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Yishan Wong: The Unconventional Tech Leader Fighting Climate Change with Reforestation


Yishan Wong is an unconventional technology leader and entrepreneur known for pushing boundaries and thinking differently. Born around 1979-1980, Wong studied computer science at Carnegie Mellon University before embarking on an eclectic career path spanning engineering, product development, and executive leadership roles.

Wong first made a name for himself in the tech world as part of the so-called PayPal Mafia. This group of former PayPal employees and founders went on to launch and invest in massively successful companies like YouTube, LinkedIn, Yelp and Tesla Motors. While at PayPal from 2001 to 2005, Wong served as a senior engineering manager – a role he took on thanks to his childhood friend Jawed Karim, who later co-founded YouTube.^1

From PayPal, Wong went on to become Director of Engineering at Facebook between 2005 and 2010. There, he helped drive key innovations like the social network‘s Sponsored Stories ad functionality and tools for gathering data about users from third-party websites.^2 Under his technical leadership, Facebook grew from 12 million users in 2006 to 400 million active users in 2010.^3

But Wong is arguably making his biggest impact on the world yet with his latest venture, Terraformation – a wildly ambitious startup aiming to counter climate change by regreening the planet‘s deserts.

Yishan Wong Headshot

Yishan Wong, CEO of Terraformation and former Reddit CEO. (Image: Terraformation)

How Past Failures Inspired Wong‘s Reforestation Moonshot

In many ways, Wong‘s founding of Terraformation was born out of professional setbacks he suffered at one of the most popular yet notoriously difficult to manage internet companies: Reddit. Wong took over as Reddit‘s CEO in 2012 as the platform was still working to turn viral traction into a sustainable business.

He helped expand Reddit‘s user base 38% year-over-year to over 67 million monthly active users by 2013.^4 But despite these gains, Wong stepped down just two years later – a move he partially blamed on the extreme stresses of first-time leadership. Frustrations boiling over with the board blocking Wong‘s proposal to relocate headquarters to save on costs.^5

In a remarkable 12,000 word treatise posted to Quora after his departure, Wong explained his thought process on everything from why he fired an employee to leadership lessons learned:

"When I took this job, I didn‘t realize how much stress it would entail, and that while sometimes difficult or painful, things like having to fire an employee or move offices are normal things that CEOs have to do…" ^6

Wong‘s reflections illustrate both an accountability to improve and a stubborn belief that his unorthodox ideas could change systems for the better – foreshadowing what he would bring to Terraformation years later.

After recharging while advising companies like Quora, Wong founded Terraformation in 2017 to execute an innovative plan to counter global warming: use solar technology to desalinate seawater, irrigate desertified land in strategic locations around the world, and bring back lush native forests capable of capturing massive amounts of carbon.^7

The company currently has projects underway in Hawaii, Jordan, and Oman – with eventual hopes to regreen the Sahara Desert and Australian Outback at scale. Terraformation has attracted notable investors like Coinbase Ventures and Google Earth founder Laurie J. Rimon.^8 But mainstream scientists remain skeptical, with climate journal Grist even calling Wong‘s approach potentially "dangerous" in its grandiosity if promises aren‘t fulfilled.^9

And yet, Wong may be exactly the type of seemingly unrealistic visionary needed to inspire climate progress. Terraformation‘s website lays out the cold scientific facts – how reforestation is likely the best carbon sequestration solution today, yet not being adopted nearly fast enough globally to hit climate goals set in the Paris Agreement and beyond. This is what Wong hopes to change quickly.

Terraformation Solar Panels and Trees Graphic

How Terraformation uses solar panels and desalination to regreen deserts. (Image: Terraformation)

The Unconventional Leader Who Values Creativity

Wong‘s tendency to take ambitious bets comes with equally bold leadership moves and unconventional tactics. As Reddit CEO, he publicly fired an employee while explaining his entire decision-making calculus to the community.^10 After stepping down, he made waves by proposing an anarcho-syndicalist model to democratize company ownership.^11

At Terraformation, Wong similarly values creativity that pushes boundaries – running art contests for solarpunk media illustrating optimistic climate futures that counter mainstream dystopias.^12 And he‘s not afraid to be extremely online – maintaining an active, idiosyncratic presence on platforms like Twitter to directly engage supporters and detractors of Terraformation‘s vision:

Yishan Wong Twitter Post

With every project he takes on, Wong stays true to his core belief that innovation lies outside established norms. And while this methodology can court controversy, his track record of success from PayPal to Reddit shows the potential. Only time will tell if his boldest endeavor yet in Terraformation can successfully turn today‘s desert wastelands into tomorrow‘s lush forests sustainably powered by the sun.

  1. Business Insider. The PayPal Mafia: Where are they now?.
  2. Patently Apple. Facebook Patents that are Key to their Social Networking Empire.
  3. Statista. Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide.
  4. The Next Web. Reddit‘s Year in Review: Factoids and infographics about 2012 and a message from Yishan Wong.
  5. Quora. Why did Yishan Wong resign as the CEO of Reddit?
  6. Quora. Why did Yishan Wong resign as the CEO of Reddit? (Same as above)
  7. Terraformation. Company Info.
  8. Forbes. This Startup Raised $30M To Fight Climate Change By Regrowing Forests.
  9. Grist. A Silicon Valley startup wants to "reengineer the climate." That could be dangerous.
  10. The Verge. Reddit CEO Yishan Wong resigns following privacy controversy.
  11. Newsweek. Reddits Former CEO Is Convinced The Site Will Be Democratized, But Users Are Skeptical.
  12. Terraformation Blog. Announcing the First Ever Solarpunk Art Contest.