From criminal justice reform to regenerative agriculture and reproductive longevity, Nicole Shanahan is fighting the good fight.
From a very young age, tech entrepreneur Nicole Shanahan had drive, not only to succeed in life but to survive. “As a kid, I really had to figure out how the world works on my own,” says Shanahan, who grew up in Oakland. “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 continues. “I had two unemployed parents for the majority of my childhood, 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.”
Public assistance played a big part in her family’s life and got them through some particularly hard times. Shanahan remembers her mother, ashamed, asking her and her brother to leave the grocery store checkout line while she counted out paper food stamps. “When you lack access to resources, you really learn how to live with suboptimal infrastructure,” she says. “So I learned how to compete in really creative ways by making broken objects perform at levels beyond their perceived capacity. This is a skill that helps me navigate almost every day of my life at work and at home, and especially being an entrepreneur.”
Before becoming the powerhouse she is today—founder of ClearAccessIP and the Bia-Echo Foundation— Shanahan, who lives in Los Altos with her husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and their family, worked her way up the career ladder. “I really had the benefit of experiencing working life in America at all levels,” says Shanahan, who bussed tables at age 12. “[But] it was the internet that made my dream of becoming a lawyer a reality, from helping me submit college applications to assisting me with school projects and applying for my first legal internship. Without the internet I would probably still be in Oakland doing the same thing I was doing at age 12.”
Shanahan held many jobs before joining a company called RPX Corporation in her mid-20s, where she was passionate about its mission to create a patent exchange market. Although the setting was beautiful, with offices situated overlooking the Embarcadero, the company culture had a dark side. “It wasn’t until the #MeToo movement that I felt comfortable discussing this, but while I was at this job a male co-worker sexually assaulted me one evening while we were working on a project. Because the company at the time was all male led, and this co-worker was highly regarded by the management, he continued to advance more quickly than I did, even though I was the one doing most of the work on our projects,” she says.
Not long after the assault, Shanahan developed severe depression and left the company a month before its IPO. She quit law altogether and moved in with an aunt in Berkeley. “It was a real low point in my life, and I was devastated to lose faith in my law career, which I had worked so hard for,” she explains. “No one understood why I had left, and I don’t think that I even understood what was happening to me. My biggest regret today is that I didn’t report what had happened because it wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I learned the same co-worker had continued to do this with other female employees at the company.”
After some time away from it, Shanahan returned to patent law, founding and running her own AI-enabled patent management company, ClearAccessIP, a very proud moment for her. She sold the company last year.
And since then she’s been devoted to Bia-Echo, the private fund she founded that focuses on three key areas: reproductive longevity and equality; criminal justice reform; and preserving a healthy and livable planet. Shanahan’s interest in reproductive longevity and equality ties to her own personal struggles trying to get pregnant. “I did a report on longevity science because as a scientific field of research it’s really big, and has been popular for the better half of the last 10 years,” she explains. “And what’s never been included in the definition of longevity is women’s reproduction.” She continues, “I was sitting in the meeting where the head of the National Academy of Medicine said we need to think outside the box and redefine how science approaches aging. We should never take anything at face value. And I thought, ‘Wait a second, am I taking this whole women go infertile at age 35 at face value? Oh my God, I am.’ It was in that moment I knew we had to do something about this.”
That she did, by partnering with the Buck Center for Reproductive Longevity and Equality and the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (Shanahan studied abroad at the NUS Law School) to establish the Bia-Echo Asia Centre for Reproductive Longevity and Equality, where scientists are hard at work researching women’s reproductive longevity.
Another important area of investment—criminal justice reform—is one that Shanahan has been devoted to for years, long before the Black Lives Matter movement. “I remember telling Sergey’s foundation head about five years ago that criminal justice reform was going to be one of the biggest topics of our generation,” she says. “I’m happy that I could be a major donor for Measure J in Los Angeles County, which was voted in and will be rerouting some of the law enforcement budget toward mental and social support services.” Shanahan notes that having a mental health professional on the scene of George Floyd’s arrest would have de-escalated the situation and possibly saved his life.
Lastly, the goal of creating a healthy and livable planet has inspired Shanahan and her team to get involved with regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration. “In essence, I’m in a career transition to becoming a farmer, and I won’t lie, it’s a big educational curve,” she says, joking that she can barely keep a houseplant alive. In addition to supporting organizations like Kiss the Ground, which focuses on promoting soil health and aims to make farming carbon neutral, and the Iowa State University Foundation’s Prairie Strips project, she’s working next on the 50 Farms Project. All this being said, Shanahan never aimed to do big things. “My goal was to become a middle-income American with financial stability doing something intellectually interesting, like patent law,” she shares. “I think the bigness of my career choices has always come from the desire to pay back the unique opportunity this country provides. The bigger the opportunities I’ve received, like my law degree or the fellowship at Stanford, the bigger my projects have been that came out of those experiences.”
And unlike some of her contemporaries, she has no interest in leaving a legacy of her name plastered on buildings in exchange for money. “I want my legacy to be one of ideas,” she says. “I want it to be about evolving the human experience on this planet in an abundant way. I want it to be one of strength and love and compassion. I want it to be one of working hard, learning from one’s mistakes and of personal growth.”
Update—We received the following response from RPX: “RPX is committed to providing a safe workplace environment for all of our employees in which diversity, equity and inclusion are central to our mission. We first became aware of Ms. Shanahan’s statements through the recent San Francisco Magazine article. RPX takes Ms. Shanahan’s statements very seriously. We have engaged an outside law firm to investigate the matter.”