105 - Baroness and Businesswoman

While Joanna may have held the title of “Sister” since she was initiated into Nu Gamma Chapter at Penn State, her title of “Baroness” is a newer one.

Joanna Shields upon her induction into the UK’s House of Lords, October 2014

Long before Joanna Shields was appointed to the House of Lords she was a young girl from Pennsylvania who suffered as a teen from incessant bullying. She left home at 17 for Penn State University, where she joined Nu Gamma Chapter, and, for the first time in her life, met women she could trust and count on. To this day, she credits her Chi Omega Sisters as her greatest blessing.

Joanna arrived in the United Kingdom in 1997 with her baby son, Ben, to run Veon, an interactive video technology company. Later, she held power positions at Google, Bebo, and Facebook, helping lead the UK, Middle Eastern, and European branches of these companies.

In 2012, UK Prime Minister David Cameron asked her to lead Tech City, a government initiative to spawn the growth of UK tech endeavors.

Joanna has served as the UK’s first Minister for Internet Safety and Security, Under Secretary of State, Special Advisor on the Digital Economy, and Chair & CEO of TechCityUK. 

She also founded WePROTECT.org, a multi-stakeholder global alliance working to protect children from online abuse and exploitation. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity and the Child Dignity Alliance. 

When she was inducted into the UK’s House of Lords in October 2014, she told the Wall Street Journal that she believes she may be the first American who earned the title of “Baroness” on her own without marrying in. “I used to work at Google so I’m pretty good with search,” she said with a laugh.

Joanna is currently Chief Executive Officer of BenevolentAI, world leader in the development and application of artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand the underlying causes of disease, accelerate drug discovery, and develop new and more effective medicines. 

Sitting down with the Baroness

In 2015, The Eleusis got to speak with Baroness (and Sister!) Shields about her work ethic, businesswomen she admires, and maintaining her Chi Omega friendships from across the pond.

In what ways has your sorority experience helped your career flourish?

While I have always worked exceptionally hard and taken control of my own destiny, I am a firm believer in serendipity; sometimes life presents an opportunity and everything changes as a result. Chi Omega was that kind of experience for me, not just because of the enduring friendships that still enrich my life but the Sisterhood helped me discover my talents and strengths and gave me the courage to lead.

I had a difficult time in high school and was wary of female friendships. Yet after only a few days at Chi O, I’d made my best friends for life. When I was introduced into the House of Lords, two of my Sisters and dearest friends, Andrea Bevilacqua O’Hara and Penny Cole Triplett, were by my side to share the experience with me. These two women have been with me through every major life event. I can’t imagine anything important happening without them!

Penn State and Chi Omega gave me the courage to push myself beyond my comfort zone and discover talents that I had no idea I had. I pledged as a freshman and took up the post of Recruitment Chair the following year—the ultimate challenge for a very shy and unremarkable girl from a small manufacturing town in central Pennsylvania. But I made it happen and it prepared me for the next step.

After that, I started working in the university student government and took on responsibilities for political affairs. My final year was an election year and I hosted presidential candidates for speeches on campus and dinners and had my first exposure to the political process. I even ran on the ballot as a delegate in the Pennsylvania primary to the national convention.

I went on to Washington, D.C. to study for my masters in business, but I wanted to one day return to politics. In the following years, I had a great career in the technology industry, first as a product manager at a chip and server manufacturing company in Silicon Valley, then as a vice president of a manufacturing company. Then, the Internet started and I became an entrepreneur. After building and selling three start ups, being part of four initial public offerings, and leading international operations for Google and Facebook, serendipity intervened again. I was asked by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to lead the efforts to make the UK a technology powerhouse and become his digital economy advisor. It’s been the most remarkable experience, and in 2014, I lived out my dreams of returning to political life, ironically not in the country of my birth but in my adopted country, the United Kingdom.

In September 2014, I began serving as a life peer in the House of Lords and received the title of Baroness Shields. I am settling in, looking forward to challenges, and hoping to use my experience in building technology and digital businesses to develop policies and programs that help people achieve their potential and deliver greater economic opportunities for all.

Tell us about a businesswoman you admire.

I admire my dear friend Jo Malone, who built a global empire of retail stores around the concept of making everyone feel beautiful and well taken care of. She is the most remarkable woman and a true friend. The perfect combination of tough, but gentle and exceptionally effective individual. I can always count on Jo for the perfect word of wisdom at the perfect moment.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

I would say to accept who you are, but only as a starting point. We all have great potential, but unless you challenge yourself and put yourself out there, you may never discover what you could truly become. One opportunity leads to another, and you must design your own path… Friendships help tremendously. Friends can see things in us that we can’t see in ourselves.

How is Chi Omega part of your life today?

My Sisters from Nu Gamma remain so very dear to me. Never a day goes by when I don’t hear from them on Facebook and have the opportunity to give them a quick ‘like’ or a word of encouragement or support. In our beloved poem, However Magnificent, Mary Love Collins so rightly says, “Intelligence drives the choice of the ways.” I am grateful for the foundation that Chi Omega provided me in trusting my brain and my intuition. These enduring truths still guide my life and I remain, as always, a Sister.