Aarti Shahani

The Influencers

Aarti Shahani reports on all things tech for National Public Radio. A native New Yorker, Shahani is determined to understand Northern California and to bring to light emerging innovation as well as contradictions within the tech ecosystem. Shahani brings a sober perspective to her stories – free of rose colored glasses, yet fair to her subjects. She’s been recognized for her ability to unearth hidden gems with a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, an award from the Society of Professional Journalists and an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award. She speaks to us about the granular aspects of her job that culminate to make her a leading voice in Silicon Valley and beyond.

What is a typical day in your life as an NPR reporter?

Typical?! This morning my editor called at 3:54am because the European Union hit Google with a mind-blowing $2.7 billion fine and I needed to get on air, to report the news on Morning Edition – one of NPR’s flagship shows. News breaks at odd hours often enough that I know to keep my ringer on. I rolled out of bed and over to my desk, and started pinging Google (which is now “Alphabet”), as well as regulators and lawyers in Brussels. To be completely honest, I didn’t brush my teeth. Usually – on a typical day – I brush my teeth first. Promise.

Why did you choose to focus on tech reporting?

Take a look at your smartphone. Your entire life, my entire life, is being radically redefined by about five companies who create the hardware and software. They’re the largest companies on earth by way of market cap. And every little change they make – to a proprietary algorithm, to a user interface – has impacts far wider, and possibly deeper, than just about anything passed by the US Congress (when Congress manages to pass a bill, that is). I was drawn to tech because the industry is powerful. It’s deciding who makes money and how, probably widening the income gap, changing how we talk to each other. I’m on the frontlines of history here.

Which of your pieces for NPR has meant the most to you and why?

I feel gratified – like this whole crazy undertaking that is journalism – is worth it when my stories have a bit of impact. Take Uber drivers. The tech press and Valley elite have been so consumed by the scandals at corporate headquarters, we’ve largely ignored the working-class people who drive the company (pun intended). So, I decided to spend a few weeks surveying about a thousand drivers and interviewing dozens about the ways they feel controlled by Uber, even though the company promises you can “Be Your Own Boss.” This issue of control is legally explosive – the basis of big lawsuits that challenge Uber’s business model. People around the world responded to my series. And Uber – which was declining my interview request – decided they had to do an interview after all. That’s power in journalism: re-framing issues, making people go on the record.

In Silicon Valley people like to say they’re “making the world a better place” or something to that effect, but they often disassociate their values from their profitability. There’s a code of silence: people aren’t out to agitate, they’re here to make a profit, as you noted in your recent story about VC Freada Kapor Klein, who wrote the open letter to Uber that called out its vows to change company culture as pure lip service, and subsequently saw backlash from the tech community. Do you tend to look for subjects like Klein who go against the grain?

Definitely. I love sources who are fiercely independent thinkers, and influential. Not just the Twitterati. Freada is, I believe, on par with Sheryl Sandberg in terms of her influence on Silicon Valley women. And she was exceptionally generous in terms of letting me into her life – that part, real access, is key if your goal is to observe a leader as they lead. Maybe I shouldn’t announce this, but I’m working on getting Vinod Khosla – the controversial billionaire who wants to replace doctors with algorithms – for my next profile. He gave me his cell number. That’s progress.

Journalism is your second career. Before you came to Silicon Valley, you were in prisons in your hometown New York City – trying to help immigrants arrested or being deported from the U.S. That’s quite a career change, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. For years I helped prisoners who were getting beat up by guards, or stop poor families from wasting what little money they had on lawyers who were just ambulance chasers. I miss many of the people I met in that work. On average, I’d say, they’re far more emotionally intelligent than the people I meet here in tech. But, I left New York City and organizing because I didn’t see a way to win. It was a losing battle. In some ways journalism is very different – it’s a spectator sport. In some ways, the skills I use are exactly the same: hunting down people quickly, getting them to talk to me.

Text by Valerie Demicheva
Photograph by Rob Adler