Home LIFESTYLE Style News “What Have I Done”: Early Facebook Employees Regret the Monster They Created

“What Have I Done”: Early Facebook Employees Regret the Monster They Created

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The first thing you see when you drive along the Bayfront Expressway near Willow Road, in Menlo Park, is the sign. It’s wide and rectangular, painted the iconic Facebook blue, and smack in the middle, framed by a ground covering of red mulch, is the renowned Facebook thumbs-up icon. That sign, like Facebook, has become famous beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Tourists visiting San Francisco make the hour-long pilgrimage down to Hacker Way to see the sign in person. Some take selfies in front of it, others stand next to it and imitate the ascending digit. That sign is also something of a metaphor: it’s the line that separates where employees can go—inside the highly secure, Tetris-like buildings that make up Facebook’s headquarters—and the public cannot. It’s the border between Facebook’s public image and its own vision of itself.

These days, that is fraught territory. A rift is starting to develop between the people who work for Facebook, and those who simply use the platform. Countless people who live and work in Silicon Valley, and even some ex-Facebook employees, complain that Facebook employees are increasingly living in a bubble. They are sharing stories and theories that Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by sycophants and people who think just like him; that he’s unaware of the negative impact his company has had on the world and doesn’t fully appreciate the extent to which Facebook was weaponized during the election. (Zuckerberg’s countrywide itinerary, featuring folksy images of himself engaging with regular Americans, didn’t precisely dissuade people from the assumption that he isn’t getting honest feedback from deputies.)

Like many C.E.O.s, Zuckerberg does run the risk of being aloof. In particular, Zuckerberg has few friends outside of Facebook. Beyond the time he spends with his wife and young children, he does very little that doesn’t, in some way, point back to his work at the company he runs. This sort of discipline becomes problematic when you learn that some of the people who surround Zuckerberg on a daily basis—the vast majority being current Facebook employees—seem to think (like Zuckerberg) that most of the Russian involvement in the election is overblown and that the company is being used as a scapegoat for a dysfunctional country that has been polarized by the media and broken by inept politicians. They argue (sometimes publicly, but mostly privately) that a small percentage of people actually saw the ads purchased by the Russians, that the company simply can’t be held responsible for where we find ourselves today. Mark Zuckerberg tends to agree.

It’s clear that Sheryl Sandberg is trying to come up with some sort of balance between admitting the role Facebook played, and downplaying when the company realized it was at fault. “Things happened on our platform that shouldn’t have happened,” Sandberg acknowledged Thursday in an interview with Axios’s Mike Allen. Sandberg also said Facebook is not a news organization, and in an attempt to shirk the responsibility the company has to determine what is real and accurate on the social network, noted, “at our heart we’re a tech company . . . we don’t hire journalists.” But last year, Pew Research put out a report noting that 44 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook.

The public, including venture capitalists, engineers, and the C.E.O.s of other companies, even former Facebook employees, all of whom I’ve spoken with in recent weeks, see things differently. “Most of the early employees I know are totally overwhelmed by what this thing has become,” an early ex-Facebook employee told me recently, referring to the size of the social network and the gargantuan impact it now has on the way people think and communicate. “They look at the role Facebook now plays in society, and how Russia used it during the election to elect Trump, and they have this sort of ‘Oh my God, what have I done’ moment.” Other early ex-employees have privately voiced similar feelings to me, and they’ve also expressed concerns that the people who still work there get defensive when they try to bring up these concerns. “I lay awake at night thinking about all the things we built in the early days and what we could have done to avoid the product being used this way,” the early ex-employee told me.

When I speak to other people who personally know Zuckerberg and socialize with several high-level employees, they voice frustrations about the response they hear from engineers and executives at the company—at least, the response they have heard until Sandberg finally spoke up. Some internally argue there’s not much the social giant could do to stop propaganda being shared on the site (even Sandberg’s “we’re not a media company” argument is a version of this refrain); others say that the ads only affected a small number of people out of billions who use the site. “They have their head in the sand like Mark,” one person said, before noting what we all know about Russia’s influence through the site: “Of course it was impactful.” Another Valley insider who personally knows Zuckerberg noted that while Facebook has been historically successful financially, the company is fundamentally “immature” with respect to its mission and the comprehension of its impact. And then there are those who point out that while the ads may have only reached a small group of people, Trump won the electoral college by a small number of votes, too.

The criticism may not be getting through. Some worry that Zuckerberg is surrounded by sycophants, which may be why the poorly conceived publicity stunts continue. On Monday, Zuckerberg and a colleague donned Oculus headsets and met in virtual reality to discuss the new technologies the company has been working on. An animated version of Zuckerberg, looking very much like Microsoft’s famous Clippy paper clip, but with hair, waved its lanky arms as they traveled the virtual globe. The stunt was pretty uneventful until a smiling Clippy Zuckerberg was superimposed over footage of disaster zones in Puerto Rico, an experience he cheerily described as “magical” as people waded through the floodwaters behind him. Like his highly choreographed Great American Road Trip, Zuckerberg’s virtual tour suggests an executive more comfortable seeing people as abstract concepts. People who know Zuckerberg think he’s losing touch with what it’s like to suffer real loss, and that he’s on his way to becoming a modern-day Howard Hughes, insulated from the real world.

What most of those tourists who come down to Facebook to pose in front of the thumbs-up sign don’t realize is that they are actually looking at the back of another sign. On the reverse side is the logo for Sun Microsystems, the company which once occupied the campus where Facebook now resides. Sun, as you might remember, suffered colossal losses from the dot-com boom and was eventually forced to sell itself. When the social network moved into its new headquarters in 2011, Mark Zuckerberg said that the Sun sign should be flipped around, and that the back should be left as-is to remind Facebook employees what can happen to a company when they take their eye off the ball.

There are, of course, plenty of people who are willing to come to Zuckerberg’s defense, including some former employees, and—wouldn’t you know—many current ones. One person told me that Zuckerberg was really shaken by what took place during the election, and legitimately wants to avoid it from happening again. But, at the same time, his ambitions (yes, he’s nowhere near happy with just a quarter of the planet on Facebook) stand in the way of how much he will actually do to affect change. There’s also the reality that at the end of the day, as with all things, it comes down to money. Politics is a big cash cow for Facebook’s revenue. On 60 Minutes this week, Brad Parscale, the political media strategist who directed Donald Trump’s digital campaign, bragged that there were Facebook employees who were at Trump campaign offices several days a week, teaching Parscale and others how to most effectively use the Facebook platform.

Ironically, it was Parscale who seemed to offer the most honest assessment of Facebook’s role in the election (excluding what and when the company knew about Russia). When he explained to Lesley Stahl, the interviewer on 60 Minutes, that Trump’s campaign had worked with Facebook employees to optimize its ads, Stahl’s mouth made the same gobsmacked look often seen in Disney cartoons. It was the perfect analogous moment for the way many people probably feel about Facebook these days. The half-trillion dollar public company, after all, is first and foremost a machine that turns users into revenue. While Zuckerberg’s personal mission may be to connect the world in a utopian virtual community, Facebook’s prime directive is to maximize the number of people—Republican or Democrat, Russian or American—advertising on its platform. If that goal has been complicated in recent months by the Chekhovian melodrama surrounding the Russia investigation, it only underscores the extent to which Zuckerberg’s reach may have exceeded his grasp.

Jeff Bezos

JEFF BEZOS

Amazon, 53

Photo: BY DREW ANGERER/Getty Images.

Mark Zuckerberg

MARK ZUCKERBERG

Facebook, 33

Photo: By David Paul Morris/BLOOMBERG/Getty Images.

Tim Cook

TIM COOK

Apple, 56

Photo: BY NOAM GALAI/WIREIMAGE.

Larry Page

LARRY PAGE

Alphabet, 44

Photo: BY JEFF CHIU/A.P. IMAGES.

Megan Quinn

MEGAN QUINN

Spark Capital, 35

Photo: By Noam Galai/Getty Images.

Katrina Lake

KATRINA LAKE

Stitch Fix, 34

Photo: By David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Julie Wainwright

JULIE WAINWRIGHT

The RealReal, 60

Photo: By Michael Kovac/Getty Images.

JEFF <strong>BEZOS</strong>

JEFF BEZOS

Amazon, 53

BY DREW ANGERER/Getty Images.

MARK <strong>ZUCKERBERG</strong>

MARK ZUCKERBERG

Facebook, 33

By David Paul Morris/BLOOMBERG/Getty Images.

TIM <strong>COOK</strong>

TIM COOK

Apple, 56

BY NOAM GALAI/WIREIMAGE.

LARRY <strong>PAGE</strong>

LARRY PAGE

Alphabet, 44

BY JEFF CHIU/A.P. IMAGES.

ELON <strong>MUSK</strong>

ELON MUSK

Tesla, SpaceX; 46

BY MIKE WINDLE/Getty Images.

ROBERT <strong>MUELLER</strong>

ROBERT MUELLER

D.O.J. special counsel, 73

By ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES.

BOB <strong>IGER</strong>

BOB IGER

Disney, 66

By TASIA WELLS/Filmmagic.

RANDALL <strong>STEPHENSON</strong>

RANDALL STEPHENSON

AT&T, 57

FROM REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

REED <strong>HASTINGS</strong>

REED HASTINGS

Netflix, 56

FROM A.P. IMAGES/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK.

MARTY <strong>BARON,</strong> DEAN <strong>BAQUET</strong>

MARTY BARON, DEAN BAQUET

The Washington Post, The New York Times; 62, 61

Left, by STEPHEN VOSS/Redux; Right, BY TODD HEISLER/THE NEW YORK TIMES/Redux.

JEAN <strong>LIU</strong> &amp; CHENG <strong>WEI</strong>

JEAN LIU & CHENG WEI

Didi Chuxing; 39, 35

Left, FROM VCG; right, FROM IMAGINE CHINA/NEWSCOM.

SHERYL <strong>SANDBERG</strong>

SHERYL SANDBERG

Facebook, 48

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LES <strong>MOONVES</strong>

LES MOONVES

CBS, 68

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JEFF <strong>ZUCKER</strong>

JEFF ZUCKER

CNN, 52

FROM THE ASAHI SHIMBUN.

JACK <strong>MA</strong>

JACK MA

Alibaba, 53

© JUNGE/NTB SCANPIX/ZUMA PRESS

RUPERT <strong>MURDOCH</strong>

RUPERT MURDOCH

News Corp., 21st Century Fox; 86

FROM REX FEATURES.

PETER <strong>THIEL</strong>

PETER THIEL

Founders Fund, Trump supporter; 49

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LORNE <strong>MICHAELS</strong>

LORNE MICHAELS

Saturday Night Live, 72

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ALEC <strong>BALDWIN</strong> &amp; KATE <strong>McKINNON</strong>

ALEC BALDWIN & KATE McKINNON

Actors; 59, 33

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SUNDAR <strong>PICHAI</strong>

SUNDAR PICHAI

Google, 45

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KEVIN <strong>FEIGE</strong>

KEVIN FEIGE

Marvel Studios, 44

FROM VISTAPRESS/CAMERA PRESS/REDUX.

STEVE <strong>BURKE</strong>, BRIAN <strong>ROBERTS</strong>

STEVE BURKE, BRIAN ROBERTS

NBCUniversal, Comcast; 59, 58

Left, by CHARLES SYKES/INVISION/AP IMages; right, BY MARK LENNIHAN/A.P. IMAGES/Rex/Shutterstock.

TRAVIS <strong>KALANICK</strong>

TRAVIS KALANICK

Uber, 41

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MASAYOSHI <strong>SON</strong>

MASAYOSHI SON

SoftBank, 60

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BRIAN <strong>CHESKY</strong>

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Airbnb, 36

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RICHARD <strong>PLEPLER</strong>

RICHARD PLEPLER

HBO, 58

BY JASON LaVERIS/FILMMAGIC

TED <strong>SARANDOS</strong>

TED SARANDOS

Netflix, 53

BY JASON LaVERIS/FILMMAGIC

EVAN <strong>SPIEGEL</strong>

EVAN SPIEGEL

Snap, 27

BY MICHAEL NAGLE/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

MARC <strong>ANDREESSEN</strong>

MARC ANDREESSEN

Andreessen Horowitz, 46

By MICHAEL KOVAC/Getty Images.

DANIEL <strong>EK</strong>

DANIEL EK

Spotify, 34

By JOHAN JEPPSSON/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

BILL <strong>GURLEY</strong>

BILL GURLEY

Benchmark, 51

By PETER EARL MCCOLLOUGH/THE NEW YORK TIMES/Redux.

MAGGIE <strong>HABERMAN</strong> &amp; GLENN <strong>THRUSH</strong>

MAGGIE HABERMAN & GLENN THRUSH

The New York Times; 43, 50

Left, BY ROGER KISBY/The New York Times/Redux; right, BY EARL WILSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES.

DAVID <strong>BENIOFF</strong> &amp; D. B. <strong>WEISS</strong>

DAVID BENIOFF & D. B. WEISS

Game of Thrones; 47, 46

Left, BY JASON LAVERIS/FILMMAGIC; right, BY MICHAEL BUCKNER/VARIETY/Rex/Shutterstock.

MARC <strong>LORE</strong>

MARC LORE

Walmart, 45

By SETH WENIG/A.P. IMAGES/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK.

LOGAN <strong>GREEN</strong>

LOGAN GREEN

Lyft, 33

By Richard Drew/A.P. Images.

STEPHEN <strong>SCHWARZMAN</strong>

STEPHEN SCHWARZMAN

Blackstone, 70

By Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

DWAYNE <strong>JOHNSON</strong>

DWAYNE JOHNSON

Actor, 45

By Dave Starbuck/Future-Image/Zuma Press.

MA <strong>HUATENG</strong>

MA HUATENG

Tencent, 45

By Paul Yeung/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

JAMIE <strong>DIMON</strong>

JAMIE DIMON

JPMorgan Chase, 61

By Pascal Sittler/Rea/Redux.

LATE-NIGHT ANTAGONISTS

LATE-NIGHT ANTAGONISTS

Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, Seth
Meyers, and John Oliver; 40–53

From left, by Brian Bedder, by Kathryn Page, from Getty Images; by Amanda Edwards/WireImage, by Marion Curtis/Starpix, by Walter Mcbride/WireImage.

DAVID <strong>ZASLAV</strong>

DAVID ZASLAV

Discovery Communications, 57

By David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

DARA <strong>KHOSROWSHAHI</strong>

DARA KHOSROWSHAHI

Uber, 48

By David Ryder/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

LLOYD <strong>BLANKFEIN</strong>

LLOYD BLANKFEIN

Goldman Sachs, 63

By Lorenzo Ciniglio/Polaris.

LAURENE <strong>POWELL JOBS</strong>

LAURENE POWELL JOBS

Emerson Collective, 53

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MARC <strong>BENIOFF</strong>

MARC BENIOFF

Salesforce, 52

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J. J. <strong>ABRAMS</strong>

J. J. ABRAMS

Director, 51

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KATHLEEN <strong>KENNEDY</strong>

KATHLEEN KENNEDY

Lucasfilm, 64

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LOWELL <strong>McADAM</strong>

LOWELL McADAM

Verizon, 63

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RYAN <strong>MURPHY</strong>

RYAN MURPHY

Writer, producer, director; 51

By Chris Pizzello/Invision/A.P. Images.

JACK <strong>DORSEY</strong>

JACK DORSEY

Twitter, Square; 40

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JEFFREY <strong>GUNDLACH</strong>

JEFFREY GUNDLACH

DoubleLine Capital, 57

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NOAH <strong>HAWLEY</strong>

NOAH HAWLEY

Writer and producer, 50

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SHANE <strong>SMITH</strong>

SHANE SMITH

Vice, 48

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SATYA <strong>NADELLA</strong>

SATYA NADELLA

Microsoft, 50

By Ian C. Bates/The New York Times/Redux.

JASON <strong>BLUM</strong>

JASON BLUM

Blumhouse Productions, 48

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LACHLAN &amp; JAMES <strong>MURDOCH</strong>

LACHLAN & JAMES MURDOCH

21st Century Fox, News Corp.; 46, 44

Left, by Rob Latour/Rex/Shutterstock; Right, by Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

BOBBY <strong>KOTICK</strong>

BOBBY KOTICK

Activision Blizzard, 54

© Javier Rojas/Prensa Internacional/Zuma Wire.

ROY <strong>PRICE</strong>

ROY PRICE

Amazon Studios, 50

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JORDAN <strong>PEELE</strong>

JORDAN PEELE

Comedian, director; 38

By Jason Laveris/FilmMagic.

KEVIN <strong>SYSTROM</strong>

KEVIN SYSTROM

Instagram, 33

By Matt Edge/The New York Times/Redux.

DAVID <strong>NEVINS</strong>

DAVID NEVINS

Showtime Networks, 51

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FRANÇOIS-HENRI <strong>PINAULT</strong>

FRANÇOIS-HENRI PINAULT

Kering, 55

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MICHAEL <strong>RAPINO</strong>

MICHAEL RAPINO

Live Nation, 52

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JAMES <strong>SIMONS</strong>

JAMES SIMONS

Renaissance Technologies, 79

By Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux.

BONNIE <strong>HAMMER</strong>

BONNIE HAMMER

NBCUniversal, 67

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BILL <strong>McGLASHAN</strong>

BILL McGLASHAN

TPG Growth, 53

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DONNA <strong>LANGLEY</strong>

DONNA LANGLEY

Universal Pictures, 49

From Buckner/Variety/Rex/Shutterstock.

CHRIS <strong>MELEDANDRI</strong>

CHRIS MELEDANDRI

Illumination Entertainment, 58

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EGON <strong>DURBAN</strong>

EGON DURBAN

Silverlake, 44

From Fortune Brainstorm Tech.

MEGAN <strong>ELLISON</strong>

MEGAN ELLISON

Annapurna Pictures, 31

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MARY <strong>BARRA</strong>

MARY BARRA

General Motors, 55

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STEVEN <strong>COHEN</strong>

STEVEN COHEN

Point72, 61

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EDDY <strong>CUE</strong>

EDDY CUE

Apple, 52

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PATTY <strong>JENKINS</strong>

PATTY JENKINS

Director, 46

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PRISCILLA <strong>CHAN</strong>

PRISCILLA CHAN

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, 32

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LeBRON <strong>JAMES</strong>

LeBRON JAMES

Cleveland Cavaliers, 32

From AP Images.

BEYONCÉ <strong>KNOWLES</strong>

BEYONCÉ KNOWLES

Musician, 36

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YASIR <strong>AL RUMAYYAN</strong>

YASIR AL RUMAYYAN

Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, 47

By Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency.

SUSAN <strong>FOWLER</strong>

SUSAN FOWLER

Uber whistle-blower, 26

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REESE <strong>WITHERSPOON</strong>

REESE WITHERSPOON

Actress and producer, 41

By Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic.

SUSAN <strong>WOJCICKI</strong>

SUSAN WOJCICKI

YouTube, 49

By Mateusz Wlodarczyk/Nurphoto/SIPA/Newscom.

SHARI <strong>REDSTONE</strong>

SHARI REDSTONE

National Amusements, 63

By Robin Platzer/Twin Images.

SHONDA <strong>RHIMES</strong>

SHONDA RHIMES

Shondaland, 47

By Tony Lowe/Globe Photos/Zuma Wire.

PATRICK &amp; JOHN <strong>COLLISON</strong>

PATRICK & JOHN COLLISON

Stripe; 29, 27

Left, by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images; Right, by Akio Kon/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

BRYCE <strong>HARPER</strong>

BRYCE HARPER

Washington Nationals, 24

By Rich Schultz/Getty Images.

ROBERT F. <strong>SMITH</strong>

ROBERT F. SMITH

Vista Equity Partners, 54

By Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

CHANCE THE RAPPER

CHANCE THE RAPPER

Musician, 24

By Kathy Hutchins/Hutchins Photo.

NANCY <strong>DUBUC</strong>

NANCY DUBUC

A&E Networks, 48

By Charles Sykes/Invision/AP Images.

STEWART <strong>BUTTERFIELD</strong>

STEWART BUTTERFIELD

Slack, 44

By Cindy Ord/Getty Images.

REID <strong>HOFFMAN</strong>

REID HOFFMAN

Greylock Partners, LinkedIn; 50

By Kimberly White/Getty Images.

KIRSTEN <strong>GREEN</strong>

KIRSTEN GREEN

Forerunner Ventures, 45

By Andrew Toth/Getty Images.

JILL <strong>SOLOWAY</strong>

JILL SOLOWAY

Transparent, I Love Dick; 52

By Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic.

CASEY <strong>WASSERMAN</strong>

CASEY WASSERMAN

Wasserman Media Group, 43

By Jerritt Clark/Getty Images.

J. D. <strong>VANCE</strong>

J. D. VANCE

Author and venture capitalist; 33

By Naomi Mccolloch.

MIKE <strong>ALLEN</strong> &amp; JIM <strong>VANDEHEI</strong>

MIKE ALLEN & JIM VANDEHEI

Axios Media; 53, 46

By T. J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times/Redux.

ANNE <strong>WOJCICKI</strong>

ANNE WOJCICKI

23andMe; 44

By Presley Ann Slack/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images.

KENYA <strong>BARRIS</strong>

KENYA BARRIS

Black-ish, 43

By Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP Images.

MEGAN <strong>QUINN</strong>

MEGAN QUINN

Spark Capital, 35

By Noam Galai/Getty Images.

KATRINA <strong>LAKE</strong>

KATRINA LAKE

Stitch Fix, 34

By David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

JULIE <strong>WAINWRIGHT</strong>

JULIE WAINWRIGHT

The RealReal, 60

By Michael Kovac/Getty Images.

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