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From Fastov to Silicon Valley

The 24th of February is the birthday of Jan Koum, the founder of WhatsApp

Journalists write articles about him with headlines that seem more suitable for adventure novels: “From rags to riches, Jewish style”, “From communist Ukraine to a $19-billion deal” and so on. And all of these headlines are more or less correct. Jan Koum really is a Jew, and he was born in “communist Ukraine”/USSR (39 years ago, on 24 February 1976), and before emigrating to the USA and in the following few years he was not particularly well-off.

Koum’s fortune was valued at $7.6 billion at the end of last year, and the Whatsapp company he created (a messenger exchange service) really was sold to the Internet giant Facebook for $19 billion…

Let’s return to the start of Koum’s biography – his childhood years. He was born in the capital of Ukraine, and spent his childhood in Fastov near Kiev. His memories of this period of life are far from rosy ones. The only child of a housewife and building site foreman, he can still not forget the lack of hot water in their home. Or a picture from that period which would probably shock the average American, while people who grew up in the USSR won’t see anything unusual about it: “There wasn’t a toilet at our school,” Koum recalls. “Imagine the Ukrainian winter, minus 20 degree Celsius, and the children had to run across the entire schoolyard to get to the toilet!”

Koum’s fellow classmates couldn’t even imagine that they were studying with a future billionaire. And he himself couldn’t imagine his future achievements in the IT sphere. Jan got his first computer at the age of 19. “But I did have my accounts…” he adds with a smile when he talks about his childhood.

In 1992, Jan immigrated to the USA with his mother and grandmother (his father did not manage to leave, and died in Ukraine in 1997). As fate would have it, they moved in to the village of Mountain View in California. At that time it was a quite place with cheap real-estate, and the Koums were able to find a two bedroom apartment to rent without too much trouble. But in just a few years, Mountain View and its surrounding areas turned into what everyone knows today as Silicon Valley – a part of California with a large density of high-tech companies developing and manufacturing computers and parts. Incidentally, the headquarters of the Google corporation is located in Mountain View, and one of its founders, Sergey Brin, has a biography that is somewhat similar to Jan Koum’s.

After graduating from secondary school, Koum enrolled at San Jose University, at the same time getting a job as a software tester for the Yahoo search engine, to pay for his studies. Just a few weeks after Jan started work, there was a major logjam, and his boss rang him at university asking him to come to the office. At that moment, Jan realized that he faced a choice: work or study. Work won.

At Yahoo, Koum and his new friend and future co-founder of WhatsApp Brian Acton worked for nine years. Quitting at the same time, they also began to look for a new job together. They sent their resumes to several companies, including Twitter and Facebook, but everywhere they were rejected (rumor has it that Mark Zuckerberg later gave his HR managers a dressing down because of this), and they decided to start their own company.

The moment was chosen quite well – all over the world, the iPhone was becoming increasingly popular, and original applications for it were in huge demand. Koum also decided to try his hand in this field – first by himself, but soon he realized that the burden was too much for one person, and he offered Acton to join him in developing programs to exchange messages over the Internet.

Many people claim that the idea to develop the messenger service did not come to Jan by accident. As a teenager, Jan was very worried that he could only contact his father and childhood friends in Ukraine by telephone – an expensive and unreliable means of communication. Koum himself uses the word “unreliable”, and this is also a feature of his Soviet past, namely the fear of the all-powerful KGB, which could listen in to any telephone conversations. And the telephones of Jews, who almost officially had the status of “unreliable elements” at that time were certainly listened in to – especially those who were planning to leave the Soviet Union… It was very easy to believe this, and much more difficult to stop fearing the “long arms” of the KGB, even when you were on the other side of the world.

Koum’s fears were reflected in his creation. Unlike many other programs of this kind, WhatsApp does not gather personal information about users – such as names, age or even gender. Additionally, the messages are not saved on the company servers, but are deleted immediately after delivery. Quite unexpectedly, certain groups of Orthodox Jews were unhappy about this, fearing that the messenger could be used to send “non-kosher” content.

However, other Orthodox Jews do not see anything harmful in WhatsApp, and use it for everyday needs, including spiritual ones (for example, there are WhatsApp groups for studying the Talmud etc.).

I can’t help sharing a personal example: I found out about the existence of this application from our rabbi, who is an active WhatsApp user…
Now that we’ve brought up the topic of Judaism, it would be suitable to mention something else. It’s unlikely that Jan Koum, who was born and grew up in the USSR, received any knowledge about Jewish traditions in his childhood. But he either learned about one of the most important commandments of Judaism, or received it genetically from his Jewish ancestors. I am talking about tsdokah, or charity. In 2014, Jan was in fourth place among the ten greatest philanthropists in the USA – he donated $556 million to various non-profit organizations! Not bad for a Jewish boy from Fastov, is it?

On his birthday, we wish him new success, health and happiness – to the age of 120!

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