If you have been to a TMC ITEXPO show in South Florida, you have no-doubt seen Rehan Allahwala at the DIDX booth or walking the show floor meeting people and posting selfies on his Facebook page. If you live in the middle-east, your life may have been touched by Rehan's numerous endeavors to make the world a better place.
As a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist in telecom and tech, we decided to interview Rehan to bring his unique and fascinating story to the world.
You are a serial tech entrepreneur from Pakistan – an area not known for tech, how did you do it?
I, personally, don’t think that Pakistan is not really known for tech. Maybe it´s not known by most because Pakistan has not really been marketed as a tech space. However, there are a lot of companies, which have emerged from Pakistan.
But having said that, I was introduced to tech really early in my life. I got my first Commodore 64 when I was 12, I got inspired at 10 by my cousin, who had his first Apple II and then his Apple IIc and Apple IIe, and then I got my Commodore 64, and then the journey began for me. So that’s how I started. I was a serial entrepreneur because I just wanted to do everything. I was so excited whenever something new was happening, I did everything and anything I could. There were lots of reasons for me to start a business and to do things, a lot of it was because of nationalism.
I created when I was in 10th grade, I think, one of the voice digitizers, modems, speed increasers for the Commodore 64, fast load cartridge and a lot of things. I bought my first company when I was in 10th grade also. I was really exposed, I guess, at a very early stage to entrepreneurship and to tech. So probably that’s why I ended up being a tech entrepreneur in the VoIP space. It was just a journey, natural evolution, one after another into where I want it.
But Pakistan also, by the way, invented the first virus in the world, Pakistan is also known for the company FireEye, which was sold for a couple of billion dollars. So, Pakistanis, in general, yes, are not known for that space, but if Pakistanis do start a company like I did, I started in the U.S. because one of the famous entrepreneurs in the U.S. - in the VoIP industry - told me that a company from Pakistan would never fly, and I literally took his word, and started my company in the U.S. for that reason.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Whenever you have a resistance like being in an exercise when you are training, it makes you only stronger, right? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
One of the first challenges I had was that when I started my company, I was fourteen or thirteen-and-half, somewhere there, I don’t remember the exact date, but everybody who used to come to my home to meet me was always asking for my dad's thinking because he might be Rehan, thinking I was not Rehan. And I used to say: “I am the one you're looking for” - he was like, “No, you are not. You are too small for that.” That was one of the first ones.
The second most interesting thing which made me into the person I am today was: I was not allowed to enter the U.S. after I had started my company back in 1990. I was just traveling, I wasn’t living in the U.S. A few times, I was rejected but usually allowed to get a visa. Suddenly, after 9/11 when I returned to Pakistan, I was not allowed to go back to the United States. I had constantly rejected visas, one after another, for eleven years, and guess what fixed it.
After eleven years of trying to get the visa, and literally giving up on trying to go back to the U.S. to grow my business, I added my family name to my passport, which is Allahwala. My name on my passport was Rehan Ahmed. So, the name changed from Rehan Ahmed to Rehan Ahmed Allahwala, which was my family name anyways in Pakistan, but my father never added that. And I got the visa! It was so funny that a small little thing could fix such a big thing, right? Some of my customers started to say, “you don’t exist, you are a pseudo-person, or you must have done something wrong, that’s why the U.S. doesn’t allow you to come because, you know, how you cannot get a visa - all my taxi drivers are from Pakistan, my doctors are from Pakistan, so why not you?” But I really don’t know. I think some other Rehan did something which barred me from entering the U.S. Since I changed my name, I didn’t have that problem anymore.
You have been an amazing tech philanthropist – please tell us about your biggest successes in this area.
Now, where I come from, which is Pakistan, we are humble, we are told to be, “stay humble”, right? And you are not supposed to brag about yourselves, which is totally not American, right?
But since you asked that question, I think, what was my biggest success in being a tech philanthropist, was that I found my own calling and desire to teach, to change myself to become a better person, and that is, what I think, was the reward for doing all this.
But having said that, I think Rehan School was phenomenal. We produced many videos teaching a lot of people on how to use technology.
The problems in Pakistan are very different than in the rest of the world because Pakistan has a very low literacy rate. Out of the 200 million people of Pakistan, only 30% can read and write their own name, so forget about high-end technology being created. We need to fix the fundamentals of the country, so I created a school with the goal of teaching one-hundred and forty million people to read and write basic English and Urdu language, which is the national language of Pakistan. I created a school in a box for fifteen dollars with a stupid phone inside, not a smart-phone but a basic phone with pre-loaded videos from celebrities on it. And that was a very, very interesting thing later on that became an app called Rehan School English, which people can download and learn English from.
Now we are coming up with an AI-based Rehan School English which is, literally, a teacher in your phone who will talk to you, chat with you, communicate with you and educate you at the same time. I think that is going to be one of the biggest things which is yet to come, and God knows what's going to come.
My dream is to create Samantha from the movie “Her” eventually for the planet so we can have an AI which can go and learn and teach us. Because I never went to regular college or university to learn. I always used mentors and information, fragmented information around the globe to create whatever I thought: “That’s how the world should be”. So, if we can actually have a Samantha in our phones and computers, which can go and learn for us and teach us, I think that would be phenomenal, that’s my goal now to create that in an AI space.
What has driven you to philanthropy?
I wasn’t given a visa to U.S. for 11 years. I had a company in the U.S., and I always felt that the reason I wasn’t given the US visa was because I come from Pakistan, which is a poor country, and because of poverty a lot of Pakistanis leave the country and create, you know, an image of Pakistan, which is not so attractive towards the west.
So, I took it upon myself at one point. I said, “You know what? If the U.S. doesn’t want me, I´m going to make the U.S. in Pakistan.” And that’s what literally pushed me towards being more philanthropic full-time in a tech space and tech-end space and all the work I do.
Before then even, I just never enjoyed money in my life. I was born into an affluent family. I never had to work for money, but it was kind of given that I will have to work a little at something because I come from a business family background. So, even though I never actually enjoyed making money, I still did business. And when I was more settled, I said, “I can now delegate everything and move into full-time philanthropy”, that’s what I decided, that is what I need to do because that’s, probably, what my life goal is. And I´m glad I did because I enjoyed that much more than making just money. I like to solve problems, that’s what I want to do, my goal is to help to empower at least a million of the entrepreneurs in Pakistan and get rid of the poverty on the planet and make everyone an equal citizen. Those are ridiculous moonshot goals but why not? Why not try and do them and maybe fail and maybe pass, right? Maybe I can do that, maybe I cannot. But at least I´m going to keep on trying as long as I can, and it doesn’t really cost me anything if I am doing something for 8 billion people, or if I am doing something for a billion people. The process takes the same amount of time. I have only 24 hours a day to spend on it, but I can perform actions in different ways, with a different mindset which can, maybe, make it possible for me to achieve the goals which I want to achieve. You might call me crazy, but that’s what I want to do.
You have had the noble goal of bringing the world together via Facebook and achieved great success in this area – tell us about how you did it.
A few years ago, I started a website called Institute of Peace and its goal was to bring peace within and to bring peace outside. The way of peace coming outside is understanding the other side. If I am having a quarrel with someone, the best way to resolve that quarrel or dispute is by trying to understand the other side of the story, there are always two sides of the coin. When I was not allowed to enter the United States, I actually used Facebook to connect with the rest of the world, so that I can understand how people think, what the needs of my customers are, what the cultural norms of these people are that we kind of think they look like in the movies, but I am absolutely sure it doesn’t look like that. I saw a lot of Baywatch and I didn’t see any Baywatch kind of people in the United States.
I started connecting people when I was 14, I actually threw luncheon parties at my home for the vendors and customers. I had 10 - 20 people coming over and having a nice meal, which my mom cooked - and I am thankful to her for that. I used to connect them, and I saw that after the year and four to five lunches, they started doing business together. Some of these people were the kind of people actually not even talking to each other in the beginning, and they ended up doing business with each other, and they became really good friends.
I started connecting people using everything – email, in person and Facebook. Every day, I used to spend many, many hours by using the way of suggesting a friend and a lot of times my friends got annoyed by that, “Why I am getting 10 – 20 suggestions from this guy every day or from Facebook?” Unfortunately, that’s what I was enjoying, so that’s what I did. But I didn’t want to annoy anyone, so I stopped doing that, and then I bumped into this idea from a friend Ernesto Verdugo, who was a marketing genius, that I might want to give an incentive for people connecting to my Facebook friends.
The reason, as I said earlier, is that others can get to know you and you can get to know the other side. I ended up giving a free laptop - to whoever, who would come to my Facebook page and add 500 people from my friend list, who were not their Facebook friends yet. I ended up giving over 350 laptops and mobile phones – smartphones.
I started documenting what happened to these people when they were doing this. I started noticing and I documented that these people became more understanding, more interested in learning, more curious, they unlearned a lot of things they knew, they started learning new things and techniques and because I had really good, interesting friends over the years, these people started to become good and interesting people themselves. Accordingly, “You are the sum of the five best friends you have.” Now you have 500 amazing Facebook friends, and all of a sudden, you are getting a newsfeed from them which allows you to get really good information into your brain, which makes you a very interesting person. So, it really gives a lot of perspective on that.
I also started shows called: Meet an Israeli, where people actually can know people from Israel by having conversations on Facebook live with them and initially starting recording and then having these conversations allowed people to see how real people from Israel look like. Then I started doing the same for Meet a Palestinian, Meet a Kashmiri, Meet an Indian, Meet an American, Meet a Jew, Meet a Muslim, because all these people are kind of the people which we really don’t know, especially if you are not from that circle, at least in the majority of cases. The whole goal was that you should actually talk to the person instead of talking about them. That’s the kind of work I've been doing, and I think, I have, really phenomenal results out of it. Now, the next goal is to scale it all. So far, I have 850,000 following me on Facebook and only a couple of hundred have connected through this five-minute Facebook experiment, but thousands actually did, connected to single and multiple digits of friends but not to scale. That’s what I have been doing on that note.
You mentioned you wanted to run for president of Pakistan but once you achieved enormous following on Facebook, you felt you no longer needed to run, why?
It's very interesting question. I only shared this with very few people, but I guess we are making this public now. Up until I found Facebook and video to Facebook and Youtubing, I thought that having to use politics or being on top of the ladder in politics, in a political situation like being the president or the prime minister of a country was the only way to actually make a change. But then I bumped into social media, I found that people were listening, I found that I had something to offer to them, it wasn’t just a system that was wrong. There are a lot of problems in the whole situation on the planet which needs to be transformed. The reason for transformation, the reason for these problems is not necessarily that the top is bad, but the bottom has a lot of challenges. So, you know, my whole journey since I started working has transformed me, and I no longer see the need to be in power on the top in order to make a change. I see what Rumi says, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world, but today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” And that’s my rule. I no longer want to be the president or the prime minister of Pakistan, However, I do whatever I can to make myself into a better person, share whatever I know, be as open as I can. That’s why I don’t see the need of being the president of the country to make a change. Bill Gates is not the president of the United States. Zuckerberg is not the president of the United States. These people, Larry and Sergey are not the presidents of the United States, but they make more significant impact to the United States and the planet by doing what they are good at rather than running for a presidency. That’s why I changed my mind about that subject of politics.
On the top of all this, these exponential technologies have transformed the world we live in. We no longer live in a country, we live on the internet, we use the same tools as any other country does. While living in Pakistan, I have a gigabit connection at home in Pakistan, and I have a half of gigabit connection in the United States. So, you know, some things are even faster in Pakistan. I have access to the same tools, the same software, and the same computers, same technology, same everything. The only thing that has not changed are the laws of the country, old laws made by old politicians. Through technological evangelism, this is going to change also. Politics is going to disrupt itself. All these exponential technologies are going to disrupt tech politics itself. I would highly recommend the book The Sovereign Individual by James Dale Davidson at this point, people should read it. Then there´s a lot going to happen with blockchain and bitcoin and stuff like that which will transform our planet. We are all now presidents of our own selves, so we need to become better presidents to our own selves there in our country, that’s what I think now.
What else should we know about what you’re up to?
That’s a very hard question for a spontaneous man like me, who doesn’t really have limits in his head on doing whatever he wants to do. I have been very, very blessed to have an amazing life with an amazing, amazing team, amazing family, amazing friends in the world who have helped me to become a better human being. So, what is going to happen in my future is that I would really like to become a better human being.
Having said that, I have a few virtual incubators, where I want to create disruption. I want to see disruption happening in the governance of the planet. I want to see disruption happening in the agricultural space on the planet. I want to see disruption happening in the health space on the planet. I am creating a physical incubator in the agricultural space; a virtual incubator has already been made in the governance space and once I have enough incubators, I´ll make it into a physical incubator.
I am also creating a new city outside my own city of Karachi which is called Cybarea or Cyber Area. It´s a plan of having 200 acres of purposely-built city, where people can live 24 hours a day in whatever time zone they want to. A city with a phenomenal number of trees, solar power to their disposable high-speed internet, Wi-Fi everywhere. Like Googleplex city, not just for a work but also for living with 24 hours of food and everything I've seen in the world. After traveling to 80-plus countries, I want to have the best-of-the-best over there in that city.
I also acquired land for making a Health City, where people can come, research and create world-class hospitals and health facilities, retreats related to improving their health.
Then there is an education city, where they can come and disrupt the education in the world, having a playground for the educational space. Then there is an industrial park next to it. This is around a thousand plus acres space, which we have acquired for all these things. I'm looking for a jungle to go and live in, personally to be speaking. I can just have high-speed internet and work whenever I want and just have peace in my life. That’s what I am up for in the future, and yes one more thing. I recently acquired another goal of creating and bringing Samantha from the film Her to life. So, if there is anybody up for it, let me know.
Assuming he gets his visa , we hope to see Rehan once again at ITEXPO, January 29-February 1st, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
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