WhatsApp Founder Jan Koum's Jewish Rags-to-Riches Tale

Silicon Valley Mogul Was Broke Ukraine Immigrant

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By Reuters

Published February 20, 2014.
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WhatsApp grew up in Silicon Valley, but its founder’s Jewish background in Eastern Europe gave it its DNA.

The messaging company bought by Facebook for $19 billion in a deal announced on Wednesday has become a global force, with 450 million customers who find it an easy way to send messages across borders and between different brands of mobile devices.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer Jan Koum, 37, grew up mostly in the Ukraine, and moved to Mountain View, California, as a teenager, an immigrant path reminiscent of other Silicon Valley successes such as Max Levchin, the Ukrainian-born co-founder of Paypal, and Google’s Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin.

Like technology titans Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Koum dropped out of college, but in his case, it was San Jose State rather than Harvard.

Koum’s eastern European background was key to WhatsApp’s creation, according to Jim Goetz, the partner at Sequoia Capital who backed the company.

Unlike companies such as Google and Facebook, which try to learn as much as possible about each user, WhatsApp does not collect personal information such as name, gender, or age, Goetz wrote in a blog post, and messages are deleted from servers once delivered.

“It’s a decidedly contrarian approach shaped by Jan’s experience growing up in a communist country with a secret police,” Goetz wrote. “Jan’s childhood made him appreciate communication that was not bugged or taped.”


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