(WSJ) As TikTok’s fate is debated at the highest levels of government in the U.S. and China and in the boardrooms of tech giants, its new head has one of the tougher jobs in American business: keeping the place running amid the geopolitical drama.
Vanessa Pappas, appointed to run TikTok last month after the unexpected exit of its recently named CEO, could emerge as one of the most influential tech executives in the world—or a footnote in a long-running saga if events turn against the company.
The 41-year-old Australian joined TikTok two years ago with a mandate to convince Americans to embrace a video-sharing app that was owned by a Chinese parent company, ByteDance Ltd., and little known in the U.S. beyond trendsetting teens. Now her job is to help TikTok survive, which she says is the mutual goal of the company’s employees.
“This shared historical moment is quite frankly going to connect all of us forever,” Ms. Pappas said in a recent interview.
As interim head of TikTok, Ms. Pappas replaced Kevin Mayer, a former Walt Disney Co. executive who joined in June as a splashy hire that appeared to signal the company’s growing ambitions. Within weeks of his joining, though, Trump administration officials increasingly began publicly discussing their national-security concerns about a Chinese-owned app maintaining data on millions of Americans.
TikTok has said Beijing has never asked for its user data, nor would the company provide it if asked. Mr. Mayer helped the company push forward plans to change its corporate structure and help it address a continuing national-security review by the U.S. Then, within a matter of days in late July and early August, Microsoft Corp. said it was in talks to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations, and President Trump issued an executive order that would ban the app in the U.S. if it doesn’t find an American buyer by mid-September.
Since then, Walmart Inc. has joined the Microsoft bid, while Oracle Corp. is leading a rival effort, with various structures in play.
Mr. Mayer resigned abruptly in late August, saying the political environment had shifted since taking the job, putting Ms. Pappas in charge of about 1,500 people in the U.S. and thousands globally.
Ms. Pappas isn’t closely involved in the high-stakes deal talks, which are taking place in lengthy teleconferences across the U.S. and Asia. Her role, rather, is to keep TikTok’s employees motivated and the app running smoothly for its more than 650 million global users, a person familiar with the matter said.
The fact that she is well-known internally is a plus, say current and former employees, some of whom had wanted to see her named CEO when Mr. Mayer was hired. Having joined during the pandemic, Mr. Mayer never worked in the company’s new 120,000-square-foot office in Culver City, Calif. Ms. Pappas, by contrast, qualifies as an old hand at TikTok, with close to two years of service under her belt and established relationships throughout the company from her time as general manager.
Less than 24 hours after Mr. Mayer’s resignation was announced, Ms. Pappas convened three Zoom calls across different time zones to speak with the company’s employees across the globe. In broadcasts from her Los Angeles-area home, she called TikTok “a global community that breaks down barriers, borders and generational divides” and encouraged employees to think of the beneficial effect they have on their users’ lives.
Ms. Pappas’s message of positivity was notable—and needed, some employees said—given the month of nonstop turmoil. ByteDance recently gave its global staff a bonus of half a month’s pay to recognize their work through the recent “macro environment,” according to people familiar with the matter.
A spokeswoman for TikTok said the company is confident it will reach a resolution that ensures the app’s longevity. “As any responsible company would do, we are simultaneously developing plans to try to ensure that our U.S. employees continue to get paid in any outcome,” she said.
Patrick Ryan, a technical manager at TikTok, says many employees fear they won’t get paid if the Trump order goes into effect, and those in the U.S. on visas sponsored by the company are worried they could be deported. Mr. Ryan filed a lawsuit against Mr. Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in late August, saying the executive order “defamed and disgraced” TikTok employees and deprived them of due process rights because it would take away their jobs without an opportunity to be heard.
Such concerns highlight the many question marks hanging over TikTok that remain outside Ms. Pappas’s control.
“Vanessa cannot reassure employees on any of the questions about pay, future employment, or work visas because the order specifically prohibits saying anything that contradicts it,” Mr. Ryan said. “It’s not because of any lack of leadership.”
Ms. Pappas’s focus on community comes from experience. During her eight years at YouTube, she “literally created the playbook for how to be successful on YouTube,” said one former colleague.
Ms. Pappas joined the Google unit as global head of audience development in 2011, when the video platform was more of a site for stunts and recycled clips. She helped turn it into a destination for influencers and other creative people, which made it a friendlier place for advertisers. She leaned heavily on data as well as hearing from creators themselves, former colleagues say.
“Vanessa understood the community aspect at YouTube better than anyone else,” said a person who worked there with Ms. Pappas and now works at a competitor. “At a time when YouTube was exploding, Vanessa helped take it to the next level.”
Ms. Pappas has done much of the same since joining TikTok two years ago. In that time the app’s user base has more than doubled—to more than 680 million users from about 270 million—and she helped create a $1 billion fund to support creators like Avani Gregg, a teen whose posts about beauty and makeup have earned her more than 26 million followers.
Ms. Pappas says she relishes the variety of creators who have built followings by posting short, quirky glimpses into their lives. “It can literally be your grandma, or the kid in the Midwest creating TikToks in their bedroom, or the moms of TikTok doing fun things with their families,” she said.
While TikTok previously removed content from gay and lesbian creators and videos that were deemed controversial in China, the company has since said that it was overly strict and is in the process of shifting its policies to be more inclusive and better reflect local markets.
Ms. Pappas says her aim is to keep TikTok an open, inclusive platform for self-expression and a place where users can find community—and viral stardom—no matter their background, age or location. “That’s certainly what motivates me, and I know that’s what motivates our team,” she said.
Source: Wall Street Journal by Georgia Wells