Introducing the new Wikimedia Foundation CEO

The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees has appointed Maryana Iskander as the new CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation. Since 2013, Maryana has served as the CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, a South African non-profit social enterprise focused on building African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Prior to this, she spent six years as Chief Operating Officer of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a volunteer-led social movement focused on access to women’s healthcare. Maryana has also worked in academia as the Advisor to the President of Rice University, an international research university based in the United States. Her professional career has been motivated by breaking down systemic barriers, creating opportunities for collaborative solution-building, and community empowerment. She has a proven track record for leading complex organisations shaped by shared decision-making.

Maryana Iskander
Maryana Iskander

Below is a letter from Maryana,

“When I read the job posting for the next leader of Wikimedia Foundation, I noticed that it opened with a seemingly simple statement: ‘Knowledge belongs to all of us.’ Does it, really? It’s a striking statement. In an increasingly unequal and polarizing world, one in which almost nothing belongs to all of us, the idea that knowledge must belong to all is enough to capture anyone’s attention and imagination – certainly mine. 

My story is shaped by a twin belief that knowledge can also set us free. Shortly after I was born in Cairo, Egypt, my parents left for the United States. During my time at university, graduate school, and law school, I was consistently pulled towards some of society’s toughest issues – women’s rights, civil rights, and the rights of prisoners. I was equally pulled by the need to be effective in making change – seeking out leadership positions and raising my hand and voice to change the institutions of power, not just protest against them. I learned that the opportunity to make meaningful impact often sits ‘in-between’ traditional spheres: in-between research and teaching at Rice University, in-between healthcare delivery and advocacy at Planned Parenthood, and in-between government and the private sector at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. My time at all of these organisations required listening to and learning from many diverse stakeholders – including volunteers – and using my position of leadership to champion often unheard voices.

In 2012, I followed my heart to South Africa and its very complicated society – a legacy of apartheid perpetuating deep inequality despite the resilience of communities full of potential and hope, and a country with one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. A new organisation had just been formed with a big vision to close this opportunity gap. I signed up, first as an unpaid volunteer, and then for many years as the CEO. My job has been to cultivate a common space of trust for the collective assets of the society – from government, the private sector, civil society, and millions of young people – to work in a coalition to tackle one of the most daunting challenges of our time. To do this, we relied on an inclusive, multi-channel platform that leverages all forms of technology as a way to serve communities still riddled by a basic lack of access. Our successes came from the power of connection, partnership, and a collective belief that young people are the solution, not the problem. As I began my tenth year, I felt it was time to make space for new leaders.

Why am I joining the Wikimedia Foundation at this moment? There are many reasons: (1) this collective of projects is growing what is perhaps the most important commons infrastructure of our modern world. I am excited to add my time and talents to this vision. What will it take to create – not just imagine – a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge? (2) I have experienced first-hand that distributed leadership models can usually achieve more than any group of people can do on their own. I am eager to support processes that will make this even more true for our movement; and (3) I am drawn to working with people of integrity and commitment, who also appreciate humor and joy. I can already see that I will meet new colleagues like this from all over the world.

My former colleagues will say that I believe progress is enabled by culture: one that is founded on accountability, diversity and inclusion in all its forms, and a way of working led by values. It has informed an organisational humility in working with others and a relentless focus on getting things done the right way – while doing the right thing.

During the recruitment process, I met with a leading academic in the United States named Rebecca. She told me a story of her primary school teacher asking the students to raise their hands if they did not have an encyclopedia at home. She was one of those students, and it made her feel, for the first time, that maybe she didn’t have equal access to the resources needed for her education.  The work of this collective community, should we achieve our vision, will make it unnecessary for a teacher to ever ask that question again. I then returned to South Africa and spoke to another Rebecca. This young woman grew up in a rural area where it was a struggle to afford text messaging, never mind any meaningful access to the digital world. She, too, did not have equal access to the resources she needed. Despite their starkly different circumstances, I believe that each Rebecca can find her own point of entry into our vision and impact as we look ahead to 2030. 

What have been my prior experiences with the wikiverse?

I have had two past interactions with the people behind Wikipedia, in addition to being a reader and admirer.

First, I attended a conference in 2019 where I met a volunteer editor on English Wikipedia. The next year, he reached out to me to say that Wikipedia was looking to increase its articles about notable women, and he would write an article about me in line with Wikipedia’s editing values. He eventually did this with the help of another editor from Women in Red.

Second, on World Teachers Day in October 2019, my current organisation, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, participated in an AfroCuration event hosted by WikiAfrica Education. It was aimed at generating new historical content on Wikipedia related to the themes of democracy, freedom, and constitution-making. The goal was to support students and teachers to create articles in indigenous languages about individuals who contributed to South Africa’s remarkable Constitution.

I look forward to beginning my own editing and volunteer journey as well as my professional path in the movement.

What are three things I want to learn from you?

My first job is to listen and seek to understand.

Even before I officially join the Wikimedia Foundation in January 2022, I would like to hear from anyone who is interested in sharing directly with me.  Later this month, I will share more information about a focused ‘listening tour’ that will take place ahead of my formal start date. It will consist of online and offline engagements across Wiki communities, as well as with Foundation staff and other stakeholders. 

I know that we are many communities with many different opinions. I will of course first ask you what you think: about our vision, mission, impact, strategy, how we relate to the rest of the world, as well as our current and future ways of working and achieving our aspirations.   

But I will also ask you to help me learn what you know from data, even if it differs from what you think. I am curious about the spaces ‘in between’ opinion and evidence – as messy or imperfect as they may be. 

And finally, I want to learn what motivates you at a personal level to contribute to your projects and participate in your communities. 

Thank you for taking the time to read my message. I look forward to hearing from you.”