Katie Stanton: Twitter’s ambassador

October 10, 2013, 12:09 PM UTC

In 2010, two weeks after Katie Jacobs Stanton joined Hillary Clinton’s innovation team at the U.S. State Department, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti. Stanton at the time knew little about diplomacy or D.C. protocol, but the Yahoo (YHOO) and Google (GOOG) veteran understood the value of moving quickly and connecting people digitally. She suggested working with Mobile Accord, a startup she’d heard about, to create a donation platform for Haiti victims. A White House official who felt there was no precedent for the idea dismissed it, she recalls. Then-Secretary Clinton gave the program her blessing anyway. The platform, which enabled people to give $10 to the American Red Cross simply by texting “HAITI” to a mobile short code, eventually raised more than $40 million.

Stanton’s stint at the State Department lasted just eight months, but her D.C. experiences are vital to her current role as vice president of international market development at Twitter. It’s a big job: As the social media juggernaut prepares to go public, potential investors are looking for signs of growth, and markets outside the U.S., which already represent 70% of the company’s user base, will be key.

To win global customers, especially in emerging markets where the masses don’t own smartphones and computers, Stanton must help find ways to deploy Twitter creatively and simply — as she did with the Haiti donation platform. And though she isn’t charged with managing Twitter’s relationships with foreign governments, she needs the diplomatic skills she honed in Washington to navigate the cultural and political issues that come with marketing a platform for open communication. Twitter’s mission is “to reach every person on the planet, defend users’ free speech, and allow unfiltered information from some of the world’s most distressed places,” says Ali Rowghani, the company’s chief operating officer. “Katie is an amazing embodiment of the company’s values.”

Stanton, 43, joined Twitter in August 2010, back when the service had 48.5 million monthly active users (compared with 218 million today) and no international strategy. She launched her operation from Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters — logging countless air miles to open 14 global offices ahead of the sales teams — and has monitored the way people use Twitter to communicate, organize demonstrations, and call for help when traditional channels break down. Earlier this year she asked Rowghani and CEO Dick Costolo to move her to a locale befitting her job title. They happily obliged.

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We’ve already had an international incident,” Stanton proclaims cheerfully on the day she and her family — husband Patrick, 13-year-old Ellie, and 11-year-old twins Caleigh and Declan — are moving into a four-bedroom flat in Paris, where Stanton is now based. Ellie accidentally locked herself in the bathroom, and it took 30 minutes to jimmy the lock and get her out.

Stanton lands in France at a sensitive time. The French government, which outlaws anti-Semitic messages and denials of the Holocaust, recently pressured Twitter, after months of resistance, to turn over information that could help identify users. Indeed, as Twitter expands globally, it frequently finds itself at the center of the debate over free speech and privacy in social media. Costolo has said Twitter will abide by the laws of the countries in which it operates, but the company is also an outspoken critic of censorship.

For Stanton, this means making constant judgment calls about whom to partner with. During the recent terrorist siege in Kenya, she and her team worked with relief organizations and the police to make sure their Twitter accounts were verified as authentic. In Australia, where people were using Twitter to propagate hate speech before the company officially entered the market, Stanton pushed for a team to develop a system to enable users to report abusive tweets. To get Germans on Twitter — many are culturally averse to self-expression — Stanton persuaded media outlets and politicians to tweet, but failed to recruit one prime prospect: Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Stanton’s purview includes countries outside North America except Japan and Korea — big Twitter markets — and China; the Chinese government prohibits Twitter from operating there.)

Stanton has wanted to go global ever since she was a kid in Peekskill, N.Y. Failing to get into Brown, she went to Rhodes College in Memphis, and spent semesters abroad in Paris and Jerusalem. After college (and backpacking across Europe and Asia), she taught English in Japan, worked for a nonprofit in Kenya, got a master’s in international affairs at Columbia University, and tried investment banking at J.P. Morgan Chase, which she says she loathed.

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She found her calling at Yahoo, helping to launch Yahoo Finance in 18 countries. When her twins were born in 2002, Stanton quit; when she was ready to return to work a year later, she decamped to Google, where she worked for Marissa Mayer. Stanton spent six years in product management and business development, moving her family to Bangalore for four months when the company piloted building a new product, Google Finance, from a locale far from headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. A year ago Mayer tried to woo her to help with Yahoo’s turnaround. Stanton won’t discuss that but says, “There’s so much more I want to do at Twitter.”

Stanton’s Twitter profile (her handle is @katies) reflects her sense of humor and her priorities — in less than 140 characters, of course. “Twitter Globetrotter. Mom of 3. Macaron Connoisseur. Europe.” With 69,741 followers, she doesn’t have quite the social stature of Facebook’s (FB) Sheryl Sandberg (101,390 followers) or Mayer (431,572). But she is a role model for restless execs who want to learn constantly. “I have three career rules,” Stanton says as we chat on her Paris patio, the Eiffel Tower looming over us. “Work with smart people so you learn from each other. Work at a company that makes a product you can’t live without. Work at a place that makes you proud of what you do.”

An unspoken Stanton career rule: Seamlessly blend work and play. Earlier this year the Stantons vacationed in Cuba (obtaining visas that permit Americans to spend money there). While Patrick and the kids hit the beach, Katie spoke with Cuban activists about how they use social media, laying the groundwork for whenever Twitter enters Cuba. “What do they say?” Stanton asks. “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.”

This story is from the October 28, 2013 issue of Fortune.