After working for some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, Brian Acton finally struck gold as the Co-founder of the messaging startup WhatsApp. After college, Acton flitted between jobs in the tech industry as a systems administrator for Rockwell International and as a product tester for both Apple and Adobe Systems. Then in 1996, he became the 44th employee hired by Yahoo Inc. Once there, he quickly struck up a friendship with infrastructure engineer, Jan Koum, and the pair began to develop the cross-platform messaging service, WhatsApp.
As a Yahoo employee, Acton invested in the dotcom boom and lost millions in the bubble burst of 2000. But all of that seemed to not matter in 2014 when Acton sold his creation WhatsApp to Facebook in a deal worth an estimated $22 billion. WhatsApp is now the biggest mobile messaging service in the world, with 800 million active users, the vast majority of whom are outside the U.S. More recently, Acton has started to build a philanthropic network through his foundation Wildcard Giving. By 2019, Acton and his wife were named the biggest givers of the year after giving more than $1 billion to charitable causes. As of 2020, however, Acton is still one of the richest people in the U.S., with a net worth of $2.5 billion.
Like many talented young computer programmers, Acton was drawn to the famed Stanford University and adjacent Silicon Valley. But after receiving a full scholarship to study engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, he ended up staying on the east coast for his first year, and then transferring to Stanford as a sophomore. During his time at Stanford, Acton put his talents to good use. On campus he worked as a residential computing consultant, helping students to troubleshoot issues on their computers. Then in 1994, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science.
As a proud member of the Stanford Community, Acton has been known to make appearances on his old stomping grounds. Shortly after selling his company in 2014, the programmer was back at StartX, an incubator for young companies that is also affiliated with Stanford University, to address an audience of mostly Stanford students about his own years as an undergraduate at the university, even naming particular professors and courses that inspired him. He also discussed his company's acquisition by Facebook, which at the time seemed like a good idea to him.
By 2019 Acton was back at Stanford, this time whistling a different tune. As one of the guest speakers for Computer Science 181, an undergraduate class focused on technology companies' social impact and ethical responsibilities, Acton, was by then a 47-year-old Stanford alum. For the students he explained the principles behind founding WhatsApp and his fateful decision to sell it to Facebook in 2014. Acton didn’t discuss the specifics behind Zuckerberg’s push to monetize WhatsApp during his talk at Stanford, and instead he spoke critically of business models that incentivize companies to prioritize profits over people’s privacy.
"The capitalistic profit motive ...is what’s driving the expansion of invasion of data privacy and driving the expansion of a lot of negative outcomes,” he warned the next batch of Stanford grads. "I wish there were guardrails there...I have yet to see that manifest, and that scares me."