ChIPster Spotlight: Payton Iheme

By Tyeesha Dixon

Facebook’s public policy manager brings international experience to high-impact job

‘17 ChIPs Global Summit speaker Payton Iheme started her career travelling the globe for the Army and went on to be a senior adviser to the Obama administration. Now, as Facebook’s public policy chief, Payton guides the social networking giant’s approach to sensitive issues around the world.

Payton Iheme traveled in a three-seater plane to the remote depths of Guyana’s rainforests years ago. As a humanitarian assistance director for the U.S. embassy, Payton frequented the country’s rural communities to provide on-the-ground medical and educational aid to indigenous subsistence farmers.

As she fished and wove baskets with the village children, Payton did not imagine that—not a decade later—she would have the opportunity to tackle public policy issues affecting people all over the globe for one of the most influential social networking services in the world.

Today, Payton is Facebook’s Washington, D.C.-based public policy manager. Her job is to help the tech and communications giant envision its impact on the world around it and use its numerous technologies for social good.

A policy guru in her own right, Payton has an unusual blend of experience in military strategy, international humanitarian work and senior civilian public policy. Her background makes her a unique asset in the new age of public policy.

Payton started her career as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army, serving overseas in Iraq and Germany. She transitioned into humanitarian assistance, directing aid provisions in Guyana. Payton continued her military and humanitarian work in Central America, South America and the Caribbean as a member of the elite Special Operations Command South, a joint, multi-military service operation that plans and executes strategic operations throughout that region of the world.

She would later transition to more policy-oriented roles, working, for instance, as one of the Army’s legislative liaisons to the U.S. Senate. She would also serve as a senior policy advisor to the White House during the Obama administration, working on technology, science and cyber policies, among others.

Payton’s vast experience tackling complex policy, diplomatic and technology issues has well-equipped her to navigate the myriad evolving policy issues Facebook encounters. It’s no secret Facebook has global reach in countless social arenas, influencing everything from dating norms to Mariah Carey’s album launch strategy. Nearly every policy issue Facebook faces comes across Payton’s proverbial “desk” (though she’s based in Washington, Payton’s job could take her anywhere).

Recently, for instance, Facebook acquired virtual reality start-up Oculus. This new line of business has required the company to think through the potential societal implications of expanding headset-based virtual reality technology beyond video gaming. Payton has also helped the company brainstorm ways to promote positive messaging to youth via Instagram and to explore innovative ways to effectively engage with younger demographics.

Payton, who earned a degree in communication technology from the University of Texas at Arlington, learned early on that appreciating and understanding evolving technology would be a critical part of her policy-related work.

She tells the story of early relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when she took on humanitarian work with the U.S. embassy there. Payton and her team realized a vital part of their recovery work would be to relay back home the story of the conditions on the ground. So, they created digital maps depicting the numbers of people gathered in flood areas to illustrate to the U.S. government and other international partners supporting relief efforts the scale of potential loss of life.

Though her days at Facebook are sometimes as fast-paced and unpredictable as the issues in her domain, Payton looks forward to the challenges and opportunities her work will bring. She continues to draw on her past experiences and the people who influenced her along the way. Her family, for instance, remains an important driving force in her life and career. Payton’s mother, in fact, cheered her on at the 2016 ChIPs Summit, where Payton presented the Hall of Fame award to her friend, Megan Smith, the first female Chief Technology Officer for the United States.

All in all, Payton’s role at Facebook allows her to continue one of her favorite parts of her work in the public sector—using cutting-edge technologies to help people around the globe.

“There’s real people on the other end of it,” Payton says of her policy work. “I like being given a challenge or opportunity and to help advise on a strategy to connect to real people.”

Find Payton on the Women’s Media Center Shesource database of media-experienced experts that can be connected to journalists, bookers and producers.