Who is James Manyika, Google’s African ‘techno-social’ asset?

By Kévin Poireault
Posted on Wednesday, 2 March 2022 10:50, updated on Thursday, 3 March 2022 10:31

James Manyika, then a senior partner at McKinsey, at the Bridge Forum in San Francisco, California, US, on 16 April 2019. © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By appointing James Manyika as its senior vice president for technology and society, Google has decided to go for experience. After 30 years at McKinsey, the Zimbabwean is known for his research work in innovation.

It’s a small revolution: Google has appointed its first-ever vice president of technology and society. The lucky man is Zimbabwe’s James Manyika, who left his position as director of the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of renowned consulting firm McKinsey & Company, in January.

Manyika, who is part of Alphabet’s management team and reports directly to CEO Sundar Pichai, will be responsible for “shaping and sharing Google’s views on how technology affects society,” according to a statement from the Mountain View firm.

More specifically, he will help define Google’s vision on issues such as the future of work, artificial intelligence and sustainable development. These themes are dear to this Harare native, who is recognised for his work at the crossroads between the future of work, artificial intelligence and robotics, as well as experience in the world of Big Tech.

Rhodes scholar (like Bill Clinton)

After studying at Harare’s Prince Edward School, then at the University of Zimbabwe, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Manyika went to Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship, which allows foreigners to study at the prestigious British university. He acquired several degrees, including a PhD in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Silicon Valley veteran

Manyika joined McKinsey in 1994 and has worked for the consultancy firm for 28 years. The last 20 were spent in the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) offices in Silicon Valley, where he was appointed director in 2009. In this capacity, the Zimbabwean has advised a number of tech executives.

Author of economic essays

In 1994, while employed as a senior partner at McKinsey, Manyika published Decentralised Data Fusion: An Information Theoretic Approach, a research book about decentralised data collection, which he co-authored with researcher Hugh F. Durrant-Whyte. In 2015, he co-wrote an economic essay, No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends, with two MGI colleagues. His work on the future of work is also featured in the bestseller Them: Why We Hate Each Other-And How to Heal, which was published in 2018 by US politician Ben Sasse.

On the difficulty of being black

Appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to head the Future of Work Commission in 2019, alongside US trade unionist Mary Kay Henry, he pointed out the unequal treatment that workers in the western US state have been subjected to, which has been exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic, in a report published in March 2021. A month earlier, he had analysed the plight of black workers in corporate America in a McKinsey Global Institute report.

Multi-hatted

Manyika is the head of more than 20 different organisations, including think tanks (Council on Foreign Relations, Aspen Institute…), foundations (MacArthur, Hewlett…), academic institutes (Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered AI, Oxford’s Internet Institute…) and corporate organisations (DeepMind, Khan Academy…). He has also been invited to join many academic associations.

Mentoring intellectuals

Manyika has started a fellowship in his name at Harvard’s Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research. The J.M.D Manyika Fellowship is awarded to intellectuals and artists from Zimbabwe and other southern African countries. Author NoViolet Bulawayo and filmmaker Rumbi Katedza are among the first recipients.

Obama advisor

In 2011, under Barack Obama, Manyika was appointed to the Digital Economy Board and the National Innovation Board, two committees under the US Department of Commerce. He stepped down in the summer of 2017 following Donald Trump’s controversial remarks about the violence between white supremacists and anti-racist activists in Charlottesville. He also served as vice-chairman of the US Global Development Council at the White House from 2012 to 2017.

Married to a writer

Manyika is married to author Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who was born in Nigeria and raised in the UK. They met in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Operational role

Unlike Justin Spelhaug, head of social impact technology at Microsoft, and Nico Carrino, head of social impact and public policy at Twitter, Manyika’s role at Google will be both philanthropic and operational. But given that Google is currently embroiled in a number of lawsuits, dealing with growing employee discontent and criticism of Big Tech’s role in online disinformation, shaping the firm’s vision of how technology affects society will be no small task.

Facing controversy

Barely recruited, Manyika is already hard at work. He will co-lead, “in a personal capacity”, the AI2050 initiative with Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO. This $125m philanthropic project run by Schmidt Futures aims to fund research into “hard problems in artificial intelligence.”

However, it has already caused a bit of controversy, notes the US channel CNBC, as one of the fund’s first beneficiaries, computer scientist Rediet Abebe, a professor at Berkeley, refused to take part and asked that her name not be associated with the initiative.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options