Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2019: Anousheh Ansari, CEO, XPRIZE Foundation
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The world as we know it has recorded only 563 people as having been to space so far, and that fact alone is enough to understand my excitement at coming face to face with XPRIZE Foundation CEO Anousheh Ansari -the world’s first female private space explorer- at the Abundance 360 (A360) Summit in Dubai earlier this year. Ansari’s journey to space in 2006 has led her to being immortalized in history, with the Iranian American entrepreneur also forever going to be remembered as the first Muslim woman in the world to travel to space. “Going to space was a dream of mine since I was very, very young,” Ansari said, as she recounted how she managed to realize this notable achievement.
“I always imagined, as a young girl in Iran, that perhaps I would create something, sort of invent something so amazing that, you know, NASA would have to take me to space.” Now, her dreams and ideas about space back then (bolstered by her fascination with the Star Trek television series) may not have played a direct role in how she got aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket to spend a few days at the International Space Station- but it’s certainly safe to say that they did lay the foundation of Ansari’s foray into space in the long run.
Ansari has had a rather circuitous route to get to space. After migrating to the United States from Iran in 1984 at the age of 16, she went on to secure an education in electrical engineering (she remembers being one of the few women in her classes then), following which she started her career at the now-defunct American telecom firm MCI, which was where she also met her husband, Hamid.
In 1993, Ansari, along with her husband and brother-in- law Amir, founded Telecom Technologies Inc., a technology provider for telecom companies, which was acquired by Sonus Networks (a global leader in secure and intelligent cloud communications, now called Ribbon Communications) for about US$750 million in 2003. Now, through all of these years, Ansari’s dreams to explore space might have taken a backseat- but they remained in her mind all the same, and it was the sale of her company that allowed her the time to revisit those ambitions.
“I always had this desire and this feeling that I need to somehow find my way back to space,” she told me. “And when we sold our company, it was my first opportunity, where I went back to school, started studying astronomy again, and I started looking for how would I make this [dream] happen. And as I was searching for a solution, the universe brought me to Peter [Diamandis, founder of the XPRIZE Foundation], and the Ansari XPRIZE was launched out of it.”
As a non-profit organization, the XPRIZE Foundation is today known for launching global competitions that aim to spur the development of technological innovations for the good of humanity. However, back when Ansari first met Diamandis, XPRIZE was in its very early days, but the two found common ground in their pursuit of moonshots- and space exploration was something they were both very keen on. At that time in the US, space travel was considered to be exclusively a government affair, and, as the XPRIZE website notes, “space exploration for the private sector was neither possible nor affordable.” Ansari wanted to turn this around, of course, and it was her association with Diamandis that led to her and her family sponsoring the first competition under the XPRIZE banner, the $10million Ansari XPRIZE, which was aimed at enabling “the creation of a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship.”
In 2004, the winner of this prize ended up being a company called Mojave Aerospace Ventures, with its technology later getting licensed by legendary entrepreneur Richard Branson to establish Virgin Galactic- this competition is thus said to have essentially kickstarted the creation of the $2 billion private space industry. “What was very significant was the fact that a $10 million prize attracted a hundred million in an investment from teams across the globe,” Ansari recalls. “And then an industry that was going to be worth about hundreds of billions of dollars was created out of it.” Now, it was around this time that the term “space tourism” also started to get thrown about- American millionaire Dennis Tito had already made headlines in 2001 by paying private space flight company Space Adventures to fly him to (and spend time in) space.
In February 2006, Ansari secured an opportunity to serve as the back-up for Japanese busi- nessman Daisuke Enomoto on a Space Adventures flight to the International Space Station. In August that same year, Enomoto was medically disqualified for the trip, and Ansari got to occupy the space that had now become available on this particular flight. With that, on September 18, 2006, Ansari found herself being a part of the Expedition 14 crew of the Soyuz TMA-9, which blasted into space for an eight-day expedition aboard the International Space Station. For someone who was realizing a lifelong dream, Ansari likens her experience of being in space as a sort of homecoming- space, she says, felt like where she was always meant to be. “The experience is transformational in many different ways,” Ansari says. “When you see earth from space, you sort of can put things in a new perspective. So, you shift your priorities. And you become all of a sudden, if you weren't already, you've become more of a global person, where you see our planet as just one home, one planet. There is no separation between anyone living on the planet, and problems and opportunities become global. So, when I returned, anything that I worked on, I could not just narrow it down to one location; it had to be global, at a global scale. And also, your priorities and your relationships with the environment, with your family, with what's important in life, changes, because you also realize the fragility of our lives, and our planet, and our environment... It's like time and space come to have a different meaning for you. You start thinking about, well, what's important in life. You know, who's important for me to connect to, and you start thinking about your purpose more than ever, and how you want to spend the rest of your life."
After Ansari returned from space, she found herself making use of her entrepreneurial chops as one of the co-founders of Prodea Systems, which she had once again launched with her family, incidentally on the very day she shot off to space in 2006. In her role at the helm of a company that bills itself today as “disrupting the internet of things market,” Ansari believes she was tapping into the lessons she had learned from her trip to space, wherein everything she worked on had to be not only cutting-edge, but also to look at solving global problems. One can safely say that this was the same ideology that governed her move into her latest role- in 2018, Diamandis and the board of directors at XPRIZE (of which she had been a member as well) asked her to become the entity’s CEO. In a statement released about her appointment, Ansari noted, “As I take on the helm at XPRIZE, I feel the same exhilaration as I did the day I was sitting in my capsule atop of my Russian Soyuz rocket– waiting impatiently to be launched into the infinity of the universe that I had dreamed about as a child, and in nervous anticipation of the enormous possibilities in front of me. I have been a spokesperson, a board member, an advocate, a sponsor, and one of XPRIZE’s biggest fans, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with such a passionate group of individuals dedicated to changing the world for the better.”
Anousheh Ansari, CEO - XPRIZE Foundation
For all of the outstanding achievements she has had so far, Ansari remains well aware that she, as a woman in the technology space, is still in the minority in this particular field- it’s something that she has noted ever since she was one of the few women in her engineering classes at university. “As a tech entrepreneur, the subject of woman in technology is very important for me,” she says. “We're at A360 here, and, with Peter and everyone talking about exponential technologies, and how it would transform our world, and I've been in those rooms, where these technologies are designed and discussed, and there are not that many women in there. And the possibility of using all these technologies for the detriment of humanity is very high. The first use of many of these technologies are in military use. However, I know that for sure, because I've sat at those tables, and I've seen other women sit at those tables, when there is a woman at the table, they try to look for opportunities to use these technologies, design these technologies, for good. And that's why I want more women in technology, and that's why I want more women in these boardrooms, making decisions that will shift the direction of these technologies for good. And frankly, that's why I left Prodea, and I am at XPRIZE, because I was trying to figure out how can I have an impact on how these technologies get developed. It was like amazing, at the same time, when I got the offer to from the board of XPRIZE to join XPRIZE as the CEO. I'm like, this is the perfect platform, because we're all about using the power of exponential technologies to solve grand challenges, and this is how I can have an impact, and hope to shift the direction of the development and advancement of these technologies, for the betterment of humanity.”
It should be quite apparent here as to why Ansari is considered a role model by people around the globe, and especially so for women and girls in the world today. While Ansari claims that she never set out to have this kind of influence, she also understands the significance and responsibility she has in this respect. “To be honest with you, whatever I did was not to become the first of this, or first of that,” Ansari says. “But I also know, especially for young girls, how important role models are. So, for a young girl to say, ‘I want to be like her,’ it will help her develop a plan together. And they're not that many, you know, women role models in tech. Unfortunately, you see all these other types of women role models, who should not be a role model at all, in entertainment and certain industries, they're sort of put on a pedestal. So instead of young girls wanting to be like, you know, me or other woman astronauts, other woman scientists, who have made a big difference, they see these other options. So, for me, what's important is, you know, if my story and my life can serve as an example for a young girl to choose a path that will be in science and technology, that would be a great honor. I go talk at a lot of schools, especially younger girls who are more impressionable, and you can leave a lasting impact. And I've been doing this now long enough that I actually meet young girls at events, and they come to me saying, ‘Oh, you came to my high school, and you talked, and you inspired me, and I'm like getting my engineering degrees in this, or I am getting my aeronautic engineering degree now, or I am working for SpaceX...’ And I'm like, this is amazing, it gives me goosebumps every time I hear them talk about that. It's always fun to see someone like that.”
As someone who realized a dream that she had made in her childhood (and let’s not forget how unreal that dream might have been to Ansari at that age and time), I ask her how the rest of us can follow her lead in terms of going after those impossible goals that we may have set for ourselves at one point in time or the other. “I tell all entrepreneurs [that] you sort of have to figure out where you want to go, but you can never plot an exact path to get there,” Ansari replies. “You have to be very flexible, look for opportunities, just go with the flow, and take advantage of what life throws at you to get to your destination. But you need to keep your eye on the target. If you take your eyes off the target, then you'll get lost. But if you keep your eyes on the target, and then just be flexible with how you get there, you'll eventually get there. And space was one of those things for me. I kept my eye on the target. I came across opportunities, I took them one by one, and they eventually got me to where I wanted to go.”
When it comes to women in this part of the world, Ansari is emphatic about how societal standards on them need to change for them to prosper further. “Women are brought up to be perfect girls, perfect wives, perfect sisters, and perfect daughters... And being perfect in all those aspects, and [that often means] putting yourself second, and, I guess for the lack of a better word, being submissive to the needs of others. It really creates a burden on women, and especially if you want to try new things. For a woman entrepreneur, because they've been brought up to think they have to be perfect, so [they believe] they can't fail. And at the core of entrepreneurship is failure. So, if you think you cannot fail, you won't try things, you won't try things that you may fail at. Or you would practice in private forever until you come out, which means that you're not learning from anyone, no one can help you succeed at what you want to do... So, support from parents, encouragement that it's okay for you not to be perfect, and you can fail, and we still love you, and we'll still support you. And especially for married women in the region, [it’s important for them] to have the support of their husbands to share the burden of running a household, taking care of the kids, which is unheard of sometimes in this region. It's important to allow the woman to flourish, and to explore new possibilities. I'm hoping, maybe like another generation or two before we get there, but I see signs that it is moving in that direction, and it gives me hope.”
At this point, I also ask Ansari what her advice would be to some young girl, out here in the Middle East, who might be dreaming as big as Ansari herself did, once upon a time, out of this particular region as well. “My message for that little girl is don't give up on your dreams,” Ansari says. “That's the most important thing, because the rest, you'll figure out. But if you give up on your dream, you will never know [how it could have been realized], and you will never figure it out. But whatever your dream is, never give up on it. And keep it like a sacred sort of source of power inside of you. Tap into it, let yourself dream about that every night you go to bed, let yourself read about it, have little reminders around you. Even if your life takes a different turn and you sort of end up someplace completely different from where you thought you would be or wanted to be, don't let that stop you from dreaming it, because eventually, you'll find your path back to it.”