Karman Elahian is Chairman of Silicon Valley based Global Innovation Catalyst, an advisory services firm connecting countries in the AMENA Asia, Middle East and North Africa) region. He co founded a multi-billion USD tech company in the US. He defines himself as an innovation catalyst, philanthropist, entrepreneur without borders and a global venture capitalist. In 2016, he was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, an American award founded by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO), that pays homage to the immigrant experience and the contributions made to America by immigrants and their children. The chairman and co founder of Global Innovation Catalyst, Elahain was here in Addis on his first visit. He met with Ethiopian government and African Union officials to talk about creating 10 million tech based jobs in Africa. Capital had a chance to talk to him during his stay about his ambitious project. Excerpts;
Capital: Can you tell us about yourself and your background?
Elahian: I left my native country, Iran, at the age of 18 for the United States. Serendipitously, I attended the University of Utah, where computer graphics was invented in the late 60s and was the playground of the founders of Pixar, Adobe, Attari and Silicon Graphics in the early 70s. By the age of 22, I had two Bachelors and a Masters degree.
I then joined Hewlett Packard (Palo Alto) in corporate engineering, and while working as a design automation software engineer, I was accepted by Stanford University, HP-Stanford Honors program in Integrated Circuit (chip) design. I designed a chip that didn’t work and my professor told me I was a poor engineer. Unfazed, I proposed to lead a new program at HP, the first of its kind in the industry, to use computer graphics in the development of Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) software to help chip engineers. Management rejected my idea, they told me I was too young and inexperienced to lead a project of my own. Consequently, I left the company with four of my colleagues to launch my own company.
Capital: You have founded or co-founded Tech companies that have gone to IPOs and are valued in Billions of Dollars. Can you tell us a little bit about the companies you founded and their stages now?
Elahian: At the age of 27, I co-founded CAE Systems. Within 3 years, it was acquired by Tektronix for USD75M. At the age of 30, I co-founded Cirrus Logic, the leading fables chip company which had its IPO valued at USD150M in less than 5 years. Its revenue grew to over USD 1B within 10 years of its founding and its market cap reached over USD 3.5B.
And again I co-founded Momenta in 1989, where we created the leading touch sensitive tablet and pen product: Momenta Computer which was preceding the iPad by 18 years. My heady success clouded my decisions. Shipping an unfinished product and optimistic sales projections led to me being fired by the board of directors on April 1, 1992 (I thought that it was an April fools joke.). Not knowing what to do next, I retreated from business and I spent the next year traveling the world, studying various languages, cultures and religions. What became obvious to me was that in every country, people were often so proud of their heritage and religion, that they believed they were special and the chosen ones.
Capital: You have been well known for your philanthropy and empowering refugees and disadvantaged people throughout your life. Can you tell us the story of how you opened an ICT training centre in a refugee camp in Africa 20 years ago.
Elahian: My wife and best friend, Zohre and I married young. We share a passion for philanthropy and making a difference in this world. Together, we have supported a multitude of projects and organizations through the Global Catalyst Foundation (its mission supports projects to improve education, eradicate poverty, promote social tolerance, and celebrate diversity).
People ask me why I care so much about making a difference in the world. The reality is that the impact of war and violence on the last two generations of our families have led us to believe that if we can empower people through the use of the Internet and communication technologies, we have a genuine chance to give this generation and the generations of the future the knowledge to appreciate and celebrate our differences. Ultimately, my dream is a world without war. It is the only way to bend the arc of human civilization toward unification.
Capital: How would you describe your worldview?
Elahian: you’ll find that people are fundamentally the same. Once you set aside the biases of nationality and religion I came away with the belief that we could use technology to empower people to experience what I had learned. This belief created the three guiding principles that have shaped my life:
(1) Create new technologies that bring people together,
(2) Create new global companies with activities in many different countries that motivate people to work together, and
(3) Create global foundations that apply ICT to improve education, reduce poverty and promote tolerance.
Capital: What motivated you to visit to Ethiopia, who is advising you about Ethiopia?
Elahian: It is Zekarias, from Ibex Frontier Investment Advisory. He advised me to come to Ethiopia for the first time and facilitate and arrange everything to meet Ministers of Innovation Getahun Mekuria and officials from AU to have a discussion on creating tech drive job opportunities that is helping us, advising us, in existing opportunities and introducing us to the relevant people.
Capital: Your Company has a bold vision to create innovation jobs across the world? Tell us a bit about it.
Elahian: Global innovation catalyst has a bold plan to create more than 10 million innovation jobs worldwide in the next 10 years, out of which 5Million goes to Africa.
Capital: In your meeting with Innovation Minster what was the core of your discussion?
Elahian: In my meeting with Innovation Minster Getahun, we had a good discussion on how Global innovation catalyst will do with Ethiopian government and tasks to do in partnership in order to implement our companies programme . For Ethiopia, Global Innovation Catalyst is glad to decide to announced that half million tech drive job opportunities of the 5Million jobs allocated to Africa. This is about 10% of Africa’s allocation which Ethiopia gets the highest share from this in as our discussion with the ministry of innovation, The opportunities will be given primarily for university graduates to engage in tech based employment opportunities by providing training and financial support.
Capital: Can you tell us how you plan to implement the initiatives?
Elahian: Global innovation Catalyst is closely working with the UN, World Bank Group and universities the training is given in collaboration with Stanford University.
Capital: What does Your Company currently does with regards to transforming innovations?
Elahain: We advise various governments on the needed transition from fossil based economies to sustainable innovation economies. Our approach: an economy that creates transformative innovation and cultivates entrepreneurship can drive large-scale job growth and achieve sustainable economic prosperity. Innovation and entrepreneurship can emerge only if all elements of an innovation ecosystem are in place. We connect countries in the Asia, Middle East, African regions to the resources needed to stimulate job creation, high-tech entrepreneurship, and innovation-focused economic growth.
Capital: Any outstanding startup that impressed you during your visit to Ethiopia?
Elahain: The Blue Moon Incubators really impressed me and gives hopes to Ethiopia.