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.

 ?? BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS ?? Maryana Iskander, who has been CEO of the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerato­r NGO since 2013, will start Jan. 5.
BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS Maryana Iskander, who has been CEO of the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerato­r NGO since 2013, will start Jan. 5.

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