.

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