October 26, 2012 6:44 pm

Shields primed to take Tech City global

Joanna Shields Facebook Vice President©AFP

Joanna Shields is about to experience a shift in her working environment – from a global technology business with 1bn users to an arm of the government staffed by about a dozen people.

This week Facebook’s top European lieutenant was plucked to lead the Tech City Investment Organisation, the agency that promotes London’s burgeoning high-tech cluster.

After stints at Google and Bebo before joining the recently listed social networking group, Ms Shields brings strong business credentials to her new job. But the move will also place the 50-year-old American at the centre of the sometimes strained relationship between the government and the freewheeling entrepreneurs of London’s Shoreditch and Old Street.

As the chief executive of TCIO, a role she takes up in January, Ms Shields will be expected to sell the capital’s virtues as a European base for international tech companies and boost investment for the sector’s homegrown talents.

Rohan Silva, a senior policy adviser to David Cameron, told the Financial Times that Ms Shields’ “Rolodex of global contacts” stretching from Silicon Valley to the Middle East was one reason for her selection. “She has what we think we need to take London to the next level,” he says.

Throughout her career, Ms Shields has demonstrated another quality of successful entrepreneurs: good timing. As chief executive of Bebo, she built up the social networking group and led it into its $850m acquisition by AOL in 2008. Two years later, however, the business had lost ground to nimbler rivals and was sold to private equity for an undisclosed sum believed to be less than $10m.

Joanna Shields’ CV

Born in 1962 in Pennsylvania

Educated: Penn State University and an MBA from George Washington University

1984 Research analyst for Deloitte in Washington DC

1997 Chief executive of Veon, a start-up video company later sold to Philips Electronics

2000 Arrived in UK to head RealNetworks International, an audio and video streaming company

2005 Recruited to Google as a managing director

2007 Moved to Bebo, a social networking group, where she became chief executive. It was sold to AOL in 2008 for $850m.

2008 Ran product development and global operations as president of AOL’s social and communications products division

2010 Joined Facebook, serving as vice-president and managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa

October 2012 Appointed chief executive of Tech City Investment Organisation, starting in January 2013

Ms Shields followed up with her role at Facebook, where she helped it manage breakneck growth in Europe and elsewhere. But she is parting ways with a company that has seen some of the shine taken off its reputation by a botched flotation in May and a disappointing stock market performance.

“From the outside looking in her timing has always been impeccable ... She did her job exceptionally well,” Robin Klein, a partner at the venture capital firm Index Ventures.

Some entrepreneurs have been suspicious of the government’s efforts to brand the east London tech hub, seeing it as an attempt to claim political credit for a grassroots business success story. Sceptical voices were raised when the prime minister linked the Shoreditch cluster with the “incredible possibilities” of the Olympic Park, four miles to the east. More recently, TCIO’s aim of attracting more large companies and foreign investors has raised fears that its creative, agile culture would be crushed in the embrace of big business.

But Sherry Coutu, an angel investor who serves on the Tech City Advisory Board, says the cluster’s next phase of growth depended on the ability of medium-sized businesses to “scale up” – and that Ms Shields’ ability to manage that transition was a rare commodity. “She has helped big US companies go from having hundreds of employees to thousands in Europe. That’s exactly what’s needed for the top Tech City companies,” Ms Coutu says.

There is little danger she will be seen as an American parachuted into an alien British environment: she holds both US and UK citizenship, having arrived in Britain 12 years ago, and is married to Andy Stevenson, a Formula One team manager.

One of 90 applicants for the job, she already had a relationship with No 10 ahead of the recruitment process, having regularly attended Downing Street as a member of the Tech City Advisory Group. She is also a close acquaintance of Rachel Whetstone, Google’s California-based head of communications, whose husband, Steve Hilton, is a former senior policy adviser to David Cameron.

So what is the appeal of a public sector role for such a seasoned entrepreneur? The salary of £115,000, with a potential bonus of £25,000 – pin money for the titans of Silicon Valley – is unlikely to have swung the deal.

Acquaintances say she is genuinely motivated by public service, having seen the impact on the local community when her father, a metallurgist, set up a manufacturing company in Pennsylvania – a business that grew to employ 600 people.

Ministers will be hoping she can perform a similar economic service for the plethora of tech businesses aspiring to be London’s next success story.

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