Business

She was the First Muslim in Space and Now She’s Mobilizing $1 Billion to Support Female-Founded Companies

A candid conversation with Anousheh Ansari

Businesses founded by women yield more than double the revenue of those founded by men. Yet in the U.S., women-founded companies receive less than 2% of venture capital investments. Is the fear of investing in female potential pushing up against data proving otherwise? Most certainly yes, says Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE, a leading nonprofit setting up competitions to tackle humanity’s greatest challenges. That’s why she recently became a founding member of The Billion Dollar Fund, an organization that aims to mobilize $1 billion to women-founded companies by 2020, by collecting pledges from venture capitalists and investors.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ansari’s story, prepare to be inspired: She emigrated to the United States from Iran as a teenager, speaking only Farsi, and graduated from George Washington University with a Master of Science in electrical engineering a few years later. In 2006, she founded Prodea Systems, an Internet of Things company, after previously creating a telecommunications technology called Telecom Technologies. In the same year, she went on an 11-day space expedition, becoming the world’s first female private space explorer and the first Muslim in space. After founding five businesses and earning a series of international distinctions, Ansari states she is ready to spend her “last youthful years in a way that will be fulfilling to her and to the legacy she wants to leave behind.”

On the View from 1,161,600 Feet:

“I became enamored with space when I was 6 or 7. Perhaps it gave me an escape from the reality around me. I also loved science. Everything else around me kept changing: War destroyed everything, people lied and no one could be trusted, but I could trust physics and maths and the scientific process. I believe that when you want something bad, the universe conspires to help you. In 2006, I got an offer to train as an astronaut backup crew member at the Russian Space Agency for 9 months. When I was there, the primary crew member developed a medical condition and was disqualified. I was able to jump in and fly to the International Space Station. Seeing the Earth from above was an incredibly life-changing experience. From space, Earth has no countries or borders. You truly see the planet as one home we all share together, and you see its fragility. That profoundly changes the way you see the world. You become one with the entire human race at that moment.”

“From space, Earth has no countries or borders. You truly see the planet as one home we all share together, and you see its fragility. That profoundly changes the way you see the world.”

-Anousheh Ansari

On the centuries-old biases and social conditioning holding women back:

“If you put a man and a woman with the exact same business plan and pitch, the tendency is that investors will choose the man over the woman. These are biases that have built over centuries. But there is also the problem that women go after funds, but not growth funds. Our ambitions and our confidence are — again, because of many centuries of whatever has happened in our society — not high enough to risk and go higher. I blame this on the way we are raised. We are raised to be perfect, to dress proper, to eat proper, to walk proper, to always look great. But when you want to be perfect, you don’t take risks. It is a learned risk-aversion from a young age that continues into your adulthood.” 

On change starting at home — and in the media:

“Recently a young father asked me how he can raise his daughter to become more confident and a risk-taker. I told him to let her climb that tree, to let her play in the dirt, to compliment her more on doing physically challenging things and less on her looks. Only if girls push boundaries the same way boys do will they learn to take risks. On their part, society, the media, the press, need to stop painting successful women as harsh. They could always celebrate and portray a very successful woman entrepreneur in the same way they celebrate Bill Gates.”

On the journey from the Iran-Iraq War to freedom and opportunity:

“When I was about 12, the Iranian Revolution happened. I witnessed death and destruction and the fear and scarcity that war brings. It was an experience I believe shaped my life, in that I have always wanted to make sure I can do anything to help people find solutions, that don’t involve war and military action, to their problems. Nobody wins at wars; the losers are mostly women and children. I came to the U.S. with my family when I was 16, speaking only Farsi and a little French. I arrived after the hostage crisis, so Iran was never viewed in a positive light anyway. In the U.S., everything was bigger and strange. I felt like an alien on another planet. I didn’t get into trouble with anyone, but the way people treated me, say, by not acknowledging me, especially in high school, made my adjusting difficult. On the other hand, America was a whole new world of opportunity and freedom. I didn’t need to wear the hijab, I could choose how I could dress, or what to study. Teachers helped me incredibly during those times: They helped me learn English, fill out applications for financial aid and more. Later I met many Americans who proved instrumental in my success, something I will always be grateful for.”

On the evolution from electrical engineering to serial entrepreneurship:

“I studied electrical engineering at George Mason University (while working as a cashier or waiting tables). In college, there were three or four women in a class of 40. But I wasn’t focused on that. I put my head down and studied hard to get out of school fast. After graduation, I interned at MCI, where I met my husband. In 1993, we co-founded Telecom. Since, I have founded about five companies. I am a serial entrepreneur. I run the company as a CEO, until it reaches a certain level; the ones that succeed I then sell or merge with other companies. Walking into a room with my husband and having people assume I am just the pretty face or the secretary and he the mastermind of our success is not unknown to me though.”  

On Steering the Wheel of the XPRIZE:

“My experience with space, coupled with my background in technology, instilled in me a sense of urgency. I felt that the world is changing rapidly in a way that is going to make our life onerous. I wanted to use my time, energy, talent and final productive years to activate entrepreneurs and innovators around the world to use technologies that can tackle humanity’s greatest challenges. As a CEO at the XPRIZE, I’m expanding the scope of the work we do. As an engineer, I am bringing my background in technology to help the organization look at how we use data, AI and machine learning, and make that available as a tool to our innovators. But as a woman, an Iranian-American and a Muslim one (though not a practicing one), I understand and feel it is necessary and important to have diversity in every aspect of the work we do, whether it’s gender diversity, age diversity, [or] diversity in the economic and socioeconomic status of the teams that compete in the XPRIZE ecosystem. Over these past few years, it saddens me to see what’s been happening in America, a place where democracy was practiced in its entirety.”

On women CEOs changing the world:

“There’s a lot of data out there that women CEOs actually perform better in terms of outcomes and success and profitability of the companies they found. In designing technologies, when women get involved, the designs are suitable for the entire population, and not only for people who fit the mold of the white man. Perhaps most important, women founders focus on services and technology that go beyond profit; they also look at the impact of a product on society, its meaningfulness for humanity. The greatest barrier for us women is our mindset. Yes, society puts obstacles in our way, but we must acknowledge them and work toward solving them. We don’t need to be bitter, just good at what we do. Hopefully, along the way, we will change opinions.”