How Nicole Shanahan rose through tech and law to RFK Jr.'s ticket

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has found an unlikely — but like-minded — running mate for his independent presidential ticket.

Tech lawyer Nicole Shanahan has no government experience and no national profile, and she is one of the most unusual selections for a high-profile running mate in recent memory. She is far less known than some of the other names Kennedy considered, including NFL star Aaron Rodgers and actor and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

But what she does offer is a similar worldview to Kennedy's, presumed loyalty to the person who plucked her from relative obscurity and — perhaps most important — enormous wealth that the Kennedy-Shanahan campaign could tap far in excess of contribution limits that would apply to donors who are not themselves candidates.

Shanahan, 38, also offers a youth and vitality that Kennedy often says is necessary in politics. And she has already demonstrated her commitment to Kennedy’s cause, revealing in February that she donated $4 million to a pro-Kennedy super PAC to help pay for a Super Bowl ad.

Despite mostly supporting progressive and center-left Democrats in the past, Shanahan has said that she was motivated to support Kennedy in part because of concerns about children’s health and the environment, including vaccines, and she has also expressed opposition to the research money that has poured into the in-vitro fertilization industry.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (David L. Ryan / Boston Globe via Getty Images file)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (David L. Ryan / Boston Globe via Getty Images file)

She defended Kennedy’s advocacy against vaccines to Newsweek this year, saying that “being called an anti-vaxxer is so unfair” and that “we need to have a safe space” to discuss the issue.

A life in the world's tech capital

Shanahan, a tech lawyer and entrepreneur turned philanthropist from Oakland, California, has lived a life that has intersected with some of the most important technologies and business titans in Silicon Valley.

Shanahan, born to parents who struggled financially, said that her family was on food stamps and that she started working at age 12 to help make ends meet.

“My dad was diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia when I was 9, and my Chinese-born mom had only been in the United States for two years when I was born,” she told San Francisco magazine for a profile in 2021. “So not only was there no money, there was almost no parental guidance, and as you can imagine with a mentally ill father, there was lots of chaos and fear.”

She credits the internet with helping her escape, and technology would come to dominate her life after she graduated from the University of Puget Sound and returned to the Bay Area, attending Santa Clara University School of Law and then diving into the intersection of the legal and tech worlds.

In a landscape where innovation often outpaces regulation, she founded ClearAccessIP, a company that uses artificial intelligence technology to help patent holders manage their intellectual property, according to its website. The company was acquired by IPwe in 2020.

Shanahan married Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 2018 and divorced him in 2022. That year, The Wall Street Journal reported that she had an affair with billionaire Elon Musk, but both Shanahan and Musk have denied the accusation. The Journal has stood by its reporting.

“The WSJ’s narrative that an affair with Elon Musk led to the end of my marriage was about as accurate as claiming that the body heat of polar bears is responsible for the melting of the Arctic ice caps,” she wrote last year in a first-person essay for People. “It felt senseless and cruel.”

After the divorce from Brin, who is worth an estimated $121 billion, according to Forbes, she transitioned to full-time philanthropy work.

Shanahan’s charity, the Bia-Echo Foundation, says its mission is to “create a multiplying effect” on issues Shanahan cares about, including “reproductive longevity & equality, criminal justice reform and a healthy & livable planet.”

She started that work through her ex-husband’s foundation, announcing a $100 million commitment in 2019 to programs aimed at helping women become pregnant later in life, in addition to exploring solutions to criminal justice reform and climate change.

Fertility issues have been a focus of her foundation and her investment firm, Planeta Ventures, and a later gift of $6 million helped create the Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality; she said her goal is to help women be able to have children into their mid-50s.

However, Shanahan has advocated against supporting IVF research, because, in her view, it detracts from understanding the root causes of infertility. And she has argued the procedure is “sold irresponsibly” and has become more of a “commercial endeavor” than a scientific one, calling its promise “one of the biggest lies that’s being told about women’s health today.”

“Many of the IVF clinics are financially incentivized to offer you egg freezing and IVF and not incentivized to offer you other fertility services,” Shanahan told The New Yorker last year.

“I’m so often told that IVF is this great technology, and I always get questioned why I’m not more supportive of IVF,” she said in an online video series. “I’ve tried to imagine where we would be as a field if all of the money that has been invested in IVF and all of the money that’s been invested into marketing IVF and all of the government money that has been invested in subsidizing IVF, if just 10% of that went into reproductive longevity, research and fundamental research.”

That view could be especially relevant this year as both parties debate abortion rights after the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade. An Alabama Supreme Court ruling this year that frozen embryos created for IVF were people briefly halted procedures in the state — and made the issue a national political hot button.

Politicians from both parties rushed to voice their support for IVF, and Democrats argued that longtime GOP positioning on abortion legislation and “personhood” laws would have the effect of restricting IVF.

Her position on vaccines and other past advocacy

Shanahan’s 2023 essay also reveals how her experience with the reporting around her marriage led her to adopt a more jaundiced view of the news media, which is a frequent target of Kennedy’s.

“They displayed a reckless thirst for a popular hit piece, no matter the cost it would have on my life,” she wrote.

She and Brin had a daughter, Echo, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Shanahan has said she is committed to investing her wealth in understanding the causes and treatments of the disorder.

Many vaccine skeptics, including Kennedy, have said vaccines cause autism — even though experts say there is no evidence supporting the claim and the key research papers that made the link were later retracted, with their lead author widely discredited after he was found to have manipulated his data.

Kennedy took a leave from his post as the leader of the country’s best-funded anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, to run for president, and he has since included a number of anti-vaccine activists in his campaign.

Last summer, Shanahan “committed” to her partner, Jacob Strumwasser, an executive of a company working on “next-generation of bitcoin financial software,” whom she met at Burning Man.

“We were living parallel surfing lives,” she told People last year, “and then we met at Burning Man, which is the driest place on the planet.”

Kennedy kicked off his campaign with a speech at a Bitcoin convention in Miami, which was his first public appearance as a candidate. And he has spoken often about the promise of cryptocurrency.

Politically, Shanahan has donated heavily to Democrats and progressive causes, such as criminal justice reform ballot measures, according to campaign finance records.

In 2020, she gave $2,800 to Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and co-hosted a fundraiser for Buttigieg, who is the transportation secretary. She also gave $2,800 to Democratic contender Marianne Williamson during the last election cycle, before she donated $25,000 to the fundraising efforts backing Joe Biden. She also gave the maximum $6,600 to Kennedy’s campaign last year, before she announced the larger gift to the super PAC for the Super Bowl ads.

Shanahan also gave to several Democratic congressional candidates in battleground districts in 2018. And she gave the maximum $5,400 contribution to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

Asked in 2022 about her politics, she told Puck: “I don’t think about it in terms of party. I think about it in terms of people, places and ideas.” That attitude reflects Kennedy’s own rhetoric, especially since he left the Democratic presidential primary campaign to run as an independent.

While there is no obvious precedent for vice presidential candidates bankrolling their campaigns, Federal Election Commission rules exempt candidates funding their own campaigns from contribution limits, so it appears she would be able to contribute or lend as much money as she wants to the Kennedy campaign.

The campaign needs money to fund its ballot access work, including the painstaking and expensive work of gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures from dozens of states.

While major-party candidates typically wait until the summer to announce their running mates, one reason Kennedy did so now is because deadlines are coming up in some states that require submission of both names on tickets to get on ballots.

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