Babak “Bobby” Yazdani: Bridging Abstract Thought and Entrepreneurship

07/12/2017 10:22 am ET

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Bobby Yazdani.

Bobby Yazdani is the founder and managing partner of Cota Capital, a firm investing in private and public technology companies. He is also founder of Signatures Capital, through which he has successfully mentored entrepreneurs and invested in over 100 early-stage startups. In 2014, Bobby was ranked #1 out of 2000 angel investors for successful follow-on funding by CB Insights.

Bobby founded Saba in 1997, and took the company public in 2000. Today, Saba is the leading provider of Human Capital Development & Management Solutions, serving over 30 million people from 2,200 customers across 195 countries and in 37 languages worldwide. Prior to Saba, Bobby worked at Oracle in various R&D roles.

In 2015, Bobby endowed the Signatures Innovation Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley to support data science projects with commercial promise. Bobby also serves as a founding member of the Persian Tech Entrepreneurs network, and a National Advisory Board Member of the Reset Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, Bobby completed high school in England and received a B.A. in applied mathematics at UC Berkeley.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born in 1963 in Tehran. I spent my formative years as the middle of three children in a middle class Iranian family. My parents were by far the biggest influence in my life, both in my formative years and still today. My father was a surgeon and my mother a nurse. They were both contemporary thinkers who wanted to be a part of the modernization of their country. My parents instilled in me a deep appreciation for education and cultural heritage. They had very strong principles surrounding humility, impact, cultural pride, family values, and independent thinking--all values that I continue to carry with me.

I went to a prominent private Catholic school for boys called Andisheh. My school was also a major influence on me because its diverse curriculum exposed me to different worldviews while inside of a majority Muslim country. The revolution took place during my high school years. Obviously, that was an extremely disorienting time; it all happened so rapidly and with such intensity. I witnessed and understood the chaos of regime change and the pains of revolution. You could see the cultural, political, and economic changes that the revolution brought everywhere you looked.

After the revolution, in 1980, I left Iran and moved to England, where I was enrolled in a boarding school. Moving from Iran to a Western, open society was a noticeable difference. In the UK, I felt welcomed, safe, and supported in my intellectual growth. After the revolution, my family had been scattered in different places, but my mother was persistent and ultimately successful in bringing everyone together here in the Bay Area. I moved here at the age of nineteen and attended the University of California Berkeley as an undergraduate.

My time at Cal proved to be yet another profound period in my evolution. There, I was exposed to an even more open society and open intellectual environment. Berkeley provided enormous opportunities to gain exposure to different ideas and worldviews. I tried to embrace all of it. I studied applied mathematics and computer science, but I believe the most important lessons I absorbed were not facts, but about how to think.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Even early in my career, I spent a lot of time thinking about how ideas can have profound impacts - in business, society, and culture. My own life journey was one that took me from a relatively closed society to a more open one. And of course, my views continue broadening to this day. I would hypothesize that, as a result of this progression, I was originally drawn to work with computing and technology as this work represents the edge of change and where ideas are having them most influence in today’s world.

The biggest inspiration for my career, outside of my parents and their desire to make a positive impact on the world in their professional lives, has been the incredible history of entrepreneurship in the United States. Since its inception, this country has produced a continuous march of people who have made profound impacts on the world, often despite coming from very humble beginnings. I honestly don’t think I would be who I am today if I had not come to America at the age that I did. Here, I was surrounded by so many stories of greatness and success, many of whom were immigrants and had very similar backgrounds to me.

You founded Saba, which is the leading provider of “Human Capital Development & Management Solutions,” serving over 30 million people from 2,200 customers across 195 countries and in 37 languages worldwide. What helped you reach such level of success?

I believe that one of the driving forces behind the success of Saba was a sense of competition that I had cultivated with myself. More than focusing on external measures of success, I tried to continually improve on my own performance and achieve personal growth goals. I wanted to win on behalf of the people around me, my colleagues at Saba, my family, and all of the people who supported me.

You are the founder and Managing Partner of Cota Capital, a firm investing in private and public technology companies and on development and support of entrepreneurs. Can you elaborate on your work and philosophy at this company?

I co-founded Cota Capital almost three years ago with the desire to synthesize everything I had done and learned during the course of my career up to then. Cota invests in technology companies at all stages, including companies at seed funding and growth stages, as well as publicly held companies. We have a very exciting portfolio, with many companies at the very leading edge of AI, AR, healthcare technology, SAAS, and more. Part of the work we do at Cota is identifying the best technologies that will create positive, innovative, and large-scale change. But another even more important part of our work is supporting the entrepreneurs who are essentially the conduits and champions of this change. This is why, even though we are always looking for new innovative companies and ideas, the team at Cota places a major emphasis on supporting our existing entrepreneurs.

In 2014, you were ranked #1 out of 2000 angel investors for successful follow-on funding by CB Insights. What made you become an entrepreneur and angel investor?

Many things drove me to become an entrepreneur, including a desire to be independent, to be impactful, to lead change, and to have a voice. The reasons that inspired me to become an angel investor are almost the same, but are also coupled with a desire to support other entrepreneurs.

Because I am an abstract thinker, I think I approach investing from a slightly different point-of-view than traditional angel investors. I use abstract notions and an intellectual lens to identify trends and ideas around me that are significant or new in some way. I am always in search of new data in the universe, and whenever I come across new data, I realize that it comes with opportunities. I am also always looking for how technology can create new experiences and immerse computing into the fabric of untapped parts of our lives. I think about ways that emerging computing capabilities can be immersed and manipulated in order to improve our experiences, much like Uber did with its ride-hailing app. The vehicle is the same vehicle as before -- a hired car -- but the way that we get to that vehicle and way the experience unfolds has completely changed. I am constantly looking for technologies like this that can result in an order of magnitude of change in an outcome, whether that change is in speed, size, storage capacity, analysis, or another measure of impact. However, it is not enough to be able to spot and understand these changes. One must also be able to do so very early in the game before others.

Can the creative process of entrepreneurship be taught and made more systematic? Why and why not?

I think you could potentially make entrepreneurship more teachable and systematic by providing more examples, stories, and benchmarks. And I think entrepreneurs could benefit from sharing more of their experiences with each other. But, on the other hand, I also believe that the entrepreneurship process by definition needs to be free and unscripted, so that risk-takers can be truly unhindered. There is one thing that I don’t think anyone can systematize or reproduce, and that is human motivation. What motivates us is essentially the collective experiences of our lives, and this is not something that can be taught in a course of entrepreneurship or truly replicated by emulation. So I am saying that, yes, in some ways you could support and systematize the creative process of entrepreneurship, but I think only to a certain extent.

What do you look for in a startup as you evaluate it for potential investment?

It’s hard sometimes with all of the noise and hype in the tech world to develop the discipline and focus necessary to evaluate a business as a potential investment. Of course I look at the entire picture, but there are several questions I must be able to answer in order to feel comfortable investing. First, I need to clearly understand what problem the company is claiming to solve. What is the complex challenge, need, or customer pain point is it addressing? And why is it important to solve? Second, I want to know why the solution being posed to the problem would be unique and impactful. What is the unique solution, how does it work, and how is it significantly better than other solutions to the problem? Third, I want to know the scalability of the company’s solution and the size of the market. Finally, and potentially most importantly, on a human level, I need to understand the motivation and capacity of the leadership team. Who is the management team, what is their background and why are they uniquely qualified to run this venture and deliver the solution to market?

What should startups focus on in order to attract investors?

Startups should focus on all of those things I just mentioned that investors like me are looking for. Are they defining a real problem, developing a unique and impactful solution, demonstrating a large market potential, and putting together a fantastic leadership team? In addition, I think one of the most important things that startups can do is repeatedly ask themselves why they are uniquely qualified to unleash their ideas, and what they can do increase those qualifications. Also, they should always be thinking strategically about how they can attract and develop a stellar team around them, and not just rely on a one-man or one-woman show. The team is a crucial factor for many reasons: they are going to be in it for the long haul, there will be tons of major hurdles, and if the concept doesn’t pan out, the capabilities and dynamics of the team will determine whether the startup can effectively pivot and adapt or not.

What has motivated you to endow the Signatures Innovation Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley to support data science projects with commercial promise?

I was motivated to endow the Signatures Innovation Fellowship because I am a strong advocate for the support of our public education system. Public universities are such incredible, dynamic and diverse institutions, and schools like UC Berkeley provide access to a world class education for people of diverse backgrounds and incomes. I also want to give back to the school that had such a major positive impact on my young life and helped set the stage for my future successes. I also see the program as a way to support young people similar to the young man I used to be, who are brimming with ideas, a strong sense of purpose, and want to make an impact on the world.

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