Nicole Shanahan: from philanthropist lawyer to RFK Jr’s running mate

<span>Nicole Shanahan speaks during a campaign event in Oakland, California, on 26 March 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</span>
Nicole Shanahan speaks during a campaign event in Oakland, California, on 26 March 2024.Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Robert F Kennedy Jr, the prominent anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist who is running for president as an independent, announced on Tuesday that his running mate will be Nicole Shanahan. A Silicon Valley attorney and wealthy philanthropist, Shanahan has never held office and has little background in politics.

Shanahan, 38, was previously best known in the media as the wife of Google co-founder and tech billionaire Sergey Brin. Their divorce in 2021 made headlines after the Wall Street Journal reported that Shanahan allegedly had an affair with Brin’s friend and fellow tech mogul Elon Musk, resulting in a falling out between Brin and the Tesla chief executive. Shanahan and Musk denied any affair took place.

Related: Robert F Kennedy Jr names tech lawyer Nicole Shanahan as 2024 running mate

In recent months, Shanahan became a major backer of Kennedy’s campaign and bankrolled his controversial Super Bowl commercial that imitated a John F Kennedy campaign ad and caused Kennedy family members to condemn the spot. Shanahan donated $4m to the Super Pac behind the ad, telling the New York Times that she saw an opportunity to highlight Kennedy’s candidacy and agreed with his stances on the environment and vaccines.

Although Shanahan has stated that she is not an anti-vaxxer, she told the Times that “I do wonder about vaccine injuries” and suggested that there need to be more conversations about vaccines. Kennedy has repeatedly promoted numerous falsehoods about vaccinations, including debunked theories that link childhood vaccines with autism.

Shanahan and Brin have a daughter with autism, and Shanahan told People magazine last year that she dedicates around 60% of her time to researching the condition. Shanahan has also donated funding to the University of California, Davis’s Mind Institute, which researches autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions. The Mind Institute did not respond to a request for comment on Shanahan’s donation or her candidacy.

In an interview with Newsweek published the same day Kennedy announced Shanahan as his running mate, Shanahan blamed the media for calling Kennedy an “anti-vaxxer” and said that a “Silicon Valley mom” friend told her to do her own research. Shanahan and Kennedy discussed her becoming his vice-presidential pick during a dinner party last month, according to the interview.

Before becoming one of Kennedy’s most prominent donors, Shanahan previously donated thousands in campaign contributions to a range of Democratic politicians. Some of the recipients included the California congressman Ro Khanna, the Virginia congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, and several fundraising efforts backing Joe Biden for president.

Shanahan grew up in Oakland, in what she has described as a difficult and at times violent childhood that included relying on government welfare and her father being diagnosed with schizophrenia. She later attended law school to become a patent attorney and married an investor from the Bay Area, but divorced in 2015. Shanahan first met Brin at the Wanderlust yoga retreat and the pair began dating, according to the Wall Street Journal, marrying in 2018. Their divorce became the subject of intense media scrutiny both for the alleged affair with Musk, as well as Shanahan reportedly seeking $1bn in a settlement. The divorce was eventually settled in a confidential arbitration.

Many of Shanahan’s public interests and philanthropic donations are emblematic of the wealthy world of Silicon Valley that has come to embrace Kennedy as one of their own. She is president of a non-profit that funds a range of causes including reproductive longevity, a field of growing fascination within the tech world, and has pledged to give millions in funding its research. In interviews, Shanahan often speaks in Silicon Valley tropes such as meeting her current husband at Burning Man and attending the Hoffman Institute, a weeklong therapy retreat popular with celebrities and tech elites.

During Kennedy’s lengthy announcement of Shanahan’s candidacy, he lauded her as a “technologist” and said that they share the same values and concerns about the country.

“I found a vice-president who shares my indignation about the participation of big tech as a partner in the censorship, surveillance and the information warfare that our government is currently waging against the American people,” Kennedy said.