Lawyer, mother and billionaire’s ex: Who is Nicole Shanahan, RFK Jr’s VP pick?

She left behind a tough California childhood to thrive as an adult at the cross-section of tech, law and society – running multi-million-dollar businesses while hobnobbing with (and marrying) the world’s most powerful. Now the 38-year-old is making a White House bid herself alongside Robert F. Kennedy Jr – so who is Nicole Shanahan? Sheila Flynn reports

Wednesday 27 March 2024 14:27 GMT
(Getty Images for Gold House)

Less than a decade ago, Nicole Shanahan stood mesmerised at the White House and marvelled at the gravity of the US government.

“Standing on the red carpet and looking out was — it was just, it was wonderful,” Shanahan said in 2017, about 18 months after her White House visit (and before her marriage to one billionaire and rumoured rendezvous with another). “And I have a lot of hope that we can return to a federal governance model that really supports people.”

Now she is attempting another return to DC.

Shanahan, a 38-year-old Californian lawyer and tech powerhouse, was named Tuesday to one of the biggest positions on the planet – longshot presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr tapped her for vice president on his ticket.

Her name was first reported as a VP possibility by Mediaite, who noted that the website domain had been registered on March 13, though the site appeared to be offline on Wednesday.

Shanahan may not have the same name recognition or star status as other names previously floated as VP – NFL provocateur Aaron Rodgers, former governor/wrestler Jesse Ventura, and self help guru Tony Robbins, for example – but she has famous friends with deep pockets, experience with enormous wealth and power, and a hardscrabble backstory that make for the consummate campaign catnip.

The daughter of a Chinese immigrant, Shanahan has donated millions to reproductive research and other causes – while racking up an unusual list of claims to fame. She’s founded and sold one startup; earned a fellowship at Stanford; given birth to a daughter; established a foundation; and survived a headline-grabbing alleged love triangle between her Google-founder then-husband and Elon Musk – just two of the major power players circling Shanahan’s orbit.

People, according to Shanahan, have been at the centre of much of her career; she has gone so far as calling herself a woman “with a very big and open heart who loves innovation but not at the expense of humanity.”

Shanahan shot to fame amid scandal in 2022 after the publication of a Wall Street Journal story alleging an affair between the businesswoman and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk while she was married to Google co-founder and billionaire Sergey Brin (Getty Images)

Shanahan, unlike her running mate, was not born with political pedigree; instead, she grew up with a mother navigating a new country and a father struggling with mental health challenges.

“As a kid, I really had to figure out how the world works on my own,” Shanahan told San Francisco Magazine in May 2021. “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.

“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.”

Her aunt – her father’s sister – helped her mother raise her, Shanahan said.

“Together they represent the yin and yang of my personality. My mom is my ‘yin’ and she helps me to accept the things I cannot change,” she said in a 2015 interview. “My aunt is my ‘yang’ and helps me push through barriers.”

Shanahan’s mother often relied on public assistance and food stamps for the family as she worked to become an accountant, but the businesswoman has credited that time with fuelling her own creativity and work ethic. She started hustling for restaurant jobs at just 12 years old.

“When you lack access to resources, you really learn how to live with suboptimal infrastructure,” she told San Francisco magazine, adding: “This is a skill that helps me navigate almost every day of my life at work and at home, and especially being an entrepreneur.

Amidst the family’s modest circumstances, however, Shanahan said her mother shrewdly recognized the early possibilities afforded by the internet.

“At 11, we got AOL dial up, and that was mind-blowing,” Shanahan told San Francisco Business Times in 2018.

That internet access “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,” she told the outlet. “Without the internet I would probably still be in Oakland doing the same thing I was doing at age 12.”

Her trajectory over the intervening 26 years, however, has taken her a long way from busing tables. Shanahan attended prestigious St Mary’s College of California – at the same time that  Black Panther director Ryan Coogler was also enrolled – before moving to Washington to study at the University of Puget Sound, where she majored in Asian Studies, Economics and Mandarin Chinese while running varsity cross country.

Upon graduation, she ventured even further afield, earning a graduate certificate in Switzerland and completing an exchange program in Singapore while studying for her law degree at Santa Clara University. While still a law student, she started ClearAccessIP, a company that billed itself as helping “creators and owners of IP to develop, manage, and transact patent-protected technology” – and married Jeremy Asher Kranz, a Bay Area investor, in 2013.

The following year would be a significant one for Shanahan. She graduated from law school in 2014; began a fellowship at CodeX, the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics; met her future husband, Google founder Sergey Brin, over the summer; saw her first husband file divorce papers that September; and, tragically, lost her father, Shawn Shanahan.

Nicole Shanahan, 38, is a Bay Area-lawyer, investor and entrepreneur rumoured to be Robert F Kennedy Jr’s choice for VP (Getty Images for Gold House)

She said it took her several more years to forgive her father, with whom she had a complex relationship – and only after she participated in an intensive retreat called The Hoffman Process.

That helped her understand “people really are doing what they know to do,” she told People. “A lot of what my father dealt with was due to his unresolved trauma in his own life. Rather than being embarrassed by him or ashamed or upset or just generally angry at the universe, Hoffman Process made me understand that he was really the product of his own past pains and hurts.”

The year after his death, she began dating Brin after meeting at a yoga festival in Lake Tahoe.

“We fell in love at Stanford, wandering the campus and talking about quantum physics,” she told People. “He showed me around the areas he’d frequent when he was there as a masters student – and where he created Google with Larry Page!”

She continued: “I was living in a fairytale. It was magical. It seemed like we really could solve a lot of the world’s problems with tech then.”

The couple married in 2018 and welcomed daughter Echo after Shanahan struggled with infertility – a battle that helped her decision to donate $6m for the launch of the Buck Institute’s Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality. The money came from the Bia-Echo Foundation, which she founded in 2020, the same year she sold Clear AccessIP; the foundation is named after the Greek goddess of raw energy, and “echo represents the reverberating and multiplying effect the foundation aspires to achieve,” the newly-revamped website explains.

The philanthropic family foundation invests in reproductive longevity (as in, the science to increase the lifespan of a woman’s fertility), criminal justice reform and the climate crisis. Shanahan has shown a particular interest in legal rights throughout her career; while at Stanford, she worked on a project with the San Francisco District Attorney Office, where she “really doubled down on criminal justice reform, looking at police report data and determining if we could find bias by looking for patterns,” she told People.

Her aforementioned visit to the White House in 2016 was to learn about a federal initiative collecting police data, created under Obama’s administration.

As Shanahan continued to pursue her philanthropic endeavours and raise her daughter with Brin, however, all was not rosy within their marriage.

“When I was living as a wife of a billionaire, I was not the best version of myself,” she told People last year. “I felt conflicted every day, like I couldn’t access the thing that made me what I am.”

Addressing the lifestyle, she said: “It’s nearly impossible to have mega wealth and be deeply grounded. I’ll just talk from my own experience.

“I think that with wealth comes a great deal of responsibility. To execute on that responsibility well, you must be grounded and you must be connected to people,” she said. “As you hear, people claim that there’s a disconnectedness — I mean I experienced it personally.”

The couple separated in December 2021, and Brin filed for divorce in June 2022 – but a Wall Street Journal report published the following month further upended their lives. Sources claimed that Shanahan and Tesla founder Musk had engaged in a brief affair in December 2021, sparking the divorce; both of them adamantly denied the allegations, though the paper stood by its story.

Robert F Kennedy Jr, who is running as an independent candidate in the 2024 US presidential election, is scheduled to announce his selection for vice president next week (Getty Images)

Shanahan has spoken of her shock and devastation at the international furore that followed, noting that she was focused on parenting Echo, who has been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum, and on emotional healing.

“There were a lot of people here that I knew prior to my life with Sergey that were there for me in ways that I could have never imagined, telling me they were going to stand by me no matter what,” she told People last summer, shortly after her divorce from Brin was finalised.

She’s also found a new rock, she told the magazine – Jacob Strumwasser, a friend of a friend she met at Burning Man, the former alternative festival now overrun with tech bros.

“He had no idea who I was and I had no idea who he was, and we became friends,” she told People. “We saw each other in a silo of our own experience with one another and nothing else.”

The pair, instead of a traditional marriage, celebrated a “love ceremony” on a beach last May, People reported, and Shanahan recounted a summer of “perfect days” in the backyard by the pool with her daughter and Strumwasser.

“It’s lovely to be seen for who I am and not how search results show me,” she told the magazine last July.

Fast-forward eight months, however, and Shanahan is again skyrocketing to the top of search results, the days of afternoon languishing presumably a distant memory as the self-described “fighter” numbers among the few rumoured to join RFK Jr’s campaign.

Nearly three years ago, Shanahan insisted she’d never made her meteoric rise an end goal, instead hoping “to become a middle-income American with financial stability doing something intellectually interesting,” she told San Francisco Magazine – before slipping into a narrative that would warm a speechwriter’s heart.

“I think the bigness of my career choices has always come from the desire to pay back the unique opportunity this country provides,” she said.

Inadvertently (or not) doubling down on the political patois, she also mused about her future.

“I want my legacy to be one of ideas,” she said. “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.”

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