Baroness and Penn State alumna Joanna Shields to share life story with students

The Baroness Joanna Shields, a Penn State alumna who earned a degree in public service in 1984, is returning to University Park to share her life’s journey with students and discuss how technology is challenging sociopolitical systems and security. Her lecture, co-sponsored by the College of the Liberal Arts and the Student Programming Association, will take place at 8 p.m. Oct. 24 in the HUB-Robeson Center's Heritage Hall. The event is free to current students, with limited seating to the public based on availability.

During her visit, Shields will be honored by Penn State as an Alumni Fellow — the highest award given by the Penn State Alumni Association. She will also be one of eight College of the Liberal Arts alumnae participating in Penn State Women: Leaders of Today and Tomorrow. The event, scheduled to take place Oct. 25 and 26, brings together recognized leaders in finance, technology, business, and public service for a panel discussion and one-on-one meetings with students from all majors across the University.

The story goes like this: A young lady from a small town is the first in her family to go to and then graduate from college. While in school and working part time, she writes a business plan for a small company that opens the door to professional opportunities not only on the other side of the country, but also on the other side of the globe. Eventually, she finds herself living in London and working for one of the largest, most recognized companies in the world.

But the story doesn’t end there. The young lady is persuaded by the British prime minister to help make the United Kingdom a digital powerhouse, all while making the internet and the world a safer place — especially for children. She accepts the challenge, and so impressive is her work that she is appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and named a Life Peer in the House of Lords.

“To think a little girl from St. Marys would grow up and someday be across the ocean and sitting in the House of Lords is incredible.”

-- Joanna Shields, Penn State alumna and U.K. minister of internet safety

Sounds like a Hollywood movie script or even a modern-day fairy tale, right? Perhaps, except this is the real-life story of Joanna Shields, originally from St. Marys, Pennsylvania — or, as she is better known today, The Baroness Joanna Shields, OBE, U.K. minister of internet safety and security and under-secretary of state.

To this day, it’s a storyline that even occasionally manages to catch its main character off guard. “To think a little girl from St. Marys would grow up and someday be across the ocean and sitting in the House of Lords is incredible,” Shields said.

Shields’ story actually begins all the way back in first grade, when her teacher asks 6-year-old Joanna what she wants to be when she grow up. “I told her I was going to go to university,” she said. “I had no idea what that meant or what I wanted to do after that — I just knew from first grade on that I was going to university.”

However, those plans were nearly derailed her senior year of high school. The victim of bullying, Shields was overwhelmed at the prospect of going to college. “I had a tutor at home and really didn’t go to school physically much at all my senior year,” Shields said. “Even though I had been accepted to go to [the University Park] campus, I was terrified to go. I even asked for a single room because I was afraid of having a roommate.”

But come to Penn State she did. Initially, she was reluctant to venture much farther than her classes and her room, but that all changed the night she heard other female students talking in the hallway and decided to open her door. 

“One of my hall mates invited me to go to a sorority rush with them, and remarkably I said yes,” Shields said. “The sorority was Chi Omega, which is no longer on campus; but, I had a wonderful time and eventually decided to pledge. Those girls saved my life — they’ve always been there for me, and to this day they are still my best friends in the world.”

As for majors, public service just so happened to be where Shields landed. “I actually bounced around majors a bit but happened to end up serving as the Undergraduate Student Government’s director of political affairs,” she said. “I found the whole campaign and the concept of public service to be fascinating and always thought I would return to it, which is part of the reason I ended up majoring in public service.”

“The internet is this incredible tool that connects people to endless information and endless possibilities. At the same time, however, it has unintended consequences and can embolden some people — many times anonymously — to damage others. That’s why I’ve spent my entire career trying to emphasize and ensure positive uses of digital technology.”

-- Joanna Shields

Her foray into the technology industry was somewhat serendipitous, as well. After graduating from Penn State, Shields went on to George Washington University where she earned her MBA. While she was there, she also worked part time in the National Affairs Office for Deloitte in Washington and was tasked with a business plan for a small startup called National Digital Corporation — an early pioneer in the transmitting and archiving of digital media. She was also convinced that digital technology was going to change the way people lived and interacted with each other.

“The internet is this incredible tool that connects people to endless information and endless possibilities,” Shields said. “At the same time, however, it has unintended consequences and can embolden some people — many times anonymously — to damage others. That’s why I’ve spent my entire career trying to emphasize and ensure positive uses of digital technology.”

After completing her MBA, Shields moved to Silicon Valley and became a product manager and eventually vice president of production systems for Electronics for Imaging. She became CEO of Veon, one of the initial video streaming technology firms, and led its acquisition by Philips. That was followed by leadership roles at RealNetworks, Decru and Google, where she led technology and content acquisition teams for Google Video (YouTube), Google Books, Google Maps, and Google Commerce.

In late 2006, Shields was recruited to run the social networking startup Bebo. In less than two years, the network grew to 50 million users and developed Bebo Originals, an internet production company that released “KateModern,” which was nominated for several awards by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. After engineering Bebo's acquisition for $850 million by AOL in May 2008, Shields served as president of AOL’s People Networks division, where she oversaw all of AOL’s social and communications products.

In 2009, Shields was recruited by former Google colleague and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg to serve as vice president and managing director of Facebook’s operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. She built her division into the company's largest region by focusing on making Facebook the world's most valuable marketing, communications and customer services platform for businesses. It was also during her time at Facebook that her life took another unexpected, serendipitous turn.

“While I was working at Facebook, I called 10 Downing Street [the office and residence of the British prime minister] and asked if [then-prime minister] David Cameron would like to meet with [Facebook Founder] Mark Zuckerberg,” Shields said. “He said yes, so I arranged and attended the meeting.”

During that meeting, Cameron — the father of three young children — expressed his concern about the growing use of the internet in the abuse and exploitation of children. Shields' son, now 17, was much younger at the time, so it was a topic near and dear to her heart.

“He asked me point blank what Facebook was doing and could do about it,” she said. “I told him I would look into it more and see what we could do."

“Being a public servant has grounded me in a way that after being in industry for 25 years I really needed. You realize early on that everything we do doesn’t affect a bottom line, it affects the welfare of people. What we do can literally be a life or death matter and at the end of the day the government is accountable.”

-- Joanna Shields

Eventually, Cameron also asked Facebook to join his efforts to position London and Britain as the technological hub of Europe. Shields helped spearhead Facebook’s involvement in the initiative, called TechCity UK. Cameron was so impressed by her work that in 2012 he persuaded her to leave Facebook and become the U.K.'s ambassador for digital industries, as well as CEO and chair of TechCity UK.

Several successful initiatives were launched during her tenure at TechCity UK, including TechNation, an interactive data project that demonstrates the growth of digital clusters across Britain; the Digital Business Academy, a repository of online courses free and available to every British citizen looking to gain the business skills they need in a digital world; Future Fifty, a program that identifies the 50 fastest-growing tech businesses in Britain and provides the support they need to become IPO-ready; and HQ-UK, a program that helps digital businesses establish their headquarters in the United Kingdom.

In 2013, Cameron also appointed Shields to lead a task force the he and President Barack Obama established to combat online child abuse and exploitation. Those efforts led to the creation of WePROTECT, an initiative now supported by public officials, law enforcement agencies, NGOs, nonprofit organizations, and tech industry leaders in 72 countries committed to eradicating online child abuse and exploitation.

Again impressed by her work, Shields was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to the digital industry and voluntary service to young people” in October 2014. She was now a baroness.

In May 2015, Shields was appointed to her current position of U.K. minister of internet safety and security. In this role, she is responsible for overseeing Britain’s efforts to combat online extremist recruitment and radicalization; eradicate harmful online crimes, including child abuse, exploitation and cyberbullying; and ensure safe and open access to the internet for everyone. Current Prime Minister Theresa May reappointed Shields to her ministerial position this past July — a role that she is humbled and flattered to continue.

“Being a public servant has grounded me in a way that after being in industry for 25 years I really needed,” she said. “You realize early on that everything we do doesn’t affect a bottom line, it affects the welfare of people. What we do can literally be a life or death matter and at the end of the day the government is accountable.”

Despite her schedule, Shields said she does manage to return to the United States at least once or twice a year to visit friends and family. Her trip back to Penn State later this month, however, will be her first visit back to campus in quite a while. She is especially excited to have the chance to meet and interact with students.

“It’s something I felt that I needed to do,” she said. “I want them to know that the world is full of endless opportunities as long as they believe in themselves. Confidence is a key — if you believe you are amazing, then amazing things can happen.”

To learn more about the WePROTECT Global Alliance, visit www.weprotect.org. To learn more about Shields, visit www.joannashields.com.

Media Contacts: 

William Hessert

Work Phone: 
814-865-9988

Lead Writer, College of the Liberal Arts

Last Updated December 12, 2016