How tech’s most powerful women faced down the pandemic

How tech’s most powerful women faced down the pandemic

For the 2020 incarnation of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business list, the criteria have changed somewhat. As the pandemic and the protests after George Floyd’s death have made clear, serious problems need to be addressed in society. Add in climate change and the #MeToo movement, and it was time to add a new dimension to the MPW selection process. As Fortune’s Kristen Bellstrom and Beth Kowitt, who lead the project, explain:

“Simply put, 2020 is the year when we said a final goodbye to business as usual…We wanted to understand how an executive is wielding her power. In this moment of crisis and uncertainty, is she using her influence to shape her company and the wider world for the better?”

How has that changed the list? For the most part, 2020 has shined a harsh light on the tech industry’s failings, whether in stopping the spread of toxic misinformation or promoting competition in new markets. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and Microsoft CFO Amy Hood all slipped from their 2019 rankings.

Still, Google CFO Ruth Porat, Best Buy CEO Corie Barry, AMD CEO Lisa Su, and Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s SVP of retail and people, moved up. Porat gets credit for overseeing Google’s pandemic response, including a small-business aid program. Barry managed a massive online sales boom, and while Best Buy initially furloughed half the company’s part-time and hourly workers, it paid them until federal stimulus took over and has since brought back 80{fd6aea7e6a2888742764af34ead608f2c3373b57bd8a17fe1f4135b900e329d6}. Su, whose company has rocketed ahead this year as Intel stumbled, is promoting greater diversity and representation in her sector through several initiatives. And O’Brien spearheaded Apple’s COVID response in its stores.

There are also some tech newcomers on the list, including Apple environmental boss Lisa Jackson, most recently seen up on the roof of the company’s spaceship-like headquarters, and Elon Musk’s rocket chief, Gwynne Shotwell (technically president and COO at SpaceX). Other new additions are Intel’s chief diversity and inclusion officer Barbara Whye, Netflix VP Bela Bajaria, and the heads of AT&T and Verizon’s business telecom units, Anne Chow and Tami Erwin.

I spent some time profiling another of the new tech inclusions, Amazon VP Alicia Boler Davis. After a childhood in Detroit and a long and successful career at General Motors, Boler Davis joined Amazon last year to oversee the company’s huge collection of warehouses and the multi-hundred-thousand employees who work in them. When Amazon’s early moves to safeguard its workforce from COVID were criticized, Boler Davis pivoted quickly.

“At Amazon, there’s a very high bias for action,” she told me. “Once you define a problem, you move very quickly to finding solutions and trying out different ideas. And then when you find something that works, you replicate that as quickly as possible.”

Aaron Pressman


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