Tuesdays with T4A: Ali Partovi (10/08/13)

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This week, we interview T4A.org Convening Board member Ali Partovi.

Ali Partovi
Angel investor, Advisor | Dropbox, & Co-Founder | Code.org
Ali is an angel investor, entrepreneur and co-founder of Code.org, a non-profit foundation dedicated to growing computer programming education. Ali founded code.org with his brother, Hadi, who lives in Seattle. Ali has been an advisor and angel investor to a number of companies including Zappos, Facebook, Dropbox and MySpace. Previously, Ali co-founded and served as CEO of iLike, Inc and served as a CEO of GarageBand.com. Ali lives in Oakland, California.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Tehran, Iran, and grew up in Iran until moving to the US in 1984 to avoid the draft (this was during the Iran-Iraq war). I arrived in Tarrytown, NY in 7th grade and that’s where I stayed through high school.
What was your first job?
My first job was as a computer programmer in the M.I.T. Spectroscopy Lab (ie Laser Lab), where my dad worked at the time. Together with Hadi, I spent a summer building a database and report-generating system to help the lab manage their grant applications.
What is your first political memory?
My first political memories stem from Iran: I was seven years old when the Shah was deposed by Ayotollah Khomeini in 1979.  I remember once my parents took me to see the actual demonstrations: we joined an enormous crowd on a rooftop, chanting rebellious chants like “God is great” and “There is no God but Allah” along with hundreds of thousands of other Iranians who were chanting on rooftops or marching in the streets.
What is your favorite book?

The best book I’ve read in the past ten years is The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It motivated me to commit investing significant time and money towards the goal of a more sustainable food & agriculture system in the US.

Your organization, Code.org, is working to make sure that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science. Seems like a no-brainer—why isn't it already the case?

The US education system has not kept pace with the emergence and rapid ascendance of computer science. The vast majority of states don’t recognize computer science as a science. In some cases, this is due to conservative and/or misinformed bureaucrats who mistakenly confuse computer science for “vocational training” and therefore relegate it to the same status as “wood-working” or other such classes.

When it doesn’t count towards graduation credit as a math or science, Computer Science is treated as an elective, which dissuades students from studying it, and makes it the victim of budget cuts along with other electives like art and music. Low-income and minority schools are the ones with the tightest budgets, and therefore the least likely to invest in offering Computer Science.

You work with your twin brother Hadi on a lot of projects. What are the biggest benefits (and challenges) of working with your brother?
The biggest benefit is that Hadi is a lot smarter and harder-working than myself, which lets me get credit for a lot more than anything I could do myself.  Also, being identical twins makes it easier to get PR and attention for just about anything we do together.  We do have brotherly fights, often over the least important things, so we try to avoid working too closely on the same thing at any given time.
Who are your role models and why?
Bono, the lead singer of U2, because he has the courage to blend his causes with his livelihood.  Most people have to divide their attention between making money, their charitable causes, and their political causes.  For Bono, they reinforce each other: he uses his music and concerts to promote his causes; and his passion for his causes is a big part of what draws fans to U2.
As you look at your community, city/state/country, how do you view your role/responsibility as a citizen? Within that context, how do you view your role as citizen in relation to our Government and Democracy?
I think voting is the minimum responsibility of a citizen, and that one’s responsibility grows along with one’s means.  As I’ve earned money, learned skills, and developed a personal network, I feel that much more responsible to use all my resources to improve our government
Just about everyone (regardless of political affiliation) sees a large gap between our politics (Washington, DC as well as state capitals) and the reality on the issues we face as a Country. Why do you think that is? I know it's a tough question, but what do you think can be done to close that gap?

I think our elected officials are too paralyzed by fear. It’s rare for any of them to step forward and be “real.” Instead of real leadership, which would entail addressing challenging issues and espousing difficult decisions (and facing threats from well-funded lobbies), too many politicians take the “safe” way out: they join the soap opera and dissolve into the pack of the party.

In reality, any politician who shows courage, takes risks, and does the right thing is usually rewarded by voters. One ray of hope is that internet-based tools, from petitions to twitter, can start giving politicians data to back this up, and hopefully as these tools improve our elected officials will gain more courage.

Are political parties becoming less relevant today, particularly for young adults? Whatever your answer, why do you think that is?
In my opinion, the two-party system is becoming less relevant, even as young adults are becoming more engaged. I see three reasons: 1) People are passionate about issues, not parties. For most of us, neither party is a perfect match to their views. It feels like a “lesser of evils” choice. 2) The two parties aren’t different enough. Neither party is willing to touch the military-industrial complex, or to take on powerful interests like the banking or food industries, and so on.  3) Party politics feels increasingly “old” and tethered down to geographic identity and old money. Party affiliation was once a source of identity; yet thanks to the internet, we can establish much richer connections and identify with more meaningful communities. I feel less common interests with the average Democrat or Republican in California, than, say, a fellow tech entrepreneur in New York or Austin.
Do you think the shutdown and impending default of the United States Federal Government will serve as a wakeup call to Congress that they need to figure out a way to work together?
Unfortunately, no.  I think action by the voters is what would do that; and it needs to start with a new batch of primary challengers (on both sides of the aisle).
What is your favorite journey?
One of my most memorable trips was a visit to India with a handful of friends just after college. Living on just a few dollars per day, we stayed in abysmal quarters and travelled the country by bus. It was an amazing experience.
If you could be anyone else for a day, who would you be?
Myself.
What is your proudest moment?
When my first company was acquired, I remember just after the deal closed, walking into the office and looking around, realizing that dozens of my close friends and employees had just become millionaires, thanks to our efforts and thanks to how generously we had given stock options.
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