Search Why the rise of Iranian-Americans in tech is no surprise

Why the rise of Iranian-Americans in tech is no surprise ...
techcrunch.com 29/08/2017 Internet-IT

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Longtime Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has put Iranians and Iranian-Americans in the spotlight. In part, that’s because the 48-year-old, just elected to become Uber’s new CEO, fled Iran with his family at age 9 to escape the Iranian Revolution. In part, his ties to other people of Iranian descent in the U.S. tech world are, well, extensive.
As The Washington Post noted in an article earlier today, Khosrowshahi’s brother, Kaveh Khosrowshahi, is a managing director with Allen & Co. His cousin, Amir Khosrowshahi, co-founded Nervana, an artificial intelligence company that Intel acquired last year for more than $400 million. He is also cousins with Hadi and Ali Partovi, high-powered twins who are both founders and tech investors.
As if that’s not enough, the Post says two other family members include Farzad “Fuzzy” Khosrowshahi, who played a role in creating Google spreadsheets, and Avid Larizadeh Duggan, a London-based general partner at GV.
Venture capitalist Pejman Nozad, who was practically penniless and unable to speak English when he moved to the U.S. from Iran in 1992, says that neither Khosrowshahi’s success, nor that of his extended network, should come as a shock to anyone who knows how Iranian families tend to operate — putting family and friends first, followed closely by a dedication to study, particularly of math and science.
“Math and science are so rooted in Iranian culture,” says Nozad, who today co-manages the venture firm Pear, which he co-founded roughly four years ago with friend and fellow investor Mar Hershenson.
Nozad points to Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman and first Iranian to win the Fields Medal, often described as the rough equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematicians. (Sadly, Mirzakhani, who was most recently a professor at Stanford, passed away last month at age 40, a victim of aggressive breast cancer.)
Nozad also evokes Sharif University of Technology in Iran, which has produced large numbers of PhD students for Stanford, as Newsweek once noted. In fact, the report praised Sharif as having “one of the best undergraduate electrical-engineering programs in the world.”
Interestingly, the university was cofounded by the Partovi brothers’ father, Firooz, who was also the school’s first professor. It’s also where Mirzakhani nabbed her undergraduate degree.
As for what else could be at work, Nozad suggests that a focus on looking after other Iranians is key. Speaking of the Iranians he knows, he calls them “all really kind and caring and compassionate,” a trait that he insists extends to the corporate workplace. “We are raised to care for each other and I think we treat companies like family, too.”
Certainly, Khosrowshahi seems to have won over employees at Expedia, more than 2,200 of whom gave him such high marks that he was recently ranked 39 of 100 of the top-rated CEOs in the U.S. at the jobs website Glassdoor.
Nozad is himself known as a masterful networker and has created a welcoming atmosphere at Pear, formerly called Pejman Mar Ventures. (StrictlyVC reported on its micro community in the making back in 2014.)
Further, he notes, in Palo Alto, San Francisco and Vancouver, a broader swath of Iranians and Iranian-Americans meet up in informal Friday breakfasts called Noon Barbari — named after a popular Persian flatbread that’s eaten with a cheese like feta or jam. Guests can come any time and leave any time, but they know that networking, support and a free flow of ideas is always on the menu.
Yet a third factor may come into play, suggests Nozad, whose family fled from Tehran to Germany in the 1980s, and who famously sold rugs to tech millionaires before becoming a full-time investor. Like a lot of people with something to prove, many Iranians have had a lot to overcome in order to get to the U.S., and they don’t take life in this country for granted.
“Most of us started our lives in America with next to nothing — at ground zero,” says Nozad. “But America never judged me based on my country or origin or my language or my heritage or my religion. I’ve been given every single opportunity, and I’m forever grateful for it.”
Success isn’t lost on Nozad, or on Khosrowshahi, or many in the Iranian community, which partly explains why many members have become vocal about their opposition to the policy and rhetoric of President Trump, who has actively worked to slow Muslin Americans from entering into the U.S., including from Iran.
Shortly after Trump’s first travel ban was issued, Khosrowshahi sent a memo to Expedia employees, saying that Trump’s maneuverings could result in an “ever so slightly less dangerous as a place to live, but it will certainly be seen as a smaller nation, one that is inward-looking versus forward thinking, reactionary versus visionary.”
His cousin, Hadi Partovi, echoed the same sentiment when talking with The Atlantic earlier this year. “Americans use products created by Iranians, or go to doctor’s offices and are treated by Iranians regularly,” said Partovi, who co-founded the tech-backed nonprofit Code.org with his brother, Ali. “This is not a culture that threatens America, and for us to reject immigration from the country for a false sense of security seems wrong to me.”
In fairness to the current administration, Iranians started raising the alarm a year earlier, when former President Obama signed a law that they believed paved the way for the Muslim ban. More than 30 VCs and CEOs sent an open letter to Congress, slamming “discriminatory” travel laws.
A list of other successful people of Iranian descent who work in tech was created earlier today by entrepreneur Ali Tahmaseb and is worth checking out. On it: Google’s former chief business officer (and now Twitter’s executive chairman) Omid Kordestani; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar; investor Shervin Pishevar; and Tinder’s Sean Rad, among many others.
Not included on the list, which doesn’t claim to be comprehensive: Serial entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, an engineer who, in 2006, became the first Iranian in space. She made the trip several days after her 40th birthday.
Photo of Dara Khosrowshahi

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