May 23, 2016, Washington, D.C. – PAAIA interviewed highly successful tech entrepreneur and angel investor Hadi Partovi about his career path, being a successful Iranian American, and the importance of technology and coding in schools.
Hadi Partovi and his twin brother Ali were born in Tehran in 1972. After coming to the U.S., he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in computer science at Harvard University. Working at Microsoft, he helped develop Internet Explorer as project group manager, and was General Manager of MSN’s music and entertainment division. In 1999 he co-founded Tellme networks, pioneering innovative voice command software. Together with his brother Ali, he founded the iLike media player.
He has also served as a Senior Vice President at MySpace, and invested in Dropbox, BlueKai, Flixster, IronPort, Facebook, Zappos, Airbnb, and many more technology and environment companies during initial investment rounds.
Hadi Partovi’s most recent venture is code.org, a nonprofit he co-founded with his brother at which he serves as CEO. Code.org aims to “encourage people, particularly school students in the United States, to learn computer science.” The site promotes computer programming instruction in U.S. public schools, providing free coding lessons and educational tools. Code.org was the driving force behind the 2013 and 2014 Hour of Code initiative, supported by U.S. President Barack Obama, Apple, and Microsoft. Hour of Code used interactive programs to teach coding skills to students from four and above, the initiative successfully led to the participation 20 million people, who wrote over 600 million lines of code.
PAAIA: You were only twelve at the time you left Iran. How did this move affect you and how do you think your identity as an Iranian American has impacted your career choice and life choices?
Partovi: I lived in Iran during the Islamic revolution. The revolution completely up-ended my life As a 6-year-old, I remember almost everybody I knew in my extended family leaving the country. I was already in school, and I remember all the school books were changed because the old history books were no longer considered valid and we needed to learn from new books. The anthem we’d sing in class was changed, and we’d instead start the school day by chanting Allahhu Akbar and death to America. And soon after war broke out, my neighborhood was near the TV station and was a target for regular bombing raids, and naturally living in a city during war was not at all pleasant for me as a young child.
Coming to America completely changed my life again. I had gone from a war-torn country to the United States and the land of opportunity. I felt like I had a second chance at life again. My family was poor, and my extended family had lost everything as part of the revolution. So I saw this as my chance to ‘make it back.’ Many of my Iranian American cousins have also pursued similar entrepreneurial careers and I believe we all share a little bit of this same motivation.
PAAIA: Your ambition and success in the field notwithstanding, why did you choose to study computer science?
Partovi: The short answer: because of my father. When I was 10 years old, my father brought home a Commodore 64 computer from a trip he’d made to Italy for a conference. My dad told my twin brother and I that ‘this computer has no games, no apps, but here’s a book about BASIC programming. You can read it and make your own apps.’ My dad was the founding professor of Sharif University, so he was a great teacher and helped us learn to code. By the time we’d come to the United States I was quite good as a computer programmer, so when other teenagers would get jobs waiting tables or in gas stations, my brother and I would get jobs working at local tech companies. By the time we started college it was obvious that computer science was going to be my career.
PAAIA: Why did you decide to move from a successful career in tech entrepreneurship and investment to founding the education non-profit code.org?
Partovi: I realized that what motivated me in life was more the impact of my work. I’d done pretty well as an investor in tech startups, so I had the cushion to pursue a social impact venture. The original Code.org didn’t start out as a big national effort to change the education system. The original Code.org was just a hobby project to make a great video to convince people that computer science is important and that our schools should teach it, because the best paying jobs in the country were in a field that wasn’t being taught in our schools. But that video went viral, and after 10 million views in one week we had 20,000 teachers that reached out to ask for help bringing computer science opportunities to their students. Those teachers were the real inspiration to start a movement to change the U.S. education system, and they are the reason Code.org has been so successful. Our 300,000 teachers have introduced tens of millions of students to computer science, and have helped our impact spread to every country in the world.
PAAIA: What more should the government and concerned citizens do to fight for increased access to technology and coding computer science instruction in schools?
Partovi: Code.org has already introduced computer science to roughly 15% of the classrooms and students in the U.S.A., but to reach every school this needs government action. We recently started a nationwide effort to petition Congress to fund expanded access to computer science in grades K-12. This has the support of the CEOs of the biggest companies in the nation – from Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and Tim Cook all the way through the CEOs of Walmart, Verizon, Disney, and dozens of other CEOs, 30 governors, and all the top K-12 education leaders. But we need citizens to speak up:
Sign our petition at http://change.org/computerscience, or ask your Senator or Representative to fund K-12 computer science.
PAAIA: Iranian-Americans are mostly known for their success in the fields of medicine, engineering and high tech entrepreneurship. Through code.org, you have taken on public service and advocacy to reform the American education system and the related inequalities that exist in America. What does this project mean to you and what you think this means for the community as a whole? What does giving back in this way signify for immigrant groups and future generations of Iranian-Americans?
Partovi: I believe it’s the duty of every successful world citizen to give something back. I owe everything I’ve made to the education I received and to the opportunities I had growing up. Sure, life was difficult at times and my family overcame the adversity of living through a war. But when I came to America, a door was opened, and I took advantage of that opportunity to build a very successful career. Now that I have the comfort of choosing what I do with my time, there’s nothing more rewarding than to spend my time expanding opportunity for others. And as an Iranian American immigrant, I’m proud to set an example for other Americans to look at. At a time when our divisive politics have stirred up hatred and racism, at a time when “immigrant” and “Iranian” are words that stir up negative imagery in many people’s minds, it’s important to me to be proud of my heritage and to counter these negative stereotypes.
Click here to learn more about Hadi Partovi’s initiative for computer science access in public schools