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How tech’s most powerful women faced down the pandemic

October 19, 2020, 1:41 PM UTC

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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%. 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

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

A rolling semi gathers no moss. Be careful how you hint at your status. Embattled emission-free truck maker Nikola saw its shares plunge 16% on Friday after CEO Mark Russell hinted that negotiations with GM may end with no deal. “We have the ability and we have a base plan of doing it ourselves," he said. "If we have a partner, that just enables us to consider going faster and helps reduce the risk.” Nikola's stock, which listed through a SPAC merger in June, has lost two-thirds of its value over the past three months.

One click-fest. Amazon's made-up shopping holiday went well, research firm Edison Trends told Fortune. Spending on Amazon's U.S. e-commerce site on Oct. 13 to 14 rose 36%, compared to Prime Day in 2019. Amazon doesn't disclose the sales and spooked some investors when its weird press release about Prime Day didn't include the usual line that sales broke records. Its stock price lost 2% on Friday, leaving it with a paltry 77% gain for the year. Amazon also may be expanding its aims in the healthcare space, listing a job to pitch its internal telemedicine service to other companies.

I saw what you did there. The neighborhood social network Nextdoor is considering an alternate route to going public, Bloomberg reports. The startup would like to list at about double its 2019 private valuation of $2.2 billion via a SPAC merger or direct listing.

Giant calls are what you make. You may be forgiven for thinking 5G is all the rage. NASA apparently only needs 4G...on the moon. The space agency awarded Nokia a $14 million contract to build a network supporting lunar surface communications for its planned moonbase. Is that really a good idea? Did none of them see Space 1999 (which apparently is getting a reboot as Space 2099)?

Call me maybe. Privacy regulators from Ireland are investigating whether Instagram improperly allowed millions of children to share their phone numbers and email addresses. A security researcher uncovered a loophole in the way Instagram offered business accounts that enabled many kids to post their contact information, which was otherwise prohibited.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The Ocean Cleanup is the nonprofit that's scouring the seas for plastic waste, including in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Business Insider visual features reporter Mary Meisenzahl has a cool picture-laden essay about how Microsoft's A.I. team is assisting.

In 2018, Microsoft employee Drew Wilkinson reached out to The Ocean Cleanup by email about how the tech giant might help the nonprofit at its annual hackathon. "Microsoft has immense computational resources that could really help you track and monitor your efforts at a fraction of the cost using AI," he wrote in his outreach email. Over two company hackathons, Microsoft employees built a machine learning model to track plastic flowing through rivers with interceptors.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Anti-5G saboteurs raise alarm across Europe By David Meyer

How the secretive CFIUS became a powerful weapon in the trade wars By Jeff John Roberts

Not all cloud companies are keeping their pandemic boost By Lucinda Shen

How a funeral inspired the pandemic’s hottest hardware By Daniel Bentley

‘Virtual marathons’ see a spike as runners crave a fix and organizers fight to keep them engaged By Phil Wahba

Keurig is a machine: How the beverage giant is leveraging A.I. to fuel growth By Shawn Tully

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

There's a cheating scandal roiling the staid world of competitive chess. While online chess play has taken off during the pandemic, so apparently has the use of covert chess calculator apps. Is nothing sacred?