In 2021, three bright and driven women with ground-breaking ideas left significant – if very different – imprints on the beleaguered tech industry.
Frances Haugen, Lina Khan, and Elizabeth Holmes — a data scientist turned whistleblower, a legal scholar turned antitrust enforcer, and a former Silicon Valley high-flyer turned criminal defendant — all played significant roles in a technology world dominated by men. Consider the names Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk.
Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, made internal documents public to back up claims that the social media giant prioritized profits over user safety.
Haugen joined Facebook in order to assist it in combating misinformation and other threats to democracy. Her annoyance grew as she learned of online misinformation that incited violence and abuse — and that Facebook was failing to address effectively.
So, in the fall of 2021, Haugen, 37, went public with a trove of Facebook documents detailing how her former employer was failing to protect young users from body-image issues while also amplifying online hate and extremism. Her work also revealed the algorithms that Big Tech employs to tailor content that keeps users hooked on its services.
Facebook the company, which has since renamed itself Meta Platforms, has disputed Haugen’s claims, but has not pointed to any factual errors in her public statements. Instead, the company emphasizes the vast sums it claims to have invested in safety since 2016, as well as data demonstrating progress against hate speech, incitement to political violence, and other social ills.
Haugen was in a good position to drop her bombshell. As a graduate business student at Harvard, she assisted in the development of an online dating platform that evolved into the dating app Hinge. She worked at Google to make thousands of books available on mobile phones and to launch a fledgling social network. Over the course of 15 years, Haugen’s creative restlessness flipped her through several jobs at Google, Yelp, Pinterest, and, of course, Facebook, which hired her in 2018.
Khan, an academic outsider with big new ideas and a far-reaching agenda that ruffled institutional and business feathers, faced a similar dynamic. President Joe Biden stunned official Washington in June when he appointed Khan, an outspoken critic of Big Tech who was teaching law at the time, to head the Federal Trade Commission. This signaled the government’s tough stance toward the tech behemoths Meta, Google, Amazon, and Apple.
Khan is the FTC’s youngest chairperson in its 106-year history, and she oversees competition, consumer protection, and digital privacy. She was an unusual choice, as she had no administrative experience or knowledge of the agency other than a brief stint as a legal adviser to one of the five commissioners in 2018.
For decades, antitrust enforcement has defined anticompetitive behavior as market dominance that raises prices, a concept that does not apply to many “free” technological services. Khan, on the other hand, pushed for a broader examination of the effects of corporate concentration on industries, employees, and communities. That school of thought, dubbed “hipster antitrust” by its critics, appears to have had a significant impact on Biden.
Khan was born in London, but her family relocated to the New York City area when she was 11 years old. She worked as a policy analyst at the liberal think tank New America Foundation for three years after graduating from college before moving on to Yale.
When Holmes was 19, she dropped out of Stanford to pursue a daring, humanitarian idea and founded Theranos. With seemingly limitless networking chutzpah, Holmes promoted Theranos blood-testing technology as a breakthrough that could scan for hundreds of medical conditions with just a few drops of blood.
By 2015, 11 years after graduating from Stanford, Holmes’ company had raised hundreds of millions of dollars, bringing its market value to $9 billion. Half of that belonged to Holmes, making her the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire at the age of 30.
Some saw Holmes as the next Steve Jobs as Theranos rose to prominence. Theranos eventually raised more than $900 million in funding from investors such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Walmart’s Walton family.
The company’s fairy-tale success started to unravel in 2016, when a series of Wall Street Journal articles and a federal regulatory audit uncovered a pattern of grossly inaccurate blood results in tests run on Theranos devices.