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WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum’s Tale of Two Cities

February 27, 2014 By:
Julie Wiener, JTA
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WhatsApp’s Ukrainian Jewish founder and CEO Jan Koum became a household name this week. Photo courtesy of Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jan Koum’s birthday was Monday, but he received his big gift early.

The Ukrainian-born CEO and founder of Whats­App has catapulted from relative unknown to a poster boy for rags-to-riches immigrant triumph since his rapidly growing messaging company was sold last week to Facebook for a record-breaking $19 billion.

Koum, who just turned 38, grew up in a village near Kiev and immigrated to the United States as a teen, part of the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the aftermath of its collapse.

According to Forbes, which has published the most detailed profile of him so far, Koum grew up in a home without hot water, and his parents “rarely talked on the phone in case it was tapped by the state.”

Koum first settled in Mountain View, Calif., with his mother when he was 16. To make ends meet, his mother — who apparently brought over pens and notebooks in order to avoid paying for school supplies in the United States — babysat while he swept a grocery store.

In an interview with Wired’s editor, David Rowan, at the Digital Life-Design conference in Munich last month, Koum said his interest in WhatsApp — which enables people to exchange free text messages with friends and family all over the world — was partially inspired by his memories of how difficult and costly it had been as a new immigrant to stay in touch with relatives back in Ukraine.

Wearing an olive-colored John Deere T-shirt, black hoodie and jeans, the Russian-accented Koum noted that his early years in an environment lacking the “clutter” of advertising he encountered in the United States shaped his commitment to keeping WhatsApp free of ads.

“There were a lot of negatives, of course, but there were positives to living a life unfettered by possessions,” he told Rowan. “It gave us the chance to focus on education, which was very important in the Soviet Union.”

Given the recent turmoil in Kiev, it’s hard not to notice the stark contrast between Koum’s current and childhood homes.

Just hours before violence in Kiev’s Independence Square left dozens dead last week, in sunny, tranquil Mountain View, Koum and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton signed the deal with Facebook, standing right outside the government office where Koum and his mother once stood on line to get food stamps.

The money changing hands in the WhatsApp-Facebook deal that day is a sum equal to more than 10 percent of Ukraine’s entire GDP.

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