The Washington Post
Wikimedia taps leader of South African nonprofit as its next chief executive
Social entrepreneur says she will make increasing editor diversity a priority
The Wikimedia Foundation announced Tuesday that Maryana Iskander, a decorated social entrepreneur who for years has led an initiative to lower youth unemployment in South Africa, in January will take over as CEO of the organization, known for its ubiquitous online encyclopedia.
In the new role, Iskander, an Egyptian-born American lawyer who has served as CEO of the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator NGO since 2013, will oversee the global nonprofit that powers Wikipedia and a suite of other digital libraries and informational repositories.
She will step into a void created by the April departure of former Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher, who since taking the reins of the organization in 2014 had grown Wikipedia into one of the world’s most widely cited sources of information. That path to becoming an Internet powerhouse has yielded monetary success — the nonprofit now has an annual budget of over $100 million and employs more than 500 globally, according to the group.
This rapid growth adds urgency to ongoing concerns about the homogeneity of Wikipedia’s editors, who predominantly come from Western countries and skew heavily male, as data sets produced by the site are folded into search technology and used as a training tool for artificial intelligence and machine learning.
In her first interview since the announcement, Iskander said one of her priorities will be increasing diversity among the organization’s massive group of volunteer moderators. Over 280,000 contributors edit Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation’s other informational sites each month, according to the group.
“I think that trying to increase the diversity of who creates knowledge, who edits knowledge, that’s been the long priority of the movement and of the foundation [and it] resonates massively with my own personal values,” she told The Washington Post.
The Wikimedia Foundation released diversity metrics for its own U.S. staff in 2019 showing that 47 percent were women, 13 percent were Asian, 8 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 7 percent were Black, 0.4 percent were Native American or Alaskan Natives and 5 percent were multiracial. But the organization reported in July 2020 that a vast majority of the contributors it surveyed, 87 percent, were male.
The survey noted that a growing proportion of new moderators come from underrepresented backgrounds, and that their retention is a key issue.
The survey also shed light on the extent to which women who volunteer for Wikimedia have felt discomfort while on its platforms, noting that, “Almost half of women . . . said they felt unsafe or uncomfortable in Wikimedia spaces in the last year.”
“Our growing diversity is at risk if we do not improve our social and technical environments, especially for those who often have worse experiences,” the 2020 report noted.
Iskander listed increasing “knowledge equity,” improving Wikimedia’s technology, addressing issues like online harassment and collaborating with likeminded organizations to increase access to information as her other early priorities for the nonprofit.
In February, Wikipedia unveiled a crowdsourced universal code of conduct outlining what behavior is acceptable by users and what’s not, in a bid to curtail harassment on the site, cases of which contributors have detailed for years.
“The task now of how to enforce that across local communities around the world is the hard work ahead,” she said. “But to be honest, we're taking it on.”
Nataliia Tymkiv, acting chair of the Wikimedia Foundation’s board of trustees, which appointed Iskander, touted Iskander’s background leading volunteer initiatives to address social change in announcing her appointment, experience that will intersect with her new mandate at the Wikipedia parent organization.
“Throughout her career, she has driven tangible impact on issues from health care to unemployment,” Tymkiv said in a statement. “We believe that she will be a powerful champion to grow the Wikimedia movement and increase global access to free knowledge.”
Maher told Axios in February she hoped her successor would “come from the future of knowledge” — meaning regions including Africa, the Indian subcontinent or Latin America. Iskander, who emigrated from Cairo to the United States with her family when she was a child and has worked for most of the past decade in South Africa, satisfies that desire.
She also brings an Ivy League education, earning a JD from Yale Law in 2003, and ties to major U.S. political groups and institutions, including a six-year stint serving as chief operating officer for Planned Parenthood and a tour clerking in the federal courts system for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
Iskander has racked up accolades along the way, including a stint as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and in 2019 a Skoll Award, which honors “social entrepreneurs whose innovations have already had significant, proven impact on some of the world’s most pressing problems.”
Asked whether she will be based in the United States, Iskander said, “My plan is to be based where I’m needed, which is probably mostly going to be on a screen and on airplanes, but I will be in the U.S. quite a lot.”
While Wikimedia has ballooned in size over the past decade, Iskander said she’s wary of any expansion that could endanger the culture the organization has built.
“Scaling people and departments and tasks and activities, lots of people do that,” she said. “I think how you scale culture alongside that is much harder.”
As for the organization’s longstanding efforts to reduce barriers to information globally, Iskander said she expects the group’s advocacy will continue to focus on “ensuring in countries across the world that there is free and open access to knowledge,” including working with governments on “making sure that their own policy and regulatory environments are allowing for that.”
Iskander starts Jan. 5 and will report to the Wikimedia Foundation’s board of trustees.