THE BLOG
08/21/2015 09:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hadi Partovi's American Dream: Making Coding Available to All

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(CREDIT: Karen Ducey photo)

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 West Asia Council 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 endeavour. 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. The following is our interview with Hadi Partovi.

Hadi Partovi is an entrepreneur and investor, and also co-founder and CEO of the non-profit Code.org, whose mission is to make computer science and programming education available to young students in schools in America and around the world. As an entrepreneur, he was on the founding teams of Tellme and iLike. As an angel investor and startup advisor, Hadi's portfolio includes Facebook, Uber, Dropbox, airbnb, Zappos, OPOWER, IndieGogo, and many others. Hadi is a graduate of Harvard University (M.S. & B.A. Computer Science). For more details, please click [here]

Where did you grow up and go to school? What and who were your most formative influences when you were growing up?

In my early years, we had a lot of life changes that influenced me - partly from moving from country to country, and partly from adapting to revolution and war. I was born in Tehran in 1972, but when I was 2 years old we moved to Boston, Massachusetts for a few years while my mother was studying at Boston University and my dad was doing research at M.I.T. We returned to Tehran a few years later, just before the Iranian revolution. My twin brother Ali and I started Kindergarten as the only Iranians in the class who couldn't speak Farsi (we had forgotten our Farsi and learned English).

The Iranian Revolution happened when I was seven years old. Soon after, Iraq invaded the country, and our neighborhood (being close to the main television station) was a regular bombing target for nightly air raids. Gas stations and grocery stores would have lines that stretched for hours. The evenings when electricity wasn't cut off for a blackout, our family would watch the nightly news to learn the latest in the hostage crisis.

We left Iran in 1984, initially to live in Trieste, Italy, and a few months later we arrived in the United States. Needless to say, it was a relief not to worry about bombs and hostages and food shortages. My new worry was that as a young teenager in a new country, I had absolutely no idea how to fit in, how to socialize, or how to make friends. I had to start learn all those things in middle school, which was a challenge, to say the least.

In my first 18 years, one of my most formative influences was simply learning how to adapt to continuous changes in the social, regulatory, and economic environment I lived in. My second big influence was when my dad brought home a personal computer, a Commodore 64, when I was 10 years old. It didn't have any apps, games, or software, but he gave my brother and I a book, and he said "learn to make your own games." By the time I was a teenager I was an excellent programmer, and when my high school friends would get jobs waiting tables or working at a gas station, my brother and I would work as computer programmers earning ten times the pay.

Was it at Harvard that you decided to make a career as a business leader and entrepreneur or did this happen later? Who were your first role models in the world of business and technology innovation?

At Harvard I expected to follow a career in science like my father, who had been a theoretical physicist - he was the founding professor of Sharif University and chair of its physics department. I majored in computer science, and in my senior year, the field of computer science changed completely with the invention of the World Wide Web. It became clear to me (and to many others working in the field) that this was a very, very big deal, and that the business opportunities were nearly endless. I decided that I wanted to create a career at the intersection of business and technology. I joined Microsoft during the "kinda early" days - it was a public company, but it was still in the early days of Windows, and I thought it would be a good place to learn. Bill Gates was a very early role model, and he is still a role model of mine, not only because of his business success, but because of his passion for philanthropy and for funnelling his success into changing the world for the better.

In the view of Joseph Schumpeter, the late Austrian economist, an entrepreneur is someone who takes risks and brings together numerous disparate factors to create something new that generates significant new wealth. What is your philosophy of business leadership and entrepreneurship? In a similar vein, can we think of social and political innovation? Or is it mostly in the business world that entrepreneurship flourishes?

I remember reading a short sentence of advice when I was in college. It said: "behind every problem lies an opportunity." In my mind, one of the key characteristics of an entrepreneur is the ability to look at a problem, to see a vision of a different world that solves that problem, and to then plunge headlong into realizing that vision, regardless of the obstacles. It's this balance of vision, risk-tolerance, and tenacity that makes for successful entrepreneurs. I don't think these rules are any different between business entrepreneurs or social/political entrepreneurs, although natural financial incentives drive the best and the brightest to business entrepreneurship first. What I do think is different is tech entrepreneurship, because technologists tend to look at the world with a greater optimism in their ability to change and transform things, and because tech entrepreneurs come up with radically scalable solutions, the like of which often couldn't be imagined by somebody without a tech background. Even the culture of a tech company (whether it's a business or a nonprofit) is radically different from a non-tech company.

When thinking of the origins of technology entrepreneurship, the U.S. has been and remains the main engine of innovation, which has propelled growth across the world. And yet relative "newcomers" such as China and South Korea are also making great strides in this area. What can the U.S. do maintain its global leadership position in this area?

Innovation is about talent. For the U.S. to maintain its leadership in innovation, we need to lead in talent, plain and simple. Whether that means "growing" our talent via our education system, or whether it means "importing" or retaining talent via immigration, the U.S. needs one or the other or both, or we will otherwise eventually lose our innovative edge. This is most critical in the field of computer science. It's one of the fastest-growing fields across all job categories, and it's definitely the fastest-growing field when it comes to innovation, yet 75% of U.S. schools don't even teach it. This is the problem my non-profit (Code.org) is working to solve. It's more sustainable (and fair) in the long run for our education system to give our young students the opportunity to excel at this field than to constantly import talent to make up for the failings of our education system.

In your view, what is the role of immigrant or "diaspora" communities in promoting U.S. leadership in innovation? What impact has the diversity of American society had on the country itself and on the world, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation?

America is the land of immigrants. Other than Native Americans, everybody else living in this country is an immigrant or descended from one, which means almost everything built or invented in this country was built by immigrants - from telephone to the light bulb, from the airplane to the television, and from the personal computer to the Internet. In the last few decades, with the explosion of the tech industry, a number of immigrant groups have had an outsized influence in technology entrepreneurship and innovation: Asian Americans (especially Chinese, Japanese, and Indian), Israeli Americans, and Iranian Americans. As an Iranian American, I'm particularly proud of this. Few people realize that LASIK surgery was invented by an Iranian American, or that JPEG compression was invented by an Iranian American, or that Dropbox was co-founded by an Iranian American, or that Expedia is run by an Iranian American, and YouTube was formerly run by an Iranian American. And if you look one level below the CEOs, Iranian Americans are everywhere in the tech industry. Everywhere.

While the positive and transformative economic impact of computers and technology is indisputable, a few recent books have focused on the negative impact of the full and unquestioning embrace of machines. The recent books by Nicholas Carr and Martin Ford make the case that excessive focus on machines and their all-pervasive presence - at the expense of human communication - have had a negative impact on people's attention spans, social skills, and have worked to fray traditional human bonds. Do they have a point or is this just old-school romanticism?

It won't be until 100 years from now that we'll get a sense of the full impact of the technology revolution of the last few decades. For sure our modes of communication have changed: a lot of "in-person-time" was replaced by "TV-time" in the late 20th century, and now both are being replaced by "screen-time" with our computers and phones. And a lot of jobs will also be displaced. 50 years from now it will be impossible to get a basic job working in trucking or manufacturing - some of the largest fields of employment today - not only because some of the work is being outsourced to other countries, but because it will be completely automated and performed by machines. Does this mean we'll all be jobless? Nobody knows, but I don't think so. When the loom was invented, many people predicted that there would be no more jobs for weavers. This is a pattern we've seen every century, as human invention improves human productivity and reduces menial labor, while the education system adapts to teach higher-level skills. What's different this time is that computer-automation can provide nearly infinitely more scalable replacements for a wider variety of jobs, and it's not clear whether this is the same pattern or something totally new that one day even replaces us all completely! We'll know in 100 years.

You have played influential roles at Microsoft and Facebook, two companies with a huge impact on our economy and daily lives. Can you share any personal stories with Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg? Bill Gates, through the Gates Foundation, is arguably the most significant American philanthropist who ever lived. What would the world be like if other men and women of great wealth were as giving as he is?

In my personal dealings, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg share a lot in common. In fact, the very first time I met Mark Zuckerberg, he was 20 or 21 years old, and in my first meeting I told him "you remind me a LOT of Bill Gates." Their most common trait was a laser-focused, single-minded, absolute commitment to a vision of the future - in Bill's case that of a computer on every desktop and in every home, and in Mark's case that of connecting the entire world. Many other entrepreneurs I've seen are distracted by revenue, by investors, by personal wealth, or by the allure of luxury; and the company is often just a means to achieve a financial goal. Whereas for each of Bill and Mark, the vision was the goal, and the money seemed almost like this really useful side effect of success. It's when you take that outlook that you can also understand Bill Gates' commitment to philanthropy, because his work at Microsoft never seemed about the money itself. To me, much more influential than the Gates Foundation itself is his Giving Pledge, a rallying cry for all the world's billionaires to dedicate at least half their net worth to philanthropy. And of course, I'll be first in line to sign up if I'm ever a billionaire.

What is your philosophy of philanthropy and giving back? In a related vein, you are a significant supporter of "Impact Investing" (investments that have the mission of generating a financial and a social/environmental return). What criteria do you use to support ventures?

As a tech entrepreneur, I believe that today's technologists should think about philanthropy as more than just giving money. The culture and innovation-spirit of the tech industry is sorely lacking from most of today's philanthropic ventures. When I began Code.org, I could have easily chosen to pick somebody to run it, I'd donate some money to kick-start it, and then go about doing something else. Instead, I've worked full-time for almost 3 years, often 70 or 80 hours in a week, to help Code.org reach its current level of impact. There's absolutely no way we'd have achieved as much if I were simply donating money. That's not to say that I did it all. We have an amazing team, and the most important thing I've done is to handpick our team: nobody gets a job at Code.org without being interviewed by me and passing one of my technical tests (even if they're not applying for work as a software engineer). I'd love to see more of the best and brightest entrepreneurs from the tech industry similarly take a shot at solving our country's problems even in cases where there's no money in it.

When it comes to venture investing, I still invest money to "help pay the bills" (and particularly to fund continued donation to Code.org). And my number one criterion for investing in a venture is to evaluate the caliber of the team. All of my best investments were investments in great people, even if they had what I considered a weak idea. And the reverse is also true. I've also tried to focus on investing in companies that identify ways to make money while impacting society in a good way. This isn't just to help the world - I also think it's easier to win the hearts and minds of customers, employees, and investors if your company is doing something more than just earning profits. In the case of OPOWER, their software helps reduce mankind's carbon footprint. In the case of airbnb and Uber, they enable ordinary people to earn extra money on top of their regular wages, creating economic opportunity for the "little guy." In the case of Bridge International Academies, they're opening private schools in Africa that are far more effective than the public schools. These have turned out not only to be great investments; they're also helping make the world a better place.

You recently co-initiated a full-page signed by prominent Iranian-Americans, to voice your collective support the nuclear agreement with Iran that ensures the country complies with international nonproliferation standards. What motivated you to undertake this effort?

The motivation was simple: to support diplomacy over war, and to give Iranian Americans a public voice. Iranian Americans have helped build so much of this country, our culture and history shares so many American ideals, and yet many Iranian Americans introduce themselves as "Persian," almost to hide their heritage out of embarrassment.

Iranian Americans don't share the same religion, the same political beliefs, or the same socio-economic status. But we all share pride in our heritage and our accomplishments. With the announcement of the historic nuclear deal with Iran, I felt the time had come for us to have a public voice, especially on such an important issue. While there are many valid criticisms of the current nuclear deal with Iran, I'm confident that a diplomatic solution to this problem is FAR better than another U.S. war in the Middle East, which seems the only other viable alternative anybody has offered.

If political conditions and the current sanctions permit, would you consider investing in computer science education in Iran and other countries in West Asia? And, in a related vein, apart from the strong work ethic of immigrants, what is the reason behind the visible success of Iranian-Americans in technology-related fields?

Code.org's work is already impacting countries in every single country in the world. Students and teachers in every country have used and enjoyed our online courses. Code.org is my life mission, and although it's a pretty U.S.-focused mission today, who knows what the world will bring. Iran is pretty far ahead of the United States when it comes to computer science education. In the U.S., 75% of schools don't even teach computer science. While I don't know the exact numbers in Iran, I've been told that most urban high schools in Iran offer computer science. Iran, like many East Asian countries, has a very strong culture of education, especially in technology, which is a large part of why the Iranian diaspora have excelled in so many technical fields.